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Railroad History Of Northumberland County

      I. Railroad History Of The Area Being Modeled

      The line was originally chartered on April 8, 1826 as the Danville and Pottsville Railroad, making it the third oldest line in the United States. It was to run from the Ferry House opposite Danville, Pa. to the Schuylkill Canal at Pottsville, Pa. Before construction began, the terminus was changed from Danville to Sunbury.

      Construction began in July 1834 on the 20 mile section between Sunbury and Shamokin and was completed in the summer of 1835. The line was soon extended to Mt. Carmel, Pa.

      The transportation of Anthracite Coal was the principal business of the rail road. Coal was brought from the mines in two ton dump cars pulled by horses or mules. The road entered Sunbury through Raspberry Alley, out to the river front to wharves, where the coal was dumped into canal boats to be taken across the river to the canal and then to market. However, with the collapse of the Canal System, the line was never extended to Pottsville.

      The railroads of the day were very different from what we usually think. The rails were wooden stringers topped with flat iron bars, and the motive power was horses and mules! The first passenger cars were the "Shamokin" and the "Mahonoy" and were each pulled by two horses.

      In 1837, 3 small steam engines, the "North Star", "the Mountaineer", and the "Pioneer", were purchased and put to work on the road. In 1839, the road went back to using 'Horse Power" because the weight of the steam engines proved to be too heavy for the track.

      In 1852 the line became the first rail line in the world to use iron T rails made by the nearby Danville Iron Company, and the line secured six more steam engines. It was over these tracks, that in 1861, the first troops from this area left for service in the Civil War. The Line went through several name changes before becoming the Shamokin Valley Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Passenger service on this line continued until 1938.

      The Shamokin, Sunbury, and Lewisburg Railroad was chartered in 1882, and was absorbed by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in 1883. This line was built on the opposite shore of the Susquehanna River and followed the route of the old canal system to Sunbury. It then crossed over the River and paralleled the Shamokin Valley Branch through our area.

      In Shamokin, the two Railroad Stations were only one block apart and the tracks were within several yards of each other.  Passenger service on this line continued until Friday, June 28, 1963, when No. 863, the "King Coal" made the final run of her daily passenger service between Shamokin and Philadelphia.

      Completed on August 6, 1911, the Northumberland Classification Yard contained an area of 700 acres and 70 miles of track, round house, and shops. During it's 1950's, over 1500 railroad cars passed through the yard each day for receiving, dispatching, or reclassifying!

      Before the opening of the Saint Lawrence Sea Way, the Shamokin Valley Branch was used to haul iron ore from the docks on Lake Erie to the Lehigh Valley Railroad interchange at Mt. Carmel on its way to the Bethlehem Steel Mills. During the 1950's the Shamokin Valley Branch was one of the last to give up her Steam engines.
      The Pennsylvania Railroad used four I1's to pull and push 100 ore cars over the 2% grades of the line between Northumberland and Mt. Carmel.

      Due to the weight of the iron ore, it could only be loaded directly over the trucks to prevent buckling of the hoppers. At the Lehigh Valley interchange, the train was broken into three sections and the Lehigh Valley used four "modern diesel engines" to haul each section! Twelve "modern diesels" to do what four of the mighty PRR I1 steam engines could do!


      Once upon a time-September 14, 1956---four (4) Decapod, or 2-10-0 type locomotives and their crews got into trouble while attempting to lift approximately 9000 gross tons of iron ore and train 500 feet of elevation in a route distance of 27.1 miles. That is to say, they stalled.

      This is the story of how they extricated themselves.

      Only an incident, perhaps, but nevertheless rare on several counts. In 1956 coal-burning steam motive power moved just 7.99 per cent of Class 1 railroad gross ton-miles. The engines involved were of a design that dated back to 1916, and the newest member of the team left Baldwin 33 years before. Also, despite the implications of the lading and the fact that it was billed Pennsylvania Railroad, the action took place on an unremarkable single-track branch, officially the Shamokin Branch of the Susquehanna District of the Northern Region between Sunbury and Mount Carmel, Pa.

