Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Blakslee's Trolleys

There were maimings, be-headings, and even a murder cover-up along the trolley line between Mauch Chunk and Lehighton...

The Flagstaff to Lehighton Line of Blakeslee's trolley system - around 1905 - Courtesy of the William Schwab collection.

This station was on the mountain side facing Lehighton, around about where the Ockenhouse Homestead has stood for these past fifty years.  Photo courtesy of the Barry & Brad Haupt Collection.

For a brief time, the Lehighton and Carbon County area was served by an “inter-urban” trolley system. It was a popular form of mass transportation, a necessary bridge from the stagecoach, horse-and-buggy days until the time when cars and buses took over.

The Carbon County Electric Railway or Carbon Transit Company had its beginnings in Mauch Chunk as early as 1892.  At that time, it was James Irwin Blakslee Sr. who controlled the Mauch Chunk Gas and Power Company. 

One of many trolley accidents.  This one at the bottom of South Street, running headlong into the Lehighton
Exchange Hotel sometime around 1905.   Photo courtesy of Brad Haupt collection.

A setback occurred in Coalport (just above the present Jim Thorpe bridge) in late November of 1892.  A portable boiler, being used by Horlacher and Haag to fix the water turbines that generated electricity for the railway, exploded.  It killed one worker named Albright. Two others seriously injured included Frances Daubert of Franklin Township.
This turbine was retrieved from the Lehigh River at Coalport in Jim
Thorpe about ten years ago.  It is believed to be from the power
plant mentioned above.  Visit the Mauch Chunk Museum and
Cultural Center for a closer inspection if you like.  Click here formore info on the museum.

The first power plant for the Lehighton area was in the north end of Weissport.  It was begun by the Carbon County Improvement Company in 1890.  James Blakslee Jr., Blakslee Sr.'s grandson,  purchased the plant and the C.C.I.C. as a whole in 1895.  The light company subsequently charged $5 per month for the electricity used to illuminate the Lehighton-Weissport Bridge.  (It was built in 1889 for $25,500 and painted by local Jacob Strausburger for $200 in December of 1892.) 

The Lehighton-Weissport Bridge built for $25,500 in 1889.  Blakslee's Electric
Company charged $5 per month for lighting the bridge.  Courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.
James I. Blakslee, Jr. became the principal force behind the Lehighton Electric Light and Power Company.  This eventually led to the Carbon Electric Street Railway and trolley service in Lehighton by the early 1900s.

Blakslee also started the grain elevator in Weissport in 1894.  The building still stands and most recently was the home of Sebelin Lumber.  Click here to see more on this business and how it was related to Rickert Wholesale in Weissport. 

Blakslee Jr. lived on Bridge Street, in the stately, former home of Lewis Graver, in what is today’s American Legion Post #314. 
He married Henrietta Bunting of East Mauch Chunk at Christmas time in 1901.  They honeymooned in New York City over the holidays but much work was ahead for this ambitious son of Alonzo Blakslee.  (Alonzo was the nephew of Sarah Blakslee, Asa Packer’s wife.) 
Here is how the Carbon County Improvement Company's electric
powerplant looked in Weissport in April of 1891 (Sanborn Fire
Assessment Map).  Note the Iron Bridge at left and the Fort
Allen Hotel bottom right.

In January of 1901, the Lehighton Town Council approved the right of way for Carbon Electric Railway to operate in Lehighton.  The first cars began to run the following September.

However, the flood of December of 1901 caused severe damage to Blakslee’s plant.  He sought damage claims from the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, citing coal silt in the Lehigh River as a contributing cause.  He won a $4,000 claim.  But disaster soon struck again.
Above is a close-up of the hydroelectric powerplant in Weissport in 1891.  Below, you can see how much the power
works were improved just five years later.
Dignitaries gather for the driving of the "golden spike."  Among those given the honors of a tap was a PA Dutchman
“Pit Schweffelbenner,” E. H. Rauch, of Mauch Chunk.  He appears to be the man
seated at the right end of the rail, front and center.
Courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.

The February of 1902 flood two months later was even more devastating.  The power plant was completely gone with only the foundation walls remaining.
Compare this March of 1902 map to the one before the December of 1900 and the February 1901 floods.  It would
appear from this drawing that at least for the time being, the electric plant was rebuilt and functional, though there
are "ruins of fire" in the area toward the river.   

