Sunday, May 11, 2014

Steep Grades and Dangerous Curves of the Lehigh Gorge around Penn Haven - Train Wrecks Post 2 of 3

Events of consequence, deadly ones on the rails, often turn on the smallest details.

Post #1 covered the accidental deaths of those struck and run over on the rails around Penn Haven (including two murders…click here to read that post)
Follow-up Post #2 and #3 will report on the derailments and train collisions that occurred here from 1874 to 1910. 
This undated wreck, most likely in the early 1900s, occurred just below
the Stony Creek curve at a slight curve known as the Barn Door Curve.
The Stony Creek curve is upriver and at the extreme right of the picture.
The photographer's back is facing Penn Haven, about one-half
mile down grade or timetable east. 

The derailments and collisions that occurred in the vicinity, including wrecks around Ox Bow Curve will be discussed here in Post #2. 
The most tragic of these accidents, among the worst in our national rail history, was the sixty-plus death accident that happened at Mud Run on October 10, 1888.  The Mud Run disaster will be covered in Post #3. 

All told, the accumulated deaths of all three posts exceed 120 killed.

Railroad companies were driven for profit, as they should be.  And certainly there were a lot of deadly accidents associated with this transportation system.  But they also invested sizeable capital into the construction and operation. 

These companies benefitted from an efficient enterprise.  It was in their best interests to be as incident free as possible.   

Many people are unaware of the many details these companies took to ensure safe transport of its stock and passengers.  The interlocking signal and switch system for one, was a huge safety innovation.

Likewise, the engineering that went into the rails, as far as banking on curves, is often overlooked.  During this time the rails were banked on curves, as well as the outer rail raised higher than the inside rail, to allow freight trains to travel up to forty-miles an hour.  Once “express trains” were added, rails were banked to allow for speeds of up to sixty miles per hour.
Lehigh Gorge - Ox Bow Curve - 28 August 1901 - According to Jon Cassel's Regional Railroad Newsletter - The train, “of the latest design and only recently out of the shops” was going down grade in the area approaching the “dangerous curves” of the Ox Bow running at full speed.  It was said to have “swerved” giving engineer Charles Burroughs little time to reverse the engine, causing it to leave the track and crash down the bank onto the Jersey Central tracks.  It happened so suddenly, the crew had no chance of escape.  Both Burroughs (of Sayre) and fireman Charles Glasser (of Wilkes-Barre) were caught under the wreckage and were crushed and scalded to death.  Rumors at the time attributed the derailment to the spreading of the rails, while a more likely theory was that the train was running too fast around the curve.  Like so many of these fatalities, the bodies were taken to Lehighton undertaker Henry Schwartz to be prepared for burial before being shipped to their hometowns.  (If you are interested in receiving this periodic email from Jon Cassel, contact him at:  Cassel hosts multiple railroad sites and has much information on the Lehigh Valley and Jersery Central.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad (the “Valley”) owned the best routes for delivering the world’s most favored anthracite the world over.  The Valley in fact owed its very existence to the Lehigh River.  But the Lehigh was also its biggest liability.

The Valley and the New Jersey Central (the “Central”) followed the dangerous curves of the Lehigh River.  In order for the Valley’s famed “Black Diamond” and other express trains to run from New York City to Buffalo, it had to roll through New Jersey and up the twisty Lehigh Gorge to get to Buffalo. 

This circuitous route was necessary for coal freight.  But the “jet-setter” passengers of the late 1800s held it in disdain.  The mix of so much freight interspersed with passenger service was at odds with each other with costly consequences.
This Valley passenger train heads timetable westward from the Ox Bow curve toward Penn Haven.  Note the slight
embankment between the Valley and Central tracks to the right.   The grade between them is level at Glen Onoko
rising to about fifteen feet at the Ox Bow and then back down to level as it approaches Penn Haven.

Keeping Penn Haven as our focal point, a quick examination of this area reveals what the Lehigh Valley Railroad was up against.  Two miles up grade or westward, you will find the “Barn Door Curve” just before reaching the Stony Creek curve. 

