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The Stourbridge Line Rail Excursion

The Stourbridge Line Rail Excursion

The smoky gray clouds, like emissions from turn-of-the-century steam locomotives, floated over the otherwise rolling, green Northern Pocono Mountains on a recent Memorial Day weekend. Could they have been hints of the area’s railroad past?

The weed-sprouting track, supporting a diesel engine, a stainless steel New York Central, and three maroon, Pennsylvania Railroad coaches next to the Wayne County Visitors Center, were poised for their 13:00, 25-mile run to Hawley and Lackawaxen as the “Lackawaxen Limited,” operated by the Stourbridge Line’s Delaware, Lackawaxen, and Stourbridge Railroad Company. From rail’s past, apparently grew rail’s present.

Having been operated by the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, and inaugurating tourist train service as far back as September of 1979, the Stourbridge Line ran for more than three decades as an earlier rendition, ceasing operations on December 11, 2011, before the present Delaware, Lackawaxen, and Stourbridge Railroad Company, run by the Myles Group, re-plied the tracks as of May 9, 2015.

A 50-minute drive from Scranton to Honesdale, a peruse of Main Street, a poke in the Wayne County Historical Society Museum, and a collection of brochures, pamphlets, newsletters, guide books, and area-related literature deposited me here, on the wooden platform, surrounded by an increasing gather of the train’s passengers.

The train’s railroad history, although silently subtle, seemed to speak to me. A glance over the coaches revealed the town’s Victorian architecture, which, as a preserved pocket, seemed to have withstood the tick of time, and next to the brick, ticket window sporting Visitors Center was a track-attached replica of a wooden coal wagon displayed on an incline. Rails clearly connected the town with its past.

A plaque outside of the historical society proclaimed, “Delaware and Hudson Canal. Terminus of the waterway uniting the Hudson and Delaware rivers. Built 1825 to 1828. A gravity railroad feeder reached Carbondale. For 70 years the anthracite trade outlet for the region.”

As I heard the “All Aboard” wail of the conductor-a virtual tone- and pitch-perfect echo of the instruction given by trainmen for almost two centuries-and inched toward the coach with my fellow passengers, I realized that something about the area had drawn me to its past.

Where, for example, was the Delaware and Hudson Canal and what relation, if any, did it have to this “Gravity Railroad,” with which Honesdale seemed synonymous?

Settling into my seat in car #1993, “Clinton Leech,” which had once been operated by the New Jersey Central Railroad, I thought of the philosophy shared by Sir Arthur Pinero, an English actor, dramatist, and stage director who had lived between 1855 and 1934. “The present is the past again, entered through another gate,” he had philosophized.

As the train would ply the tracks to its destination in the present, I would try to trace the area’s history to its past.

A brief, locomotive-tugging jolt, preceded by the obligatory whistle, increased car coupling tension until the chain formed by the four coaches crept away in forward momentum cohesion, crossing Route 191, where automobiles had collected as witnesses of its departure.

A laborious lumber, amid the protesting shrieks of its wheels, propelled the Lackawaxen Limited into an arboreal tunnel of green, as it paralleled the approximately named Lackawaxen River, whose oil-hued surface, like a mirror, reflected the trees, before squeezing past coach and caboose cradled siding track.

Increasing speed manifested itself as coach sway, as the lateral rocking–excuse the rhyme-took the present away, transporting me to the area’s past. Piece it together, I commanded my mind!

Canals and railroads shared both a geographical and logical origin here. In the case of Honesdale, they seemed to be the same.

Located in Wayne County, in northeast Pennsylvania, the town was 35 miles from Scranton (I had driven it myself) and 150 miles from Philadelphia. So far, that was not very significant.

Established in 1798, the county itself was named after General Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War hero who had gained notoriety when he ended Indian resistance and destroyed the Northwest Indian Confederation in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Separated from the County of Northampton in 1798, Wayne County was established, today encompassing 744 square miles.

Its seat of government varied over the years-from Wilsonville to Millford, Bethany, and, as of May 4, 1841, the very Honesdale in which the train originated. I wonder where its name came from, but, more importantly, what brought people to certain places to begin with? Perhaps a way in and a way out and something to transport in either or both directions.