James Blakslee Jr. is believed to be the first man in an overcoat at the rear of the car, with cane and white goatee.
Note the young lad near the motorman with the cigar in his mouth.   (Please note, low-resolution pictures were uploaded for this story to dissuade unauthorized copying.  The Haupt collection photos are original, high-quality photos.)
Soon after, another plant, higher above the river, near South Main Lane on the Lehighton side (near the beginning of the present day Lehighton By-pass) was built.
This power house for the Carbon Electric Railway along the
Lehigh River along Bankway should not be confused with the Lehighton
Electric Plant along the Mahoning Creek along Penn St.  It is presently
privately owned parcel of land between the beginning of the Lehighton
By-passand the Lehigh River.
 (Courtesy of the Thomas Eckhart History of Carbon County.)

Another Lehightonian involved with the newly formed electric rail system was Attorney Theodore A. Snyder.  He was the former Superintendent of Carbon Schools and also accumulated a small fortune in land speculation and Lehighton land development. 
A modern view of Blakslee's Carbon Electric Railway power plant built on a higher plane above the Lehigh River (right) than the one built in Weissport in 1890 that was carried away in the February 1902 flood.  The site is privately owned. Photos taken with permission.
The above foundations can be pictured in the 1915 Sanborn Map of Blaklee's Lehighton side of the river powerhouse.

His home at Seventh and Iron Streets was known as the “Colonial Court” Estate.  With few homes in the surrounding area at the time, the extensive grounds included a zoo with peacocks and a deer pen.  Escaping deer were known to cause havoc throughout the town from time to time.

The centerpiece was the mansion he purchased from the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo New York (where President McKinley was assassinated.)  Snyder fell in love with the sweeping lines of the Michigan State building and had the seven-bedroom mansion transported here piece by piece via the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1902.
A modern view of this shot could be found standing on Iron Street looking across from the George Hahn property
at Seventh Street.  The cement orbs weree still part of this property just a few years ago, though the
Mansion burned to the ground April 4, 1915.  A followup post later will further examine the Atty Snyder property
and its demise.  Photo Courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.

The home unfortunately burned to the ground on April 4, 1916, nine years after Snyder’s death in 1907.  Until the last few years, the ornamental concrete orbs were still visible at the sidewalks across the street from the Dodge dealership near the Grove.

Other local men associated with the electric company and trolley service were superintendent and electrician at the power house Edward Moser.  Dennis “Chippy” Dugan was one of the many motormen on the local trolley in Mauch Chunk. 

Also, among the motormen were Enos Hauk and Harry Wuchter of Lehighton.  These men became well-known to the passengers along their routes.  Wutcher purchased the Four Mile House in Pleasant Corners in 1906.

Another angle of the car that hit the Lehighton Exchange Hotel.
Courtesy of Brad Haupt Collection.  This picture appears in Ebbert and Ripkey's "Lehighton."  (Click here to purchase.)

The line entered town from the Lentz Farm (today’s Ukranian Homestead), over the Beaver Run Creek ravine, and down Beaver Run Road to the stop at the Main Gate of the Lehighton Fairgrounds. 
The Lehighton Exchange Hotel is at center of this frame.  Note the trolley tracks coming from the right that
then turn in the direction of the parade route.  It is easy to see how the cars could break free of
their restraints and run uncontrolled into the hotel.  Courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.

From there, it went down Mahoning Street to South Street where it joined with the perpendicular line of First Street.  Once downtown, it carried passengers along First Street from the Lehigh Valley Railroad Station to the southern end where the newly built power plant was built. 
The Old Flagstaff Trolley Station.  Courtesy of Brad Haupt Collection.
Not only could residents ride to Flagstaff Park, a favorite destination for many on the weekends, but it also went down over the other side of the mountain to the trolley stop at the Switchback Railroad sub-station (near today’s Jim Thorpe Water Plant on Lentz Trail.)
My grandparents, Zach (above at Flagstaff) and Mamie Rabenold, and
their familyand friends spoke of many a good leisure Sunday at
Flagstaff Park, traveling there by trolley.
These steps remain from the stop at the
bottom of Flagstaff along Lentz Trail and
helped passengers transfer from the trolley
to the Switchback Railroad.

