Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dust on My Shoes - A Post Script to "Things I Learned in the Floods"

This is a postscript to "Things I Learned in the Floods," posted April 12th, 2011:

This is the old road leading from Weissport to Parryville before Route 248 was built. 
Back then, anytime you left northern Carbon County to travel to the Lehigh Gap and Lehigh County,
you passed Lock tender #10's Cold Cellar and his wife's forsythia bushes. 
The road is directly between them looking back toward Weissport.  Route 248 is about 80 feet above.

GE tried to modernize the canal with an “electric mule.” A motor mounted on an I-beam guide-rail, operated by two men, was to replace one boy and his mule. That was considered progress. It didn’t last long. The latest flood wiped away the modern resurfacing on the tow path and once again the concrete anchors of these blips of canal history are visible.  They can be seen once again at regular intervals between Lock #4 and Long Run. They were something I thought I’d never see again.

Here is one of the anchor points for GE's
failed "Electric Mule" experiment.  They
are visible now only in flood damaged
areas above Long Run on the Lehigh Canal. 
An I-Beam shape is noticeable at center.
One of the advantages of living close to one's roots is you can unknowingly and unexpectedly find yourself on the same path of an ancestor.  You can also find yourself on the same worn down paths of your own making  on your own ruts of routine. Our oldest son Nate is working as an insurance agent in the very building my grandparents Cal and Becky built as their home and store, the same place my mother’s own borning cries once bounced.

Though comfort can be found on these familiar paths and old routines, new ones must be struck upon. My mom’s great uncle Albert Nothstein struck out to the Pacific Northwest. The nay-sayers said he’d be back with his tail between his legs. Well they were certainly wrong.

Rarely, though I fill many of my days walking along the canal, do I try to imagine my great, great grandfather James Nothstein captaining his “Mary Ann” on these waters. Nor do I always think about my wife’s great grandfather and great, great grandfather Amos and Calvin Ahner operating the Weigh Lock. Staying within ourselves, digging through our own layers, redressing old injuries we didn’t even know we had, isn’t a place to allow yourself to get stuck in either. There are days I find comfort in my own old days and there are days I find myself caught up in the romance of how I imagine my ancestors’ lives to have been. And sometimes, looking back seems all too pointless, a waste of energy.

Uncle Albert Nothstein took the path
that lead him to the Pacific Northwest.
Though you never knew me, nor I you,
I thank you for the lesson Uncle Albert.
Our oldest son seems to be content for now to stay within the vicinity of the old paths of his ancestors. And yet he has become, and continues to become, his own man. Our youngest, Jon, is ready to set off like his great, great, great uncle Albert. Perhaps he is bored or unconcerned with his history here or perhaps his determination is too strong to be ignored. There are new paths that beckon, they must be struck.

But in the end, those who are truly fortunate, will one day touch their own humanness that lies beneath their silt, clay, and dust. It will be those, with the dust in the corners of their fingernails, their shoes coated in the dust of their journeys who have searched the land where the waters have washed the layers away, who will have earned it.

They will be the lucky ones, for they took the chance to really feel.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Rickert Family of Weissport Revisited - A postscript

This post is a post script to the story “Rickert’s Coal Yards and the Coolidge Republicans of Rickertsville,” story posted on January 13, 2011.
The Rickert family grave area of Union Hill, facing the Rickert property along
the canal, near "Rickertsville," East Weissport.

Jacob Rickert came to Weissport sometime in the 1850s and became a prominent businessman with his canal front property. He was born February 10, 1821 on a Bucks County farm of his parents, Daniel and Elizabeth. The 1850 Census shows him living with his first wife Mary M. (Newhart) Rickert (2/2/1826-1/26/1858) in Upper Towamensing Township as a shoemaker. They lived next door to David and Sarah “Grunswack,” possibly Greenzweig. David was also a shoemaker.

It is said he worked as a clerk in Lehigh County until 1846, then moved to Stemlersville in 1849 and purchased a hotel there from 1851 to 1857. He purchased land in North Weissport in 1857 and began selling building lots which became known as “Rickertsville.”

Jacob Rickert had two sons from his first wife Mary: Hiram T. Rickert (5/22/1848-10/19/1930) and Daniel F. Rickert (9/1/1850-2/3/1902). Hiram married Ida Rickert (11/18/1858-8/11/1926) and Daniel married Margaret A. (Campbell) Rickert (10/15/1856-2/15/1935). It does not appear that Jacob and his second wife Eliza had any children.

Sadly, so shortly after establishing themselves in Weissport, Mary died and was buried on Union Hill. The 1870 Census lists “J.K. Rickert,” forty-nine, as a “coal merchant.” He was remarried to Eliza A. (12/18/1833-1/10/1890) who was thirty-six. Twenty-two year old Hiram is listed “at home” while nineteen year old Daniel is a “clerk in a store.” Lydia Hoffman, sixty-three, is also living with the Rickerts. Their home was estimated at $2,400 and had $400 in personal property.

