Hit the Trail - Lehigh Valley Rail Trails


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Today, many of our nation's old rail beds sit unused and overgrown. A clever organization, known as Rails to Trails, has come up with a great plan to preserve history and utilize the space. Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a nonprofit organization working with communities to preserve unused rail corridors by transforming them into trails, enhancing the health of America's environment, economy, neighborhoods and people. Their mission statement is "to create a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people."

     The Rails to Trails program started in 1986, and is becoming a nationwide program. To date, they have assisted communities in building 13,600 miles of trails.

Lehigh Valley Railroad

     The Lehigh Valley Rail Road (LVRR) was incorporated following an act passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on April 21, 1846. Its original name, Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Susquehanna Railroad Company, was changed to the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company in 1853.

     Largely due to the efforts of Asa Packer, construction was begun on the railroad in 1851. James M. Porter served as the first President, with Asa Packer as the first Secretary and Treasurer, and Robert H. Sayre as the first Chief Engineer. The original purpose was to build a railroad for the transportation of anthracite and passengers between the mines then being operated near Mauch Chunk, Jim Thorpe and Easton.

     In 1855 the first portion was completed and business began, with four engines and about 100 miscellaneous cars. Prior to the railroad, anthracite was moved down the Lehigh River by canal boat, and the railroad offered faster, more efficient movement to the Delaware River, where the product would ultimately be received in Philadelphia.

    The railroad was an enormous success and began to expand almost immediately. The LVRR became an important player in both freight and passenger traffic from the interior of Pennsylvania to the seaboard cities of Philadelphia and New York. Various branch lines were later established, creating connections with other railroads in Pennsylvania.

The "Black Diamond Express"

     In the late1800's and the 1900's, new ideas developed about  passenger travel by railroad. It was the era of construction and invention, which created modern rail transportation as we know it today. Companies competed with each other, each wanting to be the most luxurious and the fastest.

     The LVRR had plans, too, and created a fast, daylight train between Jersey City and Buffalo. Designers and builders were urged to provide cars which would truly provide comfort, luxury, and speed. The publicity and buzz about the luxury train which would soon be unveiled created a national contest to determine a suitable name for it. Out of 35,000 suggestions, the name submitted by Charles M. Montgomery, a hotel clerk from Ohio, was the undisputed winner. It was "The Black Diamond Express"; the name symbolized the wealth of "black diamonds", or anthracite, which had been the driving force of the LVRR since its conception.

     In 1896 the Black Diamond Express made its first run. An advertisement appearing in the Lehigh Valley called it the "Handsomest Train in the World".  Descriptions of the Black Diamond included the following:   

     "The kitchen is presided over by a corps of competent chefs, skilled in the culinary art, and is complete with every facility at hand for preparing and serving substantials and delicacies in most appetizing fashion.

     "The day coaches are Pullman built, after the latest models. Each car contains ladies' and gentlemen's lavatories and large and comfortable smoking rooms.

      "he train is lighted throughout (including vestibules) by Pintsch gas, heated by steam, and protected by the Westinghouse automatic brake system, and with Pullman extension vestibules (which project the full width of the car) fitted with nontelescoping device."

     "Each car on the train is finished in polished Mexican mahogany, with figured mahogany panels and inlaid beveled French plate mirrors. The ceilings are of the new style Empire dome pattern, finished in white and gold."

      Major passenger stations served by the Black Diamond and other such trains included Buffalo, Geneva, Ithaca, Sayre, Lehighton, Bethlehem, Allentown, Newark, and Penn Station in Manhattan. The Black Diamond also provided local service between many transitional points, providing passenger service for local passengers, New Jersey Commuters, and long distance travelers. The stellar passenger service was offered until 1961.

​     The end of passenger service was seen as a sign that the Lehigh Valley Railroad was in serious decline. After various efforts at restructuring and mounting competition from automobiles and other faster forms of transportation, the LVRR went bankrupt. Lehigh trackage became part of the government-organized Conrail System in 1976. Selected parts continued as Conrail freight lines, and were bought and continued by the Norfolk Southern in 1999.

Rails to Trails in Pennsylvania

     In our state, there are 115 trails, located in all areas of the state. In the Lehigh Valley, there are trails in Whitehall, Allentown, Easton, Jim Thorpe, Northampton, Bath, and more. Check out the website at www.railstrails.org. Listed under each trail name is information about what sort of activity the trail is suitable for. For example, some trails have parallel paths for horseback riding. Some trails are wheelchair accessible, and most are suitable for walking, biking, and cross-county skiing. Because trails are created by members of the surrounding community, the materials used to make them vary.  Some trails may be paved, while others are mulched and some are made of crushed limestone. 

     Regardless of what trail you choose, using it is sure to be a fun experience. You'll be getting some exercise while taking in the beauty of the outdoors. I have been on at least six different trails, and each has been beautiful. Some have been mountainous, others lead through grassy fields, and others follow streams and rivers.

     I encourage you to check out at least one of the trails. They vary in length, and are generally flat. The trails are great for most ages and abilities. In my family, each generation enjoys these trails year after year. So log on to the Rails to Trails website for locations and activities (www.railstrails.org​). Here you will find trails, directions, and even information about how you can help to create more trails throughout the state. Happy Trails! ​

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