The Switchback was second only to Niagara Falls as a tourist destination (click here for Switchback Railroad link.)  It not only provided thrills to those hearty enough to ride it in those days but was also a transportation link between Jim Thorpe and Summit Hill.   Thus the electric rail helped to connect the communities of Summit Hill, Bloomingdale, Hacklebernie, the Mauch Chunks and Lehighton to the south.
A photo from the 1966 Lehighton Centennial book dated about 1906 shows a car in front of the Lehighton
Exchange Hotel approaching the curve to go up South Street.
Another photo from the 1966 Lehighton Centennial book shows a trolley heading downtown at a stop at Fourth and
Mahoning Streets in Lehighton.  The home on the left is present day Verona's Pizza, formerly Young's Bakery,
formerly Paulsen's Groceries.
Here is the Fourth and Mahoning Street intersection today.  Some of the same houses can be compared after 100 years.

The trolley was surely viewed with both excitement and trepidation.  It made it easier for residents to visit one another.  Still others complained of its dangers.

Just like the railroad accidents of those days as well as like the reports of car accidents today, the newspapers were filled with sensational accounts of injuries and fatalities from the trolleys.  

An investigative perusal of the “Carbon Advocate” and the “Lehighton Press” newspapers from 1894 until 1910, finds thirty-three fatalities from trolleys occurring in the surrounding area.  Ten of those fatalities happened in the immediate Lehighton, Jim Thorpe, and Panther Valley vicinities.

The first death reported in the local papers was in February of 1894, occurring near Harrisburg.  Sixteen year old Myra Brown was coasting on her bobsled that collided with an electric car.  Hugh Callery (five years old) was beheaded in Easton in November of 1894.  Another youngster in a separate incident was dragged under the wheels of a car but survived.  John Edwards of Williamsport was struck on Christmas Day 1894 when the motorman was unable to stop the trolley in time.  Snow covered tracks were to blame.

Trolleys and later cars were considered a menace to those still conveying themselves by horse.  In Bethlehem in January of 1895, Aaron Arner’s horses became frightened, throwing him into the single-tree and he was dragged two blocks.  “His skull was crushed and his face mashed.  He cannot recover.”

The first local death occurred in December 1897 in Mauch Chunk.  “Johnnie”, the seven-year-old son of Daniel O’Donnell, was beheaded by an electric car in front of the court house.  Another boy, John Schlechler, age nine, was badly injured when struck by a trolley in Allentown.  He was still alive when taken home but later died.  His last words to his mother, “Don’t cry mamma, I’m not hurt much.” 
This photo appears courtesy of the Ebbert and Ripkey book "Lehighton" published 2013.  This is taken
from today's First Street looking toward Bankway and Weissport.  (Carbon Podiatry would be out of frame to the
left and the Carbon Minit Mart is out of frame to the right.)  Blakslee's Power Plant would be down the hill
to the left.)  Note the trolley tracks headed toward Weissport as well as the electrical wires above.  (Click here to purchase Ebbert and Ripkey's "Lehighton." 

The second local death also occurred in front of the court house in September of 1900.  A farmer from Pleasant Corners in Mahoning Valley was making his second ever trip to Mauch Chunk to peddle his produce.  He and his family of six had only recently relocated here from Allentown. 

With his seven-year-old son Warren at the reins of his wagon, the horse became agitated as the trolley approached and lurched across the tracks.  The car struck the wagon, sending the boy hurtling.  He was somehow saved by the efforts of the conductor. 

However, his father was not so lucky.  Farmer Lewis A. Wehr was cut in two.  It was said that it took “quite a time” to remove his body from under the car.  He was only thirty-eight and was buried back in Allentown, where his family eventually returned.

In August of 1906, the carriage carrying Milton Whetstone, the cashier at Citizens’ National Bank, and his assistant cashier, Daniel McGeehan, was struck while crossing the line two miles east of Lansford.  McGeehan, twenty-six, claimed the lights showed “safe” to cross.  He recuperated in Ashland Hospital.  Thirty-three year old Whetstone was killed.

Milton had established a name for himself in the banking industry, having been named in the 1905 "Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of the Lehigh Valley" Vol I by John W. Jordan (available on "Google Books").

According to the "Banker Magazine" published in October of 1906, it reported that McGeehan also later succumbed to his injuries.  Whetstone was the son of Absalom and Rebecca Whetstone of Tamaqua.  He married Stella Zeigenfuse/Seigenfose of Tamaqua in March of 1898.  They had one child who survived Russell Hartanft Whetstone.  Russell subsequently had three children, Doris, Jean and Russell Jr. 

In Lehighton, seventy-three year old Daniel Wert died because of Robert Crum’s recklessness.  Sixteen-year-old Crum was trying to race the street trolley with his horse buggy.  Wert was crossing the street on foot “directly under a big arc light” at the corner of Second and South Streets but did not hear the approaching danger.  