Current vice-president of the Pennsylvania Canal Society Bill Lampert recently
visited the Rickert property in final preparations for the Society's
2011 Field Trip next week.  Seen here at the Lock #11 cold storage spring
house about .75 miles downstream from the Rickert property.

Living nearby was the father and son flour dealers, Joel and W.F. Klotz, whose home was valued at $5,000 and their respective personal property was worth $300 and $150.

In 1870, living one residence away is “Henry Kempball,” or otherwise named Henry Campbell. Henry, a thirty-eight year-old boot and shoe maker, and his wife Caroline, thirty-seven, owned their house worth $1,000 but had $500 in personal property. Their house was the same value as their neighbor’s house, “boatman” Simon Brown with personal items worth $500. The Campbell’s children were Eliza, sixteen, Margaret, thirteen, George, ten, Jane, seven, Mary, four, and Daniel, one.

Around 1870, a lime-kiln was constructed on the property. This is about the time when Jacob and Hiram began trading in fertilizer, feed, and grain in addition to anthracite coal.

By 1880, there appears to be some ties built between the Rickert’s and the Campbell’s. Jacob and Mary’s son Daniel married Henry and Caroline’s daughter Margaret. Daniel, now twenty-nine and listed as a  ‘laborer,’ and “Magie,” twenty-three, are living together in Franklin Township. Another possible evidence of their friendship is that the Campbell’s named two of his sons after Rickert's sons: 'Daniel' in 1869 and ‘Hiram' in 1872.  Both men were once listed as shoemakers, but in the 1880 Census, both men list their occupations as ‘merchants.’  Perhaps what became the Rickert warehouse was the Campbell residence.  (Today, a white residence behind Straussberger's garage was formerly owned by the Zimmermans.  There was a Reuben Zimmerman who lived nearby.  In between that home and the small white framed building on the Rickert property existed a hotel that no longer stands.)

On November 12th, 1897 Jacob passed away, out-living two wives.  (Eliza died in January of 1890.) At the hearty age of seventy-eight, Jacob was working on the roof of one of his smaller buildings when he was “suddenly stricken with paralysis of the lower limbs” and fell to the ground. “Despite his advanced age he remained conscious throughout his confinement and recognized his many friends who called to see him."
According to his obituary in the Lehighton Press, at age sixteen he was a clerk in a general store and five years later branched out to Trauchsville and “did a thriving store business besides conducting the hotel at that place, the structure still standing and serving that purpose today.” “He came to Weissport some forty years ago and conducted the flour and feed business for many years, besides serving as Justice of the Peace.”

His funeral was “largely attended” and was held at the United Evangelical Church, conducted by Rev. J. W. Woehrle who was assisted by the ex-Bishop C. S. Hamn of Phildelphia, Presiding Elder A. M. Stirk, of Allentown, Rev. J. K. Seifert of Catasauqua, Rev. Kistler of Lehighton, and Rev. Reingold of Phifer’s Corner.  The worth and esteem of this man was certainly evidenced by the presence of this array of clergyman.

Pallbearers were Reuben Zimmeran, Ephraim Romig, Eli Koch, John Hagenbach, Harry Welsh, and David Straup.  At the time, Romig was a sixty-four year old car repairer for the railroad, Hagenbach was a fifty-eight yeat old lock-tender, and Zimmerman was a sixty-four year old mail carrier.


Jacob’s oldest son Hiram T. Rickert and his wife Ida had two sons: Harry L. Rickert (10/29/1875-9/6/1959) who married Meta (Faust) Rickert (9/6/1879-12/8/1962) and Miles J. Rickert (3/3/1878-3/5/1967) who married Myrtle M. Rickert (7/6/1889-5/16/1969).

Around 1897 Harry married Meta and in October 1898, they had a son Hiram Donald Rickert, who went by simply Donald and also H. Donald. Harry was working as a clerk at the Rickert Coal yards.

By 1920 H. Donald was married to Catherine (Hoffman) Rickert (age twenty-one) and living in Lancaster. He was an insurance agent.  They also had two servant women living with them.  At some point in the 1920, Donald and his father and grandfather formed the Fidelity Company of Lansford, an investment and insurance venture.  It is said in the Eckhart book he lived there at that time, perhaps moving from Lancaster and later moving to Yardley, a Delaware River-side town similar to Weissport.

Based on placement in the family plot, Theo could be Harry and
Meta's son.  However, he may be the namesake of Miles' father-
in-law, therefore possibly the child of Miles and Myrtle.

By 1930, Harry, fifty-four, and Meta, fifty, were living at the Rickert House along with eighty-two year old Hiram, now a widowed,“retired” coal dealer. In July 1942, the Lehighton Press announced that Mr. and Mrs. H. Donald Rickert and their son Hiram of Yardley were visiting their parents Mr. and Mrs. Harry Rickert of Weissport.

