Original Document
Original Document
Edward Strahan, "A Switchback Excursion," 1877.

To begin at the beginning: "The Switchback" is not a switchback at all, in the technical sense of the word, and has not been for years. Originally, there were several switchbacks along the "Gravity Railroad," which is the proper name for the line under consideration, and they were operated thus: the cars, running smoothly on a down grade, would reach a point where they suddenly found themselves going up hill at such a rate that they were quickly compelled to stop. Then the attraction of gravitation, constantly drawing them down hill, would cause them to reverse their direction and run back; but when they again reached the place where the grade changed, a switch, worked by a spring, threw them on another track, and they continued their journey down the mountain in a direction contrary to that in which they had been running before they came to the switchback. The next interruption would send them in the original direction; and in this zigzag fashion they accomplished the descent into Panther Creek Valley. Later and better engineering has changed the switchbacks into curves, and the descent from Summit Hill to the mines is made without interruption; but the name, which at first was local and applied to a particular point, gradually spread until it included the entire road.

And now, having done away with the switchback business, we will adhere to the proper title, and call our mountain path the Gravity Road....

At first the road extended only from Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk. There was no return track, and consequently no planes, the empty cars being hauled back to the mines by gangs of mules, which, in turn, were transported to Mauch Chunk in cars designed expressly for their use—a ride which they learned to value so much that no amount of persuasion could induce them to make the journey on foot. Subsequently, the Panther Creek mines were opened, the Switchback proper made to reach them, and planes built to assist gravitation in transporting the cars.

We visited the spot where, in 1791, Philip Ginther stumbled over a fortune that was not for him, and where the famous "Open Quarry" was afterward worked. A part of the wide excavation has been filled up with the refuse from other workings, but enough remains to give the visitor an idea of the immense mass of coal originally deposited here. A better idea of the disposition of the strata can be gained, however, at an adjoining opening, where the outcrop of the vein has fallen into the subterranean workings. The solid mass of coal is here seen just as the last earthquake left it—a mass of pure, glittering fuel, forty feet or more in thickness (we did not measure it, for reasons apparent in the illustration), and running, at a steep pitch, far down into the bowels of the earth.

"This fall," said the Railroad-man, "carried part of the track running into 'No. 2' down with it, and we had no end of bother with it before we got it filled up again and the track relaid. That hole you see at the bottom is some six hundred feet deep, and dumping gravel into it was almost like trying to fill up the bottomless pit itself."

"Why didn't you go round it?"

"Couldn't. You see those alps of coal-dirt all around us. We should have had to move those at any rate, and so we just moved a few of them in here—sent them back where they came from, as it were—and so at last the thing was done."

"Does that thing happen often?"

"What thing?"

"Losing your track suddenly in that fashion. Because, if it is, we prefer some other road. We're not ready to start for China by the underground route just yet."

"Don't alarm yourselves. We keep a lookout for breakdowns, and know just where the ground is weak. You will go through safely enough this trip, and hereafter, if you're fearful, you can confine yourselves to the regular passenger-route from Mauch Chunk to Summit Hill and return. There's no danger there."

So we were comforted, and went on to "No. 2," which is one of the oldest collieries in the region; and enjoyed the fine view of Panther Creek Valley which is seen from the end of its dirt-bank; and looked down the slope, which they told us was fifteen hundred feet deep (we didn't measure it); and then we took a look at Summit Hill, which is dirty and uninteresting in itself, like all mining towns; and then we mounted our truck again and shot down a fearfully steep grade into Panther Creek Valley.

Here one of the first things we were shown was a burning mine, but it was a poor affair, recently kindled and on the verge of being extinguished. The only noticeable thing about it was the process of putting out the fire by forcing carbonic acid gas into the mine, and that we did not see. There is another mine at Summit Hill, which has been burning for thirty years, and is likely to burn for thirty more: that, now, is something to brag of. A greater curiosity was the entrance to the Nesquehoning tunnel, four thousand feet long, a work completed last winter, and one which at one fell swoop claps an extinguisher on the Gravity Road with all its complicated machinery. Hereafter, all the coal of this region, instead of careering wildly over the mountains, drawn by viewless steeds and enveloped in an atmosphere of romance, will be drawn by a commonplace locomotive upon a commonplace track through this tunnel and down the Nesquehoning Road, to Mauch Chunk and a market. But the Gravity Road will remain for the present, and passenger-trains will still run on it for the accommodation of those who wish to enjoy its exhilarating ride, its grand scenery and its many points of interest.

Credit: Edward Strahan, Some Highways and Byways of American Travel, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1877.
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