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Ashley Planes History

Nicholson Viaduct

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The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. opened the planes between Ashley and Mountaintop in 1843 using mules to haul the cars up the planes. Later, metal platforms, called "barneys", pushed the cars using steel cables attached to steam-driven rollers at the top of each plane. They consisted of four separate inclined plane railroads used to connect Ashley with Solomon Gap, rising to an elevation of about 1,600 feet. Both passenger and freight cars were raised and lowered along 5-15 degree inclines by cables powered by steam engines. When they reached Solomon's Gap, they rolled down hill by gravity to White Haven, where the coal was transferred to barges on the Lehigh Canal. They ceased operation in 1948.(1)(1) Data source Times Leader 4/2/00

From Rob Davis:

In 1837 when the planes were first started, steam railroads were still experimental in nature. Experience to-date was gravity railroads and canals. Steam roads were consider as a piece of the transportation puzzle, but not yet as the total solution. Steam locomotives could not tackle the kinds of grades that the CNJ's later backtrack or the LV's two routes into the Wyoming Valley would take. The LV's forays in the Wyoming Valley, at first, were to get coal NORTH along the Susquehanna to the Great Lakes, replacing the canal system running north along the Susquehanna. Bringing coal up the climb up Penobscot Mountain was not a primary concern at that time.

In the 1830's, significant experience had been gained in gravity railroads to move coal. The Mauch Chunk switchback, Beaver Meadows, Room Run, the Pennsylvania Coal Company and others were running extensive gravity routes. The Lackawanna and Wyoming Valleys were served by a huge network of reliable gravity railroads.

The D&H, which a poster sited as an example of using steam power over planes, actually only began to do so later in the 1800's when locomotives became big enough. In the era of the Ashley Planes' construction, the D&H was using gravity railroads and canals to move most of thier product, with very little rail service. While we all like the story of the D&H using steam in 1829, it was a dismal failure. The D&H remained a transportation compnay for many years with a reliance upon water and gravity.

In fact, the D&H was so late to choose rail as the means of transport for northern field anthracite, they eventually ran over the tracks of the Erie north of the fields, rather than build a late-comer route like the O&W did. The planes were cheap and easy to run. Speed was not an issue with coal service, so they made perfect sense. It wasn't until the advent of the diesel that the CNJ could cost-justify closing the planes. Remember that the CNJ had no direct Great Lakes route, so it focused it's business in the northern fields to getting all the coal over Penobscot Mountain and to New York Harbor.

The LV was a totally different kind of road. Coal, was an intregal part of their over-all frieght service which also competed in the Buffalo - NY market, not just the CNJ's relative short-haul. The LV had fast freight, milk and other traffic that never materialized for the CNJ. Thus, the Mountain Cut-Off to Pittson Jct, which essentially provided a route for through traffic that totally avoided the mines. For the CNJ, the Ashley Planes provided a cheap alternative (and weere located right at one of the richest areas of coal deposits).

Rob Davis

Also see: AshleyPlanes History by Annie Bohlin

Map of AshleyPlanes and Map of Penobscot Engine Terminal and Yard by Bob Fischer

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