In a recent interview with author Mitchell E. Dakelman, he explained the genesis of Lehigh Valley – 4, his first book with Morning Sun Books of Scotch Plains, N.J. “The publisher was looking for a different angle for the fourth book in this series about the Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was a very important line that ran in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The railroad was the main transport of coal, as well as agricultural products, salt, cement, iron, and steel in the early 1900s. The publisher and I decided to examine the history of the railroad through its annual reports on the events that occurred each year. Fortunately, the necessary documents were accessible to me, and that's how the book came to be developed.”
If you love the history of transportation, most particularly trains, Mitchell E. Dakelman is an author with whom you want to become familiar. An educator on both the college and high school levels, Dakelman became enamored of the rails when as a youngster, his father introduced him to a set of American Flyers. Since that time Dakelman has been immersed in traveling across the United States, Canada, and Europe, taking remarkable photographs of trains. He has spent his lifetime collecting rare postcards of train stations, facilities, and scenic views taken from trains as well. Dakelman then incorporates these fascinating artifacts into his richly illustrated books.
Lehigh Valley – 4 begins with an overall picture of the railroad's history. Dakelman states, “To railfans and historians, the railroad's locomotives and passenger equipment were class.” (p. 3) Reading about the Lehigh Valley Railroad takes us back to a time when train travel was elegant and exciting, as well as technologically innovative.
“With the assistance of industrial designer Otto Kuehler in 1939, the somewhat antique trains were modernized at minimal cost, adding streamlining and color to the passenger fleet. In the diesel era, the railraod had an array of locomotives including those from American Locomotive, Baldwin, Electromotive Division of General Motors and General Electric,” (p.3) the author continues. The gem of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was a high speed passenger train called The Black Diamond, which ran the length of the line from Buffalo to New York City via a Pennsylvania Railraod connection at Newark, NJ.
The inclusion of the annual reports in this volume provides engaging information that was prepared largely for the stockholders of the railroad. For example, from the first annual report of 1940, it is reported that the war in Europe and the National Defense Plans of the US Government had a significant impact of the increase in rail travel for the year. Passenger revenues increased 7%, travel in coaches increased 7% over the previous year, and the industrial territory of the railroad continued to expand. Bethlehem Steel was booming, as was the building of airplanes in Williamsville, near Buffalo as our country prepared to enter World War II so the transport of precious steel via rail was critical to these companies.
In 1948 the annual reports note that first Lehigh Valley passenger diesel engine had been rolled out, beginning a new era in the annals of train history. Called the PA locomotive, it had a single 16 cylinder Model 244 supercharged prime mover, and this engine quickly replaced all major steam powered passenger trains.
Traveling on these trains, guests were treated to amenities such as the fine dining car. Menus, which are fun to read (a dinner of swordfish, mashed potatoes, vegetables, bread, butter, and beverage cost $2.65) are included in the volume and reflect how inflation has impacted travel today compared to the elegance of riding the rails. Customers were treated to meals served on fine china and silverware as well.
Sadly, by the 1950s train travel was being affected by the advent of super-highways and air travel. The last main line passenger run was made in February of 1961 when The Maple Leaf, caught in a heavy snow storm, was eight hours late to its destination in Bethlehem. Dakelman states, “The ten car train aborted at Newark, and passenger service from the Lehigh Valley quietly vanished after more than one hundred years of continued service.” (p.33)
For those who live in the Central Jersey area, Lehigh Valley – 4 includes photographs of many scenes that would be familiar to those who live in Bound Brook, South Plainfield, Metuchen, Edison, Cranford, Perth Amboy, and Newark. Also included is a stunning picture of the newly constructed World Trade Centers as seen from the railroad terminus in Jersey City.
By 1967 the annual report foreshadows that company's demise. “The notable improvement achieved in 1966 and the last quarter of 1967 was severely blunted by a serious industry-wide decline in traffic . . . Wage and fringe benefit additions increases granted within the railroad industry in 1967 added additional costs to our railroad.” (p.59) The report goes on to say that damage to equipment and two major derailments, plus industrial strikes, caused the railroad to suffer other devastating financial losses.
By 1974 it was all over for the once proud Lehigh Valley Railroad as the company was absorbed by Conrail. Although the working staff tried desparately to keep the railroad going, it was no longer a viable business.
Dakelman's volume is well written and organized and makes for fascinating reading for those who love the hisory of transportation. Aside from the descriptions of the company, its industrial and passenger records, the colorful photographs help to tell the story pictorally. Dakelman's other works, Reading Company Facilities I and Trackside around Pennsylvania 1957-1989 with Al Holtz are equally accurate and fascinating. Reading Company Facilities II is due out this fall. Finally, Dakelman co-authored with Neal A. Schorr the very popular Images of America: The Pennsylvania Turnpike. For transportation buffs, this last book is a must read.