Friday, April 18, 2014

Carbon's Most Desolate Place: Penn Haven Junction...the story of Reds O'Donnell

Rest in Peace Reds...You had a good run.

The area around what is known as Penn Haven Junction was called “one of the most desolate places in Carbon County” in a 1905 newspaper account.  A visit there today reveals that little has changed in the 100 years since.

This shot is looking North or toward the west bound lanes of the mainlines of the Lehigh Valley and Central Jersey
lines.  The two lines on the left belong to the M & H branch which runs to Weatherly and Hazleton.  The double tower/depot of the
Valley railroad is in the center, obscuring the view of the 20-room hotel/residence that was home to Richard "Reds"
O'Donnell and his parents from the early 1940s until 1958 and the company abandoned residential workers at this most
remote spot.  The former incline planes, abondaned some 100-years earlier are still visible in the background.  The tracks on the right are following the Lehigh River while the Black Creek enters from the left of the frame, entering the river beneath the trestle seen supporting the passenger car at the right.  Photo appears courtesy of Bernard Krebs of Jim Thorpe.

Penn Haven’s location was the site of many floods, rockslides, and wrecks over the years.  With several mainlines running through here, the Central Jersey Railroad and Lehigh Valley Railroad, along with branch lines to Hazelton (Mahony and Hazleton) following the steep gorge of the Black Creek, this area was busy yet extremely remote.

Back in 1850, the emphasis of coal transport rested mainly on Josiah White's Lehigh Canal.  This area became the crowded focal point of the Beaver Meadow and Hazleton Railroads, the first steam railroad built in Pennsylvania.  It terminated here from the Hazleton fields and shipped via Josiah White’s “Upper Grand” section of Lehigh Coal and Navigation’s Lehigh Canal.
A modern view from about three-fourth's the way up the newer of the two planes givens an idea to the viewer just how desolate and rugged this place is.  The plane descending on the left of this frame was built by the Hazleton Railroad in 1859 and abandoned after the June 6, 1862 flood.  The winding S-curves along the rockslide-prone Black Creek ravine looks beautiful, however the steeply graded decline of at time 9%, in addition to the curves, have proven deadly to both man and machine.  "Mauch Chunk" and Glen Onoko Falls can be reached about seven to six miles down the gorge at left and Weatherly is just over five miles up the ravine at the right.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.

(The Switchback Gravity Railroad was the first railroad of consequence in PA, dating back to the time when rails were applied to the all downhill “Stone Turnpike” in 1827.  The “Back Track,” completed in 1845, created an 18-mile loop with two stationary steam engines atop Mt Pisgah and Mt Jefferson allowing cars and passengers to return to Summit Hill.)  

The first incline was built in 1850 to try to overcome the continual rockslides and floods of the steep ravine leading from Weatherly to the gorge.  The plane was 1,200 feet long and rose over 450-feet in elevation.  The first plane installed was the one on the right with two lines.  As one loaded car was lowered, an empty car was pulled up the hill.
The Penn Haven Planes and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company's coal wharves as they looked from across the river just two years before the flood that ended this method of transport here forever.  It did lead to the modern
way of the rail the world was moving at that time.  Photo appears courtesy of Robert F. Archer.
This is how the junction looked previous to the 1862 flood.  Back then, the
Penn Haven Junction was further south or eastward bound down the line.
The Black Creek flows between the above mountain side and the tracks
curving left.  This photo and the following photo appear courtesy of
the Central Jersey Railroad website.
You can access this informative site by clicking here.

Looking straight up the 6-lines of the 1,200 foot long planes
rising 450-feet of elevation.  The Black Creek flows beneath
between the photographer and the workers shown.  Note
how narrow the engine house looks toward the right.
Compare this image to the latter modern image of the
stone foundations.

The second incline, a four-track plane, was built by the Hazleton Railroad in 1859 but it was to be short-lived.

