The ride of a lifetime

The coal-loading chute at Mauch Chunk in 1832.

FIRST, there’s the name of the place. When linguist John Heckewelder took down Indian toponyms, he rendered “the bear’s mountain” in Latin letters as machktschúnk. William A. Whitehead, after a visit in 1830 to the Lehigh Valley settlement of this name, gave the pronunciation mauchunk. Today, standard practice comes nearer to the mauk chunk favored by an 1860 history of the region. Yet Whitehead’s apparent melding of the middle consonants seems to persist as a variant in local parlance.1

In a bid to revive its moribund economy, the former coal mining town of Mauch Chunk gave up the troublesome moniker in 1954, taking the name of athlete Jim Thorpe. But this was an homage to a recent past in which Mauch Chunk played no part. The place boasts a record of achievements all its own, and Whitehead was among the first to set some of them down in writing.

The stage from Easton dropped its customers at the doors to the only hotel, judged by Whitehead “most excellent.” The inn overlooked a river bestrewn with waste lumber, the refuse of adjacent saw mills. These mills ran almost continuously: one produced 7-9 million feet of lumber in a year according to its operator, a passenger on the same stage as Whitehead. The planks went almost immediately into service, crafted into flat-bottomed barges called “arks” that were launched and even loaded the same day.2

Opposite the mills, waters from the Lehigh were diverted into a recently improved canal. This artificial channel to the Delaware skirted obstructions, shoals and rapids for most of its 46-mile course, allowing for safe two-way navigation three seasons out of four.

The village of Mauch Chunk, on an early map.

Mills, arks and canal all worked in concert, with a single purpose: the shipping of anthracite coal quarried from the ridge above. Lehigh coal was thought worthless just a decade earlier. But once it was found to burn hotter and more efficiently, and to lie near the surface in apparently inexhaustible quantities, exploitation needed only a means of getting it down the mountain and into urban markets. The region’s wild waters and rugged terrain might never be permanently subdued,3 but in the eyes of Whitehead’s generation human ingenuity and industry, manifest in the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (LC&N), and in the town that the company created and in large part owned, had achieved dominion over nature.

Above this company town loomed the rounded form of Mount Pisgah, and standing on the hotel portico Whitehead could see, suspended from the summit, a long inclined plane extending at a sharp angle to the river’s edge. Closer inspection showed that along this plane moved coal wagons, two at a time on a double track, the empty car as it rose acting as counterweight to the full car heading downward to drop its cargo into a waiting ark. A continuous cable lowered the full wagons and returned the empties, one after another, with a speed and efficiency that made this one of the many wonders of Mauch Chunk.

More marvelous still, the empty wagons returned from the top of the chute along the same route by which they had arrived when full, to mines on another, higher summit of the Pisgah Ridge, nine miles to the west. A railroad, the first of its kind and the second of any length built in America, carried the cars both ways.

Steam locomotives were still in their infancy, and wouldn’t have served on a steep ridge. Instead, engineers Erskine Hazard and Josiah White staked the LC&N’s success on the power of gravity. They had the route surveyed, and laid out a stone roadway with a gentle but “uninterrupted declivity,” a future conversion to rail firmly in view.4

Whitehead’s own sketch of Mauch Chunk: a. The Lehigh River and Canal. b. The road from the south and east. c. The hotel. d. The village. e. The chute. f. The railroad.

Almost from its inauguration in 1827, the Mauch Chunk railway indulged visitors like Whitehead wishing to inspect the mining operations and to experience this new mode of travel.5 The carriage bringing Whitehead to the mines held 10 other passengers, but so smooth was the ride that “two horses travelled off with it apparently with the greatest ease at the rate of 12 miles an hour.” The railroad wound along the mountainside, coming sometimes closer to the edge of a precipice than was comfortable; yet the car moved so quickly that “before you can bring yourself to think the danger imminent you may be far removed from it.”