A word on the Wayne County Historical Society’s plaque, which I had jotted down in my notebook, struck me: “Anthracite.” I do not know if this was a household word in Pennsylvania, but it seemed important-important enough for a dig into my laptop for its meaning. And, sure enough, “dig” was, unknowingly, a pretty appropriate word with which to associate it.

Because it was mined from the earth’s oldest geological formations and was therefore subjected to the greatest amount of heat and pressure, anthracite, a variety of coal, was able to produce much more heat energy than its softer, geologically younger counterpart, placing it in significant demand in emerging America to fuel its home hearths, factory furnaces, and steam-powered machines and locomotives-not that there were any of these around-at least not yet.

Although heavy mining in the state in the late-1800s to early-1900s depleted most of its supply, except for that still in very deep, difficult to reach deposits, it ranked as one of the three most important fossil fuels, along with oil and natural gas.

So, for a developing, increasingly industrial-based country, it was equivalent to gold. What remained, I suppose, was how to get it from here to there.

The answer, again, seemed to be inscribed on the Historical Society’s plaque: “Delaware and Hudson Canal.” It was time for more digging.

William Wurts was an early explorer of what was then known as the anthracite mine fields, viewing this rich northeast Pennsylvania energy source as a potentially monetarily rich one. Purchasing large parcels of land where it was located, along with brothers Charles and Maurice, in 1812 for little money, he apparently saw value few others did.

Coal extraction was the first step in his plan. Transporting it to market, particularly to the Philadelphia one, was the second. But that method, via barge-plying canal, had hitherto proven less than efficient, since most of the precious coal commodity was lost enroute. There had to be another-and better-way. He believed there was.

Inspired by the recently built Erie Canal and spurred by the idea that a similar waterway could supply New York City, he realized that he could create his own-in this case, the plaque-noted Delaware and Hudson Canal, which became the first long-distance transportation route chartered by the states of Pennsylvania and New York in 1823.

Threading its way through a narrow valley between the Shawagunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains, it followed-or, more accurately, became-a 108-mile waterway to the Hudson River near Kingston.

Why not hire the best to complete his plan? That is exactly what Wurts and brothers did, contracting Erie Canal engineer Benjamin Wright to survey and plan the artery, whereafter ground was broken in July of 1825. Their $1.6 million vision, requiring three years of construction and 2,500 laborers to complete, was transformed into water-flowing reality in October of 1828.

Its origin, between Kingston and Rosendale, New York, from where it connected to the New York-bound Hudson River, followed the Rondout Creek to Ellenville, passing through the villages of Sandburg Creek, Homowak Kill, and Basher Kill, through the Neversink River (what a reputation to maintain!) and on to Port Jervis. Proceeding, in a northwesterly direction on the New York side of the Delaware River, it entered Pennsylvania along the northern bank of the Lackawaxen River (currently framed by my coach’s left side window) to Honesdale.

Visions occasionally outpace technology. That phenomenon certainly played out here. Water was buoyant, supporting barges, but provided little propulsion for travel from origin to destination, leaving mules as “motors,” which ground out a 15- to 20-daily mile coverage. Supersonic they were not.

You can lead a horse to water, according to the adage, but not necessarily alongside of it, leaving humans as primitive GPS guides of them along the towpaths.

They also periodically pumped mounting water from the barges and refueled the four-legged engines, known in the 19th-century as “feeding.” The salary was all of $3.00-per month, not per day.

Necessity, to be sure, bred innovation in the project, including such civil engineering “firsts” as river-spanning aqueducts to reduce travel times and the unearthing of cement in the Rosendale area by John Roebling, who would later use it during construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The canal certainly facilitated transport to Kingston and then down the Hudson to New York, but how was the coal transferred from the mines to the awaiting barges? It was back to the plaque.

It mentioned a term I had never heard, nor particularly needed to: “Gravity Railroad.” Why emphasize the invisible force which ensured that trains remained on their tracks-or, for that matter, everything else on the ground? Internet, here I come!

