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Last Man at Penn Haven Junction

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Richard O'Donnell lived at Penn Haven Junction until his family left in 1958, the last people to live at the isolated century-old hamlet.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Richard O'Donnell lived at Penn Haven Junction until his family left in 1958, the last people to live at the isolated century-old hamlet.
Published November 13. 2010 09:00AM

Richard O'Donnell was born at Penn Haven Junction - a pretty unlikely place to be born. It may well have been the most isolated habitation in Carbon County. The closest road was about five miles away.

Penn Haven Junction, located about nine miles along the river trail above Jim Thorpe, and about five miles east of Weatherly, was accessible only by foot, boat, or railroad - most importantly railroad because above all, Penn Haven was a railroad junction for the Lehigh Valley Main and Hazleton lines, and the Central of New Jersey.

Richard O'Donnell, the youngest child of James and Margaret O'Donnell's nine children, was born in 1943, a time when World War II created a spike in railroad traffic.

In the early 1930s, Richard's father was asked to move to Penn Haven Junction to - in addition to his regular duties as a maintenance man - light the kerosene heater boxes to keep the rails warm during winter snowfalls so that the switches could operate, and to serve as a slope watchman.

This required James O'Donnell to inspect the tracks at the Ox Bow, a curve along the Lehigh River about four miles east of Penn Haven that was subject to landslides.

"My father would get called out, especially after heavy rains, and make sure there were no rocks on the tracks," O'Donnell said.

Penn Haven Junction was an early center of railroading in the United States. One of the first locomotive-powered railroads, the Beaver Meadow, had 26 miles of track carrying coal in the Lehigh Gorge by 1837. The Beaver Meadow and Hazleton Railroads built self-acting inclined planes to lower their cargoes of anthracite coal to the tracks at Penn Haven. These railroads were absorbed by Asa Packer's Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Lehigh Coal & Navigation operated the Upper Division of the Lehigh Navigation System from 1838 until flooding destroyed much of their canal and dam system in 1861. LC&N rebuilt its shipping capacity, opting for a railroad, the Lehigh & Susquehanna, to carry its Wilkes-Barre coal to market. Thus, Penn Haven Junction became the intersection of five rail lines: the Lehigh Valley Main Line, the Lehigh Valley Hazleton Branch, the New Jersey Central, and the Beaver Meadow and Hazleton inclined planes.

In its heyday, circa mid-to-late 1850s, there were barge loading facilities, a clerk's office, several shanties, a store, a tower, and a hotel. When Richard was growing up in Penn Haven, all that remained was a battery shed, the tower and the hotel where he lived with his family.

"Our house was a hotel," O'Donnell said referring to what had been called, in its salad days, the Penn Haven House. "We had ten rooms."

The near century-old Lehigh Valley RR-owned wooden building looked every inch its age. It was in disrepair even before the O'Donnells moved in, and the railroad was not interested in investing the money required to make the necessary repairs.

The hotel had two sides, each with ten rooms. The O'Donnells lived in one side; the other side being rented to gandy dancers, hunters, and another family, the Conaghers, who left Penn Haven before the O'Donnells.

"The gandy dancers, railroad track repairmen, mostly stayed there for their keep, and they earned a few bucks," O'Donnell said. "They were mostly single men, and they liked to drink."

"I guess the fun part was when they brought drinks," he remembered. "They could raise a ruckus because we were five miles from the nearest neighbor. Often, they would play guitars, fiddles, or accordions."

In hunting season, the railroad put on an extra coach. The hunters packed into the hotel for $3 a week per room and slept on the floor and the tower in sleeping bags. At the age of 12, O'Donnell began hunting with his dad's 30-30.

"There wasn't a whole lot to do, living in a place like that, way down in the valley," O'Donnell said, "besides watching mountains, the foliage, and the deer meandering around. We received broadcasts from Indiana and Chicago on an old church-type radio. I spent quite a few hours sitting with the men in the control tower which was next to the house."

The only way in or out of Penn Haven Junction was by railroad, with the closest station at Weatherly.

"My mother had to shop by getting the 11:30 a.m. train to Weatherly, go to the post office, go to the A&P grocery, the dairy, the State Store for a bottle, and do it all in an hour, and get the 1:07 p.m. train back."

Continued in Part 2, next Saturday

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