At about the midpoint of its ascent, the carriage stopped on a siding. Here the visitors waited and watched for the loaded coal wagons to pass on their way down. Their rumbling could be heard well before the cars came into view.6 Whitehead characterized them as “of about six feet by three at bottom & somewhat larger at top set upon cast iron wheels of two feet diameter.”  He noted that the wheels were flanged, having “a projection from their inner surface that prevents their running off the track.” A dozen or more of these cars were coupled together, and once empty the trains were returned up the mountain by four-mule teams, with two or three drivers.

This break in the journey permitted a study of the track’s composition. Whitehead found wooden rails, six by four inches, onto which thin straps of iron were fastened: “this is the part that comes in contact with the wheels.” The ties were “also of wood, imbedded in the ground.”

The upward journey continued, but not before the approach of another train of cars, each carrying four mules. Supposedly “it was impossible to get them down in any other way,” and, to Whitehead, “the manner they thrust out their heads and pricked up their ears as they passed us” suggested that they felt the ride was fair compensation for their labor.7

The mines at the summit, too, were a source of surprise, even entertainment. As the anthracite beds lay so near the surface, underground excavation had proved unnecessary: workers hewed out the “black diamonds” as in an open quarry. Rail cars moved through the mines for both the removal of good coal and the dumping of rubbish over the mountainside. The latter practice created huge banks of rubble and dirt, and as the refuse wagons were apparently designed like the coal cars to “drop their load when arrived at a certain spot,” idlers contemplating a ride in them might have an unpleasant landing, “very much to their astonishment, and the amusement of those who witnessed their resurrection.”8

A Mauch Chunk coal wagon and pleasure car, sketched by a visitor in 1832.

Whitehead’s group now descended the mountain in the same car and on the same track, but with no other motive force than gravity. The ride down seemed no faster or slower than the ascent, speed being regulated by a lever that applied friction to the wheels. When the driver let up on the brake he cracked his whip as if to urge on his horses. “We were considerably amused” by the stunt, Whitehead says, for the horses had stayed behind.

There’s less detail in these observations, all made in the space of a few hours, than in the descriptions other early visitors left of Mauch Chunk.9 Also missing from Whitehead’s account is a statement of some purpose for the trip, from which we may have to infer that no strong motive existed. Despite the difficulty of access, the wildness of its surroundings and the novelty of its railway had made Mauch Chunk a favorite destination of leisure travelers. Curiosity about the origins of anthracite lent further appeal: the number of its consumers was steadily increasing, and Lehigh coal was even being shipped to the Whiteheads’ New Jersey home of Perth Amboy.10

Following a ride on the Mauch Chunk railway two years before Whitehead’s, the notoriously opinionated and critical itinerant journalist Anne Royall gave voice to her ecstasy in print: “I shall ever, after this, be the warm advocate of rail-roads! Rail-roads! rail-roads! give me a rail-road!”11 Whitehead doesn’t incline to such glorifications, and may have been inadvertently wise not to. In his century, this mode of transport would remake the world for both good and ill, having profound influence on the course of his own life. Also for good and for ill, during fully a quarter of that life, he would hold executive positions in one railroad company or another.

Mule car.

Copyright © 2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Heckewelder’s place-name lists, probably compiled in the 1810s, were edited and published after his death in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia, for Promoting Useful Knowledge n.s. 4 (1834) 351-396 (the term machktschúnk appears on 358). Heckewelder was considered “more familiar with the German than with the English language,” and it’s unknown whether his transliterations were revised for publication, as was his English style: see 351. Noticing the frequent mispronunciation of the name “especially by those living at a distance,” Matthew Henry registered nine such variations, ranging from “Mausch Chunk” to “Mud Junk.” M. S. Henry, History of the Lehigh Valley, containing a copious selection of the most interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, anecdotes, etc. Etc., relating to its history and antiquities. With a complete history of all its internal improvements, progress of the coal and iron trade, manufactures, etc. (Easton, Pa. 1860) 334n. Linguist Paul Schach’s pronunciation was corrected (by his wife) to [ma:’t∫ʌŋk]: “The linguistic impact of North America on Maximilian’s Tagebuch,” Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht, deutsche Sprache und Literatur 80:1 (Spring 1988) (50-58) 54. I heard the name similarly spoken by a museum guide on a visit in 2021. Whitehead’s Mauch Chunk observations occupy pages 8-14 of the unpublished Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, now preserved at the Key West Art & Historical Society, Key West, Florida. It is the source of most of the quotations below.