Interesting. I am once again amazed at how human ingenuity substituted for technical engineering. As the locomotive, albeit of diesel power, currently pulled my train, the world out my window, despite perception to the contrary, remained stationary. This Gravity Railroad employed a concept that was almost inverse, in that the engine remained stationary, but at least the cars it pulled moved.

Canals over the Moosic Mountains to Honesdale for interchange and onward travel along the Delaware and Hudson waterway were not feasible, leaving the laying of tracks on which coal-laden sleds and wagons could run as the alternative for the first segment of the New York-bound journey.

But again Benjamin Wright, allowing the wheels of his brain to turn (this is, after all, what made him an engineer), envisioned those for a train, turning on track, and suggesting a railroad based upon the concept embodied in the Delaware and Hudson Gravity name, that would, at least partially, be powered by that natural, earth-supplied force.

What goes up, as is well known, must come down. But that first portion posed a problem, for, while gravity would do an admirable, never-tiring job on the second, some type of engine was needed for the first.

Commencing in the coal fields of Carbondale, at a 1,200-foot elevation, a 16-mile track stretched to Honesdale, first climbing to 1,907 feet at Rux’s Gap by mans of five west side inclined planes, whose cars were vertically hauled by stationary, steam-powered engines or winches, and then horizontally traveled across them. Three declining ones facilitated descent on the east side, down to a 975-foot elevation, although here, needless to say, gravity replaced all need for motive power.

Steam engine-to-car connections varied as the process was improved, beginning with two drums and a chain, progressing to hemp cables with 7.5-inch diameters, and ending with steel ones.

The cars themselves were open, but crowned with roofs and internally provisioned with bench seating. In the reverse direction, horses pulled them from Honesdale before they could be cable-secured to the Moosic Mountain in- and declined planes.

The 16 miles of otherwise relatively flat ground posed little engineering obstacle. Or did it? Here, neither the stationary steam engines nor the brigade of horses were effective, with the latter requiring their own care and maintenance. What was needed was an instrument with the engine’s mechanical, wood- or coal-burning power, but that was not restricted to its single location. The answer to that dilemma may be simple now (my train was being pulled by one), but not necessarily then. Whatever man takes for granted was, at one time, an innovation of engineering, a new-fangled advancement to be proclaimed to the world.

Great Britain, in the event-not the United States-was the birthplace of railroading. Yet, at the time, it was a painful passage down the canal on this side of the Atlantic that spurred the technology that could ameliorate it on the other side.

Nevertheless, if stationary steam engines existed, what about the practicality of refining them so that they could be transformed into moving ones?

Skeptics were rampant. However, it once again took an engineer-in this case, Delaware and Hudson Chief Engineer John B. Jervis-to turn the vision in his mind into the reality on his track.

Convinced that this potential not only existed, but that it held the key to a future, rail-based transportation mode, he sent his young protégé, Horatio Allen, across the pond in 1828 to brainstorm, along with England’s own engineers, a reliable, efficient steam locomotive that could cover a decent distance in a comparatively short time. He was equally tasked with purchasing the necessary strap iron to cover the surface of the otherwise wooden track.

The distance across the ocean did nothing to skew the common belief between Jervis and George Stephenson and son, Robert, who were considered the reigning experts in the fledgling railroad industry, that this was the future. They themselves were in the process of designing just such a locomotive for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

John Urpeth Rastrick, who had taken out a patent for the steam engine as early as 1814 and had since formed his own Foster Rastrick Company in the Town of Stourbridge, was contracted to build the Gravity Railroad’s first locomotive, the eight-ton, $2,914.90 “Stourbridge Lion,” so designated because its boiler sported a painted lion’s head.

Subjected to its own intermodal transport, it was first shipped from Stourbridge before being loaded on to a ship for the transatlantic crossing, arriving in New York on May 13, 1829, where it partook of a static demonstration at a foundry.

Placed on its designated Honesdale track three months later, on August 5, it was poised for its inaugural run, about which Jervis wrote to Delaware and Hudson president Bolton, “We shall put steam on her tomorrow or the next day,” adding that “anxiety raises as we approach the period when our contrivances must come to their touchstone of experiment.”

