The words of the spokesman for the Norfolk & Southern Railroad had the air of finality. They were not going to allow passenger traffic to ever use their track between the Lehigh Valley and New York. Freight was the money maker and to disrupt it, even to allow an occasional excursion train, would cost too much in lost revenue.
With that, the hopes of both public officials and rail fans were crushed. Today, with overcrowded highways, packed airport terminal lines, jammed bus routes and a younger, urban-oriented population with a greater acceptance of mass transit, passenger rail links are more desirable then they have been since the 1940s.
But when the Maple Leaf- the last Lehigh Valley Railroad passenger train to New York- pulled out of the Allentown Station on a snowy day 55 years ago, America’s car culture was largely unwilling to take a look out its rear-view mirror for a second glance at a train service that they might one day miss.
The end of passenger service in the Lehigh Valley was clear by the late 1950s. In 1959 the Interstate Commerce Commission had allowed the Lehigh Valley to end the run of the Black Diamond, its showcase trains between Buffalo and New York, once touted as “the Handsomest Train In The World.” It ceased on May 11, 1959.
“The Valley (railroad) expects to save a million dollars a year through the discontinuance of passenger service,” noted the Morning Call. “As late as 1950. it still carried more than a million passengers a year. But last year (1960) the number had dwindled to 250,000.’’
Valley president C.A. Majors said he was “very sorry…but it was necessary…we just don’t have the money to continue and that is that.” In the words of Lehigh Valley Railroad historian Robert F. Archer, “management regarded the passenger train as an albatross it dearly wished to be rid of as soon as possible.”
On August 30, 1960 the Lehigh Valley Railroad petitioned the ICC to end all passenger service. In early 1961 its request was granted and, says Archer, they “lost little time in pulling off the last of its trains.” The John Wilkes, since 1958 reduced to running from New York to Lehighton, was scheduled for its last run on February 3rd. It arrived there in a snowstorm.
The eastbound Maple Leaf, the last LV train to New York, was operated by the Canadian National Railroad from Toronto to Niagara Falls. The westbound version of the train contained Lehigh Valley Railroad cars that were destined for Canada, and the eastbound version had CNR cars headed to New York. The passengers stayed aboard when the cars were exchanged at DePew, New York.
One of the riders on the train was Paul Falstich. He had delivered two new Mack Trucks to Toronto and decided to take the train back to Allentown. He had done it many times before but had no idea he was on the train’s last trip.
The Maple Leaf had about 90 passengers aboard. It had started snowing shortly before they left Buffalo on schedule at 10:50 p.m. The trip across New York state was a rough one. “It shook and rattled a lot,” Falstich recalled later. By the time the train crossed over into Sayre, Pa., the Maple Leaf was four hours behind schedule. A stop of 40 minutes seemed a lot longer.
Soon the Maple Leaf was confronting 6 to 8 foot tall snow drifts. It had to be stopped at least ten times for the big headlight on the front of the diesel to be cleaned.
The train, after stopping in Lehighton at 12:30 p.m. to pick up a passenger, who was, like Falstich, a driver for truck company that was returning home, was now six hours behind schedule. “Its twin diesel units were covered with ice and several inches of snow,” reported the next day’s newspaper, “appearing through the swirling snow choked gloom like a gigantic ghost.”
The real trouble was at Coxton Yards near Wilkes-Barre. Here the Maple Leaf’s lead engine stalled in a drift. It took three extra engines to get it over the mountain and into Lehighton.
When it finally arrived in Allentown, the Maple Leaf was covered with snow and no color on her was visible. A rail fan and later railroad employee who went by the nom de train as Choo Choo Charlie was there to try and get a photo. “I couldn’t see anything,” he recalled, “not the wheels, not, the rails. The thing was just creeping down the track.”
The Maple Leaf pressed on to Bethlehem where about 35 to 50 people got off. It pulled out of the Christmas City and then on to Newark. From there the Maple Leaf was supposed to be taken under the Hudson River to New York City.
But the Pennsy refused. Why it did so is not given in any of the sources. Perhaps it was simply the weather, but it may have been the fact that it was the government that had since World War I forced the Pennsylvania Railroad to share the tunnel with other lines. Perhaps it was last slap at an old rival.
According to Choo Choo Charlie the train’s cars were sold to Mexico. And among the few people who felt the Lehigh Valley would someday regret its loss was Sunday Call Chronicle editor William D. Reimert. On February 5, 1961 he blasted both public and private sectors for their apathy.
“To the best of our knowledge not a single branch of government, not a single civic agency did anything to counteract this sorry state of affairs when it happened. Last weeks’ commercial and industrial tragedy, depriving Pennsylvania’s third metropolitan area of adequate transportation to the nation’s largest city, is an accomplished fact.”
And barring a miracle there will be no change in the future.