History of the

Lehigh Valley Railroad

The Lehigh Valley Railroad: a short history.

By John Marcham, Ithaca, NY

The Lehigh Valley Railroad completed its first trackage in 1855 between Mauch Chunk (today Jim Thorpe) and Easton in east-central Pennsylvania. The aim was to move anthracite (hard) coal down the valley of the Lehigh River to the Delaware River, where it could be hauled by boat to Philadelphia.

The line gradually expanded as an anthracite carrier by consolidation with other lines and new construction, reaching north to Waverly, NY in 1876, and east to the ports of Perth Amboy, NJ in 1875 and Jersey City NJ in 1899.

At Waverly, the Lehigh connected with the New York & Erie, which moved Lehigh freight cars west to Buffalo NY. In time the line sought its own trackage to Buffalo, gaining control of the Geneva, Ithaca & Sayre (PA) in 1876. By 1892 the Lehigh reached Buffalo and consolidated several lines along its route.

The Lehigh figured in several efforts to build larger rail systems in the Northeast, including with the Reading, but after these collapsed the Pennsylvania RR wound up with controlling stock, though exercised little oversight. During World War I the U.S. Railroad Administration moved the Lehigh's eastern passenger terminus from New Jersey to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan.

The Depression of the 1930ís forced a beginning of the closing of Lehigh Valley branch lines, interrupted only by the World War II early 1940ís, boom years for all American railroads. After the war, competition from automobiles and faster trains on the Lackawanna and New York Central quickly ate into the Lehigh's passenger business. By 1957 the railroad as a whole was losing money, soon giving up its Buffalo-New York passenger trains and then all passenger service.

Branch lines and then mainline second tracks were cut but losses continued to mount; in 1961 the Pennsy acquired the balance of Lehigh stock. The merged Pennsy and New York Central  --the Penn Central--went bankrupt in 1970, as did the Lehigh. 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.

The Lehigh was long known as "The Route of the Black Diamond," for its flagship New York-Buffalo passenger train. Anthracite coal was the black "diamond." Several of the Lehigh's name trains were pulled in the 1930s and '40s by steam locomotives trimmed with early streamlining. The line went through many color schemes, the best remembered being black and carnelian red, which recognized the line's ties to Cornell University, which generated student passenger extras that ran out of Ithaca NY, and its president in later years, Cedric Major, Cornell Class of 1913.

Compiled by John Marcham and Tom Trencansky. Sources: A History of the Lehigh Valley Railroad by Robert F. Archer; The Historical Guide to North American Railroads compiled by George H. Drury; A History of Railroads in Tompkins County (NY) by Hardy C. Lee and Winton Rossiter; and Lehigh Valley Memories by David Marcham.