Today’s popular D&L Trail covers 165 miles between Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the Delaware River north of Pennsylvania. The section between Jim Thorpe and White Haven, which negotiates the beautiful Lehigh Gorge State Park, was once the classic Lehigh Valley Railroad’s (LV) main line from Buffalo to New York City. The LV’s history can be traced back to the early 19th century when a method for burning anthracite coal, first found in the valley during the late 1700s, was discovered. A means to transport this valuable resource was needed, and several early railroads, like the LV, sprang up as a result. In the succeeding years, the LV became one of the Northeast’s largest and most important systems, moving vast amounts of anthracite coal, freight, and passengers. Unfortunately, larger lines with more direct routes, such as the New York Central, Pennsylvania, and Erie (later Erie Lackawanna), proved too much for the LV. During the 1970s, many railroads in the Northeast collapsed, including the Lehigh Valley, which led to the creation of Conrail. Much of the original LV was soon abandoned, with sections like the D&L Trail now using the former corridor.
The prehistory of the Lehigh Valley Railroad is just as interesting as the company itself. During 1791, anthracite coal was first discovered around Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1954). Because this coal was so hard, there was no market for it because no practical way to use it as a fuel source had yet been invented. During the early 19th century, that changed when Josiah White, who owned a foundry near Philadelphia, figured out that burning the coal under a forced-air draft converted the coal to useable. Demand for anthracite exploded. Coal mines began appearing all along the Lehigh River valley, and White, himself, merged his mining and shipping subsidiaries into the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (LC&N) in 1820. To move coal, he built a gravity railroad in 1827 as well as a slackwater system that later became the Lehigh Canal.
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The LC&N’s first competitor appeared in 1835—the Beaver Meadow Railroad (BMRR), which incorporated to construct a 45-mile line from Mauch Chunk to Easton. The goal was to move coal, freight, and other goods; however, several issues, including lack of financial support, doomed the project from ever getting started. On April 21, 1846, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania authorized incorporation of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad (DLS&S) to essentially finish the BMRR project. For many years, the DLS&S languished with the same problems, and by 1851, the only accomplishments had been additional grading. Later that year, the company was acquired by businessman Asa Packer, who believed railroads were the future of transportation. Through his leadership and financing, thanks in part to building and operating barges for the LC&N, he was able to complete the DLS&S.
With the help of Robert Sayre, the road was reorganized as the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company on January 7, 1853. Additional financial help came from the Camden & Amboy Railroad, which allowed the LV to open its original main line between Mauch Chunk and Easton on September 12, 1855. A few years later, the Delaware River was bridged, which gave the LV a connection to the Central Railroad of New Jersey, a system that reached Jersey City (across from downtown New York City) and Philadelphia. The railroad then set its sights northward. The 23 miles between Mauch Chunk and White Haven through the Lehigh Gorge, now the D&L Trail, was opened in 1864. Throughout that decade, expansions continued into New York by taking over smaller lines and building new railroad. At this time, the LV relied on the Erie Railroad to reach Buffalo; however, by September 1892, it had established its own route to the city along the eastern edge of Lake Erie.
Additionally, the LV looked to expand eastward and reach the outskirts of New York City via its own line, since its friendly connections there were composed of rival Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. It formed the Easton & Amboy and reached Perth Amboy on May 28, 1875. Trackage rights were then acquired via the Pennsylvania Railroad until the LV finally reached Jersey City via its own rails by 1899. With its main line complete, the LV radiated throughout central Pennsylvania, with branch lines to tap additional sources of anthracite coal reaching as far north into New York as Camden, Cortland, Ithaca, Auburn, and Fair Haven along the banks of Lake Ontario.
Many have said that the Lehigh Valley featured the slowest and least desirable route between Buffalo and New York. While this is true to some extent, the company was nevertheless a profitable operation throughout much of the 19th century—until the Great Depression. Anthracite coal, the LV’s staple traffic, was in high demand for its clean-burning nature and use as a home heating source. Additionally, Buffalo was an important port city, and in the era before the Interstate system, many folks relied on the railroad. Unfortunately, aside from an uptick in traffic during World War II, the Great Depression ended the prosperous years forever on the Lehigh Valley. Freight tonnage was hit hard during those lean times not only because of the Depression but also because anthracite coal lost favor as a heating fuel.
Passenger traffic also began to decline, which led the railroad to reintroduce its popular “Black Diamond”in 1938 (it had first been inaugurated in 1896). The streamliner was meant to bring back travelers and compete against similar trains by other railroads. While the train did see some success, along with freight traffic, it began a steady decline during the 1950s. It last posted a profit in 1956. Passenger trains were dropped by 1961, and the LV became a full subsidiary of the PRR that year, which had owned a significant stake in the company for many years. Because of this, other roads interested in purchasing the LV as a route to New York, such as the Norfolk & Western and Chesapeake & Ohio, could not do so. The PRR had its own financial troubles at that time, and when it finally decided to sell the LV in 1965, the road’s debt and money issues forced any interested buyers to walk away.
The PRR and NYC merged in 1968 to form the ill-fated Penn Central, a disastrous merger that began to collapse almost immediately, bringing down most other Northeastern railroads with it. The PC entered bankruptcy on June 21, 1970, and things only got worse for both it and the LV. By 1973, the Lehigh Valley was on the verge of total shutdown and petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to take the rare move of ceasing all operations on October 1 of that year. For the time being, the LV was spared when it was included in the new Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). Conrail was born in 1974 when Congress passed the Regional Rail Reorganization Act and service began April 1, 1976. Almost immediately, they suspended service over most former LV lines north of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Following this, much of the road’s main line was abandoned and torn up during the early 1980s. Today, only a fraction of the original LV system is still in use.
Pennsylvania has several railroad attractions, and some of the nearest to the D&L Trail in the Lehigh Gorge State Park include the Catawissa Railroad in Catawissa; the Strasburg Railroad/Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania/Choo Choo Barn-Traintown U.S.A./National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg; Electric City Trolley Museum/Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton; Harrisburg Switch Tower Museum in Harrisburg; Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East; Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway in Jim Thorpe; Middletown & Hummelstown Railroad in Middletown; New Hope & Ivyland in New Hope; Reading Railroad Heritage Museum in Hamburg; Wannamaker Kempton & Southern Railroad in Kempton; and the West Chester Railroad in West Chester.