In the Coal Mining Region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Appalachian valleys from Harrisburg to Scranton contain prized veins of hard, black Anthracite coal. Anthracite burns hotter and cleaner than the softer bituminous coal from western PA, but it’s harder to mine. From the Civil War to the 1940’s, coal was the undisputed King of Fuels in the United States and the world. Cheap immigrant labor (including my Polish grandfather) toiled and died in the hundreds of deep mines that dotted the Appalachian valleys. It was an exhausting, thankless, often dangerous life, long before the days of organized labor unions. Men would come out of the mines each day with black faces and black lungs.
For Schuylkill County where I grew up, there was only one big problem, getting all that precious black coal, from 48 separate mines, up and over the long Broad Mountain that separated it from the southern state. From there it would feed hungry steel mills and factories in places like Allentown, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I grew up in a town atop that long, steep mountain that contained the solution. A little place called Frackville.
What was the Coal Barons’ solution? To construct a massive Inclined Railroad to the top.
Clearing the forest and laying tracks up the mountain was the easy part. Tons of power would be needed to hoist the heavy, laden coal cars up the steep mountainside, too steep for a locomotive to pull. The vertical rise was a daunting 525 feet to the top of the ridge, 28 degrees at its steepest. So the most powerful steam engines in the world (at the time) were installed at the summit, at the edge of my small hometown. The 500 ton engines were part of a massive complex that would be known as The Mahanoy Plane after the valley below.
The Plane was constructed during the Civil War in 1861, primarily by Italian immigrants, and paid for by the READING RAILROAD of Monopoly fame. It was a true Engineering Marvel with two 6,000 horsepower steam engines hoisting coal cars 2,500 feet up from the Mahanoy valley to Frackville at the top. The engines held that “most powerful engine” distinction for over 50 years, until surpassed by the large steam engines that moved the locks of the Panama Canal. During its heyday, the Mahanoy Plane hoisted over 1.4 Billion, that’s with a B, tons of coal up the steep slope of Broad Mountain. Up to 900 railroad cars passed up and down the steep plane every single day, a trip that took a little over four minutes. The main hoisting cables alone were made of 3 inch thick cast-steel that could pull 3 coal cars as once. A team of over 60 men was required to work the Plane.
Sadly, the Mahanoy Plane finally shut it engines in 1932, due to a decline in demand for coal and other easier routes out of the valley.
The mighty steam engines were dismantled, the long cables sold for scrap, and the historic buildings demolished in the 1950s – what a loss. Today, the famous site is all but forgotten … except for a few loyal locals (or former locals like myself) who refuse to let its memory die. Eventually, Mother Nature overtook the full length of the Plane site with a forest of slender white birch trees growing around and among the crumbling ruins. Currently, hikers like myself can visit the heavily overgrown site at the north end of Frackville. You can inspect its thick, deep foundations, massive, three-story high stone trestles, and creepy undergound rooms.
In 2007, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission installed a tiny Historical Marker along nearby highway 924, just outside of Frackville. It gives a brief, 3 sentence description, stating at the end that ‘partial ruins remain nearby.‘ But that hardly seems sufficient for such a once legendary site. The Mahanoy Plane provided coal for the westward expansion of the United States, fueling railroads from the Mississippi to California. Polish, Russian, Italian, German and Irish immigrants mined the coal that powered factories, steel mills and locomotives across the entire nation. For 50 years, this Plane, in a small Pennsylvania town, contained the largest steam engines in the world!
Sadly, there are no Pennsylvania state plans to restore or even preserve the once famous site. The forest has completely taken over and reclaimed the land. To visit there in summertime, when the leaves are thick, you might trudge right past and miss the ruins it completely. Only in the cold of winter, with the trees bare of leaves, is the site fully revealed to the curious, along with a spectacular view of the valley below. The mighty Mahanoy Plane deserves far more remembrance than an overgrown plot of ruins and a forgotten place in American history.
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