The History of the
Lehigh Valley Railroad
"The Route of the Black Diamond"
by ROBERT F. ARCHER
Excerpt on the beginnings of the LVRR – pp. 11-25
1. Black Diamonds, Barges and Strap Rails
Philip Ginder hardly could have foreseen the importance of his discovery that day in 1791. While hunting on Mauch Chunk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania, he had come upon some curious black stones which he pocketed and carried home that evening. The next day he showed his find to Colonel Jacob Weiss of nearby Fort Allen, whose interest was immediately aroused. Weiss took the samples to Philadelphia for examination by a number of his associates, who analyzed them as "stone coal." They were excited enough by the discovery to join him in forming an unincorporated mining venture, the Lehigh Coal Mine Co.
Through purchase of the land where Ginder had first made his find, as well as a number of surrounding properties, they eventually brought nearly 10,000 acres of coal-rich real estate under their control. After it was found that the coal seams were close to the surface, an open pit mining operation was commenced at Summit Hill on Mauch Chunk Mountain. The pioneering company was heady with high hopes of fortunes to be made in mining.
The Lehigh Coal Co.'s open-pit Summit Hill mine on Mauch Chunk Mountain. Pick-wielding laborers dug out coal with comparative ease, since the anthracite seams were close to the surface. (Source: Archer /Richard Richardson, Memoir of Josiah White)
Although the existence of anthracite, or "stone coal," was known in Pennsylvania long before Ginder's discovery in the Lehigh region, it had aroused little interest. Since the coal proved nearly impossible to burn, it was considered worthless as a practical fuel. This the ambitious entrepreneurs of the Lehigh Co. learned to their dismay when they were unable to sell their coal to an indifferent public. Not only were the market prospects discouraging, but the difficulty of transporting the coal from mine to market was equally disheartening.
At a time when the Lehigh River Valley was largely a wilderness, the only way coal could be transported to Philadelphia—the largest potential market in the region—was by way of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. This was no easy task, since the coal had to be hauled in wagons over a primitive road from the Summit Hill mine to the Lehigh River, some nine miles distant. At Mauch Chunk the coal was transferred to river boats or arks, roughly hewn from plank wood and maneuvered by long oars.
Then there was the problem of navigating the Lehigh, which was often too shallow for canoes, much less coal arks. Although the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had long been interested in improving the Lehigh River for navigation, and had passed a number of river improvement acts since 1771, little if anything had been accomplished. Hampered by a lack of adequate capital, the Lehigh Mine Co. could little afford the taking on of a river improvement project. After efforts to win financial support for the scheme had failed, the company languished for several years, hoping without great success to make at least some profit by leasing mining rights to other adventurers.
In 1803 an attempt was made to float six arks, loaded with coal for Philadelphia, down the Lehigh at high water. Two of the boats managed to achieve their destination but, with no interested buyers to be found, further mining efforts were discouraged.
Little mining was done at Summit Hill until the outbreak of the War of 1812, when Philadelphia's supply of Virginia and Liverpool bituminous coal was disrupted by British naval blockade. Subsequent inflated prices of existing coal supplies encouraged the use of anthracite as a substitute. This was enough to inspire three men, Jacob Cist, John Robinson, and Charles Miner, to make yet another attempt to market the Lehigh coal in Philadelphia. In December 1813 they were given a ten-year lease by the Lehigh Co., and sent their first coal ark down the Lehigh River in August 1814. Even with the limited soft coal supply in Philadelphia, and despite the recent introduction of special grates for burning anthracite, it was difficult to sell the coal.
However, the Lehigh coal did find a ready buyer at the Fairmount Nail and Iron Works. Josiah White, who with his partner Erskine Hazard, owned and operated the works, discovered that anthracite produced tremendous heat when burned under a forced draft, and bought up any coal that survived the harrowing journey downriver.
For Cist and his partners the chances of financial success had been precarious at best, but the losses incurred by frequent wreckage of coal arks in the Lehigh River shallows barely allowed them to break even. With the war's end soft coal shipments to Philadelphia resumed, prompting the collapse of anthracite sales and the forfeiture of Cist's lease.
Meanwhile, White and Hazard were anxious to maintain a steady supply of anthracite for their forges and, after a visit to the Summit Hill mine in late 1817, Josiah White was quick to negotiate a twenty‑year lease from the Lehigh Co. The company was so discouraged over repeated failures to develop its mining properties that it leased all its lands to White, Hazard, and a third partner, George Hauto, for the token annual payment of one ear of corn.
