Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway

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Earlier names of the United States' second built Railroad (and one of the longest operated) known variously as:
  • the Mauch Chunk Railroad, and the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill and Switchback Railroad or
  • the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill & Switchback Railroad or
  • the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill, & Switch-Back Railroad,[1] which according to one legal notice in its final days was operated by
  • the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill Switch-Back Railway Company[2]
Mauch Chunk and Summit Hill Switchback Railroad
Mauch Chunk and Summit Hill Switchback Railroad 1870.jpg
Looking down at the Lehigh Canal landing, circa 1870.
Pisgah Mountain and the topology of the Summit Hill and Mauch Chunk Railroad
Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway is located in Pennsylvania
Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway
Location Between Ludlow St. in Summit Hill and F.A.P. 209 in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, Pennsylvania
Coordinates 40°52′10″N 75°44′59″W / 40.86944°N 75.74972°W / 40.86944; -75.74972Coordinates: 40°52′10″N 75°44′59″W / 40.86944°N 75.74972°W / 40.86944; -75.74972
Area 47 acres (19 ha)
Built 1827
Built by Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.
Architect Josiah White
NRHP Reference # 76001616[3]
Significant dates
Added to NRHP June 3, 1976
Designated PHMC May 25, 1971[4]

The 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway, or Mauch Chunk & Summit Hill Railway, was built in 1827 by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (LC&N) and ran for over a hundred years until the middle days of the Great Depression. It was the second operational United States railroad. In its last five decades of operation, it served primarily as a tourist attraction.

Begun as a one way gravity railroad that connected Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) and Summit Hill, PA servicing the site of one of the earliest commercial anthracite (coal) mines in Pennsylvania with freight and passenger services, the early road required mules to return its four-ton coal cars to the top which took over four hours. Subsequently, the road would send down groups of 6-8 coal cars under control of a brakeman, and once 40-42 cars were down, send down the special "mule cars" with the draft animals, thus having just enough animals to return all cars back to the top. The road gradually became a popular sensation— a weekend travel destination for the well to do to visit and soon, with the earliest for-pay riders documented in 1829, began to carry passengers some of the time over the somewhat exciting descent.

The 'Up Route' cable Railway addition of 1846. Once atop Mount Pisgah, the cars swooped nearly five miles to a second cable incline in a similar coupling area as that shown here where a pusher car couples to push the consist before ascending the incline. After the second incline the consists continued down hill in gravity railroad mode from there to Summit Hill.

As a coal road, product demand had grown steadily and eventually the return-by-mule railway could not keep up with throughput demands even operating three shifts, so despite some difficult engineering, the railroad was mutated to incorporate a new cable railway return loop in 1846 so became a gravity-incline combination railway. A powered double incline plane road lead up to the top of two separate summits along Pisgah Ridge on the return leg (See "up track" on the map at right) and each summit had a down track returning the cars several miles farther west in each case. About the same time, when other mine heads were opened in lower elevations of the Panther Creek valley LC&N added several descending switchback sections and other cable railway inclines to bring the coal up to the Summit Hill loading area for the railway trip down to the Lehigh Canal and their clamoring customers. The railroad became an early American tourist attraction and is considered as the world's first roller coaster, a role it would keep and satisfy with tourists for over five decades after it was abandoned as a primary freight railroad.


Lehigh Coal Mining Company (LCMC) had acquired lands around Summit Hill in 1792, a year after coal was discovered on the mountain. Transportation of bulk goods was a difficult problem as the United States did not have many developed roadways or waterways. LCMC had only sporadic success getting coal to industrialists in the Allentown-Philadelphia market, mule training the coal down to the Lehigh at several points in the Mauch Chunk Creek valley or crossing south over the Mauch Chunk Ridge to the Lehigh River at the Mahoning Hills near Lehighton, only to have many loads run afoul of river rapids and sink. The ineptitude of the LCMC to keep reliable regular deliveries would prove to be a historic turning point.

Services being unreliable, in 1818 inspired by the media coverage about the Erie Canal (begun 1817) and fed up with LCMC's delivery reliability, industrialists interested in securing a reliable coal supply bought the operating rights (leased) the company, and shortly after secured other investors forming as well the Lehigh Navigation Company, resolved to apply the high tech of the Canal Era (canals, locks, rails) to bringing coal to their foundries and the stoves and furnaces of Philadelphia and beyond. The mule roads used by the former management were quickly improved or replaced after a systematic survey, and work began nearly as rapidly on channels, locks and dams to tame the rocky Lehigh River with a canal. By mid-1820 the coal produced by new mining management was regularly and reliably servicing a growing customer base, but reliant on pack mule transport over the haul from Summit Hill to the coal chutes installed at Mauch Chunk, the town that became today's Jim Thorpe (which now also includes the town that was East Mauch Chunk on the east or left bank Lehigh River). In 1822 the two companies were merged, and by 1824 the improvements along the pack mule trail, in the mines, and especially because of the Lehigh Navigation the company had built between 1818-1823; coal was flowing out of the companies mines around Summit Hill and the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company's Lehigh Canal was regularly increasing coal shipped to the Delaware Canal through which it also fed prodigious amounts of coal. Having had an eye for high-tech from the outset, the LC&N company's founders decided to try some of the railroad solutions put into place in England around Coalbrookdale, which birthed not only railroads, but both the steam locomotive, and the fixed cable winch engines which were used in many steep grades as well as for mining hoists.