Opening the throttle, Horatio Allen induced the new-fangled engine to puff and chug on the three miles of wooden track, faced with wrought iron straps, which laid on a 30-foot-high, Lackawaxen River crossing trestle, in the process inaugurating steam locomotive service in the United States.

“America’s first steam locomotive, the ‘Stourbridge Lion,’ sent Honesdale and all of Wayne County into the history books when, on August 8, 1829, the amazing ‘iron horse,’ with its grasshopper legs and a lion’s face painted on its boiler head, chugged up the track in this very town,” noted the “Wayne County Historical Society’s Newsletter” (Volume 32, number 1, January-March 2017).

Because the engine’s smokestack was too tall to clear an overhead bridge, ti could only travel as far as Seelyville before it had to return, now backwards oriented. Nevertheless, history had been written on the rails that day. America had entered the railroading era.

“I started with considerable velocity, passed the curve over the creek safely, and was soon out of hearing of the cheers of the large assemblage present,” Allen later explained. “At the end of two or three miles, I reversed the valves and returned without accident to the place of starting, having thus made the first railroad trip in the Western Hemisphere.”

Its glory was brief. Although the locomotive’s success could not be discounted, that of the track on which it ran was not. It was too weak to support the continued ply of iron locomotives and coal-laden cars, and costs to strengthen it proved prohibitive.

Stored in a Honesdale shed until 1848, the Stourbridge Lion was then transferred to Carbondale, where its boiler was removed and sold for stationary purposes, leaving its track for horse usage after planks had been laid across them.

Although it was the end of the line for the “Lion,” it certainly paved the way toward more advanced engines and properly strengthened steel rails, all of which united and fostered the growth of the country.

Its boiler, cylinder, and walking beam were subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and formed the partially original steam locomotive exhibit in its Hall of Transport.

Now it made sense-that is, the second plaque outside of the Wayne County Historical Society Museum, which said, “A replica of the famous Stourbridge Lion, first steam locomotive run on rails in the US, August 8, 1829, is housed here. Beside it is Eclipse, original passenger coach on the Delaware and Hudson Gravity Railroad.”

It also now made sense why Honesdale was considered the “Birthplace of America’s commercial railroad.”

The society itself was housed in a brick structure built in 1860 as the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company’s headquarters and the town, once known as Dyberry Forks, was renamed for Philip Hone, one of the canal transportation system’s planners. My train’s departure point, I also learned, had once been its boat basin, or transfer point of coal, from the Gravity Railroad to barges for the 108-mile journey to Kingston. The wooden car viewed before boarding had symbolized it.

Employing the original blueprint, the Wayne County Historical Society Museum’s full-scale, 0-40 locomotive reproduction, constructed in 1933 in Colonie, New York, shops by the Delaware and Hudson Railroad Company, was displayed at the Country of Progress Exhibition in Chicago and at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, before being placed on permanent display at its current location.

Featuring a 17.4-foot wheelbase, engine, and tender length, a 4.3-foot track gauge, and a four-foot-diameter boiler, it weighed between seven and ten tons, according to the museum. Burning coal, it produced nine horsepower and had a 1,750- to 2,000-pound tractive effort.

The adjacent “Eclipse” parlor car, with its ash interior, 20 elegantly upholstered, direction-reversible seats, hand-stenciled ceiling, wooden shutters, and paymaster’s buggy, represented those typically used by the Gravity Railroad between Honesdale and Carbondale in 1920. It had a 29.3-foot overall length, a 24-inch wheel diameter, and a 6.9-foot ceiling.

A jolt of my coach took me out of the area’s past and redeposited me in the present. A glint of sun, piercing the metallic ceiling, transferred the Lackawaxen River, along whose banks the train continued to snake, into a mirror of Mica.

Screaming with protesting screech as the accordion of cars stretched their curve-rounding couplings and then settling into relatively straight-track silence, the train approached White Mills.

