Iron Steps


Illustrated History of

Tamaqua, Pennsylvania


by Donald R. Serfass


Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 95-92269

@ 1995, 2010 Donald R. Serfass Tamaqua, PA

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America


This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in whole, or in part, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author.


Excerpts from the Revised Second Edition


The Tamaqua Iron Works

Philadelphia & Reading Shops of the Little Schuylkill Railroad Company

The Great Flood of 1850

Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad



Early Industry – The Tamaqua Iron Works


Another storied foundry with a history of name changes was the sprawling Tamaqua Iron Works, begun in 1846 at the comer of South Railroad and Spruce Streets, then called Railroad Avenue and Foundry Street. (Click here for street map.) Founder John K Smith started a small shop that changed owners and name: about ten times in its first 25 years. Then, as word spread, this foundry, later called "Allen Machine Shops," became the largest foundry in Pennsylvania and filled the entire block.


Unfortunately, an arson fire destroyed the works in 1872, but through perseverance and determination, the foundry rose from ashes and once again produced machine and iron works shipped all across the young country. At it prime, the industry employed several hundred workers. It eventually was sold to Vulcan Iron Works, Wilkes-Barre before it suspended operations. In 1961, the entire complex: was gutted by fire, after which the town used the site, adjacent to the present Tamaqua Public Library, as a municipal parking lot. In the 1960s, the lot purposely was flooded and frozen to provide for a safe ice skating fink enjoyed as winter time recreation.


Today, the name of Tamaqua Iron Works and Allen of Tamaqua can still be found stamped on old-time heavy duty machinery and ornamental iron. Many of the ornate spires that top the domes of Tamaqua’s tum-of-the-century Victorian houses were hand-crafted at these historic early foundries.


Philadelphia & Reading Shops of the Little Schuylkill Railroad Company


Just 1 block south of the Rolling Mill stood another sprawling complex, the Philadelphia & Reading Shops of the Little Schuylkill Railroad Company, 1848, and the magnificent engineering marvel "the Round House," 1857 large enough to hold 21 steam locomotives. The Shop employed 90 men who mostly repaired engines, and the Roundhouse, one of two that stood at the site, was highly acclaimed by the scientific community, who hailed it as an engineering triumph with its large, circular, teepee-type roof with no center ground supports. In 1860, the railroad company, then known as The Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad and Coal Company, sold to the Philadelphia an Reading (P&R) Company, responsible for the appearance of two very early steam engines, the Tuscarora, 1842, and the Tamaqua, 1854.


The Tamaqua Roundhouse


Unfortunately, in 1896, the P&R Company destroyed the original Roundhouse and erected a different building. It served the same purpose; that structure stood for an additional 60 odd years, when, it, too, was razed. Today, this site is small shopping plaza and parking lot.



The Great Flood of 1850


To realize what happened in Tamaqua in 1850, one must first understand that the town had just completed a major project that altered nature -- changing the course of the Little Schuylkill River from its natural path through downtown to a new location about 2 blocks east. The natural riverbed was in the heart of the downtown, about where the railroad tracks divide the town today. The reason for this undertaking is unclear, perhaps the river's natural course interfered with the laying of the railroad tracks. Or maybe the river occupied prime real estate in the burgeoning downtown business area. Whatever the reason, the river's path was intercepted north of town and diverted eastward in a large crescent shape to the southern tip of town, where it was allowed to return to its natural path. (Today, the river still follows this man-made path through town.)


It began as a gentle rain in Tamaqua on Sunday evening, September 1, 1850, and gradually turned into a nonstop downpour, By daylight, the trestles leading into the mines at Newkirk, just beyond the west end of town, became clogged with dirt and debris that built up so high that a massive natural dam formed on the Wabash Creek. After several hours, the dam gave way and water rushed into the valley toward Tamaqua, combining with yet another flood racing down from the north mountains as the swollen Little Schuylkill River, over its banks, roared toward town determined to return to its natural course, its path of least resistance. Two floods converged on Tamaqua in one horrific crash, destroying much of what had been built on the flatlands. For a brief time, the Little Schuylkill River had indeed returned to its natural path, and in doing so, bitterly destroyed almost everything man had erected along the way. The water's depth was beyond imagination.