      No radio, no roller bearings, no welded rail-just 90 cars of Mesabi rust, the heaviest kind of tonnage imaginable, clanking along to the impulse of superheated steam over a rural right of way which included a 13.9-degree curve and a 1.31 per cent ruling grade. Here, then, was isolated orthodoxy of steam and steel-and big-time railroading superimposed on a mixed-train-daily format.

      Or so It seemed.

      Actually, the 27 miles of the Shamokin Branch-which climbs from the Susquehanna River valley at Sunbury to a Lehigh Valley interchange in Mount Carmel-are but a tiny link for hopper cars making the Great Circle Route. The cars move under load from the ore docks of Erie, Pa., to Bethlehem Steel's home town of Bethlehem, Pa.; deadhead beyond to the piers of Philadelphia or Baltimore; haul import ore west across the Alleghenies to Johnstown, Pa., or Pittsburgh; then run empty back to Lake Erie to begin the cycle all over again.

      As for the 2-10-0's, Pennsy had them in steam for a most practical reason. Until total dieselization of nonelectrified mileage could be obtained, the railroad was judiciously operating steam to move seasonal tonnage such as iron ore in essentially low-mileage polls where coal was abundant and water good. And the Shamokin Branch met these qualifications with a vengeance.

      Thus on a overcast September 14th noon the engine crews of I1's 4646 and 4243 girded for battle outside the roundhouse at Northumberland, Pa.-which dispatched steam power out of Sunbury to Enola, Altoona, and Renovo, Pa.-before double-heading out to pick up 9000 tons of ore train for delivery to the junction in Mount Carmel.

      What gutsy machines these were and what a chapter in the history of the American steam locomotive. For example, those who think of standardization of steam in terms of 275 New York Central Hudsons (albeit three distinct classes) or even 425 alike Pennsy K4 Pacifics need to ponder the fact that the original experimental I1 came out of Altoona in December 1916, was quickly followed by 122 sisters, and-just as soon as the USRA had passed-multiplied into an order for 100 from Baldwin in 1922 and 375 more in 1923!

      Imagine it-598 locomotives of a single class of a single wheel arrangement on a single railroad. Why, that number is a tenth of all the steam power operated by a big road like L&N in its lifetime…or more than double all those Central J's…or more that the total of all the 2-8-2's, 2-8-4's, 4-6-4's, and 4-8-2's that Santa Fe ever operated!

      These I1's bore slight changes-deep K4 whistles instead of the original banshees, a gigantic 21,000 gallon tank on the 4616, relocated headlights and turbogenerators-but essentially, they were the same ponderous hippos of old. An engine with cylinders so large (30 X 32 inches) that a Railway Age correspondent of 1917 wondered if three smaller pistons rather than two huge ones might not have been better.

      Never mind, the pair of 2-10-0's soon had their train and were off to Mount Carmel on a round trip that would take 6 hours under optimum conditions and otherwise work the crew perilously close to the legal 16 hours.

      Up the wide, shallow valley of Shamokin Creek they came, hammering hard to overcome the inertia of apparently empty hoppers, burdened with an invisible (from lineside) glob of ore over each truck. Those enormous I1 main rods (11 feet 1 inches) long; more than 8 inches thick at the crankpin) rose and fell in time with the laboring exhaust as 9000 tons were pulled over gradients of as much as 0.33 per cent at 20 to 25 mph.

      At Crowl, a hamlet of 40 souls with a passing track and a general store to show for it, the doubleheader took water, then held the main to meet a southbound local. In addition, two more I1's-3445 and 4268-coupled in ahead of the caboose for the 1.31 per cent grade ahead.