[2] Whitehead noted efforts to accelerate the decay of the timber with which the river was “in several places completely blocked up” by burning those parts of it projecting above the surface. Benjamin Silliman of Yale College, whose tour preceded Whitehead’s by a month and a half, described the construction and use of the arks but emphasized that they were soon to be replaced by canal boats: “Notes on a journey from New Haven, Conn., to Mauch Chunk and other Anthracite regions of Pennsylvania,” The American journal of science and arts [ser. 1] 19 (January 1831) (1-21; hereafter “Notes”) 10-11, 14n.

[3] This was Anne Royall’s reflection on a visit in 1828: “it will forever be what it is now, as these rocky steeps defy, alike, the hand of art and the hand of taste.” Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania, or travels continued in the United States (2 vols. Washington 1829; hereafter “Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania”) 1:132.

[4] Josiah White’s history given by himself (The journal of Josiah White) (Philadelphia [1909?]) 19, 35; Richard Richardson, Memoir of Josiah White. Showing his connection with the introduction and use of anthracite coal and iron, and the construction of some of the canals and railroads of Pennsylvania, etc.(Philadelphia 1873) 43, 46.

[5] In 1828, a newspaper editor from the South found himself in a group of nearly 50 Mauch Chunk tourists, “one half being ladies”: “Letter from one of the editors [concluded],” Savannah (Ga.) Georgian 25 September 1828 2:5-3:1. In the 1840s, the LC&N opened a steam-driven “backtrack” that returned empty cars to the mines on a different route, much enhancing the railway’s attraction for tourists.

[6] Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania 1:138; “Notes” 14.

[7] Five years later, as a newspaper editor in Florida, Whitehead would recall the mules’ refusal to descend in the normal fashion as an indication “that these despised animals are more sagacious than they generally are thought to be.” “EXCERPTS from the scrap book of a young gentleman about town,” The enquirer (Key West, Fla.) 28 March 1835 2:3.

[8] Cf. “Notes” 13.

[9] Among the more extensive are Anne Royall’s from her 1828 trip, in Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania 1:127-139; Benjamin Silliman’s of 1830, in “Notes”; and the journal entries of Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, in Tagebuch einer Reise nach dem nördlichen America in den Jahren 1832, 1833, und 1834, a manuscript held by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. The earliest published account of Maximilian’s 1832 visit omits some details from his journal: Maximilian Prinz zu Wied, Reise in das innere Nord-America in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834 (2 vols. with portfolio. Coblenz 1839-1841) 1:108-113, translated by H. Evans Lloyd as Travels in the interior of North America (London 1843) 48-50. Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher, edd. The North American journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied (3 vols. Oklahoma University Press, 2008-2012), provides an English translation of the entire journal.

[10] The coal arrived there presumably by way of New York. Entry of 15 December 1827, Daily Work Book, Perth Amboy Wharf, Manuscript Group 455, New Jersey Historical Society.

[11] Mrs. Royall’s Pennsylvania 1:134.

Images: 1) Coal chute:  Karl Bodmer, View of Mauch-Chunk (Pennsylvania), via Wikimedia Commons. 2) Map: Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company Records, Item 6300A. Special Collections, Lehigh University Libraries, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 3) Sketch: W. A. W[hitehead], Memorandums of peregrinations by land & water recorded for my own amusement, vol. 2nd, Key West Art & Historical Society. 4) Coal wagon and 5) Pleasure car: Stephen S. Witte and Marsha V. Gallagher, edd. The North American journals of Prince Maximilian of Wied (3 vols. Oklahoma University Press, 2008-2012) 1:138-139, photos courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum. 6) Mule car: Theo. L. Mumford, comp. The Switzerland of America: historical sketch of the Switch Back Railroad the discovery of anthracite coal, and an account of the rise and growth of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (New York [1886]) 15.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.