Miles married Myrtle (Menzel) Rickert sometime around 1910 and by 1920 was living with his in-laws at 250 South First Street in Lehighton. His in-laws were Theo and Lizzie Menzel. Theo worked at the yards as a car repairman while Miles was the care-taker of a railroad bunkhouse. They had two daughters, Gladys Rickert (born c. 1911) and Verna E. (c. 1926). On his World War II draft card, Miles listed his brother Harry of Weissport as his next of kin contact, even though Myrtle was still living.

On October 19th, 1930, Hiram died, having been a widow since Ida’s death in August of 1926. He had spent his entire life in the East Weissport community, always enjoyed good health and was busy in many activities, died at eighty-two of pneumonia. Harry was listed at home while Miles was living in Lehighton.  The obituary listed three grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Two ministers were in charge of the funeral: Rev. J. J. Kreisel of the Ebenezer Evangelical Church and Rev. J. Franklin Snyder of St Paul’s Lutheran in Weissport. Heller and Son were the undertakers.

On September 6th, 1959, Harry L. Rickert passed away, survived by his wife Meta, his son H. Donald, still living in Yardley, and his brother Miles still living in Lehighton. He died in Gnaden Huetten Hospital. The Mayes Funeral Chapel in Weissport handled the services.


By 1900, Daniel and Maggie Rickert were living in Franklin Township. Daniel’s occupation was “landlord” and was at that time suffering from a terminal illness. Living with them then was Robert Jacob Rickert, thirteen, Carrie E. Rickert, ten, and Allen H. Rickert, six. His February 1902 obituary said he the fifty-five year old was “one of the best known residents of the east side died Monday night after an illness of two years.  Danny was a whole souled man and was well liked by his numerous acquaintances. He was a painter by trade and served as a school director and auditor for several terms."

Daniel's untimely death obviously put a strain on the family's finances and this branch of the Rickerts didn't seem to fair as well.  In 1910, Maggie Rickert, widowed and now fifty-three, was the head of her Canal Street household and was an at home dressmaker. Carrie was a saleslady at a grocery store and Allen was an apprentice as a printer. Joining her is her widowed mother and sister, Caroline Campbell, seventy-six, and Elizabeth Mills, fifty-five, a nurse. They lived near Harry and Meta as well as Charles Fisher and his family. Fisher tended the “Fisher Lock,” at the Boatyard. Maggie was number “172” by the census taker, Harry was “175” and Charles Fisher was “174.”

Oldest son Robert was a boarder in Salisbury Township working in a steel works. By 1917 he was working for Bethlehem Steel at the Moore & Sons Plant in Elizabeth, NJ.  By 1942, Robert married Annie Weisel (daughter of Edward and Emma A. Weisel) who was born July 25th, 1889 and died September 27th 1980. They lived in Hellertown where he owned a Chevrolet Garage and Auto Parts business at 1606 Main Street and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Saucon Valley Trust Co. Robert and Annie are both buried in Hellertown Cemetery.  They did not have any children.

Allen Henry Rickert, born January 18, 1894, was working at Queen City Silk Company in Allentown with his wife as of 1917 and was “partially supporting” his widowed mother. By 1942, he was living at 3121 Linden Street, Allentown. His employment is rather complicated, he listed Merchant National Bank of 702 Hamilton Street as his employer, but also listed “self-employed” with the address 825 Walnut Street.

In 1930, Carrie and her husband Ellis D. Miller, both forty, were living at 1243 Turner Street in Allentown. He owned his own insurance agency and their property was said to be worth $10,000. They had a daughter Margaret, nine, at home as well as Ellis’ mother Eliza A. Miller, seventy-two, and Carrie’s mom Margaret, age seventy-three.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Things I learned in the Floods - An Essay by Ronald Rabenold

These are the things I learned from the floods.
A few years back, a hot-water pipe flooded my kitchen. It had no idea it was about to burst. Nor did it have any idea of the cleansing that was to follow. Even with my ever waiting nature, I never saw it coming.

There's no time to sit and reckon the paradox. High water is nothing neither new nor anything normally longed for, but the results can bring unexpected assurance. The longer I live the more assurance I have, but time doesn't bear its own fruit, nor does it know anything about its own assurance.  Time makes us fickle.  The amount of it at hand always seems to oppose our ability, at that moment, to enjoy it. So it is in this way that the days and years move upon us, like a crusty snapping turtle stalking the croaking frog, seductively slow at first but brutally quick in the end.

James Nothstein got out of the water before the
flood.  Proceeds from his 'Mary Ann' helped
buy his Mahoning Valley Farm.  He was my
Great Great Grandfather.
My great-great-grandfather James Nothstein may have known a thing or two about high water.  He knew how to steer his vessel, the ‘Mary Ann,’ through the Lehigh Canal in the 1850s.  He and Hannah side-stepped the biblically proportioned flood of the Lehigh in 1862.  By then, they were treading the red dirt of their Mahoning Valley farm, living on the soil he bought from the years of his water's toil.

