Of all man’s creations borne out of earthly materials and human intellect, those which inspire the greatest awe harness power to carry us further, faster or higher than our own hapless masses of skin and bone could ever hope to. From space shuttles to farm tractors to automobiles of all shapes and forms, every machine of transport draws its own legion of followers willing to freeze time and revel in the greatest movers of the past.
Perhaps none draws deeper emotions than the steam locomotive; the first means of land transportation to challenge the horse and win. Man’s ability to expand his claim across the world hinged upon his ability to travel efficiently. The steam locomotive moved man, all people of wealth or squalor, unlike anything that came before it.
On the weekend of August 22 & 23, 2015 one locomotive in particular (#765, built in 1944 for the New York, Chicago & St. Louis “Nickel Plate Road”) motivated my wife, son and I to put 635 miles on Half Moon (our trusty Ford Explorer) wandering the trackside roads of northeastern Pennsylvania in search of that emotional connection between man and machine.
Steam trains in the 21st Century
The age of the steam locomotive as a necessary tool of daily life came to a close rather recently in corners of the world where skilled labor forces and favorable market conditions slowed the roll of progress. For most countries, the USA included, steam power all but vanished by the 1960’s. As scrappers happily devoured the windfall of heavy metals, pangs of nostalgia and mechanical passion saved a select group of steam trains from dissection by the torch.
Six decades after the end of American steam, a small contingent of boilermakers, machinists and mechanics keep a handful of coal and oil-fired locomotives active. Most operate on dedicated tourist railroads which sell the past as a commodity of modern-day entertainment. A few found benefactors among the top railroads of today, which sponsor occasional trips for employees and the general public as part of a corporate reputation strategy connecting the role of modern railroads with their early predecessors.
The Norfolk Southern railroad leads the short list of railroad companies willing to embrace the past. While several competitors forbid steam train operations of any sort, the NS encouraged and enabled responsible locomotive owners to join their “21st Century Steam” program. As a result, a small fleet of steam trains once owned by the long-gone railroads that make up today’s NS system hit the road each summer for a limited number of excursions which often traverse rails that last saw steam 60–70 years ago.
Early railroads tended to give locomotives names, ranging from the cute (“Tom Thumb”) to the optimistic (“The Best Friend of Charleston”) and majestic (“Leviathon”) but as fleets grew and the iron horse settled in as part of everyday life, most lines opted for assigning steam engines individual identification “road numbers” even if they also had names. In the UK the hobby of “train spotting” developed, with enthusiasts writing down the numbers and names of every locomotive they would see. American railfans focused more on photography than writing in journals, but tracking numbers drove many a youngster to try to collect pictures of all the locomotives in a given group. As steam locomotives disappeared from regular service, the road numbers of survivors became legend. Only numerologists assign more value to a string of digits than train enthusiasts. Among the steam community, one of the most famous numbers is 7–6–5.
One would have needed a good psychic to identify #765 as a future star back in 1944 when she rolled out of the erecting shops at the Lima Locomotive Works of Lima, Ohio. She was just one of four-score “Berkshire” type locomotives built to hustle fast freight across the mid-western mainlines of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (nicknamed the Nickel Plate Road, abbreviated “NKP”). The Berkshires achieved acclaim for their advanced design and reliable operating characteristics. Partly because of this success, the NKP kept steam locomotives running longer than most of their American counterparts, but all the road’s fires went cold by late 1959.
The Nickel Plate Road saw fit to donate a handful of steam locomotives to museums and city parks. Fort Wayne, Indiana had requested #767 for display. It was the first locomotive to operate on a new alignment of the NKP for the city. The railroad sent them #765 instead, but to the chagrin of railfans and numerologists the NKP renumbered it to #767 in an attempt to please the town.
The Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society brought #765 back to operational status in 1979. Under their professional care, she has run (restored to her original number) across the eastern half of the United States visiting cities far beyond her Nickel Plate Road terminals.