He was run down by Crum’s buggy.  He was a Civil War veteran of the 173rd PA Infantry Regiment, Company D, and is buried in Gnaden Hutten Cemetery.

Daniel Wert served during the Civil War but was killed at home.  

Wert’s death was the first of three local trolley deaths due to pranksters and foolishness.  In September of 1901, Caroline Frederica “Carrie” Martz, eight years old, was playing in her yard with her neighbor friend Lillian Ryan on North Street in East Mauch Chunk. 

Up above on the hill, a group of “reckless” boys uncoupled a trolley, causing it to run away uncontrolled into the Martz family yard.  Lillian Ryan survived her injuries.  Carrie Martz died from a crushed skull. 

Another death occurred as a result of a prank on the Fourth of July in 1902.  Miss Bertha Stuckley was walking along the street in Mauch Chunk when a passing trolley exploded a “signal torpedo.”  

The intended purpose of these torpedoes was for a safety warning to be deployed by workers in remote areas on regular freight and passenger lines if a track became obstructed due to a delay or a disabled train.  They were not intended for the use within neighborhoods and cities.

Upon the explosion of the torpedo, a piece of metal hit Stuckley.  The wound caused her death by blood-poisoning only a few days later. The youngsters probably had no idea their prank would lead to her death.  
 The first use of a trolley used in a criminal escape happened when former state representative and hotel owner James Griner murdered his step-daughter, Mrs. Caroline Shiffer.  
The Beaver Run ravine is approximately eighty feet below the trolley tracks.  This bridge was said to be used
by the people of Beaver Run as a dangerous short-cut to Lehighton.  It was torn down in 1926 though
some evidence of it still remain.  Courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.

Mrs. Shiffer had filed a $260 judgment against him for back-pay owed to her as cook at his hotel.  He confronted her in the dining room of his “Pullman Hotel” in Duryea, firing three times missing with the first two.  
Recently uncovered picture of my grandfather Zach Rabenold on the bank of the Beaver
Run ravine with the trolley trestle above overhead.

The third shot though "pierced her heart."  He was said to have “coolly” jumped into a passing trolley and rode it to Pittston where he gave himself up.

An even grimmer tale occurred outside Lehighton in the Beaver Run area, “below the safety switch on the south-side of the Flagstaff.”  A Slovenian from Lansford by the name of Yohuba Olexin had his body mutilated and leg cut off by the trolley on the night of September 26th, 1906. 
The Beaver Run Trestle abutment as it appears today.
This view is facing toward Lehighton, the ravine to
the viewer's back.

This view of the Beaver Run Trestle remains gives some perspective
to the eighty-foot drop off to the creek bed below.  

Oddly though, no moans or sounds were heard by the trolley men and passengers who quickly investigated the body.  They also determined his head and hands were as cold as someone who was dead for at least several hours. 

The coroner’s investigation concluded he was murdered and placed on the tracks as a cover.  They blamed the deed on a group known as the “Black Hand Society.”  The paper claimed such a group existed among the “foreigners” of that time.  Olexin’s brother’s murder in Lansford several years before was also attributed to the same society. 

Not even the well-connected to the rail industry were immune from its accidents.  The Superintendent of the Packerton Yards, Edwin G. Rouse was severely injured in a trolley wreck that occurred while he was visiting his uncle in Bangor.  The paper said he "badly" sprained his back.

In 1910, two trolleys collided just below the crest of the summit at Flagstaff.  The car loaded with twenty-eight passengers was considered an “extra car.”  They were making their way up the mountain from the Switchback Station a few minutes behind the regularly scheduled car.

Unknowingly, a repair car conducted by William Hatrick entered the line near the Beaver Run wagon road intersection between these two cars.  The repair car was headed directly toward the extra car, down the incline at a “lively rate” of speed.  

Seeing the repair car coming toward them and trying to avoid a collision, the extra car driven by motorman Adam Daffner quickly reversed itself back toward Lentz Trail. 

According to jury’s inquest, (which occurred within the rapid space of a week of the accident) and despite Daffner’s and Conductor Howard Minnich’s pleas and attempts to calm them, telling them to remain seated, all would be well, many of the passengers became “hysterical.”  