A walk to the top of this plane today reveals a 30-foot high rock foundation over which the cars rode over and which housed the engines which operated the machinery.  Incredibly, hemp rope was used before the advent of metal rope. 

The June 6, 1862 flood proved to show a fatal flaw in White’s grand dream.  The Upper Grand contributed to its own demise in that the dams and locks necessary to allow the coal barges to travel on the river meant that huge pools of water sat at the ready.  Once the heavy June rains began, and dams began to be breached, devastating tidal waves of flood water burst dam after dam causing a great flood and loss of life.

John J. Leisenring Jr., then Superintendent of the LCN & Co. estimated that 200 people lost their lives from White Haven down to Lehighton.  The state legislature stepped in and prohibited the LCN & Co. from rebuilding. 

These two pictures of the engine house remains belie their height.  The exterior wall on the right exposes toward the Lehigh River is about 30-feet high.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.

Thus once the LVRR took over this location in favor of direct rail access, the once inventive planes of Penn Haven were abandoned.  The Hazleton Railroad was absorbed into the Valley in 1868.  Another railroad that moved through this busy intersection was the Penn Haven and White Haven Railroad.  It too was taken over by the LVRR.

There is one man, Richard “Reds” O’Donnell, who can lay claim to being the last living person to live there.

His childhood there was chronicled by a two-part story in the Times News four years ago written by Al Zagofsky (Click here for the link to Part One.  Part Two.).

All lines had section gangs of “gandy-dancers” who maintained the lines.  But given Penn Haven’s location of being miles in the middle of nowhere, the rail workers often were held over in the company’s hotel.  One half of the building was a hotel of ten rooms. 

The other half with its identical ten rooms is where Reds O’Donnell and his family lived.  By the 1950s, the railroad starting its decline into bankruptcy, they were unwilling to put money into the home despite its dilapidated condition.   
This black and white shot of the hotel at Penn Haven harkens of better
days.  The picture below was taken sometime near the year the O'Donnells
moved away, as the house was in great disrepair. 

This color picture from the late 1950s shows just one of the interlocking towers remaining of the two that can be
seen in the earlier photo at the beginning of this post.  This picture appears courtesy of Robert J. Yanosey.

Reds has many fond memories of living there.  He recalls the common and dramatic rail incidents both, as well as of wild animals like black bear playing tag with each other.  And of course were the hard working men themselves, each with a good story from working the section.  But when these men, tucked into this steep and remote intersection of the Black Creek ravine and the Lehigh Gorge, began to unwind from their working day, much of them often times would revel into long rowdy nights of hard drinking.

This even later photo shows the lone tower after the hotel was torn down
shortly after 1958, a symbol of the decline of railroading in general and
specifically chronicling the Valley's demise.  Photo courtesy of the
Central Jersey website.
Reds was born to Margaret and James O’Donnell in 1943, the last of their nine children.  James was born in January of 1896 and Margaret in 1903, making them 47 and 40 when Reds was born.

James worked for forty-seven years on the “Valley” (Lehigh Valley Railroad).   He remembers fondly how the stories would pass from the “deadheaders,” other day labors, and during the winter months of big game season, the numerous hunters who collected themselves at the desolate depot along the LVRR and Central Jersey main lines. 

Many had extended stays at the twenty-room hotel the O’Donnells called home.  (“Deadheaders” refers to workmen who travel from one depot or work section in preparation for work at another.)

The O’Donnell family rented the once fine home from their railroad owner landlords for $5 per month.  Reds’s father often questioned the arrangement, often times saying most wouldn’t live in it if they were paid for it. 

One of several locations the water supply pipe is
still visible along the plane.  Up to three times per year,
Reds and his father James would tote shovel and
rakes up the plane to clear debris away from the opening
of the spring that funneled into this pipe.  "That
water was cold and clear mountain water," Reds
recalls.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.