With their lease to the Lehigh Coal Mine Company's lands secured, White and his partners petitioned the Pennsylvania legislature to pass an act authorizing them to improve navigation of the Lehigh River. A skeptical legislature, well aware of past failures, granted authorization on March 20, 1818, convinced that White and his associates would soon bankrupt themselves in their mad venture.
The next month White and Hazard set out for the Lehigh Valley with borrowed surveyor's instruments to run their preliminary survey. After spending a week running levels by day and sleeping in the woods by night, they completed the survey between Stoddartsville and Easton. The next step was the formation of the Lehigh Navigation Co. in August 1818, and sale of enough capital stock to commence construction. With barely more than a dozen laborers, White that month began the formidable task of taming the Lehigh River.
The original plan was to construct a channel in the middle of the river, utilizing wing dams and channel walls, extending from Mauch Chunk to Easton and the Delaware River. However, a severe drought in the summer of 1818 drastically lowered the river level, convincing the builders that their channel would be useless in low water, and that another method would have to be found. White then devised an ingenious plan calling for a series of dams and artificial pools along the Lehigh, with a sluice-gate at each dam allowing the boats through. He designed and patented a one‑way lock with a sluice-gate that, when lowered into the lock bed, sent the boat riding down a flume on a rush of water and into a slack-water pool at the next lower level.
The work progressed as larger crews were hired and, in June 1820, the first trial run was successfully completed when a number of coal arks negotiated the river and arrived in Philadelphia without mishap. Since White's navigation system was a one-way operation, it was impossible to return the coal arks to Mauch Chunk, and they were usually broken up for lumber upon reaching their destination, the boatmen returning by foot or wagon for the next trip downriver.
Shortly after work had begun on the Lehigh Navigation, the Lehigh Coal Co. was formed to oversee the mining and transport of coal from the Summit Hill mine to the river. An improved descending road from the mine to Mauch Chunk was completed in 1819 to accommodate horse-drawn coal wagons. The Lehigh Coal Co. merged its operations with the Lehigh Navigation Co. in April 1820, and regular shipment of Lehigh coal to Philadelphia was undertaken shortly thereafter by the newly merged Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.
The popularity of anthracite increased noticeably by 1825, due in part to a concentrated campaign by Josiah White's Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. to advertise the advantages of hard coal to the public. But as late as 1824 there were still skeptics. One Abijah Hall wrote in his travel notes that year:
My father procured a lump of Lehigh Coal about as large as his two fists, and tried it on his wood fire in an open Franklin stove. After two days he concluded that "if the world should take fire, the Lehigh Coal Mine would be the safest retreat, the last place to burn.1
Such reservations notwithstanding, by 1828 Philadelphia had burned 77,395 tons of anthracite, and the market was growing yearly. The increasing demand for hard coal necessitated improvement of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation's transport system. The wagon road from the mines to the coal boat landings at Mauch Chunk was no longer adequate, and the decision was made to build a gravity railroad on its right of way.
Construction was started in January 1827, and the nine‑mile rail line was ready for operation by late spring. Loaded coal cars made the descent to Mauch Chunk by gravity, where mule teams were hitched to the empty cars for the climb back to the mines. This primitive little line, laid with rails of strap iron on timber, was the first railroad in the Lehigh region, and one of the earliest railroads in the United States.
An old print showing railroad coal cars and canal boats being loaded with anthracite at Mauch Chunk on the Lehigh Canal. (Source: Archer/Courtesy William H. Shank)
As the downriver coal traffic increased, plans were made to convert the navigation to a slack-water operation, allowing boats to return upstream to Mauch Chunk. Construction of the Lehigh Canal began at Mauch Chunk in 1825, and was pushed downstream to Easton, where it was completed in June, 1829. By 1832 the Pennsylvania Canal System completed its Delaware Division between Philadelphia and Easton, where it connected with the LC&N, making possible improved navigation of the Delaware River for the Lehigh coal boats.
With the Philadelphia anthracite market secured, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. turned its attention to possible new outlets for Lehigh coal. The opening of the Morris Canal from Newark Bay to Phillipsburg, N.J., just across the Delaware from Easton, gave the LC&N's anthracite ready eastward access to the New York City area.
Looking to the west, Josiah White sought to link the LC&N with the state‑owned North Branch Canal on the Susquehanna River at Wilkes-Barre. As a first step toward accomplishing this connection, plans were made to extend the Lehigh Canal north from Mauch Chunk to White Haven. In 1835 canal construction was pushed through the rugged upper Lehigh Valley toward White Haven, implemented by a series of immense lift locks which were considered something of an engineering marvel at that time.
Further extension of a slack-water navigation canal beyond White Haven was stymied by the increasingly rough terrain and the great fall in the upper Lehigh River. An alternative descending navigation was constructed as far as Stoddartsville but, blocked by the looming peaks of Nescopeck, Penobscot and Wilkes-Barre mountains, the LC&N had to find a more practicable means of achieving its Wilkes-Barre terminus.
