Lewistown, PA (LEW)
Considered the oldest depot served by Amtrak, the Lewistown station is home to the extensive collections of the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical & Historical Society.
150 Helen Street
Lewistown, PA 17044
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 9,514
- Facility Ownership: Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society
- Parking Lot Ownership: Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society
- Platform Ownership: Norfolk Southern Railway
- Track Ownership: Norfolk Southern Railway
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
The Lewistown station sits on the right bank of the Juniata River across from downtown, but the two areas are connected by Veterans’ Memorial Bridge. The Lewistown station holds a special distinction as the oldest surviving structure known to have been built by the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR). Serving freight shippers or passengers since it opened in 1849, the building is also thought to be the oldest station in continuous use in the United States.
Although the PRR was later known as one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations, it had humble beginnings in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. The first stretch of track ran between Harrisburg and Lewistown, which served as the western terminus for a few short months. Originally constructed as a freight handling warehouse, the Lewistown station was converted to passenger use in 1868; it replaced an informal waiting area located in a hotel across the street. Rectangular in plan, the brick depot sports a simple gabled roof and a two tone paint scheme of white walls above a brown base.
The end gables feature three tall windows framed by stylized pilasters that lightly reference the Greek Revival architectural aesthetic that was popular at the time. A two storey tower located at the center of the trackside façade projects onto the platform area and acts as a visual exclamation point. It too displays stylized pilasters at its corners and is capped by a shallow hipped roof crowned with a finial made up of curlicues. A tower would have been an unusual feature on a utilitarian freight house and was probably added to the building when the section of the railroad running through Lewistown gained a manual block signal system in the mid-1870s.
To protect passengers from inclement weather as they wait outside for the arrival of the train, a canopy is attached to the building. It runs down the platform, turns the corner and hugs the east façade before ending over a small, adjacent wood frame baggage building constructed in 1898. Along the platform and just east of the depot, an elaborate wooden, open-air shelter structure with brackets and exposed roof trusses once served as the waiting station for the electric trolley that whisked passengers across a bridge into town and then on to Reedsville. Reminders of the station’s PRR heritage are visible in small details such as the lamp posts along the platform which bear the railroad’s “herald” in the shape of a keystone.
As rail travel declined after the mid-20th century, the station was modified to handle small package freight. The PRR bricked up most of the windows on the west end and added a large door and loading platform; the tower was also removed. The old hotel that had served as the first station was torn down in 1963, and fire claimed some of the freight yard structures near the depot. In 1985, the Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society (PRRT&HS) purchased the station and renovated it for use as a research center; Amtrak passengers use a modest waiting room.
The sale of the station was facilitated by U.S. Representative Bud Shuster, and volunteers put in thousands of hours to fundraise and restore the building. Local merchants donated supplies such as paint and plaster, and two father-and-son teams handled the rewiring of the depot and major carpentry projects such as the recreation of the tower. Windows were replaced and the platform canopy rebuilt. The PRRT&HS not only maintains the facility and grounds, but society members also open and close the waiting room and greet passengers.
When European-Americans first began to settle in the mountains of central Pennsylvania in the mid-18th century, the region was primarily a hunting ground controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy of American Indians, based to the north in New York. They allowed the Shawnee people to live in the area and a village was located at the confluence of the Juniata River and Kishacoquillas Creek. By the 1730s, traders from the east began to move in and set up commercial posts, but formal settlement was illegal since William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had recognized the Iroquois’ claim to land in the center of the colony. Not until the Penn family purchased a large tract from the Iroquois in 1754 did the area open up to colonists. Growth was halted by the French and Indian War of the late 1750s-early 1760s, but picked up again at the close of that conflict.
One of the earliest settlers in what is now Lewistown was Robert Buchanan, who moved there from Carlisle in 1754. He chose the site wisely, as it is located at the western end of a passage through the mountains known as the Lewistown or Long Narrows. The center of Pennsylvania is dominated by long mountain ranges and hills that run southwest to northeast, making it difficult to cross the area in an east-west direction, or vice versa. A result of glacial action, this landscape was a challenge for early colonists and a natural barrier to settlement further west. Flowing through hills that dramatically rise to more than 1,000 feet in height, the Juniata River carves a nine mile long path through the range. This natural cut became a vital transportation passage that for more than 200 years has hosted foot trails, a canal, railroads, and a roadbed.
Buchanan purchased a parcel of land from the local Shawnee Chief Kishacoquillas, after whom the creek is named. He established a trading post, but two years later decided to return to Carlisle in order to escape war-related fighting. In 1762, Buchanan returned to the post with members of his family who subsequently bought additional land around the waterways. In later years, Buchanan is known to have run a tavern in what is now downtown Lewistown.
After the Revolutionary War, citizens freely moved into the region and Lewistown was incorporated as a borough in 1795; it contained at least 120 homes and a courthouse. The settlement was named after William Lewis, a Philadelphia Quaker who was an admired lawyer, legislator, and judge, as well as an abolitionist. As a member of the state legislature, he pushed for the town to become the county seat over its rival at the eastern end of the narrows.
