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Great Railroad Stations - Sayre, PA

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl


Sayre, Pennsylvania

Once a strong, busy and vital railroad town, Sayre, Pennsylvania is today a quiet place, one where time seems to have passed it by. Home to the Northern division headquarters for the former Lehigh Valley Railroad, Sayre provided thousands of jobs to railroad employees from the 1870’s through the railroad’s golden age and on into the post World War II era.  Sayre was a town that was never quiet. Around the clock railroad activity hummed along the Valley’s mainline. The nearby massive locomotive erection shops added their own background music to a symphony song of the railroad age. The sounds of steam locomotion and the rumble of freight and coal trains were ever present.

 The present Sayre depot dates from 1881. It replaced a temporary structure which substituted for the original depot that burned in 1875. This was just a few years after the town had been renamed from South Central Junction. The railroad’s original chief engineer, Robert Sayre had the newly bustling junction named after him by the Lehigh’s  Asa Packer, one of the 19th Century’s most prolific rail entrepreneurs.  The present structure is built in a High Victorian Gothic style, and has details in the Queen Anne motif. The railroad also constructed a three story brick office building. (This was demolished about 1950). Both structures were meticulously landscaped with trees and flowers and were the pride of the railroad during the Valley’s golden age.

Sayre was also home to a well-known medical facility which began in the former home of Robert Packer, son of the railroad’s master builder. Robert Packer embraced new technology when he installed the first direct telephone line in the Sayre area, connecting his home with the railroad’s offices in the Sayre yard.  

Dating to 1878, the shops at Sayre replaced outmoded ones originally located in Waverly. Sayre joined Packerton and Easton as a principal heavy repair center. In 1904, a new shop complex opened in Sayre. Massive traveling cranes had been adopted by American railroads just a few years before, and the Valley’s Sayre shops became one of the first ones to be so equipped. These wonders of the machine age could lift an entire locomotive and easily move it to the next repair point within the shop. By the turn of the 20th century, locomotive motive power was undergoing much standardization and the Lehigh Valley followed suit. When opened, the new shops could turn out one new or rebuilt steam locomotive a day. Sayre became the focal point as the railroad modernized and expanded its physical plant to meet the demands of a booming industrial economy. The melodious song of the steam age grew into a chorus at Sayre.

West Bay, LVRR Shops, Sayre, Pa. 
From a historic postcard, Published by The Subway, Sayre, Pa.
The date is obscured on the postmark. 
We can guess it is circa 1910.

The Lehigh Valley was for many years primarily a coal hauler, one of the several “Anthracite Roads” transporting the flood of “Black Diamonds” from the Wilkes-Barre and Scranton areas of Pennsylvania. Coal, the lifeblood of the early industrial age was the foundation for the railroad’s success. However, as early as the turn of the 20th century, general merchandise carloadings exceeded coal traffic. The Buffalo, NY extension had been completed in 1892, and the Valley slowly assumed the role of a fast freight expediter between the Buffalo gateway and New York City tidewater. Although it was freight and coal that paid the bills, the LVRR hosted several passenger trains proclaimed as the “Handsomest Trains in the World”. The famous Black Diamond was the railroad’s premier Buffalo to New York daylight accommodation.

Throughout the early part of the 20th Century, the railroad continued improving it’s steam motive power, culminating in the very handsome 4-8-4 Wyoming series. The success of this locomotive with freight led to the railroad’s 1934-35 order for five passenger engines of the same wheel arrangement. Oddly, the railroad did not seem to use these in regular passenger service, preferring to assign them to heavy milk trains. During World War II, the railroad took delivery of ten 4-8-4’s from Alco. Designated class T-2b, these would be the newest steam locomotives to be scrapped. They were in nearly new condition when sent to the scrapper in 1951. The age of the diesel had arrived, and the pressures of the post war economy found the Valley in a struggle for survival.

But let us return to Sayre and imagine a summer afternoon in 1929. On the station platform are baggage wagons loaded with express and milk cans waiting for the afternoon milk train. Milling around are the usual assortment of small town kids, a few adults, and some old timers now retired from the railroad anxiously anticipating the arrival of the westbound Black Diamond. On an adjacent track, one of the Valley’s dual-purpose Pacific locomotives is being readied for her next assignment. Hefty steam switchers are shuffling around the yards. The sounds from the backshops add additional atmosphere to the scene. Soon the Black Diamond is at the station. With crisp precision, the passenger loading business is quickly concluded and the train whistles off. Soon the last car rolls past. Today it is the solarium parlor-lounge “Black Diamond”, one of a pair built in 1927 that the railroad owns. The sounds of the westbound Diamond slowly fade away on the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

 The Lehigh Valley Railroad depot at Sayre, Pennsylvania  

Photo: June 7, 1994 by John C. Dahl 


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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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