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Last Man at Penn Haven Junction - Part 2

  • The Gas Buggy that took Richard O'Donnell to school in Weatherly when he was six years old.
    The Gas Buggy that took Richard O'Donnell to school in Weatherly when he was six years old.
Published December 11. 2010 09:00AM

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part series, part one of which ran previously in The TIMES NEWS)

Richard O'Donnell started school in 1949 at the age of five, going on six.

"There was an old unit, #211, they called it the Gas Buggy," he explained. "It was the regular branch train from Lehighton.

"It wasn't a regular passenger train. It was a single car with a section for mail, another for baggage, and room for passengers. It originated in Lehighton, went to Mauch Chunk and at Penn Haven, it would stop to pick me up. Then it made a stop in Weatherly and went on to Hazleton.

"I used to get up at five o'clock in the morning. The train came at 5:31 a.m. I got to Weatherly at 6:02 a.m. I was early for school so I would sleep in the train station. I was the only kid they picked up. Everyone used to pity me because I was so young."

O'Donnell had been going to St. Nicholas Catholic School in Weatherly for two years when the Lehigh Valley discontinued the #211. It was replaced with streamlined stainless steel Rail Diesel "Budd" cars #40 and #41. It was an era when the old steam engines were being replaced with diesels.

"Then I went to Immaculate Conception School near the Old Jail in Mauch Chunk," he said. "That was better. I used to get the #228 train to school later, at 9 a.m."

If his connections were on time, O'Donnell would take the bus from the train station to school. Other times, he'd get a lift with baggage master Lawrence Conarty, who drove him to school, and the towerman, Tom Casey, to church, in a 1937 Chevy.

O'Donnell became interested in sports. After school, he played in the Little League at Sam Miller Field in Upper Mauch Chunk.

"I caught the 9 o'clock train home to Penn Haven Junction," he said. "I got home one evening, it was in late January or early February in 1958. My father told me to start packing my stuff because we were going to move."

His father was taking a section gang job in Lehighton.

"Dick, we got to do go," his father said. "They are taking the trains off. I won't have a way to get to work, and you won't have a way to get to school."

In April of 1958, the O'Donnell family bid Penn Haven Junction adieu.

"The LVRR owned the house and it was falling apart," O'Donnell remembered. "They weren't going to fix it."

The O'Donnells paid five dollars a month rent to the LVRR, and taxes to Lehigh Township.

"My mother and father had to pay taxes which always drove my dad antsy, because there were no services," O'Donnell recalled.

Just about everything solid had to come in by train. Sulphur-smelling mine drainage water came in from the Black Creek. The Lehigh River was for dumping then, and that was often how the O'Donnells disposed of their trash. Richard is happy to see how the river has cleaned up and the fish have returned.

The O'Donnell's water was piped from a mountain stream-nice in the summer, but problematic during the harsh winters at Penn Haven Junction.

"It got so cold, it was often below zero," he said. "We had to let our water run full force so it didn't freeze up. It would splash, covering the floor with ice."

For good or bad, living just feet from an active railroad junction taught O'Donnell to coexist with noise.

"I'm still a heavy sleeper today because when they crossed the diamond, we called them frogs, it was very noisy-and they blew their whistles a lot," he said. "We couldn't have Christmas tree lights because to the railroad, red meant stop, and caution was green."

For being literally in the middle of nowhere, the O'Donnells were well informed, receiving up to 20 newspapers a day, including editions from Buffalo to New York, newspapers like the Daily Mirror and the Wall Street Journal.

Although the trains rarely stopped at Penn Haven Junction, the engineers knew O'Donnell's dad and threw the papers as they went by.

Over those many years that Richard's father checked for rockslides and broken track, there was one time he found a problem.

He called the dispatcher and warned "You have to stop the train!"

The dispatcher replied, "Have you been drinking?"

"I may have been drinking," James O'Donnell replied, "but I can still tell when a foot of rail is missing."

O'Donnell had prevented the train from derailing.

The O'Donnells moved to Lehighton and Richard became the only one in his family to graduate from high school. He took jobs as a gas pumper and as a supermarket cashier as he waited for his number to be called for the Vietnam draft.

While waiting to be called, he worked a month at Bethlehem Steel. After a two-year stint in the Adjunct General Corps in Germany, he returned to Bethlehem Steel and was credited with his time in the service. He worked at the Steel until it closed after working there for 30 years and 10 months.

Richard O'Donnell loves karaoke and serving as a D.J., and has been the voice of Lehighton High School football for 11 years.

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