Archive for April, 2014

The Death(s) of the Wilkes-Barre Train Station & The Funeral Train (Part 1)

Market Street Square

Once upon a time, getting from one place to another was much different than it is today. Life in the village of Wilkes-Barre was rustic, with mud streets running along ash sidewalks, and a water canal system serving as a viable way to transport goods from one location to another.

Consider this account by Wilkes-Barre resident Edith Brower from her book “Little Old Wilkes-Barre As I Knew It”, which was published in 1920:

“I plainly see myself, a child of three, sitting in outdoor winter clothing, waiting for the stage coach to stop at our house. It was the middle of the night, but the driver’s hours were as uncertain as is to-day the outgoing train from Bear Creek to the Junction. Somehow we had to make it to Easton, over the old turnpike, in time for a rather early morning train, if we wished to be in New York City that day. The (stage-coach) driver was not unlikely to be drunk—one had to keep warm you know; but he always managed, so it was said, to land his passengers in Easton safe, sound & prompt.”

Then, as luck, and the Coal Baron gods, would have it, the railroad came steaming into town along the bed of the old canal, doing away with the need of the services of the drunk stage coach driver, in order to have access to train travel. The city of Wilkes-Barre’s prosperity, during those days, is largely due to the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad, later known as the Central Railroad of New Jersey, which brought the local economy in touch with the development of commercial and manufacturing interests of the outside world.

Abandoned Train Station Money Shot

Abandoned Train Station Money Shot

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

Northeastern Pennsylvania is called the “Coal Region” because it holds the largest known deposits of anthracite coal in the Americas. Mining coal was like printing money and pouring it directly into the local economy. As a result, Wilkes-Barre acquired a train station of its own, built in 1868, the boom year of the railroad industry.

The Station Historical

At the same time, the city’s population was in the process of doubling in size within a twenty year span, and urban growth was creating a need for larger venues to accommodate travelers within close proximity to that bustling rail station and busy downtown area. Now the city of Wilkes-Barre had to accommodate the needs of travelers and business moguls using passenger train service, and the city grew as a result, even constructing a grand luxury hotel, the Hotel Sterling, to cater to travelers with money to blow and an appetite for the pampered life. As the years passed, daily express trains, as well as commuter trains by the thousands each year, made Wilkes-Barre a central transportation hub in the era when train travel was at its peak.

Train Schedule May 18, 1901

Train Schedule May 18, 1901

The Central Railroad of New Jersey became famous for its passenger trains in 1882, when the first parlor cars were run from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. Central’s passenger service attracted the attention of the public and elicited universal commendation because of superior coach cars that ran on all of the passenger trains. Accounts from 1897 say that patrons received a quality of service that excelled the industry standards at the time. The coach cars used for passenger travel were illuminated by compressed gas, enabling the guests to read in comfort, while seated anywhere in the car. The finest Pullman cars were run between Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and New York where a buffet lunch was offered. The idea of running buffet-parlor cars on the trains of Central was an outgrowth of the company’s desire to cater to the public’s need for comfort in the best possible way.

Some of the early passenger trains stopping at the depot were ranked the finest in the nation at that time. One of the first was the “Central Flyer”, a fast train to New York inaugurated in 1893; a seashore train called “The Mermaid”; plus a New York Express called “The Bullet” which could make the run from Wilkes-Barre in four hours and ten minutes.

Train

The last passenger train left the city of Wilkes-Barre on July 1, 1963, after two passengers exited the coach car, ending the era of train travel in the city forever. And that was not the last railroad related economic blow to the region. As the demand for the mining industry declined, in 1972, the New Jersey Central Railroad line officially closed all rail operations.

Abandoned Train Station

Abandoned Train Station

Cheri Sundra–Guerrilla Historian

Up to the "Bird's Nest"

Up to the “Bird’s Nest”

Photo courtesy of the League of Gentlemen Explorers

Bench in the "Bird's Nest"

Bench in the “Bird’s Nest”

Cheri Sundra–Guerrilla Historian

Watch your step on the way down!

Watch your step on the way down!

Cheri Sundra–Guerrilla Historian

Abandoned Train Station

Abandoned Train Station

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

In a newspaper interview, Donald Hawkins, who joined the New Jersey Central Railroad in 1942, described the last ride from the Ashley, Pennsylvania, rail yards, “It was a Saturday and I guided the miles of trains along their routes of our area. I had the feeling of loss. It was the end of an era; it was the end of a way of life; it was the beginning of hardships for many.”

The sting of economic adversity was already being felt in Luzerne County after the money that was fed into the local economy, because of World War II, came to a screeching halt. The War meant that American production lines and mineral mines were producing at full steam. Northeastern Pennsylvania was considered a hub, with thousands of trains carrying coal and war equipment. Puffing steam engines used to make their way out of the valley and over the mountains. But changes had already begun to occur. Diesels replaced the steam engine and oil tankers replaced coal cars. The demise of the anthracite coal industry could first be seen by watching the railroads. And at the same time, individualism, the open road and car travel began to replace traveling by train.

In 1972, the last freight train, under the symbol of the Central Rail Road of New Jersey, was assembled at the line’s Ashley Yards. Scheduled to leave on the eastbound track to Jersey City, New Jersey, it was being called “The Funeral Train” by CNJ employees. All of the engineers, fireman, brakemen and conductors called off “sick” that day, leaving the last bit of work to supervisory personnel.

Historic CNJ shot

This was a scene in the Ashley Yards of the Central Railroad of New Jersey in the mid-1970s as the CNJ prepared to close the yards.

 

The last CNJ freight was being put together by Donald Hawkins, Hanover Township, yardmaster, and Jack Tinner, Sugar Notch, general foreman. Asked what they would do at the end of their shifts, the men said they would do as they do on any other day. “We’ll put on our coats, walk out the door and go home,” one man said.

Lord of the Flies

Photo courtesy of George Foster

 

Train Station Exterior / Now Abandoned Night Club Interior

Train Station Exterior / Now Abandoned Night Club Interior

 Cheri Sundra--Guerrilla Historian

Record Player

Photo courtesy of George Foster

Staircase

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rogers

Don’t Miss Part 2:

A Resurrection Reversed:  The Playboy Bunnies & The Death(s) of the Wilkes-Barre Train Station

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