Historical Markers
Danville-Pottsville Railroad Historical Marker
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Danville-Pottsville Railroad

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
PA 147 (Front St.), Sunbury

Dedication Date:
November 2, 1947

Behind the Marker

Chartered on April 8, 1826, the Danville and Pottsville Railroad (D&P) was one of Pennsylvania's earliest railroads, but here the accolades stop. It never reached either of the towns listed in its name. It was built as two disconnected pieces, with an eighteen-mile gap that was never closed. The D&P, it seems, was a poster child for the risks of speculative railroad construction and finance.
Portrait of Stephen Girard
Stephen Girard, circa 1825.

The D&P started in the 1820s when a group of prominent Pennsylvania businessmen joined together to build a rail line to link the Schuylkill River with the Susquehanna River, thus promoting the movement of anthracite coal to existing markets. Philadelphia banker and philanthropist markerStephen Girard was the main stockholder in D&P and owned coal lands it served.

To oversee construction, the group hired civil engineer Moncure Robinson, who had previously laid out the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the markerAllegheny Portage Railroad. Groundbreaking on the line's eastern segment took place on April 9, 1831. Robinson faced the formidable task of constructing a rail line through the nine miles of rugged country that extended from Wadesville, a few miles above Pottsville, to Girardville. Construction included excavating an 800-foot tunnel near Wadesville, which began in December, 1831. The tunnel took two years to complete, and was only the second railroad tunnel in America when it opened in 1833. (The markerStaple Bend Tunnel, which opened near Johnstown on December 12, 1831, was the first.)

Traversing rugged country, the line's eastern section used six inclined planes to descend into the Schuylkill River Valley. At first, all planes operated on the passive counterbalancing principle, with ballasted cars (filled with water) on the downward track being used to raise the loaded cars on the upward track. This section opened in late September 1834 after a successful demonstration of D&P's 1,625-foot-long Mahanoy Plane (Plane Number 5), which used a steam-powered hoist to pull loaded coal cars up the plane.

In reporting the successful demonstration, the Pottsville Miners' Journal, in keeping with early newspaper traditions of suppressing negative news about potentially beneficial enterprises, omitted news of an earlier runaway coal-train accident at the site. But in 1905, historian J.J. John published an account of that accident by T. J. Foster, editor of the Shenandoah Herald, who had interviewed Robinson about the plane's first runaway train:
A map of the 1831 plan, and a profile of the elevations, for the construction of the Danville-Pottsville Railroad.
A map of the 1831 plan, and a profile of the elevations, for the construction...

"The cars started on the trip and moved along at a very steady rate but, on reaching the steep portion of the plane, Mr. Robinson was doubtful whether the (counterbalancing water) tanks on the other track were heavy enough to hoist the (ascending) cars and he did NOT put down the brake. . . . The cars gained speed rapidly as the rope lengthened on the other track and came to the head of the plane with a rush, carrying destruction with them. The scaffolding and machinery were demolished and the solitary passenger was thrown high in the air. Happily he escaped without serious injury, but he realized that something must be done to render future exhibitions of that nature impossible. He thought of the steam engine and without waiting to make unnecessary explanations to the spectators (and D and P managers) set out for the city to procure one."

Soon after the D&P opened, Robinson installed a stationary ninety-horsepower steam engine to hoist cars up the planes. On the gentler stretches between the planes, D&P used horses to pull its trains. Very quickly, however, the D&P closed the eastern section of line. By 1844, the eastern section, according to Rupp's History of Schuylkill County, was "rotting in the sun."
The Shamokin Valley RR sunny-day view with the dark-colored industry building in the background.
The Shamokin Valley RR

The western section, which contained no inclined planes, offered a different story. Stretching about 20 miles from Sunbury to Shamokin, its operation began smoothly on November 26, 1835, when four mail-coach horses pulled passenger cars named Pottsville and Mahanoy from markerSunbury to Paxinos. The entire western segment opened in 1838, the same year that steam locomotives replaced horses.

On August 15, 1838, the North Star, a 4-2-0 steam engine built by Garrett and Eastwick (also known as Eastwick and Harrison) of Philadelphia, moved forty cars loaded with 100 tons of coal from Shamokin to the canal dock at Sunbury, and returned the empty cars the same day. The North Star was soon joined by the Mountaineer, also a 4-2-0 design from the same builder. But the steam engines' weight damaged the track, which consisted of flat iron bars mounted on pine stringers, so the D&P reverted to horses. Four or five horses hitched to a ten-car train made the Shamokin-Sunbury round-trip in two days. Horsepower reigned until 1852, when D&P replaced the wooden track with iron rails laid on conventional wooden ties.

The collapse of the canal system and D&P's precarious finances -including bankruptcies in 1849 and 1857 - prevented the linking of the two disconnected sections or the reopening of the eastern part. In 1863, the line came under the control of the Northern Central Railway, a north-south Baltimore-to-Sunbury line that was closely allied with the sprawling and powerful Pennsylvania Railroad. By 1872, the Sunbury-Shamokin line was handling 683,000 tons of traffic annually, mostly coal. As a PRR branch line, the route carried coal west out of the anthracite fields and, in the 1950s, Mesabi iron ore east to the steel mills of markerBethlehem, Pa. Today a portion of the line between Sunbury and Shamokin remains active as a short-line carrier, the Shamokin Valley Railroad.
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