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I had some decidedly mixed luck this week in Central Pennslyvania looking for marks along abandoned railroads.


Since lots of benchmarks are along railroad ROWs (both current and abandoned), and since descriptions often refer to long-gone features, such as mileposts, rails, rural stations, and bridge numbers, I wonder if the dedicated railfan community has any resources that might be of help.


Block diagrams showing track switches, crossovers, spurs, towers, etc., seem to be quite common online, but these tend not to have the information that would be of use to us.


Do we have any railfans here, or does anyone know anyone who might be able to help?




PS - I'm pretty much staying off active RRs now. I might make an exception on a remote stretch of lightly-used track, but in general I don't think it's worth the risk. I'm not worried about being hit by a train; if I can dodge traffic on the edge of a busy highway, I can keep an eye out for a train. It's more-vigilant law enforcement that concerns me.

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I have worked some abandoned rights of way around here with good results. That is, I am certain I found the correct locations, though I may not have found a benchmark. In a few cases, I have found benchmarks that others have missed.


It helps being a railroad worker for about 30 years so that I am somewhat familiar enough with where landmarks could plausibly have been, and for spotting clues from the descriptions.


In my county, I have a county directory and plat map, scale 1.25 in= 1mile, listing landowners and rural residences. I also use a Sportsman's Atlas, which has each county in the state at a similar scale, but without the directory information.


I start by plotting the series of disks along an abandoned right of way and get approximate mile post references down on the map. From the map and the scaled coordinates, you can figure out how to drive as close as possible to a place with access to the mark and start looking for landmarks that will guide you to places such as where a bridge or culvert used to be, where the road crossing was before the tracks were torn out and the road widened, etc. Marks where the road was repaved, a rise in the road or the landscape where the grade was, etc.


Maybe a look at some I have hunted would give some ideas how I have hunted them.

Geocaching Benchmark Log for GH55


In addition, there are surely some railfans who could help in your area. And a look iat some old maps of the area could help, too.


I hope this helps at least a little.

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Sorry to hear you had trouble finding marks along the old railroads. Without the landmarks it is very difficult to locate marks, especially since some of them are just rivets in the Central PA area.


I have been a railfan all my life and haven't found anything directly railroad related that would help with benchmark hunting on old, or current, railroad beds. Along the old PRR from Phila to the west the mileposts remain, but have been renumbered. Still, that makes it much easier to locate a milepost if it is near your mark, even if the number is incorrect. The problem is that the railroad is very busy and that Norfolk Southern is not accomodating to trespassers. Amtrak police are almost non-existent so hunting on what is derogatorily called the "Harrisburg branch" is safer from that standpoint, but the trains often top 70 mph and can be very quiet, so pick your poison.


As for abandoned railbeds, I have had no luck finding mileposts and have resorted to simple visual search methods. A metal detector helps, but mine is small and weak so I use it only when I strongly suspect the mark is in the immediate vicinity. For instance, I have looked for KW0469 on two separate occasions, and measured as carefully as I could but if the mark exists it is under ballast and dirt that was pushed along the bank years ago. I even prodded and dug in a few spots and came up empty handed. I have also searched for KW0809twice with no luck at all, as it is also under ballast.


While the mileposts are usually gone, the bridges are often still numbered, but the numbers are on the sides so it would take a dip in a creek to see it.


One resource I use, that I am assuming you also use, is topo maps. If the mark is on the map the location of the X is usually more accurate than the scaled coords. Still, as you stand on the old roadbed looking at 100 feet of rock outcrop covered in dirt and cinders, the task does look a bit hopeless. And often it is!

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Check out trains.com, lots of railfan hints and a good forum. Some yards/roads will set you up with a guide, usually a retired employee. I got a nice tour of Boston's MBTA yard a few years back (pre-geo/benching), guy talked my ear off, but had some cool info and knew everyone there. A volunteer thingy, only cost me a couple beers at South Station to thank him.

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Thanks for the helpful comments.