The Stony Creek is perhaps the second tightest of all the Lehigh Gorge curves.  Trains here completed a near 180-degree turn on a tight radius.  This mattered more to the Jersey Central mainline which hugged the tight inside turn of the river.  The Valley, splitting off at Penn Haven to the opposite bank, rode around the inside cleft of Tank Hollow.    

Travel seven miles above Penn Haven and trains arrived at Rockport.  It had a small station and a village at Indian Run.  This was the Valley’s toughest curve.  It was so severe that it nearly folded back onto itself. 

This curve was circumvented when the Rockport Tunnel made a shortcut through the mountain.  It was the Valley’s first tunnel, driven in 1884.  One mile beyond there, toward White Haven, is another tight inside curve at Mud Run.
The Ox Bow Curve as it looks from atop Broad Mountain.  The entire curve is one-mile long, beginning just south of
Penn Haven and just north of Glen Onoko.  The beginning of the curve, out of frame left, is where Bear Creek
enters the Lehigh.

None of these curves though holds the distinction as being the most deadly curve. The Ox Bow seems to hold that distinction.  It is about one-mile in length.  It begins about three miles down-grade from Penn Haven and about two miles up-grade from Glen Onoko.  One mile outside of the Glen is an inside curve known as Hetchel’s Tooth.
Being struck or run over was a constant worry to rail workers as seen in Post #1.  

Workers lived with the possibility of collisions and derailments too.  Sometimes, even the simplest of equipment failure lead to death.  Some were scalded to death by steam from the boiler.  And of course many were horribly mangled in twisted iron flung with speed and force. 
Here is another view below the Ox Bow of an area known as Hetchel's Tooth.  To the left is the end of the Ox Bow curve.
Toward the right, is near Glen Onoko.  East side of Jim Thorpe can be seen distant center in the area known as the
"Kettle" for its resemblance to one.  Photo by Ronald Rabenold.

Equipment Failure:

December 20, 1875 - Monday

A rail broke on the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad (this rail company was later absorbed by the L. V. R. R) causing the engine to charge down the embankment into the river.  Killed were the fireman and also the brakeman Luke Wait.  Wait's body was shipped to Lehighton in a “neat coffin” and sent to his home in South Easton on the 4:35 pm train.
August 1, 1884 - Friday

Boiler explosions could be violent.  There could be a weak seam, low water level, or a faulty pressure release valve.  The destruction was often times utterly forceful and complete.

Engine #146 known as the “Mohawk” blew its boiler just two miles north of White Haven at Brady’s Switch.

The #146 was assisting a heavy train of coal cars up the mountain when something failed on the boiler.  Four men on board were most likely killed instantly: Both engineer Jacob Hassell (age 42) and his son, brakeman John Hassell (age 18), fireman John Armbruster (age 30) and telegraph operator R. S. Smith (age 21) from Nescopek.  All except Smith were from Mauch Chunk.

The explosion of the #146’s boiler left wreckage across the tracks.

Engineer Michael Greaney of Engine #345 was drawing a train of 125 loaded coal cars down the mountain.  By the time he noticed the obstruction, it was too late for any of his remediation’s to have much effect, his train too heavy to be stopped in time.

Far off, some three miles away, a farmer was reaping hay in his fields.  He heard what he described as the rumble of an earthquake.  His horses were said to have become “unmanageable in the reaper.”

The tracks were destroyed for a “considerable distance,” the railroad iron “torn from its fastenings” and the bed and ballast were “transferred to a hole in the ground.”

Engineer Hassell was found a hundred yards from the engine, among “a mass of wreck, mangled so horribly that it was difficult to identify.”  Fireman Armbruster was found 200 yards away under a pile of debris.  Young Hassell was found in a ditch one hundred yards away with his “legs blown off.”

Engineer Hassell had a premonition just days before the wreck.  He told his wife of it and she tried to discount and allay his fears and discount his beliefs in the powers of knowing.   But Hassell bought a “Knights of Honor” policy anyway.  His widow was to collect $2,000 from it.  The company was said to have incurred $50,000 in the accident.

