Home  

Some Highways and Byways of American Travel — 1877


A SWITCHBACK EXCURSION.

IT was on a pleasant morning in early spring that I met the Artist and the Railroad-man at the depot of the North Pennsylvania Railroad, prepared to take the cars for what the Artist, who is addicted to punning, called "the Switcherland of America." Our object was partly business and partly pleasure; in the proportion of nine parts of the latter to one of the former: indeed, to be quite honest about it, we were all glad to have an excuse for a ten days' excursion in a region which promised so much outdoor entertainment. And the promise was kept. Such another ten days of rough-and-tumble experience-climbing mountains, falling over rocks, exploring wild ravines, diving into coal-mines, riding on every description of conveyance which it has entered into the mind of man to invent to run on rail—such enormous eating when we found an inn, and such extravagant sleeping when the day was done,—I doubt if any of the party had ever experienced before.

The direct route from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley and the Switchback Railroad is up the North Pennsylvania Road, usually called the "North Penn," for short. This road carries you northward on a smooth, well-ballasted track, through a pleasant farming-country, but shows you few points where you will care to spend much time in sight-seeing. If you are wise, you will elect, as we did, to be a through passenger. It terminates at Bethlehem, and is there met by two roads which run side by side up the narrow valley of the Lehigh, and open to the traveler one of the most delightful short-trip routes in America. Fifty years ago the valley was a wilderness, with one narrow wagon-road crawling at the base of the hills beside a mountain-torrent which defied all attempts to navigate it. Now, the mountain-walls make room for two railroads and a canal, but the tawny waters of the stream are nearly as free as ever. Here and there, indeed, a curb restrains them, and once an elaborate system of dams and locks tamed the wild river, and made it from Mauch Chunk to White Haven a succession of deep and tranquil pools. But one day in 1862 the waters rose in their might. Every dam was broken, every restraint swept away, and from White Haven to Mauch Chunk the stream ran free once more. The memory of that fearful day is still fresh in the minds of the dwellers in the valley, and the bed of the torrent is still strewn with the wrecks that went down before its wrath. The Lehigh Company, who had planned and constructed this magnificent system of slackwater navigation, looked on in silent dismay and saw the labor of years vanish in a moment, shook their heads, and proceeded to build a railroad. After that day's experience they felt as if they could never trust the river again.

I have said that our trip was partly for business and partly for pleasure. Had it been wholly for pleasure, we should have waited for the 9:45 train from the North Penn depot which would have taken us over the Lehigh and Susquehanna Road. As it was, we rose at an uncomfortably early hour and took the eight o'clock train, which connects with the Lehigh Valley Road. In either case, however, the discomfort ends with the traveler's arrival at the depot. Thence comfortable cars take him to Bethlehem, and from Bethlehem northward, over either road, through the picturesque Lehigh Gap and up the mountain-valley.

Soon after leaving Bethlehem the mountains approach the bed of the stream, and at the Gap fling themselves directly in its path, leaving it no resource but to go through them; which it has accordingly done, cleaving the mountain from summit to base in its efforts to escape.

But it is not until the vicinity of Mauch Chunk is reached that the peculiar features of the Lehigh Valley appear in perfection. From here northward it is little better than a canyon enclosed between high mountain-walls, at whose bases the narrow stream tumbles and foams, its waters now displaying the rich amber hue which they have distilled from the roots and plants in the swamps around their source, now white from their encounter with rock or fall. Huge rocks hang directly overhead, and threaten to fall at any moment upon the trains which constantly roll beneath; branches wave and flowers bloom on the hillside, so close to the track of the railroad that the passenger can almost reach them without leaving his seat; here and there a miniature waterfall tumbles over the brow of a mountain, and glances, a ribbon of foam and spray, to the river at its foot; and at frequent intervals ravines cut in the mountain-side present a confusion of rocks and wood and water to the eye of the traveler as he flashes by. Traced back a little way from their mouths, these glens often show a wealth of beauty, a succession of snowy cascades, transparent pools and romantic nooks which are an ever fresh surprise to the explorer.

