A Brief Look at the Lehigh & New England Railroad

Posted by Allan on

If you were born in Eastern Pennsylvania (as I was) and you grew up to become a rail fan (as I did) you learned of an unspoken rule - you must love the anthracite railroads.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, anthracite is a type of coal known commonly as hard coal.  It has a high luster due to its rich carbon content which earned it the nickname Black Diamonds..  You see this emulated in the heralds of two classic anthracite roads, the Lehigh Valley, and the Reading.  The Lehigh Valley’s flagship passenger train from Buffalo to New York even carried the name Black Diamond Express.

The railroads that hauled this coal as a principal source of income became collectively referred to as anthracite railroads, and most of us have a personal favorite.  Mine is the Lehigh and New England.

My first interaction with anything LNE was in the late seventies during one of our family road trips that took us through Lehigh Gap.  Every year we would head up to the Pocono foothills to see the leaves changing color in the fall.  Pennsylvania State Route 145 parallels the Lehigh River north of Allentown, as does the former Jersey Central main line on the east side of the river.  The former Lehigh Valley Railroad main line, Conrail at the time, ran on the west bank.

Though I recall seeing some rail traffic on most of our trips, the most fascinating thing for me as a railfan was something that wasn't there.  When we would pass through Lehigh Gap, my dad would talk about the massive bridge that used to dominate the scene.  It was big enough and high enough to cross the river, the highway, and both main lines.  The only evidence of its existence were the large abutments on either side of the gap, and as best I can tell from Google Earth they are still there.  At the time I could never remember which railroad the bridge carried, as there are so many things in that area that contain the name “Lehigh.”  It only struck me a few years later that it was the Lehigh New England, and it sparked my desire to learn everything I could about them.

I don’t want to go too deep into the history of the LNE as there are a number of excellent books already written on the subject.  I’ll leave a list of my three favorites at the end of the article.  Let me just say, though, the deeper you go the more interesting it becomes.  One of the more intriguing aspects is a tunnel under the town of Catasauqua, PA.  The railroad wanted a connection with the Reading's branch line in West Catasauqua, the former Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad.  Yes, that is what it was called, you can’t make this stuff up.  They also wanted a connection with the Lehigh Valley as well, both of which were on the other side of the Lehigh River.  There was already a bridge across the river that had been built by the Crane Iron Works, but they still had to get to it from the east side of the town.  The solution was to just tunnel under it!  Surprisingly the tunnel is still there, it’s just been closed off at both ends. 

If you ever find yourself in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, take a detour to Catasauqua. Drive down 2nd Street, between E. Wood and Church Street, and you will notice two things that seem a bit odd.  First, there’s a tiny side street called “Tunnel Alley”.  No prize for guessing how it got that name.  Second, just across from Tunnel Alley, there’s a short stretch of handrail on the edge of the sidewalk.  It appears to be there for no particular reason, as there's just some grass on the other side of it.  This is exactly where the west portal of the tunnel was, and the railing is still there from when it used to be a 20ft drop-off.  I would imagine only the die-hard local train buffs have any clue that it was ever there.  I’m not sure if it is still visible, but back in the early 1980s, you could see the top of the construction date cast in the concrete just barely sticking out of the ground.

Pen Argyl, PA, still has LNE fingerprints on it as well, having been the railroad’s center of operation.  Two of the larger structures from their heyday are still standing; the car shop and the roundhouse. 

As far as their operations went, they are often referred to as having been a bridge line (take these cars from this big railroad and give them to that big railroad).  They were certainly much more than that, though.  The two principal commodities they transported directly from production facilities were coal and cement, as represented in the black and white paint scheme used on their diesels, according to legend.  There were a myriad of other industries and businesses they served in the region.  They interchanged directly with at least ten different railroads in three different states. They built and maintained their own fleet of freight cars.

Growing up a diesel fan, as steam was gone before I was born, I have always loved the Lehigh and New England's almost all Alco lineup.  The exception being an Army surplus Whitcomb 80-tonner, which was actually the first diesel they purchased.  Along with six S2s, thirteen RS2s, ten FA1s and three FB1s, it was a sizable fleet for such a relatively small railroad.  This illustrates how much activity there was on the line.

One of the S2s survives to this day. After the Lehigh and New England closed its doors in 1961, this S2 #611 was purchased by the Ford Motor Company.  It is now under the care of the Railroad & Industrial Preservation Society, Inc. where it's currently being restored to its original appearance when owned by the LNE.  If you'd like to learn more about the work they're doing, and how you can help, you can go to their website at - https://riptrack.org/

I hope this article sparks some interest into taking a deeper look at the Lehigh in New England, as there's far more information and history then I could begin to cover here.  Not only does it have a fascinating and regionally significant history but it offers a tremendous amount of inspiration for model railroaders as well.

Allan at Railroad Mode


Only Yesterday on the Lehigh & New England Railroad

By Robert F. Fischer

Garrigues House


The Lehigh and New England Railroad

By Ed Crist

Carstens Publications Inc.


The Lehigh and New England Railroad: A Color Retrospect

By Douglas E Lilly

Garrigues House

Anthracite Railroads Historical Society, Inc.