A “large gang of men” worked there all day.  It wasn’t until noon that the trains could run through that way again.  The Valley trains were diverted over the Philadelphia and Reading tracks between Wilkes-Barre and Penn Haven until then.
An old picture of the Valley tracks somewhere south of
Penn Haven junction.
November 21, 1891 – Saturday

A broken wheel sent another coal train into the river at Penn Haven. Ten cars in all went over the steep bank into the Lehigh.  One of the crew, Michael Polsko, was thrown from the derailed train and onto the opposing track, laid out helplessly incapacitated. 

Just then, an ill-timed train proved to be the terminal event of his life.  Both of his legs were cut off in addition to his other injuries.  The hospital car arrived and whisked him to Bethlehem to St Luke’s Hospital.  But as the paper reported “he cannot recover.”
November 10, 1898 – Thursday
“John McNally met Death like a Hero”

Another accident killed six due to a failure of the air brakes.  Although it occurred slightly above the studied range near Wilkes-Barre, it bears special note because local men were killed.  It also shows how the Mud Run disaster became ingrained in our local vernacular. 

It was ten years and one month to the day after Mud Run accident, the most costly Valley wreck in terms of life lost.  However the 1898 accident was described as the “most destructive accident ever” to occur on the railroad. 

Though only six were killed, this wreck was said to have had one of the highest financial impacts because three engines were involved.  Unlike the Mud Run wreck that was blamed on human error, this one was deemed unavoidable because of the failure of the air brakes.
This Central  passenger train is heading down river near Hetchel's Tooth.  The steepness of grade through the gorge as well as the dangerously sharp curves played roles is numerous accidents here.  The backdrop for this vintage rail section, with impeccable ballast, is the end of the Oxbow, just above Glen Onoko. 

It was an early Friday morning, at 12:31, when the Buffalo Express, the No. 5 train drawn by Engine #417, passed through Lehighton.  It was an hour late, and as a result, two trains met on a single track instead of the double track further along.  

Both trains were said to be “heavy,” composed of several cars each.   Engine #444, with Lehighton resident engineer John McNally with fireman Fred Glasser of Mauch Chunk, was called upon to assist a heavy train up the steep mountain grade. 

Engine #444 (McNally/Glasser) joined up with the No. 6 train with Engine #425 (D. E. Price/William Yoxheimer).  They left Wilkes-Barre at 3:00 am headed toward White Haven.  It was ordered to pull off at siding #7 and to wait for the No. 5 train (Engine #417) to pass. 

The #417 (John Rohlfing/John Boyle) was coming down grade and was also ordered to wait at the siding.  As previously mentioned, the #417 was running late.  These two trains should have passed each other beyond Wilkes-Barre, near Pittston on a double set of tracks.  Instead, they were heading toward each other on a single track, at a fast speed.
This aerial shot shows the trestles at Glen Onoko at the lower left and Hetchel's Tooth curve at the top.  At the right where the river is obscured by the hill was the famed Hotel Wahnetah Resort that burned down around 1917.

The heavy train No. 5 could not stop and passed the siding at a “good rate of speed.”  Suddenly, there was the glare of opposing headlights on the same track. All three engineers reversed engines at once.  All were said to have stuck to their posts until the end.

All three engines were totally wrecked, the passenger coaches were said to “crush like eggshells, wrecked into a mass of rubbish and kindling wood.”

The dead were engineer John McNally, fireman William Yoxheimer of White Haven, fireman Fred Glasser of Mauch Chunk, express manager John McGreggor of Wilkes-Barre, brakeman Jacob Engleman of Easton, and engineer D. E. Price of Easton.

Glasser and Yoxheimer were killed in their engines, McGreggor and Engleman were found “horribly crushed” beneath the engines several hours later. 

Both engineer Rohlfing and fireman Boyle jumped just before the crash and escaped serious injury and death.

McNally lived for about six hours after the crash.  Staying at his post, he suffered painful scalding burns from the steam of his own boiler.  He had just moved to Lehighton from White Haven.  His home was under construction, the foundation had only recently been completed on his Coal Street lot.

Each engine was valued at $15,000.  The passenger car total amounted to $5,000 each.  The White Haven paper paid homage to their lost son:
“John McNally met death like a hero. He could have jumped before the collision as his train was running comparatively slow. But he stuck to his throttle saying before he died that he feared it would be another Mud Run. His first thought was for the passengers and to save them he died…may his memory long be cherished and his devotion to duty emulated.”