They started their family rather late in life. He was forty and she was thirty-three. They had their first three, Frederick, Guswin and Mary, in the five years from 1867 to 1872.  They had Albert, their last, seven years later in 1879.  James died of a stroke while pushing a barrow of stones from the quarry on their farm. He was fifty-four. Then Frederick turned the same red soil as his father and a stroke took him at fifty-two. I don't know if they saw their end as it arrived.   After all, when have you known time to be kind?  My brothers and I medicate our blood pressure today.

Three when the stroke took his dad, Albert was nineteen and surrounded by aloneness when his mom last tied her apron.  Perhaps he expected more when he settled on his sister Mary’s Schuylkill County farm.  Maybe he knew his part, maybe that’s why he left, maybe that’s why he never married.  At twenty-one, he was leaning on a screen and churning the pulp in a Chehalis, Washington paper-mill, his toils earning him the farm where he spent his remaining sixty odd years.  He made one trip back east to visit his nephew Andrew, Fred’s youngest son. He was eighty-six when he died in Onalaska, Washington.

There was a flood in the winter of 1902.  My wife’s grandfather Herman Ahner, and his father Amos, and his father Calvin, all lived at the Weigh Lock up to that time.  That flood closed the canal for two seasons.  The Ahners moved to a farm atop Indian Mountain and were farmers ever after.
Herman and Mary Ahner with daughter
Nancy.  Herman survived the flood
at the Weigh Lock in 1902.

Both James Nothstein and
Herman gave up a life on the water
for treading the dirt of their farms.

James and Hannah Nothstein's Children (L-R:)
Albert, Frederick, Mary, and Guswin.  Albert maybe
never fit in and never married.  Mary married William
Semmel.  Guswin left the 'Nothstein' convention,
preferring 'Notestein' instead. 

Frederick and Ellen (Werley) Nothstein.
Ellen was adopted by age 10 and
widowed by 48.

The honey bee does not know the queen he serves nor does he know he will wear his wings out in the effort. The robin will wait to move north but it will be by urge, rather than cognizance.  Bees store, birds cannot.  Both a bee and a bird will hatch in exactly twenty-one days.  And like the grape, wisteria and bittersweet vines, they will emerge without knowing a thing.  The vines know nothing of whether a trunk or a fence will be there to support it, yet they do not wait to emerge.  All life is lived on different planes. We humans expect and sometimes we fear.  It is expectation that makes us wait.  We are the only ones who wait.

Young Cal & Becky on their
wedding day.
Becky Nothstein was just fifteen when her father Frederick had his stroke. At sixteen, she married Cal Haas, an expounder of everyman philosophy. Jockey Semmel had twenty-one days leave from Vietnam and spent twenty-one nights sitting with Cal. He created nicknames to label his world, spoke of educated gumball machines and other stories of lust, pronounced through wet wads of Redman plug. I can hear my grandfather’s tone and his Dutch 'wee’s and 'vouble u’s in Jockey’s driven retellings.

Cal Haas in his store he built with
his peddling for Strohl's Bakery.
Cal kept records on bouncing a rubber ball to a million. He achieved this twice in his life. It is said he wore out a hole in the oil cloth and seven balls reaching the first million.  A dot inside a circle represented a hundred bounces.  Filled sheets of butcher paper were stored in his safe, then a fresh sheet hung upon the wall to start over again.  Customers waited for meat in increments of one hundred bounces. 

Once a week, he would pack a metal thermos of oyster stew and set out to find the best car counting and ball bouncing spots along the country roads from the Lizard Creek to Miller’s Crossing Hotel. He’d return to the best spots he'd mark in chalk.  He found his urges satisfied in the bouncing and the watching. My Nana sat nearby, knitting, watching, and waiting.

Haas' Store as seen through my dad's 1953 eyes.

Fred Nothstein's obituary from  the Lehighton
Press Weekly, March 16th, 1917.

Ellen and Alfred's children: Oldest son James
became a butcher in Palmerton and married
Minerva, Andrew owned a fruit farm with
wife Katie, Rebecca owned Haas' Store with
Calvin and littlest one Katie married
Elvin Boyer, an automechanic.  Seated is Etha
who married Amzie Siglin who was a steel worker. 
After sellingthe farm, Ellen lived with a
magnetic healer at 415 N 4th St Lehighton
named Phanus & Annie
Gerber as their servant.   

Lehighton Press, Jaunary 26th, 1917 - Fred's stroke.
(I have been unsuccessful connecting Calvin Haas' family
with Fred and Amandus Haas.)

Guswin's residence on top of Bridge Street at the Heights
has a large retaining wall with this impression.  The 'B'
could denote the Brinkman Brothers Memorial makers
from South First Street in Lehighton.  Guswin had four
daughters and 'Notestein' has faded away.