At White Haven both roads leave the valley, cross the intervening mountain and descend into the Wyoming Valley—a land celebrated in song and story, a land famous alike for its beauty and its history. This, by the way, to fill up the gap, as it were, between our departure from Philadelphia and our arrival at Mauch Chunk. Here we were to change cars and run up the Nesquehoning Road to the High Bridge. Half the proposed change was accomplished successfully. We left the Lehigh Valley train, but while we waited for the Nesquehoning train to draw up in front of the Mansion House, it came and went, and we missed it.

"No matter," said the Railroad-man. "We'll catch it at the depot." Now the depot was a quarter of a mile away, and the train stopped there about a quarter of a minute. Evidently, there was no time to be lost. We struck into a lively run, the best man ahead, while the Mauch Chunkites looked out from four tiers of houses to see the procession. We made good time in that quarter-mile heat, but the track was curved and the train had the inside. So we missed it. It was the second time I had chased a railroad-train, and I missed the first one. I begin to believe I can't catch one.

When we arrived at the depot the Artist and I said we had had enough railroading for one day. We were surprised to find what an appetite our exercise had developed, and proposed to adjourn for dinner; but the Railroad-man wouldn't listen to us. He was bound for the Nesquehoning, train or no train, and he went. In less than five minutes he had impressed a freight train, loaded us on it, and we were off. The conductor warned us to "Look out for sparks. She throws cinders pretty lively, sometimes;" and we soon began to perceive the value of his admonition. "She"—meaning the locomotive—uttered a preliminary whistle, and then began to snort like a porpoise with the whooping-cough, while the atmosphere suddenly put on an appearance as if a burnt cork factory was being distributed through it in fine particles. The first rod we traveled we turned our backs on the engine; the second we turned up our coat-collars; the third we crawled behind a pile of sills on an open truck—the same upon which we had at first been seated. But all would not do. The cinders continued to find us. They flew into our mouths and ears and eyes and noses, and down our backs and up under our hats; and wherever they went they burned; and when we presently struck a heavy grade they came faster than ever. Human nature could not stand it. "See here," said we, "this won't do. We shall all look like convalescent smallpox patients in five minutes more. Let's get out of this."

"Easier said than done. There isn't a covered car on the train, and we're running too fast to jump off. Besides, we're bound to see the bridge if we die for it."

"Let's get out on the cow-catcher."

"Lucky thought! But have you ever tried it ?"

"Often. No cinders there, no smoke, no dust; but a pleasant breeze that will be delightful this warm day; and then you're always the first to arrive."

"Enough! Lead on!"

We went forward and interviewed the engineer. That dignitary was disposed to accommodate us, but recommended "a bright lookout for cows."

"Cows! up here in the woods!"

"Lots of 'em. Run over one every once in a while."

"All right! If we see a cow we'll let you know." We wanted to show that engineer that we were brave men. We never had been afraid of cows, and were not going to be now. Besides, we were half inclined to believe he was hoaxing us. It didn't look like a good cow-country; and even if it was, and the cows were thick as grasshoppers, it was his business to steer clear of them. That's what he was there for.

So we stepped lightly out on the footboard, took a hard grip on the handrail and cautiously made our way along the iron monster's side, placed a foot on the steam-chest, swung over on the bumper, and there we were. It was a glorious ride. The broad platform on the front of the engine furnished excellent seats, albeit they were a trifle hard, and the bars of the "pilot," as railroad-men term the article known to us as the cow-catcher, seemed made on purpose for footrests. We could feel every throb of the engine's fiery heart, every gasp of its rapid breathing: every joint of the rails sounded as we passed like the tramp of an iron hoof, and the huge machine trembled in every fibre as it flew along like a living creature urged to its utmost speed. The air was balmy, the discomforts of the train all behind us, and before us just enough prospect of danger to add a pleasant thrill of excitement to the attractions of the ride. The sharp nose of the "pilot" skimmed along just above the track, threatening every instant to bury itself in the next stone or sill that showed its head above the dead level, and tumble us all into the ditch, but always clearing the obstacle by an inch or two, and running on without a jar. For pleasant railroad traveling in warm weather I must recommend the cow-catcher. There's nothing like it. The only drawback is that it is risky. The cars may run off the track and smash all to bits, and you may crawl out from under the ruins perfectly uninjured. I even know an engineer whose engine took him down an embankment, and literally, and without any fiction about it, rolled over him twice; and he picked himself up as sound as you are, got another engine and train and went ahead, for it was wartime and he was conveying important orders. But a cow-catcher never does things by halves. You ride safely or you are killed instantly: one or the other is bound to happen.