Located between Honesdale and Hawley, the Lackawaxen Limited’s intermediate stop on Route 6 in Wayne County, its present sleepy, back-river solitude served as a sharp contrast to the industrial bustle it once offered. And the blue stone building with its sky-extending chimney fleetingly visible through the tree clearing as the train clanged over the road’s railroad crossing, gave little more than a hint of that era. A glass factory it once was, I learned, of Dorflinger fame.

After serving an eight-year apprenticeship in glass blowing, cutting, and decorating at the Cristalleries de Saint-Louis in France, Christian Dorflinger immigrated to the US in 1865, settling in White Mills, Pennsylvania, and establishing his own glass factory. Initially constituting seven small, sloped-roof worker houses that resembled those in France, he expanded the complex to include 33 of them by 1869, enabling 182 employees and their families to be accommodated.

His renowned, exquisitely cut lead crystal, synonymous with elegance, soon graced many elite residences, including that of the White House.

Although the factory closed in 1921, its stone building, some workers houses, the company office, and the store have since reopened to the public.

Another sprint through the arboreal tunnel preceded the sparks, screeches, and wheel-to-rail grinds that arrested the train’s momentum and brought it to a stop on a curving track section next to Hawley’s wood-planked platform at 13:45 after a nine-mile easterly trek through the Northern Pocono Mountains.

Like Honesdale, it had its own railroad roots.

Originally known as Paupack Eddy, it adopted its current name from Irad Hawley, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Company, who built his own gravity railroad, after seeing the value it provided in connecting with the Delaware and Hudson Canal. One of his cars is on display at the public library.

Replaced by standard locomotives in 1885, it yielded to the Erie and Wyoming Valley Railroad, which made its inaugural run from Hawley to Dunmore that year.

Crossing Route 6 and traversing a trestle, the Lackawaxen Limited, afforded a glimpse of the houses defining Hawley, began its penetration of the forest on the longer of its two segments. Metal-to-metal, wheel-to-track interface certainly gave the senses a workout: like flint, their sparks sent tendrils of pre-combustion ignition up the nostrils and their shrieks pierced the ears like fingernails on a blackboard.

The short, white, fence post-resembling mile markers continued to flick by out the left side windows: JC 121, JC 120, JC 119-remnants of the “Jersey City” track over which the train now virtually galloped, counting down to the beginning of its line.

Also never waning from view was the Lackawaxen River, which primarily flowed through the rural Northern Pocono Mountains and had a 598-square-mile drainage area. It passed through Honesdale and Hawley, where it was joined form the southwest by the Wallenpaupack Creek and thence continued eastward for flow into the Delaware River in the town of Lackawaxen, the train’s terminus.

This, in answer to my question upon boarding, was the coal-transporting canal.

Having served as a transportation artery from the early 18th-century, it facilitated the float of bundled logs to the Delaware River, destined either for Easton, Pennsylvania, or Trenton, New Jersey, having annually carried some 50 million board of lumber. Could this have been the true origin of the coal-transporting idea?

The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, then the largest private commercial undertaking, employed a series of 28 locks, which raised the canal water level by 278 feet, but, like all early visions, once technology had eclipsed its view, it became short-sighted.

When it was realized that track-only transport of passengers, freight, lumber, and coal was feasible with a New Jersey routing in 1898, the now admired, but then slow and inefficient intermodal Gravity Railroad and canal transportation system was superfluous. The latter’s overflow dams were opened and the water was drained.

I could only imagine how many of these stepping stones to advancement must have been employed throughout history.

As the brakes screeched a final time on a wide curve in front of little more than a wooden bench marking the otherwise beyond-view town of Lackawaxen at 15:00 after another 16-mile segment from Hawley and a 25-mile collective one from Honesdale, I descended the coach’s three steps to the ground.

The track behind the train snaked toward the area’s past and, after the locomotive had been repositioned on a siding, would return me to my Honesdale origin, leaving, until then, silence amidst towering trees and a pine needle blanketed ground as testament to man’s vision and the history, through technology, he had manifested here. I thought of Sir Arthur Pinero’s prophesy-that the past was just the present, entered through another gate. Could I have done exactly that today, I wondered?


“Wayne County Historical Society Newsletter,” Volume 32, Number 1, January-March 2017.