Lock #5 after the Flood - The layers and years of coal silt exposed from the flood.

This year’s winter flood showed me things I never knew and things I thought I'd never see again.  The flood washed-out Lock-Five, normally a dry-lock. Decades of debris were taken away when broad sweeps of the Lehigh pushed over its banks, exposing coal silt sediments four-feet thick in the six-foot channel. Successions of sun and seasons brought generations of chipmunks to discover this spot, a perfect medium for subterranean tunnels and subsequent connections. Their population flourished.

And though they don’t wait and can’t anticipate it, the pairings of ever-upstream-facing mergansers will soon be leaving, to be replaced by the goose and mallard. The starlings don't know why they do it, but they know how to start each morning together.  Then they spread out and explore the day alone.  But each evening they always finish together, finishing as one flock once again. I can anticipate their behavior, I don't know how they know, but I know they must relent to urge.

We wait for the gray days to give way to spring. We expect the redbuds will emerge then change into blossoms of white, and finally moving to green. We anticipate fine days, when the skies fill and all is seen in blue and green.

The canopy sets over loose rock that rubs roughly when tread upon.  Brown and white quartz lie among flat fragments of red sandstones, their even layers upon layers give a dreamy sheen in high spring light.  A crow flies in his characteristically straight line.  Though the same straightness in stone points to weakness, the crow’s hearty rallying caw scatters the silence and signals the time is now to romp. Unrelated but on cue, a stealthy vulture unexpectedly spreads darkness as swift and halting as a quick moving cloud. All this soaring life, rides high on the newly heated air.

Among the canes of thorn scrubs, one finds tangles of red, brown and purple rolled in white haze over the land at river bottom, while hundreds of feet up at the top, in the thinner soil, are canes dressed in uber-green. Both here and there, black ants search the tunnels and curls of the slick brown leaves. Greening grass emerges in tufts in the unlikeliest places, roots readying for this spring push. The withered brown tips conceal the expectancy below, yet within the still cool, warming earth, life lies asleep and ready, ready to go forth.

The expectant cling of bittersweet and other
vines along the Canal.

Even in the coldest of winter days, the maple stores her sap. The cycle of warming days finds the bee following the lead of the black and red ants, to forage and store the life-giving liquid, the nectar of amber liquid life. And though nature is blind to need, she knows there is always a pupose to store for, for some vague future purpose, for one unknown generation that spills into another one that is all the ever more unknown.

The mighty oak stores all its hope in the tiny acorn.  Once higher on this hill among the beech and black birch, were these hefty, cracked red oak acorns I now hold. They fill this ravine where the heavy winter rains have rolled them and have outlasted the appetites of the winter foragers.  I walk away, my pockets filled with expectancy of the greatness to come.

A layered dichotomy remains.  Though I walk with pockets of hope that speak to me in gentle whispers, I can see the floods as they loom. Sometimes these visions seamlessly flow and plow to furrow my brow, collecting in stagnant pools of darkness in a forgotten spring house of my mind. I can tell myself I don’t need another flood to be cleansed. I can tell myself that nature's needs are not so fragile.  I can live for now with her demands, her resolute, absolute, final demands.  And yet, there is a reassurance in them, relentless, dauntless reassurance.

All the springs and streams are ever rolling and grinding the conglomerate back down to gravel, down to the essential silky silica that sticks between my toes when I cool them in my hidden summer spring. Science tells me this cycle has repeated along a long sequence over billions of years, all a simple, masterful work in progress. And that is what I must know. This part, my part, this incomprehensibly small part that I have been given, is what I must know. If I am to know anything, I must know my part in all this.

And on this outcrop, last and reluctant to the inevitable erosion to the Lehigh below, I sit on lichens as dry as January snow. These simple life builders will lead the re-establishment here. Lacking eyes, nature seems lost. Her blessing springs from the void in her own cognition. What she lacks in sight, she owns in resiliency, her constancy.  From this high place above the plain, we can see the clouds as they form. We can see the upturned leaf as we hear the first drops tap the dry leaves. We can wait for the waters of the flood. We can wait and always hope to see another spring of sunlight filled skies. And on and on into those distant days beyond our days, we know there will be birds riding high on the thermals, winning the day with ease.

Copyright by Ronald J Rabenold, April 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Students Descend upon the Switchback Railroad - Part 1 of 2 Spring Hikes

Lehighton Area Middle School 5th-grade students walk back over top of
the collapsed Haklebernie Mine Tunnel entrance.  Driven in 1824, it is
considered the oldest mine tunnel in North America.
Additional information and pictures from other hikes can be seen on "Switchback Hikes 2010 and Onward" Post (click here).