Let me throw one specific question out: is there a general rule as to how mileage/mileposts are measured? In other words, is milepost 20, say, 20 miles from the mainline, or 20 miles as marked from some internal company district, or what? Even better, was this info ever committed to a map that would show track layout, grade crossings, stations, towers, etc? Topo maps are great for showing a track and yards, etc, but can be wanting in some of the more down-in-the-weeds level of detail.



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The railroad would have had a "Track Chart" or a "Condensed Profile" or something with a similar name that would have included grade, curvature, road and railroad crossings, sidings, junctions, etc. They are generally at about 1 in= 1 mile scale. That is what you really want. If a railfan had a copy of that for the line you were looking at, it would be big a help. It would also be very unusual for the average railfan to have one of those.


A more commonly available document is the "timetable." Not a passenger timetable, but the timetable that was issued to a railroad worker. It contains information on various subdivisions such as station names, siding locations, etc. and the milepost of each station and junction.


Mileposts are generally designated from some starting point and increase consistently along the original route of the line across a Division or Subdivision. Sometimes a raiload will have built a cut-off , then there will be a missing distance and duplicate mile posts.


If you follow a line of marks, you will be able to make a pretty good guess at where Mile Post 0.0 was. This can sometimes be useful, and is certainly interesting. I find mile post designations on abandoned rail lines most useful when I have found a mark and I can use its mile post as a clue to find or corroborate the location of the next couple of benchmarks along the route.


See, for instance: X 79, Y 79 , Z 79, and A 80


Having found X 79 destroyed, and A 80, there were mile post locations to make sure I was in the right place for Z 79, which is still not found. But I am sure I looked in the right place because I was the right distance from two known mile post locations on the same line. Similarly for Y 79.


Assume "poles" to be 40 to the mile (132 feet between each) unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise. And remember that one does need to allow for track curvature, and for the fact that the distance between mile posts is not always exactly 1 mile.

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GH55 is correct--the mileposts start at some specific point, often the headquarters location of the railroad. For instance, the PRR started with Mile 0 in Philadelphia, so Harrisburg, where I spent a lot of time watching trains, sat at about mile 100. Surprisingly this has not changed, so milepost 113, mentioned in KW0880, set in 1941, is STILL mile 113, although the original cast iron post has been augmented by a large reflective 113 sign. At other locations I have seen the cast iron numbers ground off these posts and replaced with different ones (I think Amtrak did this with the markers from Phila to Harrisburg. They may have changed their zero mile from Phila to NYC or DC). I located a track chart showing that area and am not sure how it would help me if the railroad-related landmarks were gone. Take a look at PRR Track Chart View to Banks, but be aware that it is a big file. You can see the milpost lines on the chart but the level of detail isn't enough to pin down a benchmark closer than a GPSr would. Few track charts that I have ever see (of the PRR anyway) ever showed more than a schematic view of the tracks.


The only other mile marker I have found was LY0259 and was marked 73, which is most likely the mileage from Newark or NYC along the NYO&W. This marker is along an abandoned right of way that was not made into a trail, and there was probably no effort to clean up the right of way after the rails were taken up for scrap.


I found a number of PRR track charts online but was unable to find one from the Carlisle area, although I may have been searching for the wrong thing. I tried Carlisle, Chambersburg, PRR and NC (Northern Central).

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I found a number of PRR track charts online but was unable to find one from the Carlisle area, although I may have been searching for the wrong thing. I tried Carlisle, Chambersburg, PRR and NC (Northern Central).

Thanks for the effort. The key search term is "Cumberland Valley," and I did find a few charts (e.g.http://pc.smellycat.com/maps/charts/pennroad.jpg), but nothing like the level of detail that would be useful. Really a track/signalling schematic. Not even mileposts on this one.


Well, this all may just be a dead end, or it may be that anything useful is buried in Penn Central corporate records which, I learned, were split up among several archives in various places.


I think there may be a point in all this, though: many different infrastructure elements can be tied together, and sometimes looking in an unexpected place can return big dividends.


