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Lansford historians worry about road work project

Historians from Lansford are paying close attention to an upcoming Pennsylvania Department of Transportation project which could affect historical mining areas.

The agency recently informed the borough of plans to remove and fill in an old bridge carrying Route 209 over an abandoned railroad.

The project is located close to remnants of the early days of anthracite mining, including a wall built circa 1849 to carry coal from the early anthracite mines.

“We understand the bridge needs to be improved, but we’re hoping it can be done thoughtfully and smart, that nothing is destroyed,” said Harry Murphy, a member of the Lansford Historical Society.

For passing drivers, the Route 209 bridge may be hard to distinguish from any other section of road, other than the weight restriction signs at each end.

But underneath it is a big drop down to the abandoned rail bed below.

Members of the Lansford Historical Society, which includes the borough’s council president, are concerned about the impact that such a large project could have on some historical features around the bridge which date back to the early days of anthracite and are included in the town’s historic district designation.

“There’s very little left. We’d like to preserve what is left here. The best coal came from this area Lehigh Anthracite. We’re just looking to try to preserve what is here,” said Bill Harleman, president of the Lansford Historical Society.

The 1849 wall, which is located about 100 yards from the bridge on property owned by Lansford Borough, was built as part of the Panther Creek Railroad.

The gravity-powered railroad once wound around the Panther Valley to the many mines and breakers, carrying coal that was eventually hoisted up to Summit Hill and placed on the better-known Switchback Railroad to Mauch Chunk.

The wall was hand built with no anchors or cement. Each piece is carefully fitted together by hand.

“That stone wall is magnificent,” Harleman said.

A few decades ago a contractor working on sewers in the area plowed over a section of the wall. Since the only access for equipment to reach the bridge is a dirt road which passes the wall, they’re concerned it could be damaged again.

It’s now one of the few remnants of the early days of mining. Over the years, most of the buildings were destroyed. There was value in the scrap.

Also, the companies which took over the buildings from Lehigh Coal and Navigation wanted to avoid paying taxes for them, so they demolished them.

“There was a lot of scrap metal to be sold,” Murphy said. “At the time there was so much here, that nobody thought about it.”

The wall no longer serves any functional purpose, but another piece of mining history near the bridge does.

A drainage tunnel under Route 209 was also built by LC&N, and still carries mine drainage from two small man-made ponds to the Panther Creek.

They’re concerned that the tunnel could become blocked and cause a larger pool of untreated mine water.

Borough Council recently sent a letter to council expressing that concern and others.

“We want to meet with them on site here and show them our concerns, show them what’s out here and see what their input is going to be,” said Bruce Markovich, borough council president.

Other concerns include the impact on the borough’s property, and a 20-mile detour which PennDOT says will be in place for nine days when PennDOT has to completely close Route 209. In order to access Junior-Senior High School from Lansford, Summit Hill or Coaldale, drivers will be detoured along Routes 309 and 54.

In its letter, the borough offered PennDOT to provide land for a temporary dirt road which could be used for emergency vehicles, and wouldn’t impact the wall.

The local fire company, American Fire Co. No. 1, has also contacted PennDOT with concerns about access for emergency vehicles during the proposed detour. “We just need some more answers. I think it needs to be planned better. We offered use of our property to put in an access road if the want to follow up with us,” Markovich said.

Bruce Markovich and Harry Murphy survey a wall built in 1849 as part of the Panther Creek Railroad. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS
Bruce Markovich, Bill Harleman and Harry Murphy walk around puddles beneath a Route 209 bridge which PennDOT plans to fill in next year. CHRIS REBER/TIMES NEWS