In the 19th century, two gravity railroads extended from the coal mining region of the Lackawanna and Luzerne County valleys, over the mountains to Honesdale and Hawley.

HAWLEY - In the 19th century, two gravity railroads extended from the coal mining region of the Lackawanna and Luzerne County valleys, over the mountains to Honesdale and Hawley. It was a common sight along the way to see large bands of barefoot women and children, clinging to note sides of the coal car trains, in search for huckleberries.

Both the Pennsylvania Coal Company (PCC) and the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal Company offered passengers coaches on their gravity railroads, at the cost of a ticket.
Other passengers, both berry pickers and others, chose the more adventurous and free way, hitching a ride on the coal cars.

As it turns out they did this out of necessity.

If their manner of travel sounds dangerous, it was.

The PCC’s 47 mile gravity railroad meandered from Wyoming Valley coal mines to Hawley, where coal was transferred to canal boats (and later, onto steam trains).

The PCC operated its gravity railroad from 1850 to 1885, when it switched to a full locomotive line.

Their trip down towards Hawley was on the “loaded” track, on which the force of gravity pulled the coal cars. They took the “light” track home, holding on to the empty coal cars pulled back to the mines by cables under the power of stationary steam engines.

The D&H gravity railroad connected the coal mines at Carbondale and down the Lackawanna Valley, with the terminus of the canal at Honesdale. The D&H gravity system operated from 1828 through 1898.

The berry picker’s story was featured in the The Herald, Hancock, NY, dated July 15, 1880.
They picked the berries in the Moosic Highlands, described as a vast tract between Pittston and Hawley and at that time of year “black with huckleberry brigades.” They combed the mountain sides for their quarry on nice days, and retuned at night with pails and baskets overflowing with the fruit. The pickers numbered in the hundreds, living along the valley anywhere from Pittston to Carbondale.

Commonly, a short board was seen projecting from the gravity train, inserted by a woman going to fetch berries. She would hide the board when she got off, and put it back on to help her get a footing for the return trip.

The writer described their perilous transport, “…women and children are whirled across the dizzy chasms and through the deep cuts tag distinguish the rugged landscape…” They  frequently find themselves as much as 20 miles from home, trusting to catch a ride on a returning gravity coal train.

Sometimes, their timing was off and they would miss the last train heading back. This would leave them with two unsavory options, tramping through the woods or down the tracks as darkness fell or staying the night in the mountains.

Picturesque sight

The newspaper chronicler described the “huckleberry” train as one of the picturesque sights of the gravity road. Women and girls, their faces sunburned, could be seen clenching the coal car with one hand and the other holding their heaped pails of berries on their heads.

“Frequently, their calling is fraught with peril, but they came quite inured to its hardships and learn to love its gypsy-like character,” the report penned.

They would leave for the mountain at dawn, in crowds of 20 or 30. Beginners found the rattlesnakes the greatest terror, but with experience they learn how to vanquish the reptile. It was not uncommon to hear a veteran berry picker boast of how many rattlers she killed during the season. They also came back with stories about bears.

Violent storms were another source of great danger.

Around 1876, several women were struck dead by lightning while taking refuge in a shed. Their pails were fled with berries and were waiting for their train ride home when the storm hit. Several other women, who witnessed the bolt but survived, fled in terror, Wagons were sent for the bodies. The incident created a sensation in Scranton.

Almost every season pickers working the high peaks, would be killed by lightning.


An article in the Tri-States Union, Port Jervis, from June 1885, told of the industrious huckleberry pickers in the region.  It was not unusual to ship 800 bushels of the berries from the small Ere rail station in Shohola. Berry picking was widespread.

Families of coal miners in the anthracite region welcomed berry season, the article stated. The families spread out across the range from the Lackawanna and Luzerne County mountains, down across the Poconos.

“The long lines of coal cars that pull out from the mining village early in the morning carry up into the hills hundreds of women and children,who cling to the cars in positions that the inexperienced rider could not hold on to for an instant. The agility with which these women and children mount to their precarious perches on these carts while the trains are in motion, is astonishing, the article states.”It is excelled, however, by the skill and judgment with which they alight  from them, laden with baskets and pails filled with berries, when they return again from the hills at night. There is great peril in the means of riding, as the gravity trains dash through narrow rock cuts, along the faces of high cliffs, and around the sharpest curves.”

The Port Jervis paper, noted, however, that the berry pickers are highly skilled in their means of transport, and “it is seldom that any are hurt.”

The (Honesdale, Wayne County) Herald, however, recalled in an August 4,1898 article that, “more than one met their fate upon those free excursions. Now, however, there are both safety and pleasure for our berry pickers. They fill the open gravity cars in the morning and in half an hour or so they are roaming over the top and sides of the blue Moosic. At evening they return with baskets laden with the blue berries which have given them pleasure in the gathering, and profit in their sale or use.”

Despite the many dangers, berry picking offered them so many advantages, that the pickers gladly took the risks they faced.

