Romancing the rails: 200 fans ride a former Reading Railroad branch to the end of the line

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LAVELLE — When Arnie Harner was 5 years old, he got an American Flyer model railroad set for Christmas.

The exhilaration the young lad felt that Christmas morning so long ago burns bright 66 years later.

“It took off like a jet,” said Harner, 71, describing his model train. “It was instant love, and I’ve been in love with railroads ever since.”

Harner recalled his romance with the rails April 20 as he awaited the arrival of a vintage passenger train at a crossing a mile from his boyhood home in Locustdale.

Harner’s face lit up and he waved as The Railroad Explorer IV, a coupling of three self-propelled passenger cars that once rode the Reading Railroad, arrived shortly before 1 p.m.

The Explorer, with 200 rail fans aboard, was on its way from the Reading & Northern Railroad station in Port Clinton to Mount Carmel.

A venture into railroad history, its 118-mile round-trip trek followed a route where millions of tons of anthracite coal were hauled when coal was king.

Jim Rowland, president of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, which sponsored the event, said it had been six decades since passenger service was offered on the line.

“The last time this area saw passenger service was in the 1960s,” said Rowland, a Maryland teacher who grew up in Allentown.

The King Coal, a Reading Railroad passenger train, ran the line from Philadelphia to Shamokin from the 1930s to June 28, 1963.

Railroad fans from southern states and the west coast were aboard during the excursion. One man traveled from England to ride the Reading route, as it were.

“The trip sold out in nine days,” Rowland said.

Kermit Geary, the chapter’s vice president, said it was a rare occasion for a passenger train to travel as far as Mount Carmel Junction — where the Reading & Northern meets the Susquehanna Valley Railroad.

“It’s a very unique experience to ride to the end of the Reading & Northern line,” said Geary, 68, a retired railroader. ‘It’s the first time it’s been done in 20 years.”

Historic ride

The trio of Budd Rail Diesel Cars, distinguished by their stainless steel exterior, left the Reading & Northern station at 9 a.m.

Known as Budd cars, the self-propelled passenger cars were built by the Budd Co. of Philadelphia between 1949 and 1962.

Leaving Port Clinton — named for DeWitt Clinton of Erie Canal fame — the excursion followed a course rich in the region’s railroad history. The excursion’s guide book provided brief descriptions of historic points along the route.

Near Drehersville, the train passed the Lizard Creek Junction of the Lehigh Valley Railroad’s Pottsville branch. Traversing Route 61 at Connor’s Crossing, near Cressona, the branch carried coal from mines in western Schuylkill County between 1890 to 1953.

Rail fans got a view of the historic Tamaqua Railroad Station, an Italianate Victorian structure built in 1874 and honored with a U.S. postage stamp last year. Passenger service to the station, departure point for troops in World Wars I and II, ended in 1963.

Passing through the Buck Mountain Tunnel, north of Tamaqua, the train headed for the Mahanoy Tunnel. At 3,409 feet, it was the longest of the Reading Railroad’s seven tunnels. Because of its length, the tunnel had its own ventilation system.

“It was the site of great fanfare when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad’s first passenger train arrived in Mahanoy City on June 22, 1863, after the opening of the Mahanoy Tunnel,” the excursion guide book said.

One of the highlights was passing the Mahanoy City railroad yard, which was capable of hosting more than 900 cars loaded with coal from the old St. Nicholas colliery.

Once the largest coal processing plant in the world, St. Nicholas operated from 1931 to 1965. Reading Anthracite Company, its owner, dismantled it in 2018.

The excursion reached Ashland about noon, once the location of a Lehigh Valley Railroad passenger station and depot. Riders were provided box lunches from Boyer’s Food Market.

At Gordon, the train began a 402-foot climb to Locust Summit. The grade was steepest on the Reading Railroad line.

The train stopped at Gordon, which was named for an official of the Mine Hill and Schuylkill Haven Railroad. The site of several railroad roundhouses, Gordon was strictly a railroad town, according to the excursion guide book.

At Locust Summit, elevation 1,081 feet, the train passed the site of the Locust Summit Central Breaker, a twin to St. Nicholas. It operated from 1928 to 1955.

Reaching Mount Carmel Junction mid-afternoon, the train embarked on the return trip to Port Clinton.

Chasing history

All along the route, rail fans chased the train from one stop to the next.

Photographing it at one stop, they would take to the highway and await its arrival at the next stop.

Matt Roulin and his 12-year-old son, Danny, set up their photographic equipment on the platform in Ashland.

Matt, who’s been a rail fan since he was a child, is enamored with the history of railroads in Schuylkill County.

He’s apparently passed the gene on to his son.

“Now, I’m the same way,” announced Danny, who’s in sixth grade.

Enthusiasts aboard the excursion got their chance to make memorable photos.

At various points, including Gilberton and Gordon, the passengers would disembark with their cameras. The train would back up and re-enact its arrival.

James Eisenhart Jr., 65, a retired Norfolk Southern engineer, was among the railroad history society members to make the trip.

“This was a unique experience, and you don’t know when it will be repeated again,” said Eisenhart, who lives in Ashland. “You just don’t get to do this every day.”

At the Lavelle crossing, Arnie Harner reflected on his life-long love of railroads.

In his younger days, he worked on locomotives at Locust Summit Colliery. The No. 113 on his baseball hat underscored his longtime involvement with the restoration of Locomotive No. 113 in Minersville.

“I remember the Reading Railroad’s Iron Horse Rambles when I was a kid in the 1950s,” Harner confided. “I guess railroads are in my blood.”