The roof was beginning to fail and the ice cold water from atop of the Penn Haven Planes that was piped down the mountain side in a 1-1/2-inch pipe would freeze in the winter if they didn’t leave the water run full force.  He recalls on at least one occasion of how the spray from the splashing water caused an ice slick across the kitchen floor one morning.

Reds also remembers how about three times a year, how he and his father would climb the plane with shovels and a rake, and clear the debris out and away from the spring that supplied their water.

Reds recalls how much he favored the hunting season for the rowdy parties the men would have.  Hunters paid $3 per week to stay there and he recalls many large deer being taken and the stories he’d hear of their pursuits.  The men often sang, playing their accordions, fiddles and guitars.  Eventually Reds too joined them when he turned twelve.  These were some of the best hunts of his life.
Among the many hazards to rail traffic in this steep
gorge was the even present threat of rockslides.
James O'Donnell took his duty seriously and
walked the tracks of his section each time it rained
heavily to call in rock obstructions.

His father James was a “trackwalker” in constant pursuit of rockslides during the fiercest of storms, between Penn Haven and Rockport, which was about six miles west or up river.  But he also considered himself Mayor, Postmaster, Fire Chief and Police Chief all rolled into one.  Other official duties included ensuring the switches and “frogs” (the “X”-shaped connectors of the junction) were in working order and weren’t frozen in the winter time.

Back then, workers had to manually monitor canister switch heaters to keep switches working in cold conditions.  Reds said, “And you know when it’s ten degrees everywhere else, it was below zero at Penn Haven.”  This and many other situations made it necessary to employ a full-time resident at the junction. 
James O'Donnell's WWII Draft Card shows his simple address as "Penn Haven

One story goes how James O’Donnell found been doing his due diligence and found a 12-inch section of track broken out.  When he called in the problem to stop the scheduled train, the dispatcher questioned his sobriety to which James answered, “I may have been drinking, but I still know when a foot of rail is missing.”

As chronicled in the Zagofsky article, as a very young boy, Reds would have to wake at 5:00 AM to catch the 5:31 train to Weatherly.   But school didn’t start until 9:00 so he finished his night’s rest by sleeping at the train station. 

And though it was a harsh and unforgiving landscape, Reds said they never felt cut off.  The passing engineers did their best to keep them supplied with newspapers from far and wide.  Sometimes they stopped to chat and other times they simply tossed them out to them from their moving trains.  Reds remembers up to twenty different titles including the Daily Mirror and the Wall Street Journal.  They also pulled in radio stations from Indiana and Chicago.

Another pastime for the young boy was to sit in the control tower with the tower-man/telegrapher.  To this day Reds can tell you about the signals and semaphores (the “boards”) and how things operated there.  Today, the complex system of switches all across Pennsylvania are controlled from a central dispatch in Harrisburg.
Here is towerman'telegrapher John J. Bittorf Jr. as he calls
in from his Ashmore tower near Hazleton which summons
a very similar scene to the scene Reds O'Donnell had
sitting at his tower at Penn Haven.  Photo appears
courtesy of Bill Baker. 

Reds remembers how the junction had a special siding used to rest cars dubbed as “hotboxes” from over-heated brakes from the steep grade of the main line along the gorge.  The decline from Weatherly was particularly brutal for both man and machine.  There were many runaway trains due to human error and failed braking systems most of which predated Red’s time there.  (These incidents will be explored in a follow-up post.)

Likewise, sometimes engines had trouble pulling their loads up the grade to Weatherly/Hazleton branch as well as toward Wilkes-Barre/Buffalo on the mainline.  “Pusher” engines were necessary to get the 100-car coal trains up the grade.  The engines would return solo, “deadheaded.”

The post-war uptick in rail traffic was winding down but the cold war was not.  This brought an influx of government geologists who were in pursuit of uranium that was said to be contained in the exposed rock along the gorge. 

Reds remembers accompanying them with their diamond-tipped drill head the size of half-dollars.  They’d bore into the mountainside to pull out samples, careful to have him step aside when they came out as to not get hit by debris in the face and to prevent him from potential radiation exposure.