~Switchback Railroad Film August 1925 - YouTube

The Lehighton Area Middle School Descends upon Mauch Chunk’s Switchback Railroad

Family and students during the initial climb to the Mount
Pisgah summit.
Recently a group of 30 Lehighton Area Middle School students, many dragging along parents, uncles and grandparents, even little sisters and brothers, went exploring the top of Mount Pisgah, the site of the former Switchback Railroad.

The hike commenced at 9:00 a.m., after as brief of a history discussion their teacher could bare to give, and reached the summit by 9:40.  They pressed on, eager to find the Hacklebernie Coal Tunnel by 10:30. This was a fortunate day, as it was the first day in a series of days in this sunless and wet spring that afforded enough good weather for a hike. The pulling, burning and lifting of the silky morning fog slowly revealed landmarks of increasing distance and beauty.  Views of the Gorge and Lehigh Gap were revealed as though hidden beneath a magician's silk sheet.

The day was a success by many accounts: an assortment of friends and strangers spending three hours, exerting their formerly dormant winter bodies up 664 feet of elevation and hiking out along the former rail bed. The goal of the day was to reach the collapsed Hacklebernie Tunnel, the first underground mining tunnel in North America. It was first driven around 1824 and by 1827 it reached a depth of 790 feet. The operation did not at first produce enough coal at a sustainable profit and was abandoned.  Eventually, the tunnel came out the otherside in Nesquehoning.


The Switchback was the brainchild of Josiah White, who some say was the hand that rocked the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. He was a Quaker wire-mill operator from Philadelphia who was concerned about how the British blockade during the War of 1812 affected industries dependent on coal and he was determined to do something about it. (See February 2011 post for more on his life.)
The gears of the Mt Pisgah engine house.  (Photo courtesy
of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.  Click here
to view the MCMCC website.)

View from the top of the coal chutes looking down
to the Lehigh River.  (Photo courtesy
of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.)

The Mt Jefferson Crossover.  Note the barney car with its
baseball bat shaped safety device as opposed to the "hold
fast" of the Mt Pisgah barney cars.  (Photo courtesy
of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.)

A view of the chutes as seen from the opposite side of the River. 
(Photo courtesyof the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.)

Visitors from the PA Canal Association
view the reservoir in Spring of 2010.

The Direct Assault - Walking up the nearly
1/2-mile Plane in Spring 2010.

After two previous failed attempts to bring the newly discovered, blue-hot burning anthracite coal from the quarry at Summit Hill, it was White’s energy and vision that made it a reality. He secured investors in what would become the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.

The Lehigh Gorge overlook was a big hit once the fog lifted.

The first step that led to the Switchback’s development came from the efforts of the winter of 1818-1819. Summit Hill had the “mammoth vein” of coal but there were eight miles of wilderness between it and the Lehigh River. The town of Mauch Chunk grew from nothing through White's efforts.

In three brutally cold winter months, the “Stone Turnpike” was surveyed and built, basically along Lentz Trail and Mauch Chunk Lake today. It was the first road built for the transport of coal from the quarry to the river. It was also the first road in America and possibly the world to be surveyed with a constant declivity, about three feet per one hundred. This roadway was the first step in what White would transform into Mauch Chunk's Switchback railroad.

The Stone Turnpike made the hauling of the coal to the awaiting arks in the Lehigh much easier, but it did present problems. Carbon County's "hard coal" is indeed harder than Britain's and Virginia's soft bituminous coal, but it is still quite brittle.  Despite shipping the coal in large pieces, the horse and cart ride pulverized the coal to bits and dust by the time it reached the river. White knew he needed a railroad.

A rather wet winter with little foliage
gives a clear shot of the waters of the
Glen Onoko Falls. 
By June of 1827 the “Gravity Railroad” was complete. It was the first railroad of any significance in the United States.  Made of wooden rails with iron capping, trains of six to ten cars accompanied by one or two men were sent down from mine to river on gravity power only. The coal came down

during the day, and the empty cars returned at night. One horse, and later on a mule, could tow three to four empty cars back to the mines. It took about thirty minutes down and three hours back. At first the horses and mules had to walk down to the river. But eventually a “dandy” car was used to haul mules down. The mules became so accustomed to the ride, that when an odd necessity required them to walk, they refused! By 1834, the Company had 390 wagons each could carry about 1.5 tons.

This is a shot of the 3-inch castiron pipe from Indian Spring
as it rested in the summer of 2010.  By the fall, this artifact
was rolled down the embankment by vandals.

This April 2010 photo shows the castiron pipe
near the piers of the trestle, facing east toward
the Mt Pisgah engine house.
From 1818 to 1820, White, along with 50 to 100 men, lived eight months out of the year in the waters of the Lehigh, sleeping in their work scows, digging a channel deep enough for arks of coal to pass.  He eventually created dams and locks on the river that he patented as “bear-trap” locks.

White’s finest moment perhaps was the construction of the Lehigh Canal, completed in 1829. It was the result of ten years of hard work. But with the increased volume of coal that could now be shipped, White knew the Gravity Railroad would need to be improved.