One of the historical sketches indicates, "The generally accepted theory is that the flood was caused by a great water spout which burst over the valleys. In the gorge on Burning Mountain a tree 60 feet up the side marks the height of the sudden flood-everything on the flats was swept away. Dwellings, foundations and workshops were taken away by the waters. A double frame house in which 22 persons had taken shelter, was torn asunder and all were drowned The Rev. Oberfeld was caught by the water while in the act of rescuing a child and was drowned."


Accounts reveal that 62 people lost their lives during the disaster. The tracks of the Little Schuylkill Railroad were completely obliterated and the town was isolated from the outside world for six days. On September 2 and 3, everybody turned out to retrieve the dead. One procession brought in 11 bodies at one time. Mourners simply wandered the streets in disbelief, as it seemed that death had claimed a life in every home.


Many businesses never reopened and approximately 40 homes were completely swept away by the flood waters.  Bridges and roads ceased to exist. People were rescued from trees. One story even tells of a gallant man galloping his horse by the water's edge trying to save struggling victims, only to be swept away himself by the erratic current.


As for the minister who died rescuing a child, there remains a stark, solemn monument in St. John's Lutheran Cemetery on Patterson Street in Tamaqua. The tallest white, thin grave marker in the cemetery's old section at one time provided an account of the rescue in English on the markers east side and in the German language on the west. Today, the inscription on the English side has surrendered to nature, but on the German side, you still can discern the words of the heroic attempt of "Rev. Peter Z. Oberfelter" (the German spelling), who gave his life to save a drowning child. The tombstone, six feet high, rests high and dry on Dutch Hill, overlooking the valley.


Sadly, the Great Flood of 1850 remains Tamaqua’s most historic single event and most noted tragedy.




The Nation's First Commercial Railroad

Hauling Anthracite with a Steam Engine, 1831


The story of the first commercial railroad is printed here through the assistance of William Melchoir and Dale Freudenberger, railroad enthusiasts and Tamaqua historians, whose dedication and expertise on the subject deserve the utmost praise.


By 1817, coal had been discovered both east and west of Tamaqua. Through the years, the shiny black rocks began to prove their value as fuel for both home and industry, and small coal mines cropped up on the landscape. The first coal produced by these mines was hauled to market by horse and wagon. This method quickly proved too slow on the narrow, treacherous and muddy roads. The demand for coal was increasing and a quicker means of transportation was needed.


It was soon decided that the use of the many rivers that flowed through the area would provide a better method of transportation. Small barges were built and an attempt was made to float the coal to Philadelphia. However, early coal shippers soon learned that the use of rivers presented many obstacles to overcome. The rivers ran wild in springtime, smashing the barges on the rocks, while the same rivers turned to small streams during summer droughts. This led to the creation of dams to provide slack water navigation.


On August 3, 1815, the state legislators granted a charter for the incorporation of the Schuylkill Navigation Company "to make a timber and agricultural outlet to bring stone coal to Philadelphia."


Canals were soon being dug to provide waterways where rivers did not exist or proved impossible to tame. Tire first great canal in the United States was the Schuylkill Canal, running 108 miles from Mt. Carbon near Pottsville, to Philadelphia. It opened in May, 1825.


On February 26, 1826, a company was formed to comply with the 1815 charter and work began on a lock canal connecting Tamaqua with the Schuylkill Canal at Port Clinton.


The company soon found, however, that it would be very difficult to build the canal due to the landscape. They reasoned that a new form of transportation, a railroad, would be better suited to the twisting terrain. A few far-sighted individuals immediately realized the value of railroads. On April 23, 1829, a supplemental charter was granted to the Schuylkill Navigation Company to develop the Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad (LSNRR) between Tamaqua and Port Clinton. Plans were underway the same year for 5 other local railroads, but the one between Tamaqua and Port Clinton, a distance of 20 miles, was by far the largest undertaking.


On November 18, 1831, the horse-drawn railroad officially opened. In two horse-drawn coaches built by Richard Imlay of Baltimore, Maryland, a group of dignitaries left Port Clinton for Tamaqua at 10 a.m. Upon their arrival I p.m., they were greeted by 15 gaily decorated coal cars surrounded by cheering Tamaqua miners. Six days later on the 23rd, the irst coal car was transported over the railroad to Port Clinton. Weighing three tons each, these first cars were driven by George Shoemaker and Henry Ray. Isaac Hinkley drove the first passenger coaches. Upon arrival at Port Clinton, the coal and passengers were transferred to barges for the trip to Philadelphia.