The above to views appear courtesy of the Central Jersey website.  The picture here below shows the junction
when both the Central and the Valley were both operating and is looking northward, or toward west as the trains

He also remembers watching in frozen pantomime, how the passing mail train passed by from Lehighton to Wilkes-Barre of the men inside sorting the mail on the fly, and how those men knew to look and wave to him most days. 

He also recalls how the engineers and firemen would throw him and his family hot potatoes, baked atop their boilers, as a special treat, like manna from heaven.
By 1958, the Valley Railroad ceased to require a resident worker. 

Reds was fifteen and despite pleas from his son that he wished to stay, James knew it was time for them to move.  He sought a transfer within the company. 
A modern day view shows the tracks for the most part
remaining, except for the Central Jersey lines that are
now the rails-to-trail of the Lehigh Gorge State Park.
Beyond the port-a-john in the grassy meadow-like
area at the trees is where the hotel and tower/depot
once stood.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.

The house was in major disrepair with no prospects from the railroad to fix it.  It was time for the O’Donnells to say good-bye to their remote mountain home.  They were its last permanent residents.  The building was razed shortly after.

Today, tanks of propane for heating switches and solar-power aided by generators that are now replaced by underground electric, in addition to the precipitous drop in rail usage since then, all together have afforded the rail companies the ability to remove all full-time station workers from these outposts.
How the above triangle of land of the junction appears from Druckenmiller's porch.
The Black Creek white-caps can be seen at the bottom left flowing up and left.
Photo by Ron Rabenold.

It was in those last few years there that Reds became friends with Lansford physician Dr. Stanley Freeman Druckenmiller.  Druckenmiller owned a large section of land overlooking Penn Haven from above the abandoned planes of the Beaver Meadow and Hazleton Railroads.  His land also reached to the bottom abutting to the rail junction. He built a one-room cabin high in the clouds that remains there today.
This map courtesy of the Central Jersey Railroad website shows the configuration of buildings at Penn Haven from
over 60 years ago.  The Valley tower building is still two-sided as well as the lesser in size CNJ Depot.  A residence is
pictured beyond the Black Creek's entry into the river, is perhaps the stone foundation visible along the line
in a draw in the moutain.  (Click here to see photos of it on another page of this blog.)

Dr. Druckenmiller’s roots extend back to the Kistler Valley (New Tripoli) farm of his grandparents Charles and Maria (Kistler) Druckenmiller.  They were married at the Ebenezer Union Church in 1841.  Charles fought with Co I of the 176 PA Volunteers in the Civil War.  Dr. Druckenmiller’s father was Wilson, who was the sixth child of eight children born to them.  (He had five brothers and two sisters.).

By 1880, Wilson Druckenmiller was working as a carpenter but still living unmarried on his parents’ farm.  In 1883 his mother died and by March of 1894, his father has also died.  It was somewhere in this time that Wilson made his move to the coal regions of Carbon County.

From 1900 until the 1930s, Wilson and his wife Mary lived in Weatherly.  Wilson worked as a carpenter for the silk works there.  Among their children were Erasmus, Stanley, and Barton.  Though his brothers too followed their father’s laborer vocation, Stanley sought a lifetime of study of medicine.

The doctor and his wife Fan (Thomas) lived and conducted his practice at 35 East Ridge Street in Lansford.  They had a daughter named Gretchen who married William Kellow.  He was the son of Joseph Edgar and Alice Kellow of Lansford.  He was a musician at one time in Lansford and he and his wife are buried in Nisky Cemetery in Bethlehem.

William worked for Baldwin Locomotives at Eddystone outside Philadelphia for a number of years before relocating his family to Tuscan Arizona.  Even though he lived outside the area for a long number of years, he kept his ties to the Lansford Panther Valley Lodge #677 for over fifty years.
Druckenmiller purchases his land in August of 1951.