The same year it opened, in June of 1827, Issac Abel Chapman was hired to survey a new route for the railroad. Instead of following the Mauch Chunk Creek all the way to the river, Chapman brought it along the bottom rim of what later became known as Upper Mauch Chunk, encircling the bottom edge of the cemetery and running behind the later built Asa Packer Mansion, about 200 feet above Broadway. Chapman finished the survey in late fall and died in December of the same year. (He has only forty and his dark cross grave overlooks the Switchback, near Asa Packer’s grave.)
Switchback promotional booklet - Dated from 1879 to 1894. 
Find St Mark's Church steeple.  It basically points to the
location of the plane on the hillside where the coal-filled cars
arrived to drop their coal in the "chutes."  Mt. Pisgah engine
house is smoking into the skyline. 
This pavilion served as a train depot at the top of Mt Pisgah, shortly
after the trestle as can be seen on the Beers Atlas map above.  Tourism
in Victorian times was not too different from today.  Tourists, though
clad in impractical hiking clothes, were dropped at places like here to go
explore nature.  Of particular interest to many was man's conquering of
nature.  Another favorite stop was the burning mines and open pit
mine in Summit Hill.  

The gravity railroad ran as a single track of alternating directions until 1845. That was the year of the completion of what became known as the “back track.” The route surveyed by Chapman in 1827 was now complete, making the railroad a continuous looping figure-eight. Once the full coal cars reached the lowest apex of the curve above the modern day Jim Thorpe Post Office, the cars were emptied into a complex of “chute” mechanisms that carried the coal to canal boats and later to trains at the river.  From there, the empty cars rolled by gravity to the bottom of Mt Pisgah, near today’s third base of Sam Miller Baseball Field.

The cover of the tourist booklet.  The
view shows the present day view afforded
by hiking to the top of the Pisgah plane
and looking down toward Mauch Chunk,
present-day downtown Jim Thorpe,
standing at the far end abuttment of the trestle.
The Lehigh Gap is also visible in the distance.
This booklet appears here courtesy of Tim
and Tate Sharrow of Lehighton.  

This is the Mt. Jefferson crossover, as
evidenced by the barnie car.

Page Three - Describing Mauch Chunk as the
"Switzerland of America."

Atop of Mt Pisgah, was the engine house, with its 27-foot diameter wooden wheel for winding the iron bands that pulled the “barney” cars out of the pit from behind the car. The cars were pulled up the 2,250 foot plane, up 664 feet of elevation. This was the world's first roller coaster. In fact, when the first roller coaster was developed, its name was the “Switchback,” named after our first railroad.

Mt Pisgah had a safety feature known as the “cat step” and “hold fast” in case things broke loose. The “cat step” was a series of metal plates on the outside of the rails. The “hold fast” was attached to outriggers on the barney car and ratcheted into the cat step, making the familiar rattle of the roller coaster ascending the first hill, a safety device first developed, as well as many other firsts, here in Carbon County.

Turn of the century color postcard taken from station shelter
from the west end of the trestle.  The engine house is in the background.
The thinner, taller smokestack was a added in the early 1900s.  The remains
of which may be the pipe that remains at the engine house site today.

From on top of the summit, once the cars passed through the steam engine house, they passed over a wooden trestle to bridge a gap at the mountain top, and descended the eight miles to the base of Summit Hill at Mt Jefferson. The Mt Jefferson barney pit is still visible at the stop sign at Lentz Trail and Route 902. (The Mt Pisgah pit has been buried when the Sam Miller field was filled in and built.) Mt. Jefferson had a plane of 2,070 feet and 464 feet of elevation.

This picture from Sleeping Bear Mountain toward Mt. Pisgah.
The plane is visible as well as the slight gap between the two
peaks necessitating the Mt Pisgah trestle.  Click here for video of this mountain side.
In 1843, the LCN & N re-opened the Hacklebernie Mine, also known as the “Old Tunnel” and “Josiah White’s Tunnel.” This time they were able to reach marketable coal, making the operation profitable. A breaker house was built and a series of switches and stretches of track were built to connect the mine to the “Homestretch” of the railway, down near the Mauch Chunk Lake entrance today. This series of “Y-type” kickback switches allowed the coal cars to descend in a zigzagging manner. It was this section that gave the rail system the name “Switchback.”

In 1857, the “Old Company,” the nickname for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, began replacing the wooden and iron strap rails with cast-iron T-rails and the entire loop was refitted by 1866. Engineers got lucky with a fairly steady water supply at the top of Mt Pisgah. 2,000 feet west of the engine was Indian Spring that ran well through most of the year. During periods of drought, special water cars brought water to the summit.

In 1862, the wooden water pipes which problematically broke, were replaced by 3-inch cast-iron pipe, feeding a large reservoir just beneath the engine house. At first made of wood, it was replaced by a concrete reservoir in 1912. One section of that pipe was still visible at the top of the wagon road near the trestle piers as of the summer of 2010. But by the fall, someone had dislodged it from its embedded concrete, tossing it down the bank. This is how history is lost.


