Wren Bitten, a director and the secretary of the Stewartstown Railroad Company, stands in the back of the station, before an old speeder in need of repair.
Wren Bitten, a director and the secretary of the Stewartstown Railroad Company, stands in the back of the station, before an old speeder in need of repair. The station, the speeder and most of the other railroad assets could be auctioned off if the company can t repay a $350,000 debt by Jan. 30. (Daily Record/Sunday News -- Jason Plotkin)
For more than a year, some shareholders and supporters have been trying to get the Stewartstown Railroad back on the tracks.

They've done some work to repair the roof on the station in Stewartstown and prepared a business plan to that could allow the company to open at least a mile of track for tourist rides within a year.

But the 124-year-old railroad company is fast running out of time.

If it can't repay more than $350,000 in debt by Jan. 30, its biggest assets -- including two stations and an engine house listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- will be sold at sheriff's sale.

The railroad owes the estate of George M. Hart, who died in April 2008. Hart's money paid the railroad's bills for more than 20 years, and there is clause in his will reminding the executor to collect that money.

That money, and most of Hart's estate, will eventually pass onto the Bucks County Historical Society, of which Hart was a lifetime trustee.

Some company shareholders and supporters have started a campaign to ask the historical society to allow it to repay the lien over time with proceeds from the re-opened railroad.

But the historical society says that as the residual beneficiary in Hart's will -- the heir that receives everything not otherwise allocated -- it can only accept whatever the estate does, not make choices about how his will is administered.

The estate's executor, John Willever, said he can only carry out the will, but could approve changes if an agreement is reached by the historical society and the railroad.

Meanwhile, the estate's attorney, Jim Gillotti, said collecting the debt is up to the estate.

And, with major players living in several states, that's only the beginning of the confusion.

But one thing is clear:

The railroad company, some say the oldest of its kind in the country, has little more than a month to find a resolution or face the auction block.

The Stewartstown Railroad Company has records going back decades, like this conductor s log from 1968. Supporters say the railroad is unique, and needs to
The Stewartstown Railroad Company has records going back decades, like this conductor s log from 1968. Supporters say the railroad is unique, and needs to be preserved. (Daily Record/Sunday News -- Jason Plotkin)

* * *

The 7.4-mile Stewartstown Railroad opened in 1885, as a way for farmers and merchants to get their goods to market.

It was a farmer's railroad, built and owned by the people who used it. Through the years, as railroads across the country joined and shrank, the company remained largely unchanged: some shares were sold or passed down, but the Stewartstown Railroad was never bought, never merged with another railroad or filed for bankruptcy.

Hart, a lifelong railroad enthusiast, joined the company's board in 1969 -- three years after it posted its last profit.

After Hurricane Agnes damaged the line and other connecting railroads around the region in 1972, the company stopped service and fell into decline. Company president Dave Williamson said the company spent most of its cash reserves to get the railroad running again in 1984.

For the next 20 years, Williamson said, Hart paid most of the company's bills with his own money, and made most of the decisions.

Sometime around 2000, Williamson said, there was a dispute between Hart and the company's other board members over granting a developer right-of-way access. For the first time, they voted against him. After that, Williamson and other board members said, Hart became less trusting and more distant.

The railroad stopped running cars in 2004 because its insurance rates spiked. On that last run, a car jumped the tracks.

Two years later, Hart brought a lawyer to a board meeting and asked that his donations over the years -- $352,415 -- be converted into a lien owed to him. The board voted to approve it, and Williamson, then company vice president, signed the judgement note. All assumed the debt would be forgiven after Hart's death, an idea Williamson and others say Hart encouraged.

"If we would have known what the potential problems were, I probably would have refused to sign," Williamson said.

But those problems only became apparent after Hart's death, when the company learned of clause 23, the final clause in Hart's will:

"I wish to remind my Executors that I have over the years advanced funds and made unsecured loans to the Stewartstown Railroad Company, York, Pennsylvania for the amount of $352,415, which is the amount due my estate at the time of the writing of this Will.

Don Matthews, a director of the Stewartstown Railroad, stands in the station.
Don Matthews, a director of the Stewartstown Railroad, stands in the station. (Daily Record/Sunday News -- Jason Plotkin)
 My Executors are directed to take appropriate action to retrieve said monies for my estate."

