Excerpts from Matthews & Hungerford – pp. 664 – 666


The First Railroad, the “Back Track” and the “Switchback” or Gravity Road



In May 1827, the railroad from the mines to Mauch Chunk was begun.  This was the first railroad ever constructed for the transportation of coal, and, with one or two trifling exceptions, for any other purpose.  (The Quincy Massachusetts Railroad, three miles in length, was made in the fall of 1826.  There had previously been a short wooden railroad, not plated with iron, at Leaper’s stone-quarry, but this was worn out and not in use when the Mauch Chunk road was constructed.)  For many years it attracted the attention of travelers as a most wonderful novelty.  This road was placed mainly on the route of the old wagon-road.  The distance to the river from the mines is about nine miles.  The elevation of Summit Hill above the river at the point where the coal was delivered into boats is nine hundred and thirty-six feet.  The railroad made this descent by an irregular declivity, finally passing the coal down long chutes into the boats on the water.  The whole was completed under the superintendence of Josiah White, who had conceived the idea, in about four months.  The rails were of rolled bar-iron, about three-eights of an inch in thickness and one and a half inches in width, laid upon a wooden foundation.  The sleepers were four feet apart, and rested upon stone.  The loaded cars or wagons, as they were at first called, each carrying about one and a half tons of coal, were connected in trains of from six to fourteen, each attended by a couple of men, who regulated their speed.  They made the descent entirely by the force of gravity, and being quickly unloaded at the chutes, were returned on the same track to the mines, being drawn by mules.  They descended with the trains in cars made expressly for the purpose, affording a novel spectacle.  The descent was made in about thirty minutes, and the mules, each pulling three or four cars, made the laborious back trip in about three hours.  The length of the road, including “turn-outs” and branch roads to and into the mines, was twelve and a half miles.  It was built at a cost of about three thousand and fifty dollars per mile, or, to be exact, a total of thirty-eight thousand seven hundred and twenty-six dollars.  The managers said, in their annual report  “One hundred and forty-six railroad wagons have been made, and the utility of the road proved by transporting 27,770 tons of coal, at a saving over the turnpike of 64 ¾ cents per ton, and has produced a saving this year of over $15,000.  In mining the coal and in the boating department sixteen cents per ton have been saved, and the cost of the coal was thus reduced eighty cents per ton.”  The whole amount of coal sent to market during the year was thirty-two thousand and seventy-four tons, for the transportation of which nearly fifteen miles of boats were constructed from seven million four hundred and twelve thousand, one hundred and eighty-three feet of lumber, taken from the forests up the river.



In 1830 the company commenced a railroad which connected the Rhume Run mines with the landing about a mile above Mauch Chunk.  These mines had been opened a short time before on the northern side of the coal-basin, at a break in the mountain caused by the passage of Rhume Run Creek, which flows into the Nesquehoning.  The road was substantially built along the side of the mountain, the rails being set in cast-iron knees bolted to stone blocks.  Coal was brought down on this road by the force of gravity, precisely the same as upon the Summit Hill and Mauch Chunk road, and at the river was discharged down an inclined plane into boats.  When the Nesquehoning Valley Railroad was built the old gravity road was abandoned.