Late August 2015 saw #765 come further east than she had since 1986, pulling a pair of Norfolk Southern employee appreciation and public excursions from Bethlehem to Pittston, Pennsylvania via the remote confines of the Lehigh Gorge. Riders on the train enjoyed views of bicyclists, hikers, kayakers and rafters packed into the deep river valley, most unaware that 40 years ago the entire area wondered if it had a future at all.
Until the 1800’s the Lehigh River valley remained unchanged from centuries before. Despite the arrival of European settlers, their impact remained largely agricultural until the discovery of anthracite coal in the mountains west and north of the river. Even though the Lehigh River itself skirted the coal regions, the waterway provided the most direct route to transport coal to the ports of Philadelphia and northern New Jersey.
Early entrepreneurs built the Lehigh Canal with a base of operations in the town of Mauch Chunk. The system of towpaths and locks eventually linked White Haven in the north with Easton in the south where connections where made to other canals and railroads. While the canal flourished, the riches of the coal age beckoned continued improvement in transportation. By the mid-1800’s the river’s course became crowded with two new railroads joining the canal. Mauch Chunk took title as one of the wealthiest towns in the world.
By the time the canal finally ended operations in the 1940’s, both the Jersey Central and Lehigh Valley railroads dominated transportation along the Lehigh. In many areas, the railroads mainlines operated just feet apart, hugging the banks of the river. From the coal connections in the north, to the Portland Cement industry mid-route and the mighty Bethlehem Steel on the south, few transportation corridors meant more to the industrial might of America.
The rapid collapse of the anthracite coal business in the 1950’s stunned the economy of the region. A combination of changing fuel needs, market manipulations and mining accidents accelerated the fall of coal. Tourism, which also supported the economy in the Mauch Chunk area, suffered as well. In a last-ditch effort to revive interest from visitors, the town had Olympian legend Jim Thorpe entombed on a hill above the Lehigh. In 1953, the town adopted the name Jim Thorpe. The attraction did little for the town. By the 1970’s both Jim Thorpe and entire Lehigh Gorge area lay forgotten by industrialists and vacationers.
Rebirth in the gorge
The natural beauty of the Lehigh Gorge lay waiting for rediscovery in the early 1970’s, scarred by the remains of abandoned canals and the loss of half its rail lines. During these dark times, George M. Hart Jr., a railroad enthusiast with a small collection of steam locomotives and railroad cars began operation of a short tourist train. Several times during this era, special steam trains were operated from New Jersey to Jim Thorpe for rail buffs. More than once, NKP #759 (a sister to #765) visited the route.
The rugged scenery of the Lehigh Gorge area once earned it the nickname “Switzerland of America.” As visitors slowly came back, they found a place where time had stood still. The local economy locked Jim Thorpe in suspended animation. The historic buildings, nascent steam train ride and ruins of past transportation routes drew a variety of visitors. Eventually, whitewater rafting companies created a major business in the gorge, while bicyclists discovered the network of mountain trails. When the State of Pennsylvania opened up a bike trail through the gorge (part of a network stretching over 100 miles), even the remote areas were in reach for exploration by casual visitors.
The NKP #765 excursions traveled through a gorge that has never been busier. Trail access parking lots overflowed with day trippers, hikers and railfans. Fleets of rafts crashed along the whitewater while hundreds of bicyclists followed the route of the old Jersey Central railroad on a groomed, well kept bike trail. As late as 1984, one could buy a mansion in Jim Thorpe for under $20,000, an investment worth at least 25x that amount in 2015. Rebirth, indeed.
The industries that drove development of railroads of the Lehigh Valley are lost to time. Coal, steel and cement declined in scope and moved most of the remaining traffic to trucks. An economy that once supported the mainlines of both the Jersey Central and Lehigh Valley railroads now lays claim to just one route cobbled together from the best parts of the predecessor railroads. From Easton to a remote location in the Lehigh Gorge known as M&H Junction, the Norfolk Southern owns the track. At Packerton, just south of Jim Thorpe, the Blue Mountain, Reading & Northern (R&N) owns trackage which parallels the NS to M&H Junction and then continues north to Pittston, PA near the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Both routes survive to carry freight trains moving the goods of modern society.
