Accompanied by approximately 30 students and their family members, Lehighton Area Middle School teacher Ron Rabenold hiked the 664 feet up the rocky trail known as "Wagon Road" to the top of Mount Pisgah on Saturday morning to share his love of local history. Together, they hiked and explored the trail that was the site of the former Switchback Railroad - the first gravity railroad of any significance in the United States.
According to Rabenold, "I guess I do the hike simply because I love to tell a good story. I'm always eager to find someone who doesn't mind listening to me."
As Rabenold recounted the story of this important "chunk" of local history, it was evident that his enthusiasm was contagious. He described how coal was mined in Summit Hill and traveled via this wooden-railed gravity railroad known as "the Switchback" to the Lehigh Canal in Mauch Chunk. From there, it was transported to destinations such as Philadelphia - helping to fuel the American Industrial Revolution.
A fifth grade Social Studies teacher at LAMS, Rabenold pointed out several remaining structural artifacts along the route of this voluntary field trip. One of the highlights of the hike was Hacklebernie Tunnel - the first anthracite coal tunnel in North America. As if on cue, the fog lifted following the trek to the tunnel. It gave way to sunny skies - allowing the group to enjoy the spectacular views of Lehigh Gorge and Lehigh Gap.
The three-hour hike concluded with a walk down the "Incline Plane" to Sam Miller Field in "Upper Jim Thorpe."
Originally built to transport coal, the Switchback Railroad eventually carried passengers - ushering in the "Tourist Glory Days" which ran from 1872 to 1899. A dance pavilion was built at the crest of Mount Pisgah. Rabenold told the story of Victorian party-goers riding the Switchback to the top at about midnight and "dancing the night away" under lamplight until 6 a.m. Records show that ridership in 1873 totaled 30,478. President Ulysses S.Grant is said to have ridden the Switchback, though there is no concrete evidence to support this claim. Thomas Edison is the most famous documented rider.
At one time, the Switchback was the number two tourist destination in the entire country - second only to Niagara Falls. However, by 1930, the Switchback was running at a loss. It closed in 1933. On September 2, 1937, the entire operation was sold for scrap metal through a Pottsville salvage dealer. A favorite local anecdote is that this iron came back to us in the form of bullets. The metal was purchased by Japan during their war preparations. Of course, they attacked Pearl Harbor on "the day that will live in infamy" - December 7, 1941.
Rabenold credits much of his presentation to Vincent Hydro's book, "The Mauch Chunk Switchback: America's Pioneer Railroad" (2002).
"I've been exploring these hills a long time, since I was a kid, and I first discovered the old trolley track right of way from Beaver Run to Flagstaff. Ever since, I've been hooked on these hikes, exploring," recalled Rabenold. "That's why I lead the hikes - to introduce today's generation to the love of the outdoors and good old-fashioned exploring and discovery."
Another hike is being planned forsometime in May. Students and family members will be led on the lower section of the trail, citing more of the history of the town of Jim Thorpe - formerly Mauch Chunk.
For more information on these hikes - as well as on the history of the Switchback Railroad - visit Rabenold's blog at http://culturedcarboncounty.blogspot.com/2011/04/students-descend-on-swi... .