Erie Railroad Beginnings

A 2-8-0 drags a train loaded with anthracite-filled hoppers up the south side of Ararat Hill out of Carbondale while two big 0-8-8-0 Mallets push in the distance. (D&H Collection, Delaware & Hudson, Jim Shaughnessy, 1967)



The origins of the D&H Rail-trail lie with the desire of the managers of the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal Company to find a northern outlet for anthracite coal mined in the Lackawanna and later the Wyoming Valleys of  Northeastern Pennsylvania. By the mid-1860’s the D&H Coal and Canal Company had transported coal via its gravity railroad from Carbondale to Honesdale, and then via its canal from Honesdale to Roundout, near Kingston, New York for several decades. One of the challenges faced by the canal company was the annual onset of winter and the accompanying freezing temperatures. Canal traffic ceased throughout the winter months.


This annual weather based dilemma also impacted the nearby Pennsylvania Coal Company (PCC). The PCC shipped its coal, also mined in the Lackawanna Valley, to eastern markets via a gravity railroad from Port Griffith, in the Pittston area, to Hawley and then to the D&H Canal. A dispute and protracted litigation between the D&H and the PCC led to the construction of a rail line from Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania and the Erie Railroad, to Hawley and the PCC’s gravity railroad. This line linking Hawley and Lackawaxen opened on December 23, 1863 and was quickly leased to the Erie.


The D&H as well, sought an all weather route for its coal to eastern markets. Its strategy for reaching those markets involved linking up with the Albany & Susquehanna Railroad then building its line between Albany and Binghamton, New York. In 1868 a solution seemed at hand and the D&H signed a contract with the Erie Railroad for the construction of a railroad between Carbondale to Lanesboro, just east of the Erie’s shop complex in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. The completion of this 36 mile line in 1870 gave the Erie a route for distribution of coal to its western connections and at the same time gave the D&H a route to its connections in the Albany area and points north and east. This line had the curious characteristic of being owned by a railroad, the Erie, which utilized it as a branch line while the tenant, the D&H used the line as its mainline from the coal regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania to its northern and eastern markets.


The profile of the Jefferson Division, as it was known on the Erie Railroad, mandated the use of heavy power to surmount heavy grades. Northbound from Carbondale the grade varied from 1.48% to .79% up to the summit elevation of 2025 feet at Ararat. Southbound from Jefferson Junction the grade varied from 1.22% to 1.38% from Jefferson Junction to the Ararat Summit. Grades are figured as a percentage of rise in a hundred feet. A 2% grade would be a rise of two feet in a hundred feet of track. While a rise of two feet in a hundred might seem quite gentle, for a steam locomotive with 80 hoppers loaded with anthracite tied to its tender, and steel drive wheels clawing for traction on steel rails such an increase in elevation was very much a challenge, generally met with multiple locomotives on both ends of the train.


On the Erie, in the height of the steam era, those locomotives might be a 2-8-2, commonly known in railroad motive power circles as a Mikado type locomotive, or a 2-10-2, known as a Santa Fe type. The steam locomotive of choice for Jefferson Division freights beginning in the mid 1910’s was the 2-10-2. The Erie had three different versions of the 2-10-2 and all were designed for heavy freights on mountainous terrain, although later steam years found them disbursed across the system as increased use of diesel locomotives pushed them into secondary roles.


The Jefferson Division became an important route for transporting coal from the Erie terminal at Avoca to Susquehanna. Much of this northbound traffic was received from the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) at Avoca and forwarded north during daylight hours. The southbound CNJ connection from Susquehanna to Avoca was a nighttime run. At one time there were four freights traversing the Jefferson Division each day in each direction. This must have made for very busy railroading between Avoca and Lanesboro as the D&H used this line for its mainline traffic which exceeded the Erie’s traffic.


The Jefferson Division, even as the mainline route of the D&H never really served any sizeable amount of passenger traffic. Erie passenger traffic on the Jefferson Division in the early twentieth century consisted of as many as three locals daily each way between Susquehanna and Carbondale. Using Brill gas mechanical cars, this service ended early in 1933. The D&H operated a daily train between Oneonta and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania through the 1930’s, ending in 1941.


In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as diesel powered locomotives took over mainline freights the Erie moved its modern steam freight locomotives to secondary lines like the Jefferson Division. This spelled doom for the less efficient 2-10-2’s as they were relegated to the scrap line by the newer and more efficient “S class” 2-8-4’s. The drive to dieselize the entire railroad meant the eventual replacement of steam power on the Jefferson Division and this was completed in the early 1950’s.


The demise of the steam locomotive on the Jefferson Division was accompanied by the demise of anthracite as a home heating fuel. This decline began in the 1920’s and accelerated through the 1930’s and 1940’s. Shipments of anthracite over the Jefferson Division fell to the point where the Erie Railroad, the line’s owner, began to question maintaining the line to main line standards when its importance, as a branch line, was declining. To the Erie’s tenant, the D&H, the Jefferson Division, or as the D&H termed the line, the Penn Division, was a critical link in bridge traffic, traffic obtained by connecting railroads, from Wilkes-Barre to Albany and points east and north. Accordingly the Erie sold the Jefferson Division to the D&H for $3,500,000 in 1955. The Erie’s use of the Jefferson Division did not end with its sale as it retained trackage rights on the line.


The former Jefferson Division continued as the D&H mainline from Wilkes-Barre to Ninevah, New York, and points east through Albany until 1980. The Penn Central merger in 1968 eliminated the major source of traffic for the D&H. This situation became critical in the early 1970’s and was resolved, not to the benefit of the D&H, with the establishment of Conrail in 1976. While the D&H attempted to continue operations in the Conrail era, its use of the Jefferson (or Penn ) Division ended in 1980 when it purchased the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (DL&W) line from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Binghamton, New York, from Conrail. This DL&W line has significantly easier grades than the Jefferson Division. Once abandoned, the former Jefferson Division was stripped of its rails and allowed to return to nature, until being reborn as the D&H Rail-Trail.

-Peter H. Grant-


The D&H Rail-Trail is 38 miles long from Simpson to the New York border near Susquehanna, PA. Ten miles have been improved with a stone dust surface suitable for hybrid and mountain bikes. The improved section runs along the Upper Lackawanna River from Vandling to Herrick Center. It is also used by equestrians, runners and hikers. Other sections of the D&H are graded original railbed surface usable by mountain bikers and hikers.