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.

1 comment:

  1. Looking for a map so my family, and I are able to go on the same trails.