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Railroads spurred region's growth, industry

  • Courtesy of Conrad A. Sthare Passenger train stations like this one in Lehighton were common in many local communities.
    Courtesy of Conrad A. Sthare Passenger train stations like this one in Lehighton were common in many local communities.
Published January 25. 2014 09:01AM

It's hard to imagine what the Packerton Yards in Mahoning Township were like just 60 years ago.

Hundreds of men worked there, repairing trains, coupling them for transport coordinates, and passenger service.

Railroading had its inception in Carbon County in the 1860s and for a century was a ruling industry.

Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company had a near-monopoly on the mining and transportation of coal in the region until that time.

History sources say that to break the monopoly and also to improve transportation, the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad was incorporated in 1846 to build a line from Mauch Chunk to Easton, where the Lehigh River flows into the Delaware.

Construction did not begin until 1851; then with the management and the financing of Asa Packer work began in earnest.

The railroad was renamed the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1853, and it was opened from Easton to Mauch Chunk in September 1855.

The LV reached north into the Wyoming Valley to Wilkes-Barre in 1867, the same year that Lehigh Coal & Navigation's Lehigh & Susquehanna Railroad, originally a White Haven-Wilkes-Barre line, opened a line south along the Lehigh River from the Lehigh Valley area.

Growth and mergers occurred and the Lehigh Valley prospered.

Owing a debt

Although the railroad entered the Great Depression with little debt, the maturation of bonds of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company, New Jersey state taxes, and interest on debt soon had the railroad in debt to the federal government for nearly $8 million.

Highways were taking away passenger and freight business. LV began to prune its branches. At the end of the 1930s LV made a valiant effort to attract passenger business by hiring designer Otto Kuhler to streamline its old cars and locomotives.

Train trips to the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, and even New Jersey were common for local residents in the first half of the 20th Century. Virtually every community had a passenger station including Tamaqua, Jim Thorpe (then Mauch Chunk), Lehighton, Palmerton, and Slatington. The stations in Tamaqua, Jim Thorpe, and Palmerton have been saved, while most others have been torn down. In Lehighton, the demolition occurred to make way for the Lehigh Hi Rise.

When young men went off to the military, they usually left from these railroad stations.

Central railroad

Besides the Lehigh Valley, the Central Railroad of New Jersey also traversed through Carbon County.

CNJ's lines in Pennsylvania were built by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company as the Lehigh & Susquehanna Railroad (L&S). The main line was completed between Phillipsburg, New Jersey and Wilkes-Barre in 1866

The line was extended to Scranton in 1888. The bulk of the traffic on the Pennsylvania lines was anthracite coal, much of it produced by subsidiaries of the railroad, until the Interstate Commerce Act of 1920 forbade railroads to haul freight in which they had an interest.

When the Lehigh & New England Railroad was abandoned in 1961 CNJ acquired a few of its branches and organized them as the Lehigh & New England Railway. In 1963 Lehigh Coal & Navigation sold its railroad properties, but the lease to the CNJ continued.

In 1965 CNJ and the Lehigh Valley Railroad consolidated their lines along the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania and portions of each railroad's line were abandoned; the anthracite traffic that had supported both railroads had largely disappeared. CNJ operations in Pennsylvania ended March 31, 1972.

The Reading Railroad served most of Schuylkill County.

According to history sources, The Reading Company, officially the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and then the Philadelphia and Reading Railway until 1924, operated until the decline of anthracite after World War II. It was one of the most prosperous corporations in the United States.

Trains today

Reduced coal traffic coupled with highway competition and short hauls forced it into bankruptcy in the 1970s. The railroad was merged into Conrail in 1976, but the corporation lasted into 2000, disposing of real estate holdings.

The love of trains continued.

While railroading is quite suppressed from the early 1900s, it still is a viable transport mode for many major industries.

Passenger service, except for such lines as Amtrak, is limited to tourist trains such as those in Jim Thorpe, Kempton, Scranton, and Lancaster.

Railroad buffs have salvaged many of the older engines and passenger cars and maintain them for historical preservation and tourist attraction.

Old steam locomotives, powered by coal or wood and converted to steam, are especially popular.

While diesels are the main engines used on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe, periodically an old steam engine is put into service, sending billowing black smoke along its path.

Locally railroads were a magnificent transport mode, but the coal mining operations were their main financial source. When the mines closed, the end of railroading as a local economy giant also occurred.

Thanks to such things as the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, railroading's past can still be enjoyed.

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