      Now the ore was entrusted to eight (8) engineers and firemen; 722 tons of Decapods, excluding tanks; and a combined starting tractive effort of 384,104 pounds-assuming 250 pounds of boiler pressure, no leaks, dry rail, and other ideal conditions that might or might not be present in the miles ahead.

      The ground shook as they whistled off and walked into the narrowing valley, steadily ascending a stiffening grade…0.25…0.4…0.75…0.76. On they came, through the village of Tharptown, past the Glen Burn Colliery, smack through downtown Shamokin, over a dozen grade crossings, rattling the windows of churches and houses, filling the air with the exhaust of eight cylinders turning 40 driving wheels. On the 1.31 per cent, they were, then, and down to an excruciatingly slow walk-slogging, pulling, heaving…then suddenly, slower, much too slow, then nothing.

      They'd stalled-on the steepest part of the grade! Pops lifted, enginemen cursed, pumps raced to feed the air reservoirs.

      The reason they'd stalled-perhaps because the air leaked--was academic. The ticklish bit was restarting those 9000 limp tons on the upgrade. Ticklish because there had to be coordination between road engines and helpers separated by 90 hopper cars. Coordination so that all engines drifted back as one to take up slack and then all move ahead on the same stroke. With only their whistles to guide them, the engineers to guide them, the engineers tried the trick-once…and failed when an I1 lost her footing and slipped wildly.

      On the next attempt emergency air suddenly clutched every break shoe on the train. The worst had happened. The road engines had eased back for slack, reversed, and moved forward while the helpers were still backing up! There is a limit to what equipment what can take, so the knuckle of the rear coupler on the tenth car from the front had cracked open, parting the train and air lines!

      Now, what to do. The only thing there was to do was to remove the knuckle from the front coupler of the front engine; lug it the length of two engines and ten cars and drop it into place. "If we need another knuckle," muttered the fireman who carried it, to a brakeman who watched, "you're bringing it from the rear of the train!"

      Quickly now, the lead I1's recoupled the train, pumped off the brakes, then leaned into the 9000 tons once again. And once again the air-gauge needles in the cabs sank out of sight. (It developed that the helpers had run low on water, cut off, and drifted back to the plug in Shamokin. The flagman, setting hand brakes on the rear 10 or 15 cars, had heard the head end attempting to start alone and pulled the air.)

      Just as the helpers came scurrying back to couple on again, the darkening overcast filled it's implication and rain began falling-a few drops, then drizzle, and soon a driving rain. Hope faded. If the I1's couldn't do it on dry rail, why even attempt it on wet? Once…twice they tried, only to lose their feet. It began to look as if the only alternatives were to double the hill or call out the Shamokin shifter.

      Once more, however, the 2-10-0's on the markers' end eased back in acknowledgment of three brief whistle blasts from the head end. The helpers drifted a car length and more, reversed, and talked it up. Indeed, the rearmost I1 slammed forward so hard that water sloshed out of the tender of the engine ahead.

      The lead helper couldn't anchor those five pairs of drivers, and fire rimmed the spinning tires. But the I1 behind, digging in on the sand laid down by her sister, kept fighting, kept straining, kept jostling, shoving, trudging ahead until her slipping mate took hold…and unbelievably, 9000 tons moved off up that 1.3 per cent, rain-drenched anthem of thunder to the gods of high iron.

      III. Great Railroad Strike of 1877

      July 25, 2007 marks the 130th anniversary of the Shamokin Uprising, when desperation and starvation drove railroad workers and miners to join the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, America's first nationwide strike. Railroad workers and miners had perilous jobs in the late 1800's. More than 200 railroad workers and 1000 miners died in accidents every year.

      The companies often forced both to buy from company stores at inflated prices and work from sunup to sundown. Companies made engineers pay for all train damages, regardless of fault. Children tore their hands picking rocks from coal in collieries.