The railroad company, a subsidiary of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company (LC&N or 'Old Company'), eventually became part of the storied Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) when the Old Company divested its railroad holdings and leased out or sold most of its subsidiary railroad companies, part of whose traffic, was tourists visiting from Philadelphia to ride the novel and exciting ramshackle gravity railroad with its scenic mountain ridge view. CNJ later sold the tourist attraction to the newly formed Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill Switch-Back Railway Company. After abandoning freight operations in 1933, the railroad survived until 1938 as an early roller coaster.


The Mauch Chunk Rail Road was built and owned by the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. Construction began in January 1827 on an existing road and the road opened on May 5, 1827.[5] It sent anthracite from company mines up at Summit Hill to the company's coal chutes in Mauch Chunk on the Lehigh River. The return trip was handled by mules,[6] who then rode the trains downhill.[7] Downhill cars covered the trip in 30 minutes, while the uphill trip took four hours.[6] The trains were sometimes up to fourteen cars long, hauling 25 short tons (23,000 kg) of anthracite.[7] The railroad was only the second in the United States (and the first coal road),[8] and it was scenic and exciting to ride downhill, so it became a tourist attraction, and started occasionally carrying passengers.[6][7] Soon, coal would only be handled in the morning, with passenger service taking over the afternoon. This recreational use gained importance, and became the sole purpose of the railroad. It inspired the development of the roller coaster.[7] Some famous personalities who visited the railroad include Prince Maximilian of Wied, President Ulysses S. Grant, William Astor (son of John Jacob Astor), and Thomas Edison.[9]

In 1846, the railroad responded to increasing demand for coal[7] and the poor logistics of a single-track route by building a new up track consisting of two steam-powered, 120 horsepower (89 kW) funicular systems to replace the use of mules.[6] One of the inclines rose 664 feet (202 m) up Mount Pisgah,[7] and the other crossed Mount Jefferson. The downhill trip continued to be powered by gravity, as did the downhill portions of the otherwise uphill direction.[10] The up track was equipped with a ratchet which would prevent a car that detached from the cable from running away down hill.[6] This invention later evolved into the anti-rollback device used on roller coasters.[7] This was also when the railroad extended its name to the Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill and Switchback Railroad.[6] The modernization of the railroad reduced a passenger round-trip from 4.5 hours to just 80 minutes.[7]

In 1872, the Panther Creek Railroad opened as a replacement for the switchback line. The Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) purchased it in 1874 and leased it to brothers Theodore and H. L. Mumford who operated the line as a tourist attraction. On May 24, 1929, the CNJ sold the line to the new Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway Company, which operated until 1932, when the line fell victim to the Great Depression. The mortgage on the property foreclosed and it was sold to scrapper Isaac Weiner for $18,000 (equal to $312,190 today).[6]

In 1976, a 47-acre (19 ha) section of the former right-of-way, from Ludlow St. in Summit Hill to F.A.P. 209 in Jim Thorpe, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as "Mauch Chunk and Summit Hill Switchback Railroad". The listed area included four contributing sites.[3]

The right-of-way is now the Switchback Railroad Trail,[11] but efforts are underway to rebuild the Mt. Pisgah incline portion of the route.[8]


There are many more images of America's historic second railroad (and the world's first roller coaster!)

here in our media repository

and these related history centered sites:



  1. ^ "Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill, & Switch-Back Railroad". Facebook. , links to several photo albums on the period and railroad's history.
  2. ^ Facebook image of legal notice of sale
  3. ^ a b Staff (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  4. ^ "Switchback Railroad - PHMC Historical Markers". Historical Marker Database. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Retrieved December 19, 2013. 
  5. ^ "History of the Switch Back Gravity Railroad". Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g "CNJ Mauch Chunk Switchback". Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Pescovitz, David. "History: 1870". Inventing the Scream Machine. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  8. ^ a b "Switch Back Home Page". Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  9. ^ Vince Hydro's Insider's Guide to the Switchback, Jim Thorpe Insider's Press, 1999.
  10. ^ "The Mauch Chunk, Summit Hill, and Switchback Gravity Railroad". Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  11. ^ "Mountain Bike Trails in Pennsylvania : Pocono Mountains Region Mountain Biking : Switchback Trail :". Retrieved February 9, 2008. [dead link]