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Reprinted with permission from Schuylkill Living Magazine

Rail History

Passenger Trains Return


When the Trains 
Came Through Town
The distant whistle. The first sight of smoke. The steady beat of exhaust. Then around the curve it comes. Like a living dragon, the fire-breathing locomotive roars through town! Behind it, a seemingly endless string of clanking, rocking, creaking empty hoppers kick up the trackside grime. Finally they pass. Before peace can resume, from the other direction comes a storm of steam power! Two more dragons bark in ear-cracking tones. In tow, more hoppers filled to the nines with anthracite fresh from the tipple, each chunk with a little red or yellow dot.
Behind them, an even bigger, centipede-like beast belches forth. This was the way it was in every town in the county at the turn of the century when everything moved by rail.

by Michael G. McHale

 The coming of the railroad transformed America, paving the way for western expansion. By scaling the Alleghenies, eastern Pennsylvania was made more accessible to the lush farmland of the Ohio Valley. In 1800, travel on the State Canal system and the Allegheny Portage Railroad cut the time in half. As the century closed, one could cross the state in one day by rail.

 At first, railroads were considered extensions of the canal system. Rails were laid where water travel was impossible. The Delaware and Hudson Canal's historic 1827 rail line from Carbondale to Honesdale is a prime example. Some early lines even carried canal boats on dollies. Despite the drawback of winter closings and long waiting times at locks, canals were more important than railroads in the beginning of the 19th Century.

 Soon, enterprising men began to realize that laying rails over longer distances could be fruitful. Railroad pioneers like Moncure Robinson and Asa Packer recognized the obvious advantages rails had over the towpath. They secured charters to build extensive rail lines to compete with rather than serve the canals. But even after these advantages had been proven, canal men such as Joshiah White, and the Schuylkill Canal's Charles Ellet remained steadfast to transport by water.

 In the early 1800s southern Schuylkill County wad served by the Union Canal out of Pine Grove with connections west, and the Schuylkill Canal southward from Port Carbon. To the north, Broad Mountain was a natural barrier to navigation. Other means would be required to transport coal out of the rich basin of the Mahanoy Valley. Numerous railroads were begun north of the headwaters of the Schuylkill Canal.

 Through the 1830s and 40s, short railroads sprouted up at numerous areas in the county. Of prime importance was the Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven, which served the Schuylkill Canal. Chartered in 1831, tracks were laid from the "flats" in Schuylkill Haven along the river through Cressona and Minersville to Tremont. The railroad eventually reached Ashland and Locust Gap via the Gordon Planes.

 One of the most curious features of early railroading was the inclined plane. These were segments of tracks which climbed mountainsides on steep grades with freight cars being lifted by cable. Early planes were operated by gravity. Fully-loaded cars were sent down the incline, while empties were pulled up by the same cable attached to the loaded car. These were known as self-acting planes. Others like the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad used horses or oxen. Later, steam power was used to hoist several loaded cars at a time, such as the Mahanoy Plane.
 Gordon Plane was divided into two sections running up the natural chasm cut by Ratting Run into Broad Mountain. It was about 1.5 miles long with a 600-foot rise. Early in this century, a huge American flag suspended by cable hung over the plane. The Mine Hill Railroad would become part of the Philadelphia and Reading in 181. Much of the line exists today as part of the Reading and Northern, though Gordon Plane is a distant memory.

 Chartered in 1836, the Little Schuylkill Railroad, Navigation and Coal Company ran from Port Clinton northward to Mahanoy Junction above Tamaqua. It would become the keystone of the P&R system, serving as a gauntlet for its eastern and western branches. Connecting with it were four important lines. The 146-mile Catawissa Railroad operated from Mahanoy Junction to West Milton, providing access to the Mahanoy region by joining the northern terminus of the Little Schuylkill with connections to New York and Scranton. At Port Clinton, it connected with the P&R's main line from Mount Carbon. It's most important connection would be with the Mahanoy and Broad Mountain Railway via Mahanoy Tunnel and East Mahanoy Railroad.

 The bore through Buck Mountain leading to the Mahanoy and Shamokin Basins was begun in April of 1859, and completed in May of 1862. The East Mahanoy Railroad Company would build a line through from Mahanoy City to the Little Schuylkill track. Its construction was not without incident. On December 4, 1859, the firing of tunnel supervisors resulted in an attack on the home of project superintendent Patrick Barry. Following completion of the tunnel, unpaid workers led by Barry ripped up tracks and barricaded the right-of-way until they were paid. Trains would eventually roll through Mahanoy Tunnel, and continue to do so today on the Reading and Northern. All lines that converged near its eastern end would become part of the P&R. The former Broad Mountain line is part of the R&N's mount Carmel branch. While the Catawissa Railroad has been long abandoned, part of it was used to build the R&N's Lofty Connection.