John O’Connor’s story

It wasn’t only berry pickers that hitched rides on the sides of the PCC coal trains. John O’Connor reminisced about the rides he and his mother would take. His story was preserved in the book, History of Hawley, Pa., written in 1927 by Michael J. McAndrew.

O’Connor’s father was a fireman operating the stationary stream engine at No. 18 plane on the gravity route, just east of the village of Lake Ariel. “As soon as I was old enough I rode on the Gravity coal cars and was pleased whenever my mother took me on railroad trips to Hawley,” John O’Connor wrote. “To go to that village from our hamlet we boarded the light cars at number 18 android tow miles to number 19, now [Lake] Ariel.

“At that place we got on the trucks [coal cars][ pulled by horses for two miles to the head on number 12 on the loaded track [village of Gravity, just north of Lake Ariel]. Then on the loaded cars, we began a 14 mile ride to Hawley.

“As we sped along we could see the hill two miles east of number 12 the zig-zag course of the Middle Creek through a number of fields in the valley…. From the hill at what is now Clemo we looked upon Robertson & Cail’s tannery, a wide spreading hive of industry…. At Hoadleys we passed large pockets at which local sales of coal were made. A few miles more we rode over Wangum Falls, a part of the Middle Creek.

“The experience was thrilling, especially to a youth. A long wooden aqueduct here also attracted attention. This structure took water from a dam in the creek above the falls and carried it across the valley to number 15, on the light track, where it drove the big wheel which hoisted cars and which, after 15 or 20 year service, was replaced with a steam engine…

“The loaded track passed under the outbound or light track to number 14, two miles from Hawley. There was a waterwheel at number 14 in the early days. It was fed by a canal fro the Middle Creek…”

O’Connor said he and his mother were once riding on a “log truck” on the Gravity, at the head of the first car. As they entered Hawley at slow speed, a front wheel broke and stopped the trip abruptly. “The truck pitched somewhat and shook us badly. Had the accident happened while the trucks were running fast there is no telling what the result would have been,” he reflected.

PCC tried to stop it

A news brief posted July 10, 1878 announced that no passengers would be allowed to ride on the PCC gravity railroad coal cars, by order of PCC Superintendent John B. Smith. He directed conductors of the coal trains to put everyone off that attempts to get on the cars.

They had, after all, the opportunity to ride the PCC coaches, for a price.

The company was said to have plans to put on another passenger train at Hawley, which would be expected to be a great accommodation to the public.

Two “Pioneer” trains made round trips daily on the PCC gravity route, except on Sunday when the PCC did not operate.  One gravity passenger train left Dunmore at about 8:30 a.m. and the other left Hawley at about 3:30 p.m. The fare was one dollar and a one-way trip took about an hour and a half to two.

Rather than cling to the sides of the coal cars, they could have sat on the wood benches which stretched length-wise in each coach, keeping dry, and toasty when the coal stove was in use. Oil lamps provided illumination. Each coach sat abut 20 people.  A fully restored example of these coaches may be seen next to the Hawley Public Library.

Superintendent Smith’s prohibition apparently didn’t resolve the situation. The article from 1880 recalled that trying to ban the “berry women” from riding the coal cars caused “great tribulation.”

Also the D&H

Dr. S. Robert Powell, an authority on the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal Company gravity railroad, said that huckleberry pickers frequently hitched rides on the sides of D&H coal cars as well. He said that management of both the D&H also made efforts to stop the dangerous practice, to no avail.

“The pickers were not only women and children but also unemployed or on-strike miners and railroaders,” Dr. Powell said. “They money they earned from selling the berries, in a great many cases, helped those families get through hard times.”

Supported families

Berry season bloomed in June, and was at its height in the second week of July. The low bush or “sugar blue” variety ripened first, and was considered the finest flavor of all the varieties.

Sometimes, the crops were poor. A news brief from 1878 stated that in Wayne County, huckleberries were described as “a failure.”

The berries harvested in 1880 were said to be unusually large and fine. Recent forest fires had spared most of the wild crop, and rains that season were of good benefit. They sold the berries in the towns along the foot of the mountain range at nine cents a quart. The large yield was expected to bring down the price to five cents.

One can only imagine the uncountable slices of toast that were smothered in huckleberry jam, and how many children’s lips turned a huckleberry shade from the hot pies baked with the produce from the gravity railroad berry pickers.

Some of these enterprising women had lost their husbands in mining accidents. The widows were able to support their “large and feeble families” by the sale of huckleberries picked along the gravity railroad route, The (Hancock) Herald story noted.

Main sources:
Vintage newspapers/ Fultonhistory.,com
History of Hawley, Pa. (1927) by Michael J. McAndrew
The Gravity: History of the Pennsylvania Coal Company (1972) by Mary Theresa “T.C.” Connolly
For more information on the berry pickers on the D&H, see Volume XIII (Troubled Times- the 1870s), pages 186-197 in Dr. S. Robert Powell’s 24-volume e-book series of the D&H gravity railroad.