      The first recorded strike in the anthracite coal region occurred in 1842. More followed in 1849, 1869, and 1872. During the Civil War, the mine owners even used cavalry platoons to arrest 8 miners and evict them from company homes for striking in Locust Gap. At that time, the workers in Locust Gap formed the Miner's Benevolent Society, to provide accident insurance and demand better pay. It was one of the first unions in America .

      By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the Anthracite region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres of the best coal lands. Places like Gowen City and Gowen Street in Shamokin were named after the company's president, Frank Gowen. Gowen even bought a police force from the government called the "Reading Coal and Iron Police." Between 1871 and 1875 Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire.

      But he and the other railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide depression in 1873. In 1874 a third of Pennsylvania's workforce was unemployed. The Reading Railroad cut train workers' wages by 10%, resulting in an unsuccessful strike. In 1875 only 1/5 of American workers had full-time jobs.

      Some people vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains, and mines. On May 11, 1875 the trestle at Locust Gap Junction was exploded by drilling holes and filling them with gunpowder. The telegraph office at Locust Summit was burned. From 1860 to 1909 arson destroyed 25 collieries between Mount Carmel and Trevorton.

      Knoebel's Amusement Park in Elysburg, has a Mining Museum with a beautiful mural of the twice burned Locust Gap colliery.

      When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level, miners began the "Long Strike" of 1875, lasting 170 days. But Gowen stored enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miner's union by firing its members. Gowen further accused leaders of the Irish community of running an alleged secret society called the "Molly Maguires" that killed mine officials.

      He used private police to investigate and company lawyers to prosecute. Catholics and Irish were excluded from juries. Beginning in June 1877, 20 "Molly Maguires" were executed- often despite strong evidence of innocence.

      The Reading Railroad lowered miners' wages 10-15% twice between 1876 and 1877. Many workers' meals became bread and water. Some families ate pets. As for the railroad workers, Gowen decreed they must leave their union and join the company's insurance plan, which they would lose if they stopped working.

      In response, the trainmen went on strike in April 1877. Gowen replaced them with scabs whose inexperience caused many accidents. Nevertheless, Gowen didn't rehire the fired workers, and destroyed the Brotherhood of Railroad Engineers.

      In July 1877 America was deep in the depression. The previous year the total revenues of America's railroads fell by $5.8 million. But they raised profits to $186 million (up $0.9 million) by cutting wages. Most owners received 10% dividends. In July 1877 railroads across America conspired and lowered wages another 10%. Train brakemen and firemen's wages came to $30 per month.

      When they found out on July 16, trainmen in Baltimore left work, sparking the Great Strike. More than 80,000 trainmen and 500,000 other workers from Boston to Kansas City joined them, despite the absence of unions. In Pittsburgh when the National Guard, invited by the railroad, shot 26 unarmed strikers and bystanders, crowds burned freight cars for 3 miles.

      In Pittsburgh and Saint Louis , Missouri the railroad workers were strong enough to take over management, run trains, and collect tickets. In Hornellsville , New York when scabs started a train up a mountain, strikers soaped the tracks. The train went up, slowed, stopped; the passenger cars were unhooked and slid back down the mountain.

      In Reading on July 22, with the Reading Railroad 2 months in arrears of paying wages, crowds of women and children watched as strikers blocked tracks. The railroad called in the National Guard. A few people threw bricks and the soldiers opened fire in all directions, killing 10 and wounding 40, including 5 local police.

      That evening in Sunbury, rumors circulated that the National Guard would pass through, and an agitated crowd gathered at the railroad junction at 3rd and Chestnut streets. The soldiers took another route, but when a freight train tried to leave, the railroad workers took it over and sent it back.

      On July 23rd the trainmen met at Red Men's Hall. They decided to join the national strike and continue blocking freight trains until the railroads took back the 10% reduction. The next morning they ordered the shop mechanics to leave work too.

