Baltimore & Ohio Era Edit

It was the Baltimore & Ohio – America’s first common-carrier railroad – that fathered Sand Patch. The B&O was chartered in 1827 to connect by rail the important Atlantic port city of Baltimore, Maryland with the Ohio River. For the B&O to reach its namesake river, at what is today Wheeling, West Virginia, would take more than two decades of labored construction. B&O’s historic route stretched west from Baltimore to Harpers Ferry and a crossing of the Potomac River, then onward to Cumberland – the “Queen City” – in the western reaches of Maryland and along the eastern edge of the high ridges of the Allegheny Mountains. To build westward from Cumberland, the B&O might have first chosen a route that extended through the nearby Cumberland Narrows and followed Willis Creek high into the Alleghenies, but such would have taken the line into the state of Pennsylvania and toward Pittsburgh – and the great Pennsylvania Railroad would have none of that. The PRR used its considerable political influence to ensure the B&O would not then gain rights to build into Pennsylvania and the B&O instead constructed its original line west-southwest from Cumberland, cresting the Alleghenies at Altamont, West Virginia. In the decades to follow, this line would become part of B&O’s steel artery reaching all the way to St. Louis, and immediately west of Cumberland it took on great notoriety as a conveyor of enormous amounts of West Virginia coal tonnage and home to two fiercely difficult gradients, B&O’s “Seventeen Mile Grade” and “Cranberry Grade.”

The American Civil War cast a long shadow of destruction and disruption over the B&O during the early 1860s, but following the war, the B&O began an era of rapid expansion. Under the leadership of John W. Garrett, the B&O in the early 1870s finally broke the influence of the Pennsylvania Railroad and pushed toward Pittsburgh (and eventually onward to America’s railroad capital, Chicago). In 1871, the Pittsburgh & Connellsville Railroad completed a line, which in fact had been started prior to the Civil War, between Pittsburgh and Cumberland. It was immediately leased long-term to the Baltimore & Ohio – and its crossing of the Allegheny Mountains just as quickly gained an iconic name that endures to this day: Sand Patch.

To lift the B&O over the Alleghenies, Sand Patch Grade climbed from Cumberland (at an elevation of 627 feet above sea level) to the line’s summit at – yes, Sand Patch, Pennsylvania – and a rail elevation of 2,258 feet. From the Sand Patch summit, the line then began a westward descent to Rockwood (1,837 feet) and eventually Connellsville, Pennsylvania (919 feet).

During much of its storied tenure as a main artery of the B&O, the Sand Patch route would formally be known as the “East End” of the railroad’s Pittsburgh Division. At the western edge of Cumberland, at a place known as Viaduct Junction, B&O’s original line west (now the Mountain Subdivision) and the Sand Patch route (now CSX’s Keystone Subdivision) diverged, with the latter having, initially, a relatively low-gradient westward climb thanks to its passage through the scenic water gap known as the Cumberland Narrows. But at a tiny mountain hamlet named Hyndman, Pennsylvania (12 route miles from Viaduct Junction), that all dramatically changed. At Hyndman (which would serve as an active east slope helper station far into the diesel era), Sand Patch’s ascent of the Alleghenies began in earnest and the westbound gradients would typically be approximately1.5 percent on much of the climb to the summit. Following the path of turbulent Willis Creek, the railroad’s right-of-way was rugged, steep, and twisting (highlighted by a horseshoe curve at remote Mance, Pennsylvania). Sand Patch’s east slope climb culminated with an unforgiving final stretch of 1.94 percent gradient at Manila, then, just below the summit, a plunge through the 4,475-foot-long tunnel with the name “Sand Patch” forever cast into the concrete of its eastern portal. Sand Patch’s western slope was constructed on a gentler gradient (with a 1.2 percent eastbound ruling grade yet generally at 1 percent or less), but nonetheless helpers to assist heavy eastbounds were stationed at Garrett or operated from Connellsville.

In the long B&O era, Sand Patch served, first and foremost, as a double-track mainline conveyor of the railroad’s freight tonnage. B&O massive and iconic S-1 class 2-10-2 steam locomotives were designed for and ruled Sand Patch in the heart of the steam era and were joined, shortly before dieselization, by B&O’s massive and magnificent Baldwin-build EM-1 2-8-8-4s. In addition to its bridge traffic, the route stood along rich seams of Pennsylvania bituminous coal, and several B&O branch and secondary lines fed tonnage onto the route, most notably the Salisbury Branch, diverging from the main line at Meyersdale, Pennsylvania, and the Somerset & Cambria “S&C” Subdivision, a line that connected with the main at Rockwood and extend north to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. And Sand Patch Grade also hosted Baltimore & Ohio passenger services, including the likes of B&O’s stylish, all-Pullman Washington (D.C.)-Chicago Capitol Limited.

Like most of America’s railroads, Sand Patch Grade, into the late 1940s and early 1950s, was predominantly a home to steam power, and for the B&O’s battle with the Alleghenies, that meant big, potent, and unforgettable steam – namely its hulking S-1 and S-1a class 2-10-2s. B&O men called them “Bix Sixes” (after their 6000-series B&O road numbers) and the railroad hosted 125 of the monsters, which had been built by Baldwin and Lima in the mid-1920s. The Big Sixes largely ruled tonnage duty on Sand Patch until, in the last years of steam operations, they were joined by even larger EM-1 class 2-8-8-4s which had been displaced by diesels on the nearby coal line in West Virginia. Smaller and more svelte, but no less intriguing, was B&O’s steam passenger power on Sand Patch, which included “P” class Pacifics and T-3 class 4-8-2s.