Construction of a railroad over the mountains was decided upon as the most feasible means o$ linking the navigation with the Wyoming Valley. On March 13, 1837 the Pennsylvania legislature authorized the LC&N to build the Lehigh & Susquehanna Railroad from White Haven to Wilkes-Barre, a distance of 20 miles. Its promoters initially entertained the idea of transporting canal boats via the railroad between the Lehigh Canal and the Susquehanna navigation, a scheme soon put aside in favor of conventional rail transport.
The Lehigh & Susquehanna conquered the mountains by means of several inclined planes and stationary steam engines which lifted loaded coal cars out of the Wyoming Valley on the first leg of the rail journey. Once over the mountains, coal trains followed a descending grade to White Haven, where they transferred their anthracite tonnage to the LC&N canal boats. Although the canal extension to White Haven was in operation by 1838, the first L&S train did not arrive in Wilkes-Barre until May 1843, when it was greeted by a gala demonstration punctuated by booming cannons.
During this period the Lehigh Coal & Navigation's traffic was steadily increasing. Coal was, of course, the staple trade and by the late 1830s the LC&N was shipping over 200,000 tons annually. Besides Philadelphia, a growing tonnage was being shipped to Newark and Perth Amboy via the Morris Canal for transfer to ships.
Supplementing its coal tonnage, the LC&N enjoyed a small but expanding traffic in lumber, lime and other commodities. Passengers were a minor concern, but were accommodated by regular packet service between Easton and Mauch Chunk and, eventually, White Haven.
The LC&N's system was virtually completed by 1840. Revenues were increasing and the future looked promising, but nature dealt an unexpected crippling blow. On January 10, 1841 a sudden flood wrought havoc, the rain-swollen Lehigh River destroying or damaging much of the Lehigh Canal. Coal traffic was disrupted for months and, although shipments were resumed the following July, final repairs were not completed until 1845.
Despite the tremendous costs incurred by the flood, by the mid-1840s the LC&N was again in full operation, its tonnage on the upswing. It controlled all movement of anthracite in the Lehigh Valley, and was beginning to pick up substantial increases in shipments of local iron ore for the region's growing iron industry.
To stimulate local industrial consumption of Lehigh anthracite, the LC&N had for some time actively encouraged the development of any process by which anthracite could be used in iron smelting. As an inducement, it offered reduced rates on both anthracite and its shipping costs to the successful industrial inventor. However, it was not until 1839 that the LC&N's proposal was taken up by the Lehigh Crane Iron Co.
The newly formed company's superintendent of operations was one David Thomas, a knowledgeable Welsh ironmaster. In Wales he had learned the process of iron smelting with anthracite fuel from a fellow ironmaster, George Crane. Under Thomas' direction, the first successful blast furnace fired by anthracite was put in operation in 1840 at Catasauqua, Pa., assuring the LC&N a promising new market for its coal.
The monopoly of the anthracite mining business that the LC&N had long enjoyed was now being challenged by a number of small, independent mining operations. However their competitive bite was blunted somewhat by the inescapable fact that they all were forced to rely on the Lehigh Canal for shipping their output to market. The LC&N naturally attempted to discourage these small competitors with high shipping rates which they had to accept, since there was no alternate mode of transport. Quite content with this state of affairs, the LC&N jealously opposed all efforts to establish any transport competition along its route.
O O O
By 1840 there were already better than a dozen small companies opening up new anthracite lands in the Lehigh region. The first to incorporate was the Beaver Meadow Railroad & Coal Company, organized April 7, 1830 to develop the Beaver Meadow mines, which had been first discovered in 1813. The company was also authorized to construct a railroad from the mines to the Lehigh River—the first steam railroad in the Lehigh Valley.
The Beaver Meadow planned to build its railroad along Quakake Creek to Penn Haven on the Lehigh River, and thence downriver to Mauch Chunk, where it would connect with the LC&N. After fruitless bargaining with the LC&N over shipping rates, which it viewed as extortionate, the Beaver Meadow opted to build its railroad to Easton, following the Lehigh Canal all the way. Needless to say, the LC&N met this proposal with something less than enthusiasm. As grading began in 1835, Josiah White fumed with rage and men of both companies took up weapons in anticipation of an all‑out donnybrook. Possible bloodshed was avoided, however, since the Beaver Meadow found that it had insufficient funds to reach Easton. A compromise was made with the LC&N, the BM agreeing to terminate at Parryville on the Lehigh River, where it would transfer its coal tonnage to the LC&N's boats.
