History Of The Lehigh Valley Railroad
by Jim Herron The Lehigh Valley Railroad has a special role in my family history. My grandfather worked for the Lehigh Valley for more than 50 years, starting in 1887 and ending in 1937. For many of those years he was an engineer, running the Black Diamond from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to New York City. My father grew up with six brothers and two sisters in a large house on a bluff overlooking the yards and station in Wilkes-Barre. Three of my uncles were engineers and firemen on the Lehigh Valley. Everyone in the family loved trains — both the real and toy ones.
The first line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was completed in 1841 for the purpose of moving anthracite coal. The railroad was soon deeply involved in all aspects of the coal business — mining, marketing and transportation. Rail acquisitions made the Lehigh Valley the dominant carrier and mine operator in the Eastern end of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal country.
Near the turn of the century, through acquisitions and expansions, the general merchandise and passenger service finally exceeded coal tonnage in revenue. The LV was a small railroad in an era when the local depot was the center of activity, a sort of social stopping-off point where people flocked to the trackside to see who was arriving or departing. It was an era of elegant wooden Pullmans, bowler hats, and boys in knickers and women with parasols. These were the halcyon days of the LV.
The LV was always on the cutting edge of motive power technology. From its earliest days, the company’s motive power innovations and ever-larger locomotives kept the LV in the forefront of engineering. In the last years of the 19th century, the LV had some of the highest locomotive axle loading capacity of any railroad and its standard bridge loadings were commonly used by other railroads. Many locomotives built in the later years of the 19th century were in use until well after World War II. In 1925, the company’s first diesels were purchased from the Alco-GE consortium. The 300-horsepower machines went to work within the city limits at terminals that were reached by car-float. From that year on, the LV acquired a new diesel engine each year, sampling various builders. All these early diesel switchers performed well and remained on waterfront and other special assignments until after the World War II boom.
In 1931, the Lehigh Valley purchased large modern steam power in order to compete with parallel railroads. In 1951, the last steam engines were taken out of service, some of which had only seven years of use.
The Black Diamond service of the LV was absorbed in the merger of the Erie Lackawanna, Pennsylvania, New York Central, New Haven, Jersey Central and Reading, months shy of its 130th birthday. This merged entity became the Conrail freight system in April 1976.
Happily, one richly historic piece of LV rolling stock still survives: business car #353. This class heavyweight not only survives, but it thrives. The Pullman Company in Chicago built the 100-ton LV 353 in 1916. It was and is completely self-contained, with kitchen, dining room, three bedrooms and a combined office/observation room. The LV 353, operated today on charter service by the LV Black Diamond Limited, retains the essence of its appearance when it was part of the LV passenger system.
Lionel, MTH, Williams and Weaver seem to like the Lehigh Valley. They have produced a variety of engines, a Black Diamond passenger set, and a variety of rolling stock. MTH came out with a ProtoSound A-B-A F3 set last year. Weaver has produced several diesels, including the C-630, C-628 and RS-3. Williams has had LV Madison passenger cars. Budd cars, box cars, cabooses, ore cars, searchlight cars and tank cars are plentiful. I think Weaver did the best job of any in 1995 with its LV 4-6-2 #1078, black and Cornell Red version of the “John Wilkes”, which started its life as a K-5 Pacific in December 1916 and received its stylish Art Deco shrouding in 1938. This train worked the Wilkes-Barre to New York City run.