The time schedule listing the operators, the
Mumford brothers who ran the Switchback from1879
to 1894.  Theodore died in May of 1894.  Henry
then operated it alone until his own death in February of 1898.

By 1872, the days of hauling coal on the Switchback were over. The Hauto Railroad Tunnel now made it possible for direct access by traditional railroad lines, making the Switchback obsolete for coal transport. But America was catching the tourism bug, and the Switchback became a popular tourist destination, second only to Niagara Falls. The railway grew in popularity. Its unheard of speeds of over forty-miles and fifty-miles per hour worked in concert with the Victorian Age’s fascination of man’s ever increasing ability to conquer nature. Tourists were afforded spectacular views of both nature and man's quarrying at Summit Hill.

The grandfather of Keith Bellhorn was a driver of a tourist car in the last years of its operation. He recalls being told of how he was goaded by his passengers to try to see how fast they could go. They held the car at the top to ensure clear sailing to the bottom, letting the car hit an exhilarating maximum speed of what he thought to be about sixty miles per hour. His grandfather also worked in the mines. He and his co-workers used the Hacklebernie Tunnel as a short cut when walking to the mines in Nesquehoning each day. Mr. Bellhorn is a local historian and a curator at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center.

The years from 1872 to 1899 were what Vincent Hydro has dubbed “the Tourist Glory Days.” A dance pavilion was built at the crest of Mt Pisgah. One story relates a group of Victorian party-goers (Can you say oxymoron?) procured their own car to the top at about midnight and danced the night away under lamplight until six a.m. Records show that ridership in 1873 was at 30,478 riders, with 7,421 in July and 8,029 in August.  President U.S. Grant was said to have ridden the Switchback though no concrete documentation exists other than a friendship with local attorney, General Charles Albright.  Thomas Edison is the most famous documented rider.

By 1930, the Switchback was running at a loss. Its 115th anniversary in 1933 was the end. Despite sending out 6,000 promotional tourist packets to every state and twelve foreign countries, the company ran at more than a $10,000 deficit. Coupled with a major breakdown in the Mt Pisgah engine house, the Switchback would never run again.

September 2, 1937 the entire operation was sold for scrap metal through a Pottsville salvage dealer. It is said that our iron came back to us in bullets (though more correctly in the steel of ships and tanks). The metal was purchased by Japan during their war preparations and their eventual attack on December 7th, 1941 at Pearl Harbor is doubly remembered here in Carbon County.
How the "Switchback Railroad" got its name:
Out at the Hacklebernie tunnel, first driven in 1824.
Josiah White placed it there to provide a source of
coal closer to the river.  Even though the Stoneturnpike
was a continuous road from Summit Hill to the Lehigh River,
the coal was often times pulverized to dust along the bumpy
road.  Soon, iron-capped, wooden rails were run on this road.
The Hacklebernie Tunnel was high up on the side of the
steep mountain.  To get the coal down to the roadway, White
developed a system of track that "switched back" and forth
across the side of the steep terrain.  As you can see above, as
the car reached the end, it activated a switch as it rolled passed,
going up a slight incline to slow it down.  Then, it drifted back
over that switch, to the next downhill leg, where another
switch would send the car down to the next leg.  Eventually
this mine was given up due to a lack of marketable coal.
In recent years, this area has been strip mined and several
"ponds" exist as evidence.  Switchbacks like this in
general fell out of use.  In their place were large inclined
planes that allowed the coal to drop down steep
mountain sides such as the Ashley Planes and at Penn Haven.
Click here for info on Penn Haven.

Today, the scenic heights and the remaining artifacts provide a lasting learning environment, where families even 200 years later can play, explore, view and perhaps even discover they’re learned a thing or two about the former glories of Carbon County.

Some of the students and their teacher.

NOTE: This article is largely based on Vincent Hydro’s outstanding book, “The Mauch Chunk Switchback: America’s Pioneer Railroad,” considered by some to be the “bible” of the Switchback.

This historical marker is near the Five Mile Crossover
opposite the entrance of Mauch Chunk Lake.

The Five Mile Crossover - Downhill from Mt Pisgah crossed over the top
and the downhill run rolling away from through this abutment and on
down to Mauch Chunk.

These trolley steps allowed for passengers
arriving from Flagstaff could disembark
and catch a ride on the descending Switchback
car.  These steps are near the Jim Thorpe
Water Treatment plant.  Passengers could
also ride the Trolley from the West End of
Lehighton, near the Main Gate of the Fairgrounds
to Flagstaff.
Hike #2 is planned for sometime in May. Students and families will be led on the lower section of the trail, citing more of the history of the town and ending at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center where the only working model of the Switchback Railroad will be viewed. For more information, contact me through this site.