In our case it was the former. We rushed along in perfect safety, and though the predicted cow appeared in due time, and stood defiantly on the track for a while, she changed her mind before we came within striking-distance and walked quietly away.

The Nesquehoning bridge has great local celebrity as the highest bridge in the country. It is flung from one mountain to another at an elevation of one hundred and sixty-eight feet above the Little Schuylkill, an insignificant stream flowing through a deep gorge. Its length is eleven hundred feet, and the view each way from its platform is one worth going all the way to see. The Railroad-man inspected it. The Artist made what he called a "rough sketch" of it—it took him ten minutes, and looked like a perspective view of a centipede—and then the Catawissa Express came along, and carried us back to Mauch Chunk and a late dinner.

It was the first day out, and we didn't care how hard we traveled. We learned better afterward, but now, when the Railroad-man said, "Shall we go over the Switchback this afternoon?" the question was carried unanimously in the affirmative.

So he sent out and ordered a "special train." That sounds magnificent, does it not? We thought so, and we felt like millionaires as we walked into the Mansion House and ordered our late dinner.

Dinner over, we walked leisurely to the train—a stroll which involved the ascent of what, in any other part of the country, would be called "pretty considerable of a hill." The Gravity Road nominally runs to the foot of Mount Pisgah, but the road gives out some time before the gravity does. Ordinary tourists make the intervening distance in coaches—we aristocrats did it on foot.

The special train was in waiting when we arrived. It consisted of one flat car, half the size of a billiard-table, with seats for ten, and no top. A pretty little affair, what there was of it, but it scarcely came up to our expectations of a special train.

"This is the superintendent's car. He has loaned it to us as a special favor. The covered cars will not suit our purpose as well as this."

Then we took heart again, and got on board, but the Artist looked suspiciously at the track before us, and asked questions enough to fill the Shorter Catechism.

"What's that?"

"Mount Pisgah Plane, two thousand three hundred and twenty-two feet long. You are now two hundred and fifteen feet above the river, and the river here is five hundred and twenty feet above tide-water; and when you get to the top of the plane you will be six hundred and sixty-four feet higher still. That iron band hauls up the empty cars on their way back to the mines. It is attached to a 'safety-truck,' which is down in that hole at the foot of the plane. It goes down there, so that the cars can pass over and get in front of it. There it goes now. You see it pushes ten or a dozen cars before it up the plane. The wire rope which it drags after it runs over a drum-wheel at the foot of the plane—there it is, that uneasy thing which is always trying to haul a cart-load of old iron up the hill, and never succeeding—and the other end of the rope pulls down the safety-truck on the other track. You see that long arm which projects from the side of the safety-truck and counts the teeth of that iron thingumbob between the tracks with such monotonous regularity?


That's the 'safety' part of the arrangement. It is expected to hold the train right there in case the bands happen to break.—Oh, bless you, yes! They break every now and then. Never broke yet with a passenger-train, though—we don't load 'em heavy enough—but if they did the ratchet would hold the cars till the bands were spliced again. This is the last season for coal-trains. We are sending a good deal of our coal through the Nesquehoning tunnel now, and pretty soon shall send it all that way; and then this road will be used for passenger business exclusively."

This connected discourse is the substance of answers to the Artist's catechism. The questions would only take up room to no purpose, and, besides, I like to dispense information in solid chunks.

By the time this exercise was concluded we were on our way up the plane. Our ten or twelve hundred pounds were a mere bagatelle to the big engines accustomed to drawing up fifteen or twenty tons at a time, and we glided lightly and safely to the top, where the catechetical instruction was resumed.