The “Ox Bow Curve” Incidents

No place in the area under study had more wrecks than the “Ox Bow Curve.”  It is an inside curve with a slightly steeper turning radius than the one at Stony Creek.  The distinctive difference here is that both the Lehigh Valley and the Jersey Central double mainlines are running side by side. 

The Valley lines are on the mountain side and were laid out on an elevated plane at places as much as fifteen feet above the Central lines.  (At Glen Onoko they are on the level with each other, rising to about fifteen feet by the Ox Bow, and then back to level once again at Penn Haven.)

June 19, 1898 – 4:30 Sunday afternoon - Jersey Central Wreck
The Central No. 706 passenger train was said to be going sixty miles per hour through the Ox Bow curve when it jumped the track and “ploughed into the stone wall” of the raised Valley mainline.  
Here is how the elevated plane of the Valley looks in
the vicinity of wrecks around the Ox Bow.  The twelve
to fifteen foot high separation played a role in
several wrecks with both trains coming off and down
as well as at least one that lurch upward and colliding
with opposing trains.  The steepness of the
gorge offers just the right thermals to for the
soaring Turkey Vulture in the sky, low center.

All told, the engine, baggage car, and “smoker car” left the track (see the end of this article about the designated smoking only cars.)  The Valley line is only at about five feet above the Central line at this spot.  The mass of iron and splinters said to instantly form also helped propel the baggage car up onto the raised plane of the Valley line. 

Just then, an opposing train, Valley Engine #4, collided with the wreckage.  The collision sent the “smoker” car down the fifteen foot embankment.  With its roof partially tore off, it landed on its wheels in the Lehigh.  The passengers we said to have had “an experience which they will never forget.” 

There was no damage to the Valley train.  However there were some Central fatalities.  Engineer Richard McHale (53 years old of Easton) was found dead amid the wreckage with both legs cut off.  The news agent, Charles Ebner, also of Easton was “injured so badly that he died shortly afterwards.”
The retaining wall as it looks from river level just below Ox Bow curve.

Baggagemaster Charles Taylor of Easton was seriously injured and was later said that he “may not recover.”  And perhaps most sad of all, Engineer McHale had his eight year old nephew along for the ride and he died as well.

About a dozen others were also “more or less hurt.” 

A brakeman by the name of Bell ran the three miles to Penn Haven Junction to telegraph for help.  The Central hospital car and a “corps of surgeons from Mauch Chunk” were quickly on the scene.

Soon after, rumors spread that the Central and Valley trains were racing each other.  Men of both companies flatly denied the rumor, though both were said to be fast trains.                    
Oct 2,1899 -Monday afternoon–Lehigh Valley wreck

(Same place and exactly 24 hours before the Central wreck below)
The No. 782, said to be the “latest and biggest engine of the Wyoming division,” was running “empty,” eastbound and approaching Bear Creek, at the beginning of the Ox Bow Curve when the “monster jumped the tracks.”  Engineer John Van Buskirk tried in vain to stop it, but it ripped up 350 feet of track and then toppled over the fifteen foot wall down onto the Central tracks.

At the same time, a fully-loaded coal train from the opposite direction crashed into the wreckage of the Valley train.  Van Buskirk was badly injured and unconscious when they found him even though he was pinned beneath the engine.  Despite being stuck in a fog of deadly steam from his boiler, he was extricated and taken to his home in Lehighton where he was said to be “on a fair way to recovery.”

The Jersey Central crew escaped injury by jumping out.  Three however died from the Valley train.  Albert Heimbach of Hickory Run (There is a beautiful farm just outside Hickory Run on the Albrightsville side owned by a Heimbach family today.)  and James J Denion of Weatherly were brakemen and found dead at the scene.  They were said to be “horribly mangled and scalded almost beyond recognition.”  Arthur Kanapel, signal inspector was found, badly injured and taken to St Luke’s hospital.  He died the following day.

