It was dubbed “The Funeral Train.’’
On March 31, 1972, the Central Railroad of New Jersey closed its Ashley Yard, ending more than 100 years of operations that were closely tied to the region’s anthracite industry.
Unionized employees of the CNJ refused to assemble the final train or to take it to New Jersey. Management employees, including the yardmaster and trainmaster, filled roles they held in their younger days.
The CNJ lasted only a few more years. On April 1, 1976, the railroad and several other failing lines were rolled into the Consolidated Rail Corp., known best as Conrail. The federal government created Conrail to take over potentially profitable lines of bankrupt carriers including the CNJ, Penn Central, Lehigh Valley and Erie Lackawanna.
The colorful history of the CNJ was laid out in a talk, augmented by a slide presentation, by Ed Philbin at a recent meeting of the Huber Breaker Preservation Society at the Earth Conservancy building, South Main Street, Ashley.
Tracks in the Ashley Yard were only 100 feet west of the EC building. The historic Huber Breaker, which was razed two years ago, sat to the southwest.
Mr. Philbin, 41, of the Port Griffith section of Jenkins Twp., is a railroad historian and an active railroader. He is an engineer on the Reading Blue Mountain and Northern Railroad that runs on former CNJ and Lehigh Valley tracks. Created in 1983, the regional line stretches from Taylor in Lackawanna County south to Reading in Berks County.
Mr. Philbin said the CNJ was “always in bad shape financially’’ but managed to survive because it hauled anthracite and it enjoyed good relations with other railroads, especially the Delaware & Hudson Railway. On one slide, Mr. Philbin pointed out the lack of substantial ballast between the rails and said this was common. “Every one (all of the railroads) was hurting,’’ he said.
The CNJ dates to 1839 when the Elizabethtown and Somerville Railroad was chartered in New Jersey. In 1849, that line bought the Somerville and Easton Railroad and they were chartered as the Central Railroad of New Jersey. The CNJ pushed east as the Lehigh Valley began to haul coal to eastern cities. Eventually, the railroads would supplant canal boats as coal haulers.
Leases, joint operations and use of other railroads’ tracks allowed the CNJ to grow into a major coal hauler. The pivotal lease was that made in the 1870s of the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad, a subsidiary of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. The downtown railroad station in Wilkes-Barre is a landmark of the L&S and the CNJ.
Lehigh Coal & Navigation built the famous Ashley Planes in 1837. The series of inclined planes moved coal and freight, hauled by a cable system, from Ashley to Mountaintop where the Penobscot Yard’s multiple tracks allowed the makeup of trains. The coal that was hauled out over decades fueled the U.S. industrial revolution.
The planes were closed in 1947. Mr. Philbin said the advent of diesel locomotives allowed easier and cheaper movement of trains over the ”Back Track’’ built from Ashley, around the mountain, through Laurel Run and to the Penobscot Yard.
A plan to create an Ashley Planes Heritage Park is dead and the land is overgrown. Earth Conservancy has been unsuccessful in trying to obtain the land. A trail envisioned from Penobscot into Ashley along the planes also is being rerouted around the mountain, following the “Back Track’’ route.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Golias, retired managing editor of The Citizens’ Voice, covered the last CNJ train from Ashley, “The Funeral Train,’’ as a reporter for the former Times-Leader, The Evening News. Less than three months later, the Agnes Flood would wreak havoc on area