I was born and raised in the former Coal Region of northeast Pennsylvania. Appalachian mountain valleys from Harrisburg to Scranton contained prized veins of hard, black Anthracite coal. From the Civil War to the 1930’s, coal was the undisputed King of fuels in the United States and the world. Cheap immigrant labor (including my Polish grandfather and his brothers) toiled and died in the hundreds of deep mines that dotted the valleys.
For my county, there was only one problem, getting all that precious black cargo up and over Broad Mountain to hungry mills and factories in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York. I grew up in a town atop that long steep mountain. A small town called Frackville in Schuylkill county.
What was the Coal Barons’ solution? To construct a massive Inclined Railroad to the top!
Laying tracks was the easy part. Tons of power would be needed to hoist 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 edge of my small hometown. The engines were part of a massive complex that would be known as The Mahanoy Plane.
The Plane was constructed during the Civil War in 1861, primarily by Italian immigrants, and paid for by the famous READING RAILROAD. It was a true Engineering Marvel with 6,000 horsepower engines hoisting coal cars 2,500 Feet up from the Mahanoy valley to Frackville at the top. The engines held that most powerful distinction for over 50 years until surpassed by the steam engines that moved the locks of the Panama Canal. During its heyday, the Mahanoy Plane hoisted over 1.4 Billion 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 three minutes. The main hoisting cable alone was made of 3 inch thick cast steel.
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. 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 Plane site with a forest of white birch trees growing around and amongst the ruins. Today, hikers like myself occasionally visit the site in Frackville to inspect its dark, deep foundations and massive, three-story high stone trestles, and take in some spectacular views of the Pennsylvania valley below.
In 2007, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission installed a small Historical Marker along nearby highway 924, just outside of Frackville. But that hardly seems sufficient for such a once legendary site. The Mahanoy Plane provided anthracite for the westward expansion of the United States from the Mississippi to California. Polish, Russian, Italian and Irish immigrants mined coal that powered factories, steel mills and locomotives across the entire nation. For 50 years, they were the largest steam engines in the world! Sadly, there are no Pennsylvania State plans to preserve or restore the once famous site. The Mahanoy Plane deserves far more than an overgrown plot of ruins and a forgotten place in American history.