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RAILROADS II - The History

by Bonnie Baker                       

More about the railroads

 The Danville-Pottsville Railroad Company was built in 1826 to open the large coal reserves north of the Broad Mountain in the Shenandoah and Mahanoy valleys.  This railroad ran from Mount Carbon to Wadesville and then to Mill Creek Gap above St. Clair.

 In 1829, the Mill Creek Mine Railroad constructed a four-and-one-half mile wooden track designed for covered wagons pulled by horses from Mine Hill Gap (north west of St. Clair) south to the canal docks in Port Carbon.  It was the third railroad built in the United States.  This railroad moved coal from the mines to the canal at Port Carbon where it was shipped to Philadelphia.  This early railroad would also deliver products from the Nichols Farm on the West Side of St. Clair to Port Carbon and Pottsville.  It did not connect at this time to the Danville-Pottsville Railroad just north of the town.

 After much study of the terrain, it was found that no suitable grade existed.  For this reason, construction of an inclined plane and a tunnel began in 1832 to further open the vast coal reserves of the Shenandoah and Mahanoy valleys.  The inclined plane lowered loaded cars on chain using a system of brakes.   The loaded cars served to raise empty cars to the top of the slope.  This was all done without the use of a horse or steam engine.

 The Girard Tunnel, the second railroad tunnel built in the country, traveled eastward and carried the tracks under Mine Hill, which was north of St. Clair, to the incline plane that sloped down at Wadesville.   It was eight hundred feet in length and built of stone and brick.  By 1835 about twenty-five to thirty cars of coal per day ran down the plane from Broad Mountain into the tunnel.

 John Tucker was President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and also became President of the Mill Creek and Mine Railroad in 1844.  At this time two things were happening.  The Mill Creek Mine Railroad reconstructed its tracks to the gauge of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.  Secondly, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad expanded its tracks to connect with the Mill Creek Mine Railroad allowing cars loaded with coal at the collieries to run to Port Carbon and then onto Philadelphia without having to be reloaded at the canals in Port Carbon.

Patterson Street Depot

 The tracks ran west along Third Street and by 1850 offered passenger service to the residents.  A station was located at the north end of Third Street.  A second depot was located at the West End of Patterson Street

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St. Clair Rail Road Station    Third Street

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 The Mahanoy Broad Mountain Railroad was built in 1862 and connected with the Mill Creek Mine Railroad at New Castle, north of St. Clair.  This expansion allowed coal from the northern collieries to be transported south through St. Clair to the southern markets.                                        

 During this period 75% of the coal originated in the Mahanoy & Shamokin valleys.  It was carried to the top of Broad Mountain by an inclined plane and then down its southern slope by a 3% grade for 5.5 miles to St. Clair.  Both fields averaged 1,000 cars daily.  The loaded cars were assembled, classified and dispatched during the same period.  However, the watershed summits, steep slopes and narrow valleys, the very heavy grades and the torturous alignment of tracks laid during the early days of railroad construction, presented a problem in the movement of the cars.  The Reading Company studied the system carefully to make it more efficient.  This led to the building of the Mahanoy Plane in 1862 to handle very small cars then in use.  In 1884 the Mahanoy Plane was remodeled and by 1895 the Gordon Plane was abandoned, the cars were constantly increasing capacity and a greater volume of business all led to continuous 24 hour a day operation of the incline plane.  In 1910, the plane was rebuilt to allow three loaded cars to be hauled up the mountain every three minutes.

Railroad tressle

 In 1887 the Pennsylvania Railroad was constructed through town.  Its tracks ran on an embankment west of the Mill Creek Mine Railroad tracks, near where the southbound lanes of Route 61 by-pass is today.  The tracks traveled north and crossed over a fabulous trestle at Darkwater.  This trestle crossed Route 122 (now Route 61), Mill Creek and the Reading Railroad tracks.  To the south the tracks ran to Mill Creek and through a tunnel to Nicholas Street in Pottsville.  This tunnel was sealed in 1972 when the Fairlane Village Mall was constructed.  The Pennsylvania Railroad provided passenger service and built a station at Hancock Street near where Hancock Street and Route 61 intersect today.

