Mahanoy Plane Schuylkill County engineering marvel
Coal cars, left, wait to be hoisted from the foot of the Mahanoy Plane in this 1890s image.
In 1868, the most powerful engines in the world were located 16 miles west of Tamaqua.
The power was necessary to hoist coal up a mountainside, coal that helped to build the country.
The engines were part of an amazing coal-car inclined railroad known as the Mahanoy Plane, an engineering marvel that boosted coal cars from the valley town of Mahanoy Plane, part of Gilberton, up a mountainside some 2,460 feet to Frackville.
The inclined plane railroad spanned two points separated by a rise of 524 feet.
Mahanoy Plane was built by Italian workmen and funded by the Mahanoy and Broad Mountain Railroad, predecessor of the Reading Company. It opened on July 16, 1861.
After a fire in 1868, "new 6,000-horsepower engines were installed to hoist the cars," said Schuylkill County Judge John Domalakes, a Frackville native and Mahanoy Plane historian.
"At the time, they were the most powerful engines in the world."
In fact, the engines held that distinction until installation of the giant engines that closed the locks of the Panama Canal.
The Mahanoy Plane hoisted more than 1.37 billion tons of coal, said Domalakes. But the work was dangerous, and sadly, it also claimed the lives of 148 men.
The plane was vital to the existence of towns such as Frackville, Shenandoah and others.
About 800 to 900 railroad cars passed over the plane every 24 hours. Their precious coal cargo made the Mahanoy Plane a strategic resource during wartime.
"It was a primary security zone during World War I," said Domalakes.
The plane also served as the livelihood for a town at the foot, a settlement aptly named Mahanoy Plane. The town still exists and is called "The Foot" by locals, a name it's held since its inception.
The Mahanoy Plane ceased operation on Feb. 27, 1932, due to the decline in demand for anthracite and a much easier transport route through the Mahanoy and Tamaqua tunnels.
In 1952, the buildings were knocked down. Eventually, the site was reclaimed by nature. However, solid stone foundations remain deep in the woods, some towering up to three stories high. Visible are remnants of an engine house, coal bins, chutes and train cars.
On Sept. 8, 2007, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated a roadside marker near the site. The marker can be seen along Route 924 at the north end of Frackville.
It reads: "Critical to the Pa. anthracite industry, this inclined plane railroad transported coal from the Mahanoy Valley up the Broad Mountain to Frackville. Opened in 1862 as part of the Reading Railroad system, improvements in the early 20th century increased its size and capacity, making it an engineering marvel able to meet national demands. After hoisting hundreds of millions of tons of coal, it closed in 1932. Partial ruins remain nearby."
Hikers occasionally visit the site and, at places, climb down what appear to be wooden steps embedded in dirt. In reality, those wooden steps are the original railroad ties, still intact.
In addition to Domalakes, another who sees value at the site is "Porcupine Pat" McKinney, education coordinator, Schuylkill Conservation District.
"The plane not only should have state, but national, recognition due to its significance in building our nation," McKinney said.
According to the Schuylkill Parcel Locator, the site is owned by DRE Land Developing Inc., Nesquehoning.
According to Domalakes, there are currently no plans for restoration or preservation of the site.
However, the day may come when society more fully appreciates the value of assets that built our country. In time, there will be greater acknowledgment of families who forged a living mining and transporting coal, and those who lost their lives in the process.
Mahanoy Plane is a special site that deserves to be more than lost ruins hidden deep in the woods. And maybe that day will come.
As long as people have passion for history, the remarkable Mahanoy Plane inclined railroad will never truly be lost.