By the spring of 1844 the demand for coal had become so great that greater facilities were needed for its transportation from the mines to the river.  The idea of a back track to convey the empty cars from the river to the mine had been conceived some years before by Josiah White, and was now carried out.  To effect this object a plane was constructed from the head of the chutes to the top of Mount Pisgah, about nine hundred feet above the Lehigh.  From the plateau to the mountain-top is six hundred and sixty-four feet.  The length of the plane constructed was two thousand three hundred and twenty-two feet.  Up this ascent the cars were drawn by two stationary steam-engines of one hundred and twenty horse-power each, and from thence allowed to run by gravity towards the mines on a track descending at an average grade of fifty feet to the mile, six miles to the foot of Mount Jefferson.  From this point they were again raised four hundred and sixty-two feet, upon a plane two thousand and seventy feet in length, and thence by gravity they run a mile to the town of Summit Hill.  The back track was completed and opened in 1845, and in the following year operations were commenced in Panther Creek Valley.  Into this valley the cars descended for their loads of coal by the “switchback,” now abandoned, which gave to the whole unique and ingenious system the name by which it still is improperly called.  The cars zigzaged down the “switchback,” reversing their motion where the tracks came together in the form of a Y.  This was effected by a simple arrangement of self-acting switches.  Supposing that the car came down the track represented by the left branch of the Y, it would continue upon the stem by the momentum it had gained on the steep down-grade of two hundred and twenty-one feet to the mile, but not far, for that portion of the track represented by the stem of the letter had an ascending grade.  As soon as the car had come to a stand-still it began to run down the ascent, but the switch having been closed by a spring, instead of running back a little way on the road it had descended, it was directed to the right branch of the Y, and so continued its descent until it reached another switch, when the automatic operation was repeated.  The cars when loaded were drawn to the summit upon a plane similar to that at Mount Pisgah and Mount Jefferson, and thence rolled along the gravity road to Mauch Chunk.  This plan of the gravity road over the mountains from the mines to the river and back accomplished all that it was expected to, and was as complete a success from a financial point of view as it was from that of the engineer.



The Mount Pisgah plane was considered at the time of its construction as the greatest triumph of engineering in its peculiar line ever known, the height being the greatest overcome by similar means.  The machinery of the planes was practically the same as that now in use, which we shall presently describe.  The construction of the Nesquehoning Valley Railroad with a tunnel connecting with the Panther Creek Valley rendered the original gravity road, the back track, and the Switchback useless to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company for the purposes they were designed for and so many years fulfilled; but, owing to their novelty, they are retained, with the exception of the Switchback, and the gravity circuit of eighteen miles to and from the mines can be made by townspeople or tourists in comfortable passenger cars, the road now being under lease to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company.


Ascending to the starting-point at the foot of Mount Pisgah plane (in Upper Mauch Chunk), one may study the mechanism of the cars and cables, and at the top the application of the power which lifts the cars with their human loads to the glorious heights where they begin their swift and fascinating journey along the wooded mountain-top towards the scene of Ginter’s important discovery in 1791.  At the top of Mount Pisgah, in a house with two great chimneys, are the giants which genius has set to work to overcome the ascent of the mountain.  They are engines each capable of exerting the power of one hundred and twenty horses.  They revolve two iron drums of twenty-eight feet diameter, designed for operating, by means of two double Swedish iron bands seven and a half inches wide, a safety-car on each track of the plane.  These drums can be revolved together or separately, as circumstances may require, and are as perfectly under the control of the engineer in charge as are the driving wheels of a locomotive.  They are simply intended to wind up and unwind the iron bands alluded to, which are attached to the safety cars, and pass over rollers between the rails of each track when the machine is in motion.  These bands are made of the very best of iron, are almost as strong and flexible as steel, and wind upon the drums as readily, to all appearance, as if composed of leather.  They are long enough to reach from the engine-house to the foot of the plane, and, when a passenger car is moved up one track by a safety-car in its rear, the other safety-car, attached to its ban, moves down to take its place in the rear of another passenger car.  This position in the rear of the passenger-car is reached by an ingenious arrangement, which obviates the necessity of detaching it from its connection with the power by which it is controlled.  As it reaches the foot of the plane the gauge of its running-gear contracts, it takes a narrower track, an descends down a steeper decline into a pit between the rails until out of the way, when the passenger-car moves over and a short distance in advance of it.  When all is ready a signal passes from the conductor below to the engineer above; the great drums are set in motion; the band which passes under and between the wheels of the passenger-car becomes taut, and the little safety-car comes slowly out, and is soon pushing up the loaded passenger-car towards the elevated summit.  The safety-car looks like a small, solidly-built truck with extra gearing and a strong bumper.  It is so called because provided with an iron arm, which extends over a ratchet-rail, upon which the least backward movement would cause it to fall, holding the little train stationary.  In all the years that the plane has been in operation not a single person has been injured in going up the mountain.


The so-called “Switchback,” or more properly the gravity railroad, was leased by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and sub-leased by that corporation to Thomas L. Mumford, who is the present manager, and by whom, assisted by his brother, H.J. Mumford, superintendent and passenger agent, it is operated.


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Rev. April 2010