Seeing Ghosts on the Allentown & Auburn

Sometimes I wish I was ignorant of industrial history. I could cross out of service railroad tracks without wanting to know where they went and why. I could pass an abandoned factory and not wonder about the people who worked there and the products they made. I could look at a rusty hunk of metal and see the decay rather than the machine it once was. I could live in the present, with all my energy directed to the moment I am in.

I could. But I can’t.

I see the ghosts before I see the living.

It’s an obsession that compels me to visit places and know people I would otherwise pass by. I accept into my personal circle men and women of vastly different backgrounds and beliefs, just because we share a passion for fighting Father Time and giving life to artifacts that would otherwise be lost.

By no means am I the best at this. In fact, I am not even close. There are others who spend one hundred times more hours and money preserving industrial history than I do. I find my place as a supporter, marketer and cheerleader rather than as a welder, machinist or boilermaker. It’s my lot in life; my brain contributes more than my hands.

This is the service the ghosts require of me. Others pay a different price.

As part of my allegiance to the past, I relish the chance to celebrate those who keep the flame lit. This is why I was drawn to the Allentown & Auburn Railroad: 4.2 miles of 150 year old railroad kept active by fellow spirit-talkers.

The complete story of the original A&A is tangled tale of high hopes. Suffice it to say that what was once planned to be a direct route to the rich anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania turned out to be a relatively inconsequential branchline of the mighty Reading Railroad, connecting the village of Kutztown with the mainline at Topton. 4.2 miles. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more. After a series of owners and operators, the line lay dormant until the new Allentown & Auburn began operations in 2015 as a heritage railway.

At a time when many faded railroads are being destroyed in favor of hiking trails, a small band of preservationists reimagined the moribund line as a haven for historic railroad equipment that had otherwise run out of places to turn a wheel. Against all odds, the A&A not only came back to life, but attracted like-minded individuals to contribute their own time, tools and even trains.

While the A&A offers excursions throughout the year with many events for families and for adults, my first foray on the line was via a private charter arranged for some friends and I to explore America’s newest heritage railroad in late November 2016. The photos and captions tell the story.

Your personal journey on the A&A should begin on their website: http://allentownandauburnrr.com/

The Kutztown station has been through multiple stages of restoration over the past 30 years. Today the historic building is the starting point for the Allentown & Auburn excursions.
One of the most significant newcomers to the Allentown & Auburn is a self-propelled passenger car from the late, great Pennsylvania Railroad. Built by J.G. Brill in 1930 and now privately owned, #4666 is a rolling work in progress. Joining us on our excursion were two people who rode her in regular service over 50 years ago.
The Pennsylvania Railroad cornered the market early on steel, oil and corporate hubris; dubbing itself “The Standard Railroad of the World.” To the masses, it was merely the Pennsy (that’s PEN-zee, not PEN-see). Like countless families in the east and midwest, the Pennsy employed my forefathers and gave their kin passage to the burgeoning America of the Industrial Revolution.
Best known for its four-track mainline and fleets of express passenger trains, the Pennsy was also a downhome partner to rural communities throughout its network. Often these towns lay along branchlines lacking the population or industry to require traditional train service; but still offered enough business to require a small train. Many railroads turned to self-propelled trains capable of hauling passengers and a modest amount of freight. Formally known as gas-electric cars for their means of propulsion, they soon acquired the quaint nickname “Doodlebug.” Once common, less than a dozen ‘bugs remain intact today. #4666 is a survivor.
Diesel locomotive #206 pulls most of the passenger excursions on the A&A. Built in 1937 for service at the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant in that company’s namesake city, she is the second oldest operating diesel in the United States.
Heritage railroading features machines, but it’s soul is found in the people who comfort history.
Even trains run for delight and education have to adhere to all the standards and practices of the railroad industry. Part of preservation is keeping alive the traditions and work habits of those who roamed the rails before us.
With a lifetime of service in the state of Pennsylvania, #206 is right at home among brick row houses and rolling fields.
#4666, well… she’s my kind of artifact; operable but not fully restored. Her return to as-built glory is still many dollars and hours away. Yet, to those who value such things #4666 is no less a gem than the Hope Diamond.