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The day the whistle went silent

  • TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS On June 28, 1963, nobody seemed to notice when the final commuter train left Tamaqua for good, a scene recreated in this photo illustration.
    TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS On June 28, 1963, nobody seemed to notice when the final commuter train left Tamaqua for good, a scene recreated in this photo illustration.
Published June 28. 2013 05:06PM

The final whistle blew just after 9 a.m.

The day was June 28, 1963.

It was a Friday morning, exactly 50 years ago today. A lone, wailing whistle signaled the end to a way of life.

Eight passengers rode on the final excursion out of Tamaqua.

After 131 years of rail industry, it was the end of an era. A turning point in history. Tamaqua would be forever changed.

But, at the time, nobody noticed.

Instead, people busied themselves getting to their daily destinations, riding in automobiles that were responsible, in part, for killing the iron behemoths that had built the country.

A transformation in lifestyle habits had been under way for quite some time. People were no longer riding the rails.

In fact, by the time it ended, passenger train service existed primarily for mail, not passengers.

King Coal had seen its peak, and the train industry that carried black diamonds to market was in steep decline.

And so on this day 50 years ago, nobody took notice that the legendary iron horses that crisscrossed America and carried men and women off to war were about to disappear from the local landscape.

The final passengers included three adults returning home after vacationing in our area.

Five others were on their way to either Pottsville, or more likely, Philadelphia.

A grandmother was taking her grandson on the trip. Probably returning by bus. Actually, little is known about those eight people. They faded into obscurity along with the final chapter in the story of Tamaqua passenger train service.

Once a hub

Tamaqua was once a railroad hub.

It started in 1832 with the Little Schuylkill Coal and Navigation Railroad - the first to haul coal using a steam engine. Thick black smoke and stray embers combined to spark an industry that defined the town. First it was coal. Then passengers.

At peak, 34 to 40 passenger trains chugged through Tamaqua daily and Sunday.

They were as routine as trolleys.

If you missed one, you could simply wait for another. In fact, local housewives were known to ride trains into Philadelphia for a day of shopping and then get back home in time to put supper on the table.

Two trains left daily for West Milton over the Catawissa Branch. Several more rambled from Tamaqua to Mauch Chunk and several others between Tamaqua and Pottsville. Another train left at 7 a.m. for Atlas Powder Company, arriving below Reynolds in time to allow workers to start their shift.

But best known were evening trains #97 and #12, both arrived about 7 p.m. just a few minutes apart. Train #97, for example, would bring home many locals who'd spent a full day shopping in Philadelphia. Remaining passengers would stay aboard and depart in Shamokin. As for #12, it carried passengers and provided mail pickup and delivery.

Tamaqua's location was key to its role as a rail center.

The Schuylkill County town is located midway between Williamsport and Philadelphia on the main line of what was the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

Passenger trains between those two points routinely stopped in town.

Tamaqua also provided a stop for honeymooners en route to Niagara Falls and a departure point for Big Band stars heading for glamorous dance halls at nearby Lakeside and Lakewood parks. Special trains went to the parks near East Mahanoy Junction on picnic days, too. Other trains took fans to basketball games.

Riding the rails was the way to go. And Tamaqua was the route to take.

Dazzling depot

Tamaqua's passenger depot didn't disappoint.

The 1874 Philadelphia and Reading Railroad station was a showplace. Heavy, rich woodwork and solid marble fireplaces welcomed guests to the small city of the southern anthracite.

The elaborate, Victorian-styled depot boasted a full-service restaurant, an advantage that reflected the town's role as a pivotal, important juncture of the coal region.

The station took pride as the center of activity, replete with elaborate flora and majestic fountain of Depot Square Park.

But most of that glory had faded by June 28, 1963. And barely an eyebrow was raised when the inevitable took place.

"Effective July 1, the Reading Railroad will discontinue the handling of United States mail on its passenger trains," announced Sidney R. Spencer, traffic manager, revealing the stoppage.

"Discontinuance of mail handling will complete the removal of the major portion of nonpassenger services from passenger trains begun in October, 1962, when REA Express withdrew their traffic from trains to highway movement. The loss of these two forms of traffic has made it necessary for us to discontinue the operation of the last round trip of train service between Shamokin and Pottsville via Tamaqua, which was very lightly patronized," said Spencer.

"This round trip was operated primarily for mail service. Passenger service from Tamaqua to Philadelphia via Allentown will continue to go, offered by buses of the Reading Transportation Co.," he explained.

Thus came the end of the passenger train.

On the day the whistle went silent, the local newspaper made an interesting observation.

"Now that there are no more passenger trains, it is a question if even the last one will be missed," said the Tamaqua Evening Courier in a small, one-column, front-page story published June 28.

Today, half a century has passed since that moment, and the evolution of transportation has continued.

For the most part, mass transportation has vanished from coal region life. The trolleys are gone and bus service has dwindled. Most travelers own vehicles and prefer independence.

As for trains, they're largely a footnote in history.

Are passenger trains missed? Each person has his or her opinion. For some, the trains are remembered. Railfans and hobbyists are devout in honoring the majestic passenger train and its once-prestigious role in daily life.

But those who recall train travel are older and fewer.

Average, everyday folks have no memory of what once was. Their routine never included train travel.

You don't miss what you never had.

And the whistle has long been silent.

The passenger train left the station on June 28 five decades ago. But this time it was gone for good.

Today, we reflect on that special moment when the commuter train lumbered out of Tamaqua one last time.

Nobody seemed to notice that the majestic ship on wheels had melted into infinity, vanishing along with its parallel iron rails that seem to merge into one and then disappear beyond the horizon.

Its run had ended. The waning whistle faded to silence and was never heard again.

Time marched on, leaving behind the glorious thunder of the iron horse and a touch of greatness that will never happen again.

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