The R&N system represents cast off lines knitted into a new route by investor and railroad buff Andrew Muller. The company Muller built sits on a foundation of freight (including the last of the anthracite coal traffic), while supporting a vibrant tourist railroad business that often boasts an operating steam locomotive.
When the R&N acquired the trackage through the town of Jim Thorpe, the line expanded upon the pioneering tourism effort of George Hart. By restoring a long-abandoned bridge over the Lehigh River at Coalport, the R&N could run excursions trains directly into the heart of the Lehigh Gorge. Today, this operation is known as the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. On normal operating days, a fleet of diesel locomotives pull tourists riding in vintage rail cars from Jim Thorpe to Old Penn Haven Jct. in the gorge. Special “bike trains” carry passengers and their bicycles all the way to White Haven, where they disembark for the downhill ride on the trail back to Jim Thorpe. Excursions are often run to the far reaches of the system. On select days, the R&N’s beautiful blue steam locomotive #425 is found at the head of the trains.
Memories made with steam
My son and I spent the first day of #765’s adventure along the Lehigh River photographing some of the line’s most famous scenes and seeking out the steep inclines of the route over Penobscot Mountain where the grades, curves and long train would bring out the truest sound of power from the locomotive.
We shared the moments that railfans do. The camaraderie of a road trip… the joy of getting a nice photo or two… the meals on the run at Sheetz convenience stores (nothing says “train watching in Pennsylvania” like Sheetz coffee and a pack of Mallow Cups).
Sunday, our whole family came trackside to spend the day in the Lehigh Gorge. With #765 coming through, along with two R&N bike trains and #425 on the regular tourist trains, it was a train watchers paradise. Hikes to the falls in Glen Onoko and walks along the Lehigh filled time between trains.
We talked about #765, the canals, the railroads and the history of America. And we enjoyed the present of the revived Lehigh Gorge.
We decided at the last minute to take the 3:00pm excursion behind R&N #425. If the #765 excursion was on time, the two trains would meet deep in the gorge. Railroaders’ luck was on our side. As #425 and our train took the siding at Old Penn Haven, Jct. #765 approached as scheduled. Sitting in a 90 year-old passenger coach pulled by a vintage steam locomotive, leaning into an open window as a another steam train pounds by at speed on the adjacent track moves the soul with a full sensory attack. The ritual, once performed numerous times in the days of steam, had not happened in the Lehigh Gorge since the early 1950’s. Memories made.
Tired, cinder covered and hiked-out, we closed our trip at the Riverwalck BBQ joint in Parryville, PA. A meat and beer lovers paradise with outdoor seating along a mountain creek, Riverwalck also offers views of the Norfolk Southern tracks. As #765 rolled past, we lifted pints of local Yuengling Lager and root beer to toast our friends on board. Much to my surprise, our fellow diners broke out into applause and then a round of cheering and hollering as the train continued on to Bethlehem. These were not railfans, just people who — whether they expected it or not — could be moved to emotion by the passing of a vintage machine.
Wiping a cinder from my son’s forehead, I drew a deep breath in the lingering haze of coal smoke mixed with the scent of BBQ. Lifting my glass to my lips, I took a long swig of the cold beer satisfied to confirm that the steam locomotive — among all of man’s machines — still affects people at their core.
Robert John Davis is co-author of “The Digital Social Contract” (available as free ebook here: http://www.slideshare.net/OgilvyWW/the-digital-social-contract-54664482) and is employed as Executive Director of Content & Social at the venerable global creative advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.
— — — — -
This article was originally published in August, 2015 at http://raconteur.robertjohndavis.com/