Before the Lehigh Valley consolidated into ConRail in the 1970s, this black and white Valley freight train travels timetable east below Penn Haven in the area of the spring about one mile south.
Oct 3, 1889 - Tuesday- Jersey Central

(Same place and exactly 24 hours after the Valley wreck above)
The second wreck within several yards and at the same hour exactly twenty-four hours later originated on the Central line.  The accident had nothing to do with the repaired track but rather was caused by a broken axle.  A twenty-four year old brakeman by the name of William S. Miller was crushed to death under a “huge oil tank.”  As a result of this wreck, Central trains were temporarily diverted over the Valley tracks between Packerton and Penn Haven.

August 28, 1901 – Wednesday 6:00 am– Lehigh Valley wreck

The train, “of the latest design and only recently out of the shops” was going down grade in the area approaching the “dangerous curves” of the Ox Bow running at full speed.  It was said to have “swerved” giving engineer Charles Burroughs little time to reverse the engine, causing it to leave the track and crash down the bank onto the Central tracks.

It happened so suddenly, the crew had no chance of escape.  Both Burroughs (of Sayre) and fireman Charles Glasser (of Wilkes-Barre) were caught under the wreckage and were crushed and scalded to death.  Rumors at the time attributed the derailment to the spreading of the rails while a more likely theory was that the train was running too fast around the curve.

Like so many of these fatalities, the bodies were taken to Lehighton undertaker Henry Schwartz to be prepared for burial before being shipped to their hometowns.

Winter time along the Black Creek
January 4, 1905 – Wednesday 3:00 am during a “Blizzard”
The steepness of the Black Creek ravine is
apparent in this modern day picture.  Rock slides
were a common hazard especially during the springe
rains and thaw.  Winter time was also harsh here, as
in the blizzard of January of 1905 and its
contribution to the wreck of a 27-car coal train.

Weather was said to be a contributing factor to this “most frightful wrecks in the annals of railroading” happened as twenty-seven loaded coal cars came down the decline a mile outside of Weatherly at the Black Creek Junction.  The snow and “terrific speed” caused the train to derail and tumble down the fifteen foot embankment into the creek.  It was said to have covered the distance from the Hazel Creek bridge to the point of the wreck in one minute and forty-five seconds.

The conductor and flagman sensed the danger in time and were able to uncouple their caboose which saved their lives.  Another man sensed the danger just out of Weatherly and jumped from the train though it was traveling at a “great speed,” he escaped with “terrible cuts” and bruises from rolling many feet.

Engineer William Swank, Fireman Robert Turner and Brakeman Morchimer, all of Hazleton were “buried in the wreck.”  “Portions of their bodies” were found at “different points…literally ground to bits.”  A right leg was discovered the next day, but it was unknown from whose body it came from.  It was buried in Hazleton pending more identification.

The Packerton wrecking crew was on the scene for more than a day.  It wasn’t until about two weeks later when the actual remains of Swank and Turner were found.  Turner’s body was under a large rock, “preventing his body from being washed downstream.  His head was split and his face badly crushed and disfigured. 
It was then determined the previously buried right leg belonged to Turner.  His left arm from the elbow down, and left leg were still are missing. 

Then, two hours later, the body of Swank was recovered and identified.  He was pinned beneath a heavy piece of iron in the creek just a few yards away from where Turner was discovered.  His head too, was badly crushed in.

January 11, 1907 – Friday
(The picture credits the accident on January 10th.  The January 18th edition of the Lehighton Press reported it to have happened Friday January 11th.)
The wreckage of a runaway train from Weatherly.  The Black Creek is on the right.  Only  engineer Henry A. Rehrig
of Weatherly was killed.  His crew jumped to safety. 

From Jon Cassel's Regional Train Email - 1 August 2020 - You can subscribe to Cassel's train email list by contacting him at

Engineer Harry A. Rehrig of Weatherly stayed at the helm of his run-away train as it traveled out of control through the Weatherly yard, down the Weatherly Hill incline at a “terrific speed” until it collided with another train at Black Creek Junction.  It was a heavily loaded coal train.  Rehrig was killed but his crew escaped relatively unharmed by jumping off.  It was said to have caused $50,000 in damages.