"Angle of plane is about twenty degrees. That is Upper Mauch Chunk on the plateau to the right of the plane, and across the river you see East Mauch Chunk. Better location than the original settlement—after you get up to it. No trouble about the drainage, eh? Old town was started in 1818. First child—living still, I believe—was Nicholas Brink, born in 1820, and was named after everybody in the settlement. Had names enough for all his descendants to the third generation. It's getting late. All aboard! "—and he hurried us away without giving us half enough time to enjoy the magnificent views from the trestling at the top of the plane. We must keep moving if we would do the whole twenty-five miles of Gravity Road between that time and six o'clock, when the planes would cease working. So we set out without further delay.

The Railroad-man sat in front and held the brake, a lever by which he could slow or stop the truck at will; but he seldom had the will to do it. As a general thing, he let it run. The grade from Mount Pisgah to the foot of Mount Jefferson is sixty feet to the mile—just enough to propel a light car at a moderate speed. The ride was through the woods all the way—a pleasant, breezy, cool and clean run with no danger in it that could not be avoided by a judicious use of the brake. At Mount Jefferson we were hauled up another plane, two thousand and seventy feet long, and four hundred and sixty-two feet high; and one mile from its top we ran into Summit Hill.

Then we ran down into Panther Creek Valley, and traversed the whole course of the Switchback Road, returning late in the evening, and whizzing down the nine miles between Summit Hill and Mauch Chunk in nineteen minutes.

Mine host Booth, at the Mansion House, gave us, as he gives everybody, an excellent supper and splendid beds, and we made his house our head-quarters during our stay. We sat on the piazza after supper and smoked cigars and chatted, and watched the fires on the mountains, which drew bands of flame all around the town, and counted the long coal-trains that wound among the hills on either side of the valley; and when we were tired of this we went to bed, and were lulled to sleep by the plash and drowsy tumult of the river under our windows.

We made another trip over the Switchback a few days after, and as this is not a consecutive narrative I may as well tell the whole story here, and have done with it.

To begin at the beginning: "The Switchback" is not a switchback at all, in the technical sense of the word, and has not been for years. Originally, there were several switchbacks along the "Gravity Railroad," which is the proper name for the line under consideration, and they were operated thus: the cars, running smoothly on a down grade, would reach a point where they suddenly found themselves going up hill at such a rate that they were quickly compelled to stop. Then the attraction of gravitation, constantly drawing them down hill, would cause them to reverse their direction and run back; but when they again reached the place where the grade changed, a switch, worked by a spring, threw them on another track, and they continued their journey down the mountain in a direction contrary to that in which they had been running before they came to the switchback. The next interruption would send them in the original direction; and in this zigzag fashion they accomplished the descent into Panther Creek Valley. Later and better engineering has changed the switchbacks into curves, and the descent from Summit Hill to the mines is made without interruption; but the name, which at first was local and applied to a particular point, gradually spread until it included the entire road.

And now, having done away with the switchback business, we will adhere to the proper title, and call our mountain path the Gravity Road.

This is next to the oldest railroad in the United States. Its only predecessor was a road three miles long connected with the Quincy stone-quarries in Massachusetts. That was built in the fall of I826—this went into operation in May, 1827.

At first the road extended only from Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk. There was no return track, and consequently no planes, the empty cars being hauled back to the mines by gangs of mules, which, in turn, were transported to Mauch Chunk in cars designed expressly for their use—a ride which they learned to value so much that no amount of persuasion could induce them to make the journey on foot. Subsequently, the Panther Creek mines were opened, the Switchback proper made to reach them, and planes built to assist gravitation in transporting the cars.

We visited the spot where, in 1791, Philip Ginther stumbled over a fortune that was not for him, and where the famous "Open Quarry" was afterward worked. A part of the wide excavation has been filled up with the refuse from other workings, but enough remains to give the visitor an idea of the immense mass of coal originally deposited here. A better idea of the disposition of the strata can be gained, however, at an adjoining opening, where the outcrop of the vein has fallen into the subterranean workings. The solid mass of coal is here seen just as the last earthquake left it—a mass of pure, glittering fuel, forty feet or more in thickness (we did not measure it, for reasons apparent in the illustration), and running, at a steep pitch, far down into the bowels of the earth.