About this time, the history of the railroad becomes somewhat cloudy. It has been a widely accepted fact that the Catawissa and the Comet were the first steam engines used on the line. Yet, other research indicates that there were possibly two steam engines used earlier, with very limited success at first - the engines known as the Tamaqua and Tuscarora.


Built in England, the Tamaqua and Tuscarora were accompanied by two English engineers, George Mann and a Mr. Merrick. For whatever reasons, these early steam engines had difficulty running on the flat iron and wood rails. They jumped the track so often that they were stored away. It would not be until T-rails were used that these two engines were dusted off and put back in service. Some time later, Peter Marks and John Smith replaced engineers Mann and Merrick, historical articles note.


On March 9, 1833, two more steam engines, the Catawissa and Comet, purchased from an English builder, were placed in service. The Catawissa cost $5,000 and was the workhorse of the new pair. It ran two trips per day between Tamaqua and Port Clinton. However, just two years later, disaster struck when the Catawissa spread the rails and ran into the river. It was towed to Tamaqua by a team of horses where it was repaired. Later, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad leased the line, the Catawissa was sent to Harrisburg. One report has it being damaged in a collision and never repaired, while another claims it was rebuilt as a special inspection car and finally retired in 1865 and scrapped in 1870. At least two photographs of the Catawissa survive today and may be seen at the Tamaqua Historical Society Museum, West Broad Street.


The 1881 History of Schuylkill County reports: "On Monday, March 11, a novel and interesting spectacle was presented on the road. A trial trip was made by locomotive engine, running from Port Clinton to Tamaqua. It excited considerable interest, as it was the first locomotive introduced in Schuylkill County .. It is said that the engine was shipped from Liverpool to Philadelphia, where it was loaded on a wagon used for hauling marble, and with 16 horses hauled to Schuylkill County. "


Despite the early setbacks in track and engine design, it was all too obvious that railroads and steam engines were here to stay. Apparently, the state legislature agreed, and on April 4, 1833, issued a charter for construction of a railroad between Philadelphia and Reading. On December 5, 1839, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad officially opened. Later, the railroad was extended to Mt. Carbon and on January 1, 1842, the first train ran the entire track from Mt. Carbon to Philadelphia.


The Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad continued to prosper with its connection to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. As of February 2, 1850, the fare from Tamaqua to Port Clinton was 75 cents and from Tamaqua to Philadelphia, $3.50.


The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad realized the importance of the Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad and in April, 1863, (also reported July 7, 1868) the Philadelphia and Reading leased the LSNRR for 93 years. The Philadelphia and Reading continued to expand through construction and acquisition of other small lines. It probably reached its peak in the post W.W.11 period. On June 26, 1946, the Reading Railroad had 3,438 miles of track, 593 locomotives, 35,000 freight and passenger cars and 20,000 employees. At the time, it was the fifth largest freight carrier in the nation and America’s largest anthracite hauler.


After this peak period, the railroad started to decline. First, the passenger train became part of history as people were traveling more in cars and buses. But even the elimination of passenger trains and its red ink could not stop the decline. Coal, the single factor which caused the birth of the railroad, was now causing its death. When oil took over as the new fuel of the future, coal mining started to decline. With the Reading Railroad geared toward coal mining and transportation, it could not recover from its downward slide. In April, 1976, the Reading Railroad finally succumbed and, along with other bankrupt northeast railroads, became the government-owned Conrail. This ownership would continue until December 15, 1990, when the Reading and Northern Railroad would take over as owners of the original Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad and all other Conrail-owned lines in Schuylkill County.


Although this could have been the end of the story, the Reading Railroad did have one more part in railroad history. Generally, folks believe the diesel locomotive was a product of the 1940s, finally overtaking the steam engines in the 1950s. This is partially true, but the diesel was being tested long before the 1940s.


In 1925, Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia built its first diesel locomotive, No. 58501. After trial runs on the BLW test track, the 12 cylinder, 1,000 horsepower locomotive ventured out onto the Reading Railroad. During that summer and fall, the 58501 worked between Reading and Tamaqua pulling 1,000 tons out of Reading at speeds up to 16 miles per hour on the .7% grades and 2,000 ton trains out of Tamaqua.


And what remains of the old Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad? Mostly photos, some memories, collectibles and memorabilia. And, oh yes, something most important.


Today, the original Little Schuylkill Navigation Railroad line is still in use, following the same route as when surveyed in 1830.




Return to the Schuylkill Region Development Page


About The Hopkin Thomas Project


Rev. July 2010