Here's an example from an entirely different field. I'm a fan and collector of recordings of vintage radio shows, the golden age dramas, comedies, etc., which fans call OTR (Old Time Radio). While tens of thousands of shows have been circulated by dealers and collectors over the years, it was pretty rare to come across a script of, say, The Jack Benny Show. That is, until the tobacco litigation got underway.


Tobacco litigation? Yep. It seems that the tobacco companies were compelled to release practically every scrap of paper in their possession to the litigants, and it was all scanned and posted online ... including scripts and other materials related to the radio shows sponsored by — owned by, really — the cigarette companies. In one surprising instant, thousands of scripts were available, many for shows that did not survive in audio form.


So, as your announcer might say, "Stand by for Serendipity! (But first, a word from our sponsor.)"



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I guess I am not sure what the railroad might have had that would be of more use than the track charts. There is a lot of information there.




And on the interlocking schematic from Smellycat, the interlocking plant has the mile post locations labeled. For instance "PS 52.17" means the point of that switch is at MP 52.17. The label "528" shows there was a signal on the left side of the track (when facing towards increasing mile posts) that was located at MP 52.8.

Edited by GH55
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<snip>Without the landmarks it is very difficult to locate marks, especially since some of them are just rivets in the Central PA area. <snip>


<snip> While the mileposts are usually gone, the bridges are often still numbered, but the numbers are on the sides so it would take a dip in a creek to see it. <snip>



Matt, When you say Rivets, Are the rivets described as being part of a remaining, or existing steel bridge, or do you find the rivets set into concrete in the same or similar manner you might find a standard survey marker?


I am thinking this may help Art with an idea of what you have seen "Rivet" stations appear as on the Pennsy, so he has a better idea of what he's looking for.


Gary may correct me, and it can depend on the railroad. I have noticed that BNSF, whether it was old GN or NP right of way often would note what milepost a bridge, semaphore, signal track detector, yard lead, or siding, (beginning and end) is, or was, And sometimes the RR crossings were located at Mileposts. So if you can detect where these features were or may have been, You may use your GPS and a Mountain Bike if this is an abandoned grade. Make a waypoint of where you start from, and ride up the grade to where you approximate where something referenced in the text may have been. then measure conventionally from there.


Colorado Papa once mentioned his disappointment over what time had hidden in his hunting out on the D&RGW Narrow Gauge Chama line in Southern Colorado. His hunt was more than 50 years gone too...


Someone mentioned trains.com, and I wonder if they can advise anyone inquiring as to where older railroad maps could be obtained, perhaps there is a Pennsy historical society or a collector who would be willing to allow people to see the maps, take notes... Who knows. Sometimes the old Bridge and Building or R.O.W guys will share what they remember too!


Hunting sometimes has to be creative, so why not.



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GH55, that is an excellent point, and one the Evenfall touches on. Everything along most railroads was referred to by its mile marker, to the tenth of a mile, so both signals and bridges have numbers the refer to their location, thus bridge 94/2 would be located at mile 94, probably 94.2, but it could also be the second bridge at that mile marker.


Bear in mind that the reference distances are approximate, so signal 105.6 (most likely referred to as 1056) would be somewhere near mile 105.6, but not necessarily 3,168 feet past milepost 105.


Evenfall, I have never seen a rivet referenced that was just part of the bridge construction around here. All the ones I have found have been set in concrete. The Reading Railroad put in hundreds of rivets in my area. They are all monel metal rivets, either 1/2 or 3/4 inches around. The PRR seems to have put in more brass bolts around here. I don't recall seeing any PRR rivets, but my memory may simply be failing after seeing so many rivets.