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 The Reading Railroad continued to expand and by 1880, in addition to the depot, there was a repair shop, an office, and yards.  The company hired at least forty-four people, mostly: brakemen, repairmen, laborers, and a few superintendents, clerks and watchmen.

accident.jpg (108087 bytes) 1892 Accident

 In the early 1900’s, with demand for anthracite growing, the Reading Company began lining up investors to create a new yard close to the Mahanoy Valley.  This group spared the Mahanoy Plane and after careful discussion, bought swampland on St. Clair’s south end for a huge rail yard in 1903.  The construction began in 1909 and finished in 1912.  The Philadelphia and Reading Company dedicated the St. Clair railroad yard, the largest in the world in 1913.

Dedication

 The yard consisted of 63 tracks for 46.5 miles.  Its capacity was 2,010 cars and had an engine house large enough for 50 engines.  This structure was the only complete circular engine-house of the Reading Company and was also the largest one in the Reading system.  A short distance southwest of the engine house there was a three-story building.  The offices of assistant train-master, master mechanic, train dispatchers, clerks and conductors occupied the first floor.  The second floor had pleasant game rooms, reading and lunchrooms and a fully-equipped kitchen.  The third floor was devoted to dormitories, locker rooms, showers and toilets and afforded not only adequate office facilities, but also comfortable quarters for crews requiring a layover in St. Clair. 

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 There was an oil-house, and warehouse, coaling station and ash pits where the engines dropped their ashes.  Car repair shops had not been completed at the time of the dedication, but construction had been started on the heavy and intermediate shops.  Also, there was to be light-repair shop.  Located at the north end of the yard, adjacent to the intersection of Second and Thwing Streets were the scales.  They were self-adjusting allowing a car to be weighed every twenty-two seconds.  The powerhouse located north of the engine house was equally divided into boiler and engine rooms.  The St. Clair Power Plant supplied the current for all classes of service, including lighting for the yard, engine house, offices and depot.

 During the height of service of the St. Clair yards, the Reading Company employed over 1,000 men.  All trains of empty cars were made up at the yards and dispatched to the northern collieries (north of the Broad Mountain) and all loaded cars were assembled and sent to the southern markets.

Rail Yards

 But by 1930 the decline of Anthracite coal forced the coal companies to make a change in the way they prepared and marketed coal.  The largest coal producers, Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Corporation consolidated its coal processing at two large breakers.  Previously, about 80 locations throughout the region sized and washed the coal.  The first breaker was at Locust Summit; the second was at St. Nicholas.  Both breakers had large railroad yards.  This led to a new arrangement with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.  Carloads of unprepared coal were moved from the mines to the breakers and acres of loaded cars at the two breakers were moved to St. Clair to be made into trains for market.

 This change ended the need to go over the Broad Mountain via the Mahanoy plane and after almost a hundred years of a lifting system to hoist the coal over the barrier, the Mahanoy Inclined Plane ceased operation in 1931.  This was the beginning of the end of an era.

 The Pennsylvania stopped providing passenger service to the town in 1940.  The Reading Company followed by ending its service in 1948. 

 The demand for coal continued to decline in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  New technologies and new transportation trends helped to change the coal regions and bring an end to the railroad in St. Clair.

 In the early 1960’s the Reading Company closed the once famous railroad yards.  The great roundhouse closed in 1964 and demolished in 1972.  The Scale Office caught fire in the late 1960’s and the foundations can still be seen behind the former Pennsylvania National Bank Building.   All the other buildings were dismantled except the Repair shops. In 1972, the historic yard was sold for $68,000 to the Greater Pottsville Industrial Development Corporation.  The repair shops can be seen at the borough end of what is know as the St. Clair Industrial Park.

At this time the railroad is making a “come back” across the nation.  Who knows, maybe in the future the sound of the train whistle may be heard in the valley known as St. Clair?  

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 Overhead of train yards around 1950

 

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