* * *

Soon after Hart's death, his estate asked the company for repayment of the lien, said Gillotti, the estate's attorney.

The estate found the Stewartstown Railroad had assets, including property, engines, rail lines and equipment, worth more than the amount owed. The estate was patient, Gillotti said, but more than a year has passed, and now the lien is one of the last details the estate needs to resolve.

That's why the estate set the January 30 deadline, Gillotti said.

But some railroad shareholders and supporters say it's not that simple.

They say the executor, Willever, has told them if the company can reach an agreement with the Bucks County Historical Society to forgive the debt or allow the railroad to pay the money over time, he would approve it and change the will.

Willever, a friend of Hart's for more than 50 years, said in a recent interview that while he won't negotiate any deals, he would sign off should the historical society approve a payment plan.

Williamson and other board members said they have tried to contact the historical society, but have been rebuffed. Earlier this month, the Friends of the Stewartstown Railroad began asking people to contact the historical society to encourage such a deal.

But that campaign is misdirected, said historical society executive director Doug Dolan.

The estate has made it clear to the society that it will handle collection of the lien, Dolan said. As the society understands it, that means the society has no grounds to ask for a change in the will.

As such, he said, the Stewartstown Railroad needs to make a proposal to the estate. If the estate finds it acceptable, it would bring the proposal to the historical society.

That's why shareholders and supporters who have contacted the historical society have been directed to the estate, Dolan said.

The historical society would be open to a deal to stop the sheriff's sale.

"We are not interested in the railroad operating business or the banking business," Dolan said. "We would seriously entertain any proposal or plan that addresses the debt to the estate in a manner that's beneficial to all parties involved. (Repayment) can certainly go beyond two months."

That, company supporters say, is all the Stewartstown Railroad is asking for. The business plan they've created coupled with donations, Williamson said, would allow the company to repay the lien over time after re-opening as a tourist railroad.

"I've always been of the mind the community and the county will support the railroad if you give them the chance to," Williamson said.

When asked, Gillotti said it's unlikely any deal will be worked at this late date.

"In theory, that could happen," Gillotti said. "But it doesn't seem that the Bucks County Historical Society is inclined to do that and it would be very unusual to have an heir of an estate do something like that."

* * *

There is another possibility.

When Hart died, he left his stock in the Stewartstown Railroad to Herman Bushman, of Fairfax, Va., making him the company's largest stockholder.

At a Nov. 24 shareholder's meeting, Bushman put forth a proposal to put the railroad up for sale, and that proposal passed. Williamson believes Bushman wants to sell the company to someone who would preserve it, and said the board is preparing a listing.

Bushman declined to comment for this story.

If a buyer is pending, Gillotti said, the estate would be willing to extend the deadline several weeks.

Still, there are further complications -- former company employees who say they are owed back wages -- but compared to the potential sheriff's sale, those are minor.

And the clock is ticking.

"It would be unfortunate if the railroad ends up in sheriff's sale," Gillotti said. "We have received letters of support from people who believe the Stewartstown Railroad has a certain historical significance, and it would be good if those people would provide some financial support to Stewartstown so it could pay this debt."


ABOUT GEORGE HART

George Michener Hart never felt the need to find a wife or have children: His heart belonged to the railroad, said Kurt Bell, a friend and archivist for the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Born in 1919 in Doylestown with a shy demeanor, an impeccable memory and an affinity for history, Hart spent his childhood waiting at rail stations and crossings for trains so he could photograph them with his Kodak camera.

As an adult, Hart made his name in tourist excursions.

He participated in the Reading Company's Iron Horse Rambles and formed Rail Tours Inc., based in Jim Thorpe.

In 1969, he purchased stock in the Stewartstown Railroad, and the station became a second home for him. Bell said Hart would sometimes spend nights in the station.

Also that year, Hart was appointed the director of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, which he retired from in 1983.

Hart died in April 2008 in Jim Thorpe.

Also of interest

· Freight locomotive 'telescoped' runaway Stewartstown Railroad car.

· What it was like aboard Southeastern York County's Stewartstown Railroad?