Railroad And Roller Coaster: The Mauch Chunk Railway
In 1828, state-of-the-art transportation technology would come to the Pennsylvania mountains in the form of the Mauch Chunk and Summit Railroad. It was built to transport coal from the top of the mountains to the canal below. It was not the first railroad in the United States, but it existed at a time when many railways were still experimental in nature, and the industry was taking baby steps into becoming the modern form of transportation of the day, and displacing the canal, which was still king.
The story actually begins in 1792, when Anthracite coal was first discovered in the area. In attempting to bring the coal to Philadelphia markets, 100 miles away, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard purchased land at Mauch Chunk. "They built first a road, then a gravity railroad, to bring the coal down from Summit Hill to their new village of Mauch Chunk. Here shallow boats were loaded with 8 to 10 tons of coal. The boats went down the Lehigh through a series of low dams with gates that could be opened to let them float over the rocks down to Easton, then ride the Delaware River to Philadelphia." (Pennsylvania Historical Marker - HMDB)
"Looking down the Switchback Gravity Rail that brought coal down the mountain to be loaded first on to canal boats and later on to rail cars." (Pennsylvania Historical Marker - HMDB)
The Webster's Dictionary definition of a roller coaster is as follows: : an elevated railway (as in an amusement park) constructed with sharp curves and steep inclines on which cars roll. Despite this definition, coasters, particularly modern ones, obviously have little to do with conventional railways, as their tracks are quite articulated, can invert (something probably only The Polar Express can do), and their trains are far more technical than a traditional railway. But with that thought in mind, in an evolutionary sense, the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway represents the common ancestor between modern day railroads and modern day roller coasters.
The 'Up Route' cable Railway addition of 1846-47. Wikipedia Commons.
|Most, but not all, of the operation is on available topo maps. This is from the 1889 USGS Hazleton map.|
|Switchback Railway at Coney Island. (Gothamist)|