Working on the Railroad

By Matt Goldberg

Between the 1830’s and 1850’s the Lehigh Canal was the mode of transportation for coal from the upper Lehigh Valley to the Easton, and the Delaware Canal, and thus the Philadelphia/New York Market. The demise of the canals came with the progression occurring across the country towards railroads for increased efficiency. Coinciding with the growth of railroads across America was industrialization, a lasting connection that was exemplified in Allentown. The canal and railroad allowed the coal to be moved into the city for iron production. Cities grew, just as Allentown did in the mid 19th century, because of the increased industrialization made possible by the long distance transportation of coal.

Allentown’s greatest growth was in this time period, spurred on by the infusion of anthracite coal into the booming iron industry (Spiro 150-156).  The Lehigh Valley Railroad, led by Asa Packer since 1852, began growing throughout the region in terms of passenger and coal transportation services.  Starting in 1864, Packer began switching out the iron rails for steel, which would hurt the feedback system that had allowed both the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Allentown Iron to grow.  The rolling mill, especially the Allentown Rolling Mill, produced the rails for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, who would, in essence, use these rails to provide their next shipment of anthracite coal.  Bessemer steel, according to Asa Packer, was more durable and the way of the future left iron behind (LVRR 1870).

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Figure 1: A LVRR locomotive hauling anthracite coal.
The late 1800’s were a period of expansion for the Lehigh Valley Railroad; coal tonnage increased from 4.6 million in 1880 to 6.6 in 1883. Their legal troubles first appear in the 1884 stoppage of coal mining by the government trying to break up the cartels, yet the company continue expanding its reach and production throughout the decade. This was a government intervention to stop the monopoly the Lehigh Valley Railroad had created. By buying up the coal fields, Packer had created a monopoly on the early stages of iron production, streamlining the process to allow more coal to enter Allentown (LVRR 1906). Figure 1 shows a typical scene of a locomotive hauling coal into the city.

Railroad workers are rarely mentioned in the annual reports of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  However, from the census data some conclusions can be drawn about them.  They, unlike other industries in Allentown had few workers not born in America.  As can be seen in Figure 2, most were born in Pennsylvania, meaning they spoke Pennsylvania German and were already entrenched in the culture of this area unlike their counterparts in other Allentown industries who were still assimilating. Also, the two stations on the Southern boundary of the city was a spot popular for workers to live, near the major freight depot. Furthermore, for someone living in the city, the railroad’s most significant impact would have been their own passenger transportation, not coal. The Lehigh Valley Railroad put Allentown on the map, connecting the city to Philadelphia and New York for coal and passenger transportation. The two ornate stations as well spoke to the growing influence of the railroad and of Allentown as an industrial city.


Figure 2. A map depicting the stations and main route of freight transport from 1873

Beyond Steel: An Archive of Lehigh Valley Industry and Culture

Spiro G. Patton, Comparative Advanayage and Urban Industrialization: Reading, Allentown and Lancaster in the 19th Century. Pennsylvania History v50 n2. 148-169

Packer, A., & Sayre, E. (1870-1906). Annual Report to the Board of Directors