Art has recovered over 800 marks, so I bet he has seen a rivet or two, unless they are unique to my area (I am tired of the things). I think the missing mark that got Art stirred up was an actual benchmark set in a rock shelf along an old PRR right of way. Marks set in rock along RR right of ways can be difficult to locate for a number of reasons. For one thing, gravity often carries dirt off the top of whatever shelf the rock is sticking out from, and over the years it builds up enough to support plant growth, so the mark is no longer visible. Along the old Reading lines in my area, either the Reading or Conrail cleaned their ballast and spit out all the cinders and dirt along the south of the right of way, which is where most of the marks were located in 1966. Finding them is either an exercise in exact measurements, if any are available, or a lot of guesswork and digging. I understand Art's frustration as I have spent quite a bit of time along the railroad randomly prodding for and digging out rock shelves. Theoretically it should be simple to find a mark on a rock shelf, even without exact measurements. When you are standing there with a 2 foot long camp shovel in your hand, facing about 20 feet of rock shelf covered with dirt, the task becomes a bit more formidable.


I have learned how to prod for the shelf intelligently, knowing there was usually a method to the madness of setting the disks--the surveyors set them only on completely vertical faces, so if I prod and find a sloping rock, I rule it out. The disk is set in the middle of the rock shelf if possible, for better stability I suppose, so when I locate a flat shelf, I dig in the middle first. When the desription says "2 feet below the level of the tracks" it usually means just that--unless I know differently, I will assume that the track level is about what it was when the mark was set (an exception is the NS line from Harrisburg to Allentown, where some tracks were lowered to accomodate double-stack trains in the 1980s. This avoided a lot of bridge raising.) When a description says between two poles, it usually means halfway, or almost halfway, or a measurement from one pole would be given. I think attempts were made to set the marks exactly AT poles or halfway between them, if possible.


Have I been successful? Yep! There are times I have measured, prodded and dug, and found the mark exactly where my shovel first hit rock.


Have I failed? Yep, miserably! Two marks have eluded me, despite repeat visits, multiple measurements (one of the marks has a good description, one has a description based on rail length) and I have degraded into frantic, near-random digging, sweating and cussing like a madman. But, ohhhhh, I will return, most likely with a metal detector and a bigger shovel.


Trains.com will be little help I would think, as they are primarily a magazine. The PRRT&HS (PRR Technical and Historical Society) has a web page and an archive in Lewistown, as well as some knowledgable members, so if they might be of help. There is a Reading T&HS also, based in Leesport, PA. From what I remember they don't have a lot of paper but are more interested in rolling stock. Still, they have a dedicated membership. One resource to keep in mind might be local municipalities, who might have land use maps that include benchmarks. These would be extremely accurate maps and would include landmarks that the railroad would not bother to put on their maps, which were mostly for operating and maintenance purposes.


One final thought about the PRR. Many of the marks in my area are bolts or chiseled squares and have unknown monumented dates. This means, to me, that the PRR engineers set those marks when the road was built or soon after, and that somewhere, if the records still exist (Hagley most likely), there may be descriptions or maps of them.



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Assume "poles" to be 40 to the mile (132 feet between each) unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise.  And remember that one does need to allow for track curvature, and for the fact that the distance between mile posts is not always exactly 1 mile.


Also, in absense of any evidence to the contrary, here are some other common measurements I've seen referenced on datasheets:


Track laid prior to 1940ish is usually 33ft long. Track laid after that is usually 39ft long. In any case, they're always in even yard increments. Industry standard for CWT (continuously welded track) is 1,320ft., though I've seen 1,000ft (BART) and 1,440ft occasionally. UPRR standard is 18 crossties per 33ft of track, or 22" center-to-center.

Edited by IncitatusMaximus
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mloser Posted on Aug 25 2005, 07:09 AM

I have never seen a rivet referenced that was just part of the bridge construction around here. All the ones I have found have been set in concrete. The Reading Railroad put in hundreds of rivets in my area. They are all monel metal rivets, either 1/2 or 3/4 inches around.


The rivets I have seen around here (Iowa) were set by the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. There are some monel metal rivets, mostly set in concrete box culverts (ex.: MH0040 ). Most are iron rivets set in limestone bridge abutments (ex.:MH009 ). Only a handful are included in the National Spatial Reference System.


There do not seem to be any rivets in the NSRS on the abandoned Milwaukee Road and Rock Island rights-of-way around here.