 The P&R was king of the rails in Schuylkill County. But the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania would also make their presence felt. Because of price-fixing and other tactics used by the P&R's controversial Franklin Gowen both the Valley and Pennsy would construct branches to "invade" what was considered sole dominion of the P&R. The Lehigh Valley Railroad gained entry into the Mahanoy region when it took control of the Lehigh and Mahanoy in 1866. The road ran on Mahanoy Mountain from Quakake through Delano Trenton, and Park Place, then down to Yatesville, Shenandoah, and Raven Run to Centralia and Mount Carmel, and Morea. The L&N established a large locomotive shop in Delano which continued operating under LV rule.

 Through its subsidiary coal company, the Valley invested in coal lands along the L&N division. Among the mines under the LV's wing were the Packer Collieries, Morea, Continental, and Colorado. The L&N would be a profitable one for the railroad, and gave the county rail access to the New Jersey tidewater. It was abandoned. With the completion of the Lofty Connection, the Reading and Northern now operates trains through Delano to Morea in the old LV right-of-way.
 In the middle 1880s, the LV and Pennsylvania made a direct assault on the then-troubled Gowen empire when both extended into the Pottsville area. The Valley secured land from the Mine Hill Railroad from an aborted plan to extend to the Lehigh River. This would bring the LV into lower Schuylkill Haven and into Pottsville. It nearly took control of the still-independent Mine Hill until Mr. Gowen got word and leased it for the P&R.

 More ambitious was the Pennsy's Schuylkill Valley Division. Starting in Philadelphia, the branch virtually paralleled the P&R main line up the river to Pottsville, then extending to Frackville, New Boston, and into Shenandoah. By 1889, both branches were running, breaking the P&R monopoly. However, neither could effectively slow down the P&R juggernaut, and they never garnered the profits expected by their builders. Schuylkill Valley Division north of Reading was abandoned not long after. Portions of Claude Lord Boulevard are built over the former right-of-way onto the city.

 One of the most bizarre moments in railroad history occurred in August of 1892, the P&Rs colorful A. A. McLeod managed to get a lease on the entire LV system. Fortunately, this arrangement would only last for a year.

 There was once over 1,000 miles of track in Schuylkill County. In addition to the "big three" there were shorter spur and connecting lines. In Pottsville's north end, the Peoples' Railway offered freight and passenger service to Miners-ville. Little locomotive #3 was a familiar sight in town through the 1870s and 80s. It is preserved today at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. 

 Every big mining complex had its lokie road. Most were of 42-inch gauge, rarely exceeding three miles in length. The big coal and iron companies maintained lokies of various sizes, or occasionally used electric motors. Smaller mines used horses or mules. These lines were laid from the mines to the breaker and dirt banks. Rails were also used underground in connecting tunnels such as the Girard Tunnel, where car were pulled by mules.

 Through the late 1800s and into this century, rail service reigned supreme. In Schuylkill County, the annual shipment of coal was staggering. At the zenith of the anthracite era, four to five million tons of coal were shipped out of the area, mostly on the major rail arteries. The sight of hefty camelback locomotives struggling with long strings of hoppers was witnessed many times a day. The frequency of trains, both freight and passenger was incredible. 

 Into the 1930s, rail traffic was huge. My father recalled an incident when he was riding in his father's car. They were waiting at the LV crossing below Raven Run as a long train was passing. As the caboose rolled by, Grandfather stepped on the gas when...whoosh! ... another train thundered by in the opposite direction on the opposing track. Had it been a few seconds late, this story might not have been written!

 Passenger service was also frequent. The P&Rs Shamokin Division ran 40 to 50 trains daily, and LV's Mahanoy branch about 20. Most of the service was local. Some spur line round trips took less than ten minutes. Through trains featured mail, parlor, and dining service, and a few had sleepers. There were also miners' trains each morning and afternoon. Equipment was ancient and spartan, but convenient. On balmy weekends the railroads offered excursion specials to local attractions.

 Between the 1890s and early 1930s Schuylkill residents has the option of streetcar and interurban travel. Main Street in every important borough resounded with the clatter of the trolley. Old timers fondly recall Pottsville's Market Street line where trolleys slipped around Garfield Square. Travel within the county was divided between the Schuylkill and East Penn Electric Railways. A romantic period that also was too fleeting.

 Strangely enough, true first-class passenger service would not arrive until 1948. That year, the Reading Company introduced the streamlined, air-conditioned Schuylkill and King Coal (pictured on the cover). They started service at a time when passenger trains were being phased out on the Pennsy and Valley in the area. Even the Reading gave up 20 years ago. Thanks to special events (see story next page), younger residents can get a taste of the railroading costs for running steam power rises, we may be seeing the beginning of the end. One day, the haunting whistles and aroma of coal smoke may be as distant a memory as the golden days of the train. 

ALL ABOARD!
Passenger Trains Return To The County

by Donald Serfass

 A $40,000 grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is helping to launch a regional tourist train partnership that will reach into Schuylkill, Carbon, Luzerne and Berks counties. The funds, from the Department of Community and Economic Development's (DCED) Community Revitalization Program, have made possible a schedule of 13 passenger train excursions throughout the region.

