An avid, amateur history detective, Clark Williams surprised the Wayne County Historical Society, April 22, with a rare artifact of the gravity railroad that operated in Hawley.
WHITE MILLS - An avid, amateur history detective, Clark Williams surprised the Wayne County Historical Society, April 22, with a rare artifact of the gravity railroad that operated in Hawley.
Williams set the corroded, double iron wheels and approximately four foot length of old strap iron on the Society’s display table at the Thomas Kennedy Local History Festival. The annual event, bringing together numerous local organizations that promote local history, met at the Dorflinger Glass Factory Museum in White Mills for the first time.
Williams, who loves exploring local history- on foot and in the field- explained he found these artifacts about 15 years ago on a Palmyra Township farm adjacent to the Marble Hill neighborhood, immediately outside the Borough of Hawley and off Old Gravity Road. He stopped by one day on his motorcycle, and inquired at the resident’s house if he knew anything about old gravity railroad leftovers that Williams knew might be on the man’s land.
To understand the artifacts, here is a short synopsis of the gravity railroad.
The gravity railroad in question was operated by the Pennsylvania Coal Company (PCC) from 1850 to 1885, connecting the coal mines in the Pittston area of Luzerne County with Hawley in Wayne County. Approximately 47 miles in length, its main purpose was to ship anthracite coal to Hawley where it was transferred to canal boats at first, and in later years onto Erie steam locomotive trains.
The PCC is credited for quickly developing Hawley into a full-fledged and self-sufficient town. In addition to shipping coal and other cargo, the gravity line had a fleet of “Pioneer” passenger coaches, shuttling between Hawley and the PCC’s headquarters in Dunmore. One of those coaches has been preserved by the Hawley Public Library where it is exhibited on their lawn.
There was another gravity railroad connecting the mines in the Carbondale area with Honesdale, where the coal was transferred to the waiting boats of the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal Company. This line operated from 1828 until the canal closed in 1898. The PCC began as a subsidiary of the D&H but soon became a fierce competitor.
These gravity railroads had two, roughly parallel sets of tracks. The “loaded” track track sent the coal-laden cars eastward from the mines, guided down by gravity. The “light” track was used to haul the empty coal cars westward, back up the gradually increasing elevation. A series of inclined planes along the way had stationary engines - usually powered by steam- at each summit, to haul the trains up on a cable.
In its first year of operation, the PCC used 900 coal cars and shipped 316,017 tons of Wyoming Valley coal to the waiting canal boats at Hawley.
Hawley was named for Irad Hawley, the first president of the PCC.
Plane #13 at Hawley was the first of 10 planes on the return trip to the mines. It first used a water-powered stationary engine, but after 10 years the PCC replaced it with steam power.
What he found
The two wheels he presented, were pulleys that were inserted side by side in the middle of the track on Plane #13. These wheels served to keep the cable in place and smoothly rolling.
The strap iron is a section of the rail. The rail shows a tongue and groove at the ends, where it fit in place between other sections.
Dr. S. Robert Powell, president of the Carbondale Historical Society & Museum Inc., made a presentation that morning at the Local History Festival in White Mills. Powell, a recognized authority on the gravity railroad systems in the region, had chosen the PCC gravity railroad as his topic.
Asked later about Williams’ artifacts, Powell stated that the two railroad items are definitely from the Pennsylvania Coal Company Gravity Railroad.
“Pulley wheels and pieces of strap rail from the D&H Gravity Railroad exist in several local collections - Waymart Area Historical Society, Carbondale Historical Society - but these are the first pulley wheels and strap rail that I have ever seen from the PCC Gravity Railroad,” Powell said. “They will be a very nice addition to the railroad collections of the Wayne County Historical Society.”
How he found them
Around 15 years ago, Williams said he was looking around Hawley for clues to the PCC tracks, which he knew bypassed Marble Hill on both sides (Marble Hill was settled in the mid-19th century as an Irish enclave, for immigrant laborers who came to Hawley to work on the gravity railroad or the canal).
Plane #13, which is shown on old maps, rose from what is now Old Gravity Road, across the river from approximately where Dollar General store is today. It is private property. Williams went to this area, where he found the nearest neighbor, a man older than himself but Williams said he could no longer name.
Williams introduced himself and inquired if he knew of anything about the old gravity railroad that went through there, over a hundred years before.
The man told him his family love there many years, but there was today basically nothing left of the railroad. He said there might be something over by his shed.
Williams and the landowner went over and started kicking around on the dirt and grass, and behold, there were the set of pulley wheels, in the ground. The man pointed out a curious piece of iron strap that was leaning against the shed: This was a piece of the track rail.
The man graciously offered the items to him, Williams said. Very happy to have them, Williams managed to carry them home while driving his motorcycle.
Another time, he said, he was on Wangum Road, which leads to the bridge over scenic Wangum Falls. This road was originally part of the PCC’s light track rail bed. There, sticking out of the side of the roadway, was a piece of the strap rail.
Williams’ grandparents had a house in Marble Hill, where Williams’ parents also lived when they were first married. His grandmother worked at Sherman Mills.
Clark and his wife Amy live in Berlin Township. Mr. Williams, who is 57, said that as a kid he was living on Beech Grove Road, outside of Honesdale, and was neighbor to the late Wayne County Historian and archeologist, Dr. Vernon Leslie. This association, however, did not impact him at the time, and it was not until Williams was a young adult that he became interested in history.
He said what he likes most about the subject is being able to go out and see for himself, evidence of what’s gone by, in the landscape of today. With careful and trained inspection, one can still read the story, although each succeeding generation turns another page and tends to obscure or obliterate what was left, even further.
On his motor bike or on foot, Williams has been able to explore much of the gravity railroad routes of the D&H and PCC, as well as the D&H canal remnants.
Carol Dunn expressed much appreciation for the items on behalf of the Society. She told Williams she would consider the most appropriate venue where the artifacts should ultimately be on display.
"These metal pieces, associated with the gravity railroads which were so important to our area in decades past, are precious tangible reminders of the incredible engineering schemes that were built here in Wayne County,” Dunn said. “The metal objects are small reminders of a huge commercial process that gave the anthracite coal from the Lackawanna Valley a ‘marker.’ This anthracite coal fueled the American industrial revolution, and our area was changed forever by the gravity railroad and the canal which facilitated the movement of this coal across our county. Very little is left today of the gravity railroads, so these metal objects are a tangible link to a by-gone era. The Wayne County Historical Society is thrilled to provide a location where these pieces can be viewed by the public."