Stony Creek –“One of the Most Dangerous Curves”
November 30, 1905 - Thursday – The Jersey “Central Flyer”

The express train was running twenty minutes late and was said to have been trying to make up for lost time as it neared Stony Creek.  The speed was said to be too great for the decline and the curve.  The article called the Stony Creek curve “one of the most dangerous spots” of the Central line between New York and Scranton.  

The engine, known to be “the heaviest and swiftest runners on the road,” “plunged” down the thirty-five feet of embankment into the “shallow” Lehigh waters.  Engineer George Willis had numerous cuts and was scalded on one side.  Miraculously, Willis of East Mauch Chunk, survived but his fireman didn’t. 

Fireman John Luebbert was thirty years old and lived with his parents Mr. and Mrs. Harry Luebbert in Mauch Chunk.

The other man killed was fifty-two year old Clarence S. Dettro of Ashley who was deadheading to Mauch Chunk.  He was riding in the baggage car, sitting on the mountain side of the car, and as the car tumbled down into a heap of wreckage, he was thrown across the car, the impact breaking his neck.

Thomas Goodwin, a newsboy, of Scranton incurred a fractured skull and wasn’t expected to live.  Others listed among the wounded were: trainman Robert Kneas of Mauch Chunk, Frank Soloman of East Mauch Chunk (Born in 1857, he later ran a hotel on Center St,), trainman Mahlon Headman of Mauch Chunk, conductor Thomas Snyder of Bethlehem, baggage master Philip Reilly of Bethlehem, newsboy Calvin Swisher of Scranton, F.V. Salkeld, Howard Fuller of Scranton, Charles Brady of Slatedale, M. B. Tilton of Bethlehem, Thomas McLaughlin of Tamaqua, Rev. Samuel Schultz of the Lutheran “Slavonian” church of Lansford, R. A. Lindsey of Scranton, George H. Craver of Scranton, and Mrs. G. C. Graves and F. E. DeLong, both of Philadelphia. 

Penn Haven - March 11, 1911 - James Dunleavy
Fireman JAmes Dunleavy was married only five years before he met his end in Penn Haven, some thought at the time that he was on the tender car when a derailed train collided with his train and perhaps he tried to leap to save himself, which many men did both successfully and unsuccessfully.  I hope to update this story sometime soon...
On his wedding day - Photo appears
courtesy of George Wagenseller.

Related Stories on CulturedCarbonCounty:

The following article appeared in the New York Times on August 27, 1881.  The author apparently thinks he or she has discovered the secret as to why so many non-smokers occupy seats in cars designated for smokers known as "smokers" or "smoking cars."  It is somewhat hard to wholly believe, as it suggests that doctors of that day prescribed their patients with early stages of smallpox to treat and cure themselves by smoke immersion on these cars.
This editorial from the New York Times from August 27, 1881 is written almost as if it were a thinly veiled scare tactic by the anti-tobacco lobby.


  1. Hello Ronald,

    Very educating article on the accident history of Lehigh Gorge! I was most impressed with your research. I was wondering if you could direct me on how to get to the location where you took the pan shot of Hetchel's Tooth. I am going to be photographing a steam train special through there in 2 weeks time, and this is a great vantage point. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Mark Blackwell

    1. Thanks for reading Mark! The best way is to follow the RIGHT trail that goes up along Glen Onoko Falls. (One trail pretty much follows the falls directly, another one goes to the right, and serpentines up the mtn side, replete with old Victorian-age rock stairs etc). Once at the top of that trail near the top of the falls, you will find a wide swath trail blazed across the top of the Broad Mtn. Head north on this trail for about 1 mile and it takes you to the scenic overlook. I'm told you can also access this trail from the parking lot on top of the Broad off Route 93. I wish you well. A steam train would be a neat sight from up there.

    2. Thanks for the directions, Ron. I'll have to PM you a few photos if we make it there. I know we will definitely be shooting from the Flagstaff Ballroom overlook in Jim Thorpe. In case you're interested, the steam train will be running from Bethlehem Steel to Pittston and return on August 22 and 23, with a two hour layover on the return at Jim Thorpe. Take care, and thanks again!