"This fall," said the Railroad-man, "carried part of the track running into 'No. 2' down with it, and we had no end of bother with it before we got it filled up again and the track relaid. That hole you see at the bottom is some six hundred feet deep, and dumping gravel into it was almost like trying to fill up the bottomless pit itself."

"Why didn't you go round it?"

"Couldn't. You see those alps of coal-dirt all around us. We should have had to move those at any rate, and so we just moved a few of them in here—sent them back where they came from, as it were—and so at last the thing was done."

"Does that thing happen often?"

"What thing?"

"Losing your track suddenly in that fashion. Because, if it is, we prefer some other road. We're not ready to start for China by the underground route just yet."

"Don't alarm yourselves. We keep a lookout for breakdowns, and know just where the ground is weak. You will go through safely enough this trip, and hereafter, if you're fearful, you can confine yourselves to the regular passenger-route from Mauch Chunk to Summit Hill and return. There's no danger there."

So we were comforted, and went on to "No. 2," which is one of the oldest collieries in the region; and enjoyed the fine view of Panther Creek Valley which is seen from the end of its dirt-bank; and looked down the slope, which they told us was fifteen hundred feet deep (we didn't measure it); and then we took a look at Summit Hill, which is dirty and uninteresting in itself, like all mining towns; and then we mounted our truck again and shot down a fearfully steep grade into Panther Creek Valley.

Here one of the first things we were shown was a burning mine, but it was a poor affair, recently kindled and on the verge of being extinguished. The only noticeable thing about it was the process of putting out the fire by forcing carbonic acid gas into the mine, and that we did not see. There is another mine at Summit Hill, which has been burning for thirty years, and is likely to burn for thirty more: that, now, is something to brag of. A greater curiosity was the entrance to the Nesquehoning tunnel, four thousand feet long, a work completed last winter, and one which at one fell swoop claps an extinguisher on the Gravity Road with all its complicated machinery. Hereafter, all the coal of this region, instead of careering wildly over the mountains, drawn by viewless steeds and enveloped in an atmosphere of romance, will be drawn by a commonplace locomotive upon a commonplace track through this tunnel and down the Nesquehoning Road, to Mauch Chunk and a market. But the Gravity Road will remain for the present, and passenger-trains will still run on it for the accommodation of those who wish to enjoy its exhilarating ride, its grand scenery and its many points of interest.

Before our return home, the Railroad-man proposed that we should spend a day at Upper Lehigh.

"Where's that?" shouted the chorus.

"Up among the mountains back of White Haven. New place, just chopped out of the woods: splendid scenery—rocks, ravines, cascades, good hotel—"

"That'll do! When do we start?"

The Railroad-man named a time for rising, somewhere among "the wee, sma' hours;" and with the time came Jim to wake us.

Jim is one of the institutions of Mauch Chunk. He is a colored citizen, the porter of the Mansion House, and his duties are those heterogeneous ones which pertain to porters generally, and to porters in country hotels particularly. To the traveler entering the town by the Lehigh and Susquehanna Road the first sight of Mauch Chunk is Jim standing in front of the hotel and shouting, "Twenty minutes for dinner! Step right this way, gemmen." And when the twenty minutes have expired, Jim is seen vibrating like an ebony shuttlecock between the train and the hotel, gesticulating excitedly and urging the travelers to an immediate departure. "Time's up, gemmen! Train's a-goin'. All aboard!" Then to the conductor," Hi! holdon, dar! Heah's a couple o' ladies yit." This duty fulfilled, Jim retires into his sanctum, where he may be seen at any time between-trains, blacking boots and lecturing on politics to chance hearers.