Like much of America’s railroad scene, Sand Patch in the first generation of dieselization came to be dominated by the products of Electro-Motive: F7s by the hundreds for freight duty; elegant E-units for varnish; and Geeps for helper and local duties. But B&O’s diesel roster was eclectic, and its fleet of Alco FA2 and FB2 (cab and booster) units were also regulars on Sand Patch. In the case of the streamlined cab units, B&O diesels wore an elegant blue, gray, and black livery that was most assuredly among the most beautiful ever applied to a locomotive.

With the 1960s, a second generation of diesels began battling Sand Patch, EMD GP30s, GP35s, GP40s, and six-axle SD35s and SD40s predominant among them.

Chessie System Era Edit

Then, in 1973, with the formation of the Chessie System (which included B&O, Chesapeake & Ohio, and the B&O-controlled Western Maryland) the face of railroading on Sand Patch began to change dramatically, with vibrant blue, yellow, and vermillion diesels battling the mountains. The coming of the Chessie System also changed the face of Sand Patch in another way. The Western Maryland, an 1,100-mile-long railroad that made its living carrying bridge traffic and coal, had a main line which followed a similar path across the Alleghenies and on occasion paralleled B&O’s Sand Patch. With the operating consolidation of the B&O and WM into Chessie System, much of the ex-Western Maryland main line east of Connellsville was, alas, abandoned.

The Chessie System era was colorful and vibrant, but proved remarkably brief.

CSX Era Edit

CSX as a corporation was formed in 1980 and CSX Transportation – parent of today’s 25,000-mile railroad giant – was formed in 1986. Well into the 1970s, Sand Patch had remained very much an old-school, traditional railroad operation, with open and manned towers at the likes of Viaduct Junction, Hyndman (“Q” Tower), and Sand Patch (“SA” Tower), and the long-time traditional east slope helper station at Hyndman was still busy. But a modernization program that began in the Chessie era accelerated under CSX. The massive yard, shops, and terminal at Cumberland, a critical operating point dating back to the earliest B&O days, was both rationalized (the eastbound hump being closed) and modernized (the terminal’s servicing and maintenance facilities for locomotives were updated and today continue to serve as a key maintenance facility for CSX’s diesel fleet). Indeed, Cumberland proved so vital to CSX operations that it merited status as a separate Subdivision – the Cumberland Terminal Sub – while the remainder of the bustling Sand Patch route became part of the Keystone Subdivision of CSX’s expansive Baltimore Division.

Gradual but important changes, too, came to Sand Patch along with CSX’s large and diverse diesel fleet, which brought a variety of both Electro-Motive and General Electric motive power to the mountain crossing. With today’s high-horsepower, high-tractive-effort diesels reducing the need for helpers, the Hyndman helper station now belongs to history, but diesel helpers are still often assigned to heavy westbound trains as they depart Cumberland Terminal. Big General Electric-built power – ES44ACs and AC4400CWs – have tended to dominate Sand Patch mainline service in recent years, along with SD70MACs and SD50s from EMD, while veteran Electro-Motive SD40-2s remain an important motive power staple and EMD’s versatile “Geeps” (GP38-2 and GP40-2 units) tend local and yard duties.

Tonnage traffic on Sand Patch is heavy, frequent, (typically 25 to 35 freights a day), and diverse (coal, coke, minerals, grain, steel, autos and auto parts, and other manufactured products). Locally-originated coal tonnage continues to be loaded at Rockwood on the S&C Sub and drawn from the truncated Salisbury Branch. Intermodal traffic is a key component of contemporary Sand Patch operations, and the line’s tunnels – as part of CSX’s “National Gateway” project – were “notched” in recent years to allow for the passage of double-stacked containers. Train movements over Sand Patch continue to include accommodations for people as well as tonnage, with Amtrak’s Superliner-equipped Washington-Chicago Capitol Limited passing daily in each direction with a scheduled stop at Cumberland.

CSX Heavy Haul
Locomotives AC4400CW - GP38-2 - SD40-2
Rolling Stock BethgonII® Coal Gondola - Husky Stack® 53-foot Container Car - 89-foot Bi-Level Auto Rack - 5201-Cubic Foot Covered Car - 30,500 Gallon Tank Car - 50 foot Plate C Boxcar
Locations Cumberland - Sand Patch - Shaw Mine - Rockwood Mine
Operators CSX Transportation
Tutorials Intro Sequence Tutorial - Yard Switching - Locomotive Turntable - Locomotive Refuelling - AC4400CW Introduction - Coal Loading - Train Brakes: Theory - SD40-2 Introduction - GP38-2 Introduction
Scenarios Sand Patch Summit - A Helping Hand - Clear Cut - Fully Fuelled - Cumberland Charge - Ice and Snow - Powering America Part 1 - Powering America Part 2 - Cumberland Switchback
Miscellaneous History - Signalling