620 excited passengers rode the Mountaintop Rotary Club’s Steam Train Excursion Saturday July 5 from Mountaintop to Jim Thorpe. I was on board with Lara and Mark Dicus and my grandchildren Patrick, Kate and Maggie on Passenger Car 305. From the minute we arrived at the Mountaintop Hose Co. parking lot shortly after 8 a. m. we felt the energy and excitement of the day. Shuttle buses took us to the Penobscot rail yard along Route 437 where it connects with Gracedale Avenue. Engine 425, built in Philadelphia in 1928 was steamed up preparing for its 36 mile down grade trip to Jim Thorpe. Each of the train’s 10 passenger cars, built between 1917 and 1920 had a car attendant, checking tickets as we pulled ourselves up into the boarding entries. Once inside spacious and comfortable open seating awaited. If a window was stuck our attendant was ready to help. The attendant came and punched every ticket. Railroad protocol is a tradition.
The Rotary excursion was unique for Mountaintop and Engine 425 in service was too. Most of the train rides that are offered by the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway use diesel engines. Our ride had Steam Engine 425 and an additional diesel. On the downhill grade travelling south Engine 425 pulled the cars. On the way back up the mountainous grade the diesel hooked right behind Engine 425 did the heavy hauling.
Russ was the narrator for the trip and he just happened to be set up about 3 rows ahead of me in our car with his laptop and other equipment ready to offer some entertaining diesel engines, the two tunnels that we would pass through, the first in Dennison Township either under or alongside Tunnel Road giving it the name, and the second shortly before reaching White Haven. In my mind I was riding a nearly hundred-year-old train through time.
The train left Penobscot promptly at 9:30 a. m. The first highway crossing was Kirby Avenue. The Albright family, owners of Glen Summit Floral have lived with the trains for decades. The tracks parallel Route 437 at this point and we could see the backyards of houses in Grey Stone. Coming up to Crestwood Drive, the familiar Glen Summit Water bottling plant was on the right. Next up we could see the abandoned and moth balled businesses in the Crestwood Industrial Park, which always used rail to ship their goods. The train had been going fairly slow as it approached the Church Road crossing. Our narrator told us we were now on a single-track section of the trip and the train picked up speed as it descended south.
All along Route 437 in Mountaintop people came out to wave and cheer the train as it passed. Photographers using a variety of equipment, hand held and also on tripods recorded the display. We were parading down the tracks as excited to call out to them as they did to us.
Soon the foliage took over the views on either side of the single track and the track curved to the right or left depending on the terrain. The 13 miles from Penobscot to White Haven took 40 minutes. Once through White Haven and another train passed by the Rails to Trails bike and hiking trail to Jim Thorpe, and crossed under Interstate 80, alongside the Lehigh River and on down past Tannery, Rockport and beyond. I recognized some of the areas by name as you see them on the ride to Hickory Run. The trains are winding through rural areas all over Pennsylvania and the country.
As we descended into the Lehigh Gorge the scenery was spectacular with rafters on the river and bikers on the paved improved trail. The rivers converged at Nesquehoning and we traversed a small railroad bridge over the water. Pulling into the Jim Thorpe station at precisely 11:00 a. m. we had reached our destination.
All of the Rotary excursion passengers disembarked near the station and I saw hundreds of familiar faces. Mountaintop’s presence in the tiny historic town that had at one time had 19 out of the nation’s 26 millionaires in residence was amazing.
Our family decided to hike up Race Street, which parallels Broadway, the main business street. St. Mark’s Church, a jewel of exquisite design, was closed for the day as race was on the calendar. I hadn’t been to Jim Thorpe for quite a few years and was disappointed to see many for sale signs throughout the town on residences and business locations. The sixth year of the current recession has challenged the tourism industry.
We got to the top of Broadway and agreed that a tour of the Jim Thorpe Jail would be explored. The building was used as a Carbon County Prison closed and the building sold to the current owners, who have restored it to the way it looked in 1877, when 7 Irish coal miners known as the Molly Maguires were arrested for conspiring against their employers, the large coal companies, and hanged inside the jail. The jail has 27 cells and a basement dungeon used for solitary confinement. We all agreed that prisoner life in the jail was grim.
The children purchased candy at Rainbow’s End and Lara and I bought some colorful yarn at Hooked on Yarn a charming shop set in a stone home up one of the side streets. We had plenty of time to hike up the hills, to the Asa Packer and Harry Packer mansions, Kemmerer Park and to explore the town. As the train departure at 3:30 p. m. approached we assembled for our return.
We had been in the last passenger car on the way down and now the engines were positioned in front of that car. Pulling out of the station the diesel made a lot more noise than Engine 425 had nine cars ahead of us on the way down. The scenery was breathtaking once again, but from a different view. The tunnels and crossings were familiar now and although we still saw people waving from the roads and trails, the evening crowd was thinner.
The Rotary Steam Train Excursion arrived back at Penobscot at 5:00 p. m. The shuttles took us back to the Hose Company and a wonderful day on the rails was coming to an end. I thanked the Rotarian who greeted our bus with a thumbs up “awesome!”
When Dave Suitch first posted on Facebook that his organization was planning the Steam Train Excursion I called him for details. He explained how the outing would work with the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway and that the Rotary would be selling 700 tickets for $60 in May and then $70 in June. The amount of the financial commitment and selling 700 tickets was astounding to me.
I was excited about the project the minute I heard about it and wrote about it in the Eagle many times. A few weeks before July 5 I got the ticket count from the Rotary and was thrilled to learn that they had passed 300 tickets in sales, insuring a positive financial outcome. On the last day of sales June 30, Triangle Pharmacy sold out the last of their 420 tickets and the other 200 tickets were sold through the rotarytrainride.comwebsite and from the Rotary’s PO Box. Sold Out! Exclaimed the website by mid-week.
Congratulations to the Mountaintop Rotary for taking the leap to sponsor their ambitious and historic event. 620 happy passengers enjoyed a day to be long remembered. As for Engine 425, in addition to the 72 mile round trip Rotary Steam Excursion between Mountaintop and Jim Thorpe, 425 chugged on up to Pittston, turned around and came back to Penobscot to haul the 10 passenger cars back to Jim Thorpe, and eventually rode back to its home base in Port Clinton that same night. I believe Russ told me 425 would complete 132 miles on July 5. Historic? All the way.
July 4th Parade
The train ride was only one of three special Independence Day weekend events in Mountaintop. The July 4th Parade, described as the largest parade in the county by Mountaintop weatherman Tom Clark on his show that night, has been sponsored by Mountaintop on the Move for the past 27 years.
Wright Township Secretary-Treasurer Joan Malkemes was the Grand Marshall, dressed beautifully in sparkling red, white and blue. Joan has been at her post for 46 years since 1968. She does a terrific job for all the boards she has worked for throughout the years and her dedication is most appreciated. Thank you so much, Joan.
Gene Haverlack, longtime Mountaintop on the Move parade organizer, proudly states that the July 4th Parade has been held every year since its inception without a rain interruption. This years parade was by far the largest ever with a lot of local business participation,
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