      In Danville on the morning of July 23, the workers appointed a group to ask the Commissioner of the Poor for bread or work. The Commissioner "passed the buck" to the mayor. At 3 PM a large crowd gathered at the weigh scales on Mill Street in the middle of Danville . One speaker said "We will give the borough authorities until tomorrow at 10:00 to devise some action to give us work or bread. If at that time nothing is done for us, we will take [explicative] wherever we can find it."

      John Styer discussed their poverty and demanded government aid. The town newspaper reported unless the borough council banished starvation, "disorder would ensue. Men would take the law into their own hands." The next day there was almost a bread riot. Citizens were on the verge of starvation. Grocers brought their flours inside for safety, and farmers left markets with half their goods sold.

      At noon crowds led by Ben Bennet and former constable Frank Treas took a few old muskets from an abandoned storehouse. Next they rushed for the weapons stored in the Baldy building on Mill and Northumberland Streets. Police met them. One policeman tried to arrest Treas, for using incendiary language. But he could not get to Treas in the crowd. A sign on Bloom Street proposed a meeting of workingmen in Sechler's Woods on July 26. Following these events, the authorities gave food to those in need.

      In Shenandoah on July 25, 800-1000 workers paraded down the streets with flags and a drum corps. When they got to the baseball field at 10 PM, they could see that arsonists had set fire to the mining stables in nearby Lost Creek. On July 27, Shenandoah's miners brought business of all kinds to a standstill.

      In Shamokin on the morning of July 24, miners struck at the Big Mountain Colliery. 10 families in a row of houses had no food for 3 weeks, except a few scraps from their gardens. At 2 PM a large meeting of workers on Slope Hill demanded work or food.

      The next day they repeated their demands at Union Hall on Rock Street . William Oram, the attorney for both the borough and the Mineral Railroad & Mining Company told the crowd the borough and wealthy citizens would give them street work for 80 cents a day.

      The crowd appointed a Workingmen's Committee to negotiate with the borough council that night for a higher rate. The committee demanded $1.00 a day, and the borough agreed. But when the committee returned to Union Hall, the crowd rejected the $1.00 offer. Then 1000 men and young people marched down Rock Street and Shamokin Street .

      When someone threw a stone through Shuman & Co.'s Store, the crowd could restrain itself no longer. They surged into the Reading Railroad station and depot on Shamokin and Independence Streets, where the parking lot now stands. They broke the windows and doors, took the freight from the cars and everything in the building, and gutted it. Next they crossed Liberty Street toward the Northern Central Depot on Commerce Street .

      Meanwhile Mayor William Douty gathered vigilantes outside City Hall in response to a prearranged signal - a bell ringing at the Presbyterian church where he belonged. Douty managed his family's coal mines and collieries at Big Mountain , Doutyville, and Shamokin. He also participated in persecuting the Molly Maguires. Douty's vigilantes marched down Lincoln and Liberty Streets armed with muskets and revolvers.

      They told the crowd to leave, and when that failed, shot into it. 12 people were wounded and 2 killed, neither one involved in the uprising. Mr. Weist was shot dead while closing his candy store on Liberty and Independence Streets; Levi Shoop was the second victim. The crowd escaped to the town's outskirts.

      The vigilantes captured the train stations and patrolled the town. According to rumors, after retreating, people tore up the tracks a few miles east of town. Afterwards, Phillip Wiest was accused of leading the riot. Despite receiving serious wounds, he was imprisoned for 8 months in the Northumberland County jail. In addition, James Richards, Peter Campbell, Christin Neely, and James Ebright were imprisoned 7, 6, 4, and 3 months respectively for rioting and burglary.

      Elsewhere railroads crushed the strike using coal and iron police, vigilantes, and the National Guard. Across America, these "forces of order" killed more than 100 people. It was not a complete defeat for the strikers, however. The strike showed the conflict of interests between working people and management.

      If corporations pushed people too far, they would react out of desperation. And it showed that if workers acted together, they could challenge the corporate system. The future growth of unions would make workers stronger than an unorganized mass.