Though strongly dissuaded and some being physically restrained from doing so, a small group of women were still successfully able to jump from the moving car.  Those women being  Mrs. Herman Beissert, Miss Lottie Beissers, Misses Bertha and Vivia Perschel, Miss Alice Boyle, and Miss Mary Cunningham. 

Freshly cut trees and scaffold hoists appear across the trestle as it was being built in around 1905.  Photo from 1966
Lehighton Centennial book.  Among others, note the boy/man straddling precipitously off a beam at left of frame
 below track level.
Unfortunately, their leap was onto a steep embankment that caused their bodies to roll back onto the tracks.  The repair car passed over and killed Mrs. Beissert and was said to only “mangle” Cunningham and Boyle. 
This view of the trolley right of way in Beaver Run is looking toward the ravine about 300 yards away.  Though
not known to be the location of the terrible accident, the steep banking on the sides makes it easy to see
how Mrs. Beissert rolled back onto the tracks when she jumped from the moving car.  
Both the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central Railroads had special hospital cars.  The Central car arrived first, dressed what wounds they could, and transported the victims to St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem. 

Cunningham was from Mauch Chunk and Boyle was a teacher from Lansford.  Boyle lost her left foot at the ankle and with a fractured leg was said to be “improving nicely.”  Mrs. Beissert was buried in her home town of Newark New Jersey.  The inquest laid blame on the drivers of the repair car.

Displacing the trolley even before cars would become commonplace, the 1920s saw a quick increase in the use buses as the preferred mode of intra- and inter-urban travel.  

Bethlehem was experiencing congestion on its narrow streets, particularly on days of Lehigh University football games and the professional games on Sundays at Fabricator Field, which was several blocks away from the nearest trolley line. 

The Lehigh Valley Transit Company that ran the trolleys offered to augment the rush periods caused by these games with a small fleet of buses, hence marking the beginning of the end for the street cars. 

The completion of the “Hill-to-Hill Bridge” in 1925 further hastened its end when the L.V.T.C. was unable to secure the right of way for tracks over the bridge.   As a result, the company increased its fleet of buses by ten.

At about this same time, things were rapidly changing here in Lehighton too.  The years leading up to 1926 saw the small locally owned power companies being bought up by the fledgling Pennsylvania Power and Light.  This signaled the end of the line for the Carbon Railway too. 
The work gang circa 1905.  One of these workers is Austin Blew's grandfather of town.  Photo courtesy of the Brad Haupt Collection.  This picture appears on page 58 of Ebbert and Ripkey's "Lehighton" book published 2013.  The version shown here is presented in its widest extent.  Click here for a link to purchase this exceptional resource of Lehighton's history written by two of Lehighton's finest gentlemen.  

In 1926, though still used as a shortcut for people walking from Beaver Run to Lehighton, the eighty-foot high, nearly 400-foot-long trestle was torn down.  It is said to have shared the same fate as the Switchback Railroad: sold as scrap metal to pre-World War II Japan. 

And James Irwin Blakslee Jr., the man who gave so much to Lehighton, died in November of the same year.  He was fifty-five.

Lehighton owes much to Blakslee and his early enterprises here.  He was Carbon’s State Representative for one term in1907 and he started the Lehighton Boys Band in 1912.  He also served as the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General of the United States from 1913 to 1921.

In April 1937, Postmaster General Joe Farley came to Lehighton and dedicated Lehighton’s new post office to the memory of Blakslee’s efforts here.  Prior to the building of Route 443 in 1939, that section of roadway was named “Blakeslee Boulevard” in honor of Blakslee’s efforts here.  

The honor, however, is somewhat dubious, given the continued misspelling of his name.


Invaluable resources that contributed to this article:
~Lamont Ebbert and Gordon Ripkey: "Lehighton," Arcadia Publishing (2013).
~The Brad Haupt Photo Collection.
~Eckhart's History of Carbon County, Volumes II-V (1996-2002).
~Lehighton Centennial Committee 1966 "Lehighton Centennial," (1966).  (Please know plans are under way for Lehighton's 150th Anniversary celebration.  Contact me on Facebook for further information.) 


  1. Hello Ron! Thank you so much for your sweet comment on my blog post yesterday.

    You have a really awesome blog here! I think my husband would love it, as he is a history major and loves anything historical. I will tell him to take a peruse!

  2. Well thank you! I appreciate it...Good luck in the New Year!!

  3. I so enjoy these stories of Lehighton as my mother was born on the Canal at Parryville and my father was born in packerton

  4. Your work is really very remarkable..
    Superb..!!!Princess Carriage Beds