As in many frontier communities, early industries included milling to refine grain as well as to finish wood for use in building construction. Farmers primarily grew grains that were floated down the Juniata to the Susquehanna River and then taken overland to Philadelphia, the young nation’s largest and most important city. Transportation across the state remained difficult and hampered mercantile interests. Residents petitioned the state legislature for a turnpike to connect the town with the new capital at Harrisburg, and it was completed in 1817. At Jack’s Creek, the old arch bridge still stands as a reminder of the early roadway. Completed in 1813, the stone structure is unusual in that the arch does not have a keystone; in 2006, the bridge was rehabilitated and is a favorite subject for photographers.
As early as 1786, regularly scheduled stage trips began between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but the grueling journey took three weeks, as poor roads made night travel nearly impossible. Looking for a better link across the state, the legislature was dismayed by the opening of the National Road in Maryland and the Erie Canal in New York during the 1820s—transportation routes that threatened to siphon off trade from Pennsylvania and its major port at Philadelphia.
The state quickly devised its own transportation scheme: the Main Line of Public Works. At a cost of more than $10 million it included a series of roads, railroads, and canals built from 1826-1835. Upon completion, travel time was cut to only four days. Lewistown benefitted because the narrows provided a natural pathway that was soon lined with the Pennsylvania Main Line Canal; the Juniata Division started at the Susquehanna in the east and ended at Hollidaysburg in the west where freight was then transported by railroad over the Allegheny Mountains.
Begun in 1827, the canal was put in service in late 1829 and the first boat reached Lewistown that November. Similar to many towns along the Main Line, Lewistown became a bustling trade center with hotels to accommodate travelers on both the canal and the stagecoach lines. Warehouses were required for goods storage while shop windows displayed items shipped in from afar. The dramatic reduction in time devoted to transit and the resulting savings to both passengers and shippers left everyone looking for an even better travel option, and the railroads held the most promise.
The PRR was chartered by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1846 to construct a rail line across the state that would bypass the slower canals and roadways. Three years later, work crews had reached Lewistown from the east, and a great banquet was held at the depot on September 1. By 1854, the all-rail route linking Philadelphia and Pittsburgh was opened, and the entire trip could be accomplished in an amazing 15 hours for only $8. Although eclipsed by the railroad, the Juniata Division of the canal stayed open to boat traffic until an 1889 flood damaged it to a point where it was uneconomical to repair.
The PRR located its station on the south side of the Juniata because the canal had been constructed along the north side of the Lewistown Narrows and the right-of-way was too small to accommodate the tracks. Two additional rail lines were built from Lewistown into the surrounding region to take advantage of natural resources such as lumber, coal, and limestone and new industrial products such as iron. In 1865, the PRR opened the Mifflin and Centre County Railroad (M&CC) that ran northeast towards Reedsville and Milroy. In 1871, the Sunbury and Lewistown Railroad began service towards the east, and carried grain, lumber, and anthracite coal. At Sunbury, connections were made to lines running north to Canada and south to Baltimore and Washington, DC.
Lewistown blossomed into a busy junction with a freight yard west of the depot containing an engine house, repair shops, scale house, livestock holding pens, and a coaling shed. To avoid confusion with the M&CC station in Lewistown proper, the PRR began to refer to the main line station as Lewistown Junction, and signs at the station still display this name although it is now the sole rail stop in town.
Railroad links made it possible to ship the goods of private industry across the state and country, as the PRR’s network extended from the East Coast to the Mississippi River and from the Canadian border down to Virginia. By the end of the 19th century, the Lewistown area had iron furnaces, tanneries, flour mills, carriage factories, and other smaller industrial enterprises. In the twentieth century, a large mill complex owned by the American Viscose Company occupied much of the right bank of the river near the station. South of the tracks, the company developed Juniata Terrace in the 1920s as a community for its workers.
As the county seat, Lewistown also held the courthouse and the attendant government offices. It became the principal commercial town in the county and shops lined the streets around Monument Square. In 1906, the public space was embellished with the Soldiers and Sailors Monument erected to honor those who had died in the Civil War. In fact, the town’s Logan Guards was one of the first militias to respond to the war effort. The monument’s central column rises to 65 feet, and is topped with a statue of a soldier holding the American flag; figures representing branches of the armed forces ring the base. Interestingly, the memorial contains the only stone removed from President Lincoln’s tomb. It was presented to the town in commemoration of the militia’s rush to uphold the Union.
A short walk down Main Street is the birthplace of Gen. Frank Ross McCoy, a distinguished soldier-diplomat who worked in countries such as Armenia, Cuba, and the Philippines and was an aide to President Theodore Roosevelt. Towards the end of his career, he was named chairman of the Far Eastern Commission, an international body that discussed the future of post-World War II Japan. McCoy retired to his childhood home, which is now the headquarters of the Mifflin County Historical Society. In addition to a collection of memorabilia from McCoy that included furniture original to the house, the society maintains a permanent exhibition of artifacts tracing the history of the county.
Amtrak does not provide ticketing or baggage services at this station which is served by two daily trains.
The Pennsylvanian is financed primarily through funds made available by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
- 10 Short Term Parking Spaces
- 10 Long Term Parking Spaces
- Accessible Payphones
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Pay Phones
- Wheelchair Lift