Though no longer a competitive threat to the LC&N, now that it was relegated to feeder line status, the Beaver Meadow was an immediate success. Opened for business on November 5, 1836, the line hauled over 31,000 tons of anthracite to the Lehigh Canal during its first season of operation, and tonnage steadily increased thereafter.
The road's first locomotives, the SAMUEL D. INGHAM and the ELIAS ELEY, both of 4-2-0 wheel arrangement, were built by Garrett & Eastwick of Philadelphia in 1836. Delivery of the new motive power was something of a major undertaking, since the engines had to be loaded aboard canal boats and brought up from Philadelphia via the Delaware and Lehigh canals to the Beaver Meadow's Parryville terminus. As coal traffic greatly exceeded the promoters' original estimates, additional motive power was delivered by Garrett & Eastwick to accommodate the growing tonnage. In August 1837 the BM acquired two primitive, cabless eight-wheel locomotives, the BEAVER and the HERCULES, each capable of wrestling 150-ton coal trains over the strap iron rails to Parryville.
A small shop was erected at Beaver Meadow to service and repair the company's locomotives, rolling stock and mining machinery. Under the supervision of master mechanic Hopkin Thomas, the BM shop in 1837-38 assembled its first homemade locomotive, the NONPAREIL, which was also reputed to be the first 0-6-0 type built in the United States. Thomas' innovative talents were likewise evident in his conversion of the BM's motive power from cordwood to anthracite fuel, made possible by specially fitted firebox grates. In 1839 the shop was relocated at Weatherly, Pa. where, in years to come, home-made engines were tailored to fit the BM's requirements.
Nature is impartial in meting out misfortune, and the same flood that severely damaged the Lehigh Coal & Navigation in January 1841 dealt accordingly with the Beaver Meadow. Several bridges were washed out and the trackage along the Lehigh River was so devastated that the line between Mauch Chunk and Parryville was abandoned. The road's reconstruction was completedthat August, with East Mauch Chunk serving as its new connecting point with the Lehigh Canal.
O O O
At about the same time construction of the Beaver Meadow was nearing completion in 1836, a second regional anthracite railroad was organized. The Hazleton Coal Co., which had started mining operations that year, wanted a rail connection to the Lehigh Canal as an outlet for its coal. The Hazleton Railroad was thus incorporated on March 18, 1836, and soon after began construction of a ten-mile line from the Hazleton Coal Co.'s mines to Weatherly. From there it used the Beaver Meadow's trackage to Penn Haven, where coal was transferred to the Lehigh Canal.
The Hazleton Railroad depended on the Beaver Meadow to carry its coal shipments from Weatherly to the Lehigh Canal at Penn Haven until 1850, when a September flood washed away the BM's trackage. The Hazleton re-established its canal connection by constructing a flood-proof line along the mountaintop to Penn Haven, where a 1200foot plane lowered coal to the LC&N wharves. After the Hazleton's merger with the LV in 1868, the high-level rail line and planes remained in operation until 1878, when they were finally abandoned. (Source: Archer/M. S. Henry, History of the Lehigh Valley)
The Hazleton Railroad shipped its first anthracite in May 1837 and, by year's end, had hauled over 14,000 tons to Penn Haven. Like the Beaver Meadow, its eight-wheel locomotives were built by Garrett & Eastwick, and were adapted for burning anthracite fuel.
The Sugar Loaf Coal Co. augmented the anthracite feeder line mileage in 1839 when it completed a railroad connecting its newly opened mines with the Hazleton Railroad. The Sugar Loaf Railroad, barely two miles in length, shipped 7,500 tons of coal to the LC&N via the Hazleton line in 1839, its first year of operation. It also relied on Garrett & Eastwick for its motive power, taking delivery of its first locomotive, the AJAX, by canal boat from Philadelphia in early 1839. The Sugar Loaf Co. continued its independent mining and rail operations until 1844, when it was absorbed by the Hazleton Coal Co.
O O O
The railroad had arrived in the Lehigh region, but the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company's dominion was still supreme. Its exclusive monopoly on the shipment of anthracite traffic through the Lehigh Valley remained unchallenged despite the growing rancor of local shippers.
Although the pioneer anthracite railroads were little more than feeder lines conveying coal from mine to canal boat, posing no serious threat to the LC&N's hegemony, they did demonstrate the feasibility of the steam railroad as an efficient new mode of transport. It would only be a matter of time until the Beaver Meadow Railroad's thwarted plans for a rail line through the Lehigh Valley to Easton would be taken up again.
1 Pennsylvania writers' Project, Pennsylvania; A Guide to the Keystone State, p. 376.
Rev. April 2010