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When I'm not hunting for benchmarks I'm generally railfanning so I'll offer a few suggestions...


As mentioned by others track charts may be of use. Generally speaking the charts may show locations of culverts, bridges, public and private road crossings, junctions with other railroads, main lines and sidings, signal locations, railroad buildings, water tanks, and mileposts. The format will vary from railroad to railroad, and the vintage of the chart.


Almost all major railroads and many of the smaller roads will have a private non-profit historical society comprised individuals that are interested in that railroad. Typically the society is not affiliated with the railroad although some enjoy a “friendly” relationship with the road of interest. The society may be the beneficiary of various documents such as maps, track charts and engineering drawings donated from the railroad or other sources. Some societies have well-organized archives that are open for research, and some may offer photocopies or digital images of track charts for sale.


Older track charts may be available for sale from private dealers. They are somewhat collectable and the price will vary depending on the age and the railroad. I used to see track charts at the railroadiana shows. Post 9/11 the newer track charts are harder to come by, but the newer charts may not be as useful for benchmark hunting since many benchmarks along the right of way were monumented years ago and key reference points on the datasheets have been removed from the charts.


You might find track charts on the Internet that have been scanned. A chart that shows an interlocking or junction of two lines seems to be the most common. Those that depict along the line don’t seem to be as common. These may be due to the format of older track charts. I have several that are 12 to 18 inches in width but 36 to 48 inches in length.


Employee timetables might be of use. These will provide a list of stations and sidings with the associated milepost. They may also provide the milepost location of signals and bridges. They won’t provide as much detail as a track chart, but could be useful to determine the milepost numbering used in a particular year of interest. They are more common that track charts and are available from private dealers. Photocopies may be available from the historical society. Don’t confuse employee timetables with passenger timetables as they serve very different purposes. Passenger timetables will not be useful.


Around 1919 each railroad prepared a valuation report for the Interstate Commerce Commission. The reports contain a wealth of information and I understand the report includes maps and photos of the facilities. I’ve seen maps of the station facilities published in the railroad historical society magazine. They generally are very detailed and are to scale. Some of the railroad historical societies may have copies of the ICC valuation maps, and I believe they may be found in the libraries at major universities.



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I'm a Railfan, but I'm not sure I can add too much to this discussion. I can give a few pointers.


First, Rail Fans have generally documented what is still there. For an example in the DC area see http://mtnsub.org/. What you'll find is things like this list of signals. If you're actually looking for trains with a scanner the engineers "call" many signals by name as they pass them. Good way to know a train is coming.


Most everything on the railroad is done by MP number. Most crossing signals are so marked (on the call 1-800-xxx to report the crossing is blocked), signal bridges, and all sorts of other stuff. Missing miles do occur with cut offs, and sometimes they change abruptly for reasons left in the mysts of time.


When looking for old marks, historical societies are the best bet. An example is the C&O historical society. They can get you original drawings of all sorts of things.


Now, a few other random thoughts. Wood is good for ties, nothing else. Trestles have largely been removed and replaced with bridges of some sort, their headwalls and such long gone. If the mark was on a trestle abutment don't expect it to be there. Many stone structures still exist, so don't be surprised to find marks in them. Railroads reballast every few years, so marks may be under several inches even a foot of heavy gravel in some places. Bring gloves.


Tresspassing on the railroad right of way is a federal crime, and rail road police are authorized to write tickets and arrest you for it. In some areas train crews will call you in, around here lots of people living around the tracks will if you're digging around. Trains are deceptively quiet in a lot of cases. You need to be able to get about 15' from the rail to the side to be safely out of the way, and even that is close, particularly when the train is moving quickly.

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I'm growing to hate rivets too! :( Doesn't seem to be stopping me from looking, though. LY0393, standard monel rivet last reported in 1934. I would assume that most surveyors are more interested in LY0394, located a short distance away on the center pier.

There are four marks about a half mile west, on the bridge over the Pequannock River, but they are accessible only through the rail yard, which is very heavily posted against trespassing. Oh, well.

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