The Druckenmillers also had a son, Stanley “Thomas” Druckenmiller who was married to Eleanor (White) and had worked for DuPont in Delaware for thirty-seven years in employee relations before retiring to Lake Harmony.  Stanley died in 2005 and William Kellow died in 1997.  According to her brother’s death notice, Gretchen (Druckenmiller) Kellow was still alive in 2005 and would have been about eighty-nine.

Even though Stanley spent most of his life living outside of the area, when he died in 2005, he was buried at Weatherly’s Union Cemetery.  Perhaps there is a Druckenmiller family plot there.
Dr. Druckenmiller's WWI Draft Card.

Druckenmiller was fond enough of the outdoors to purchase the top of the former planes that were abandoned in 1862.  
The 144 acre parcel once belonged to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  Druckenmiller purchased it at a county tax sale for $203.

The property had an access road from the outskirts of his hometown of Weatherly.  The doctor had big plans for this remote hunting get-away and saw more work than he could do on his own.

That’s when Reds became Dr. Druckenmiller’s right-hand man (or “Golden Boy” as the doctor liked to call him).  Because there was no one else around, Reds was a willing helper and a godsend of help to the middle-aged doctor.
Here is Druckenmiller's privy as it looks today.  The chimney and left
side of the porch roof line is seen center of the open space to
the left of the outhouse.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.

Without a phone or any other way of knowing when Druckenmiller was coming to work, Reds would be summoned to the top of the mountain by the doctor with blows from the horn of the yellow army jeep.

Hearing the horn and Reds knew he had a 450-foot elevation climb to do some work.  He’d walk along the cast-iron pipe that carried water to his home on his way.  Together, Reds and Druckenmiller would make food plots, planting pine and oak trees, and wrapping the saplings in fencing to keep the deer from eating off the tops.
Richard "Reds" O'Donnell:
I have much gratitude to Kevin O'Donnell for providing
the impetus for me to write this post which, like many,
are long overdo.  And of course to Reds too, for
graciously allowing me to pick his brain and allowing
his story to be told here.  Thanks too to Al Zagofsky
for allowing me to use this photo of Reds.

Though Druckenmiller is long gone, his cabin remains and still affords the hearty visitor a breath-taking view of the Lehigh Gorge and the steep hillsides of the Black Creek ravine.  The privy is also still there along with a few other outbuildings, all now on Lehigh Gorge State Park land.

 “I wished I had stayed in touch with the Druckenmiller’s after we moved away,” Reds now relates.  “He meant a lot to me...I guess I just kind of lost track of him due to my youth.”

Visiting Penn Haven today, one can find the solitude that Reds and Dr. Druckenmiller once appreciated here.  With a determined climb of 450-feet of elevation over 1,200-feet of run of these nearly 200-year-old planes, one can take in the peace and quiet, and enjoy the view that these men too once found in their lives.
This is the view from Dr. Druckenmiller's cabin atop the Lehigh and Black Creek Gorges today.  The land was once part of a 144-acre parcel acquired by the doctor in 1951 for $203.  Photo by Ron Rabenold.
(Given its sparse and remote location, Penn Haven today can only be reached by the State Gorge Rails Trails path from Glen Onoko by foot or bicycle six miles up-river.  It is also about six miles from Weatherly on an abandoned set of tracks though it is not as easy to ride and it is about seven-miles down-river from the Rockport access.

Part two of this story will detail the fifty or so deaths from accidents and murders that occurred in the Penn Haven vicinity from the 1870s until 1910.


  1. That is an amazing story ,Rode my bike up through there twice , I always wondered about the history of the area

  2. I've been through here on several occasions and this article gives a fascinating incite into the history of Penn Haven Junction. I'm glad I stumbled across it while doing some research.

  3. The tracks from Weatherly down to Penn Haven are NOT abandonded.

  4. This is a wonderful story, thanks for sharing.