 According to a Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad (RBM&N) spokesperson, the allocation helped the railroad to equip special train cars. 
 "Two 1950s era self-propelled rail diesel cars, or RDCs, will be the primary equipment used for each excursion," explained John Waters, senior vice president, corporate development. 

 "The cars have a capacity of 144 passengers and we'll make provisions if we need more seats," he added.

 In the event public demand for tickets exceeds the capacity of the two cars, the railroad will consider using alternate equipment, such as a diesel locomotive with standard passenger coaches.

 State Rep. David G. Argall (R-124) was a driving force in the project, which will take place in cooperation with the RBM&N Railroad and the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau. The local passenger train excursions are expected to become an annual event, an idea Argall advocated.

 "Rep. Argall put the wheels in motion a long time ago and now it's happening," said Micah J. Gursky of the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership.
 Argall said the opportunity for locally based train excursions fits nicely into the area's long range economic plans."This is an important step toward developing more regularly scheduled rail excursions as part of Schuylkill County's tourism development efforts."

 Argall said heritage tourism promotion is a key goal of the Schuylkill River Heritage Corridor being developed from Philadelphia to Schuylkill County. 
 He also cited nearby Jim Thorpe's tourism success story. Some of those same ideas could work in Schuylkill County, too, he claims, and could help provide a sound foundation for growing the economy.

 "I've been intrigued by Jim Thorpe's model for revitalization. This is one of the ways they helped to fill the storefronts." Argall feels the same formula can be applied to the historic Tamaqua area and beyond. "Through this public-private partnership with the Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, we're looking at this as a revitalization effort throughout the county."

 Argall added that the train excursions will provide a physical link between the state Schuylkill River Corridor and the Delaware and Lehigh National River Heritage Corridor. "We're really excited about this effort. This is an addition to our quality of life, improving the recreation and look of our communities."

 Mark T. Major, executive director, Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau, Pottsville, said the excursions are being promoted in the 1999 Visitors Guide."The Visitors Bureau is working closely with the communities involved and the railroad to organize the passenger excursions. Most of the excursions have been scheduled on days when special events are happening." Major said the itinerary offers many exciting trips that showcase the county's natural splendor, rich historical sites and family oriented attractions. 

 Sen. James J. Rhoades (R-29) said the DCED funds used to encourage the passenger train program could be considered an investment in the area's future.
 "The purpose of the grant is to help the Visitors Bureau develop further tourism partnerships between Schuylkill County and the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad. Tourism is expected to be the number one industry in Pennsylvania by the year 2000 and Schuylkill County has great potential for heritage tourism development in the coming years. We all need to be working together to develop the potential. This is an important step in this direction."

 Ten of the excursions will originate in Tamaqua and head to celebrations and special events at other municipalities in the region while three trips will bring tourists and passengers into Tamaqua for major events scheduled as part of the community's year long bicentennial celebration.

 Passengers will board and disembark at Tamaqua's historic 1874 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad passenger depot currently undergoing a $1 million restoration. The depot is located at the intersection of State Route 309 and US 209 in the heart of downtown. 

 Local officials are meeting the return of train excursions with delight. Some say the trips could prove to be one of the best things to happen. Pat Freeh Stefanek, Tamaqua Borough Council president, predicts the area will see direct benefits from the influx of visitors. "It's bound to provide a burst of excitement for the downtown and the area. It'll increase the number of patrons to our stores and restaurants and that's what we like. We'll gladly welcome the visitors to Tamaqua and show them what we have to offer."

 Tamaqua Mayor Richard M. Hadesty sees the excursions as a starting point for even greater things to come. "It's a wonderful idea. It'll bring people into town and give us a real boost. There are thousands of folks from all over the country who are train buffs and they travel around to take part in these excursions wherever they're offered. We can be part of that. I think things really will start to happen in terms of tourism."

 Pottsville Mayor Terence P. Reiley, initiator of the Pottsville Commission on Tourism, said he's ready to work with all parties to make great things happen: "I hope to push Pottsville to do its part in complementing the overall tourism draw of Schuylkill County. I would love to explore a Jim Thorpe-Tamaqua-Pottsville joint effort, Pennsylvania's most historic 30 miles. Tamaqua and Jim Thorpe have done excellent work to highlight their tourism draws-I want Pottsville to hold up its end of the bargain."

 Reiley said the area's historic fare is second to none."Where else in the Commonwealth can you, within a 20-minute drive: explore the history of the nation's industrial history, visit quaint historical downtowns, camp/boat/fish on 2 state parks or in idyllic riverine settings, golf in 3 or 4 quality public golf courses, hike or bike in scenic mountain vistas, visit America's Oldest Brewery, and more?  All of this within a 3-hour drive of New York or 2-hour drive of Philadelphia." Waters agreed, saying the region has great potential for tourism trade and related industry: "This area is a diamond in the rough." 
 
 


Copyright 1999 by
Schuylkill Living Magazine

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