Well, Jim called us in the early morning—and morning among the Lehigh Mountains is worth getting up to see. We ate our breakfast, went to White Haven, changed cars, and rode up the Nescopec Railroad to Upper Lehigh. The Nescopec Road is nine miles long, and runs nothing but through trains, by reason of there being no way stations on the route. At the end of it is a coal-breaker, one of the best in the anthracite region, shipping five thousand tons of coal a week; a good hotel—the Railroad-man was right about that; a row of miners' houses and—woods. We walked about half a mile along a wood-road, struck into a footpath, followed it a hundred yards or so, and without warning, walked out on a flat rock from which we could at first see nothing but fog, up, down or around. It was a misty morning, but we made out to understand that we were on the verge of a precipice which fell sheer down into a tremendous abyss; and when the fog lifted, as it did about noon, we looked out upon miles and miles of valleys partly cleared, but principally covered with the primeval forest.

We were on Prospect Rock then. Presently our guide took us, by a round about way, to Cloud Point, a corresponding projection, on the other side of the glen, and here a still wider view, another yet the same, lay before us. We gazed on the beautiful landscape until we thought we could afford to leave it for a while, and then descended into Glen Thomas, so called in honor of David Thomas, the pioneer of the iron trade on the Lehigh. It was the first of May, but we found here miniature glaciers formed by the water falling over the rocks, the ice three feet and more in thickness, and so solid that a pistol-ball fired at it pointblank rebounded as from a rock, while not a hundred yards away May flowers were blooming in fragrant abundance.

We spent the whole day in rambling over the rocks and through the glen, and at evening took the return train to White Haven, the Artist and the Photographer—who had joined us at Mauch Chunk—vowing to return soon and often.

Another long-to-be-remembered excursion was to Moore's Ravine, a wrinkle in the mountain-side two miles, above Mauch Chunk, filled with tall hemlocks, and at their feet a stream tumbling, in a continual succession of cascades, from the top of a mountain to its base. In little more than a quarter of a mile the stream makes a sheer descent of at least three hundred feet, distributing it in twenty-one cascades and waterfalls. Two of these, which are so close together as almost to make one continuous fall and are named Moore's Falls, are over a hundred feet in total height. The others are smaller, but no less beautiful, while the limpid pools of still water among them are by no means the least attractions of the place.

But the glen is as wild as it is picturesque, and to see it requires a good supply of both muscle and perseverance. It has never been "improved," even to the extent of a footpath, and the visitor might fancy himself the first that had ever entered it if it were not for the evidences to the contrary borne by prominent places where a couple of idiots scrawled their names in white paint. I hope I may be forgiven for wishing they had tumbled over the highest fall.

But the growing length of this article warns me to "cut it short." I may not tell of our carriage-ride into the Mahoning Valley, with its pleasant views and drives; nor of mountain-climbing at Mauch Chunk; nor of the flying visit we paid to Wilkesbarre and Scranton in the beautiful Wyoming Valley; nor of the day we spent in the pleasant Moravian town of Bethlehem, where we put up at an ancient hostelrie which was called the "Sun Tavern" a hundred and odd years ago, and which, under the more modern title of the "Sun Hotel," is now, as it was then, one of the best inns in the interior of the State. All these things must remain untold, but the reader can enjoy them all for himself at small cost of time or money. He can see the Lehigh Valley, Switchback and all, in a single day, returning to Philadelphia the same evening, or he can spend a whole summer in exploring its woods and mountains.

His best plan, however, for a short trip, is to leave Philadelphia or New York on one of the early trains, timing himself so that he can be at the Mansion House, Mauch Chunk, in time for dinner. This is the best hotel in the valley above Allentown, and for that reason he will do well to make it his stopping-place for the night. After dinner he will have plenty of time to go over the Gravity Road and return in time for supper. Next morning an early train will take him to White Haven, where he can change cars and run up the Nescopec Road to Upper Lehigh, which he will reach about noon. Here he will have ample time to dine and explore Glen Thomas, but not to see all the fine views from this singular mountain-top if he would return by the afternoon train. This train makes connections for both Philadelphia and New York, either of which can be reached the same evening; but a third day can be profitably spent at Upper Lehigh, and part of a fourth in exploring Moore's Ravine—to me one of the greatest attractions about Mauch Chunk, but, unfortunately, accessible from that place only on foot. It demands a hard walk and a hard climb, but offers in return a scene of wild and rugged magnificence which in all my mountain-climbing I have never seen excelled.
Stories Page | Contents Page


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery