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The Bowman’s Creek Branch

Lehigh Valley Railroad (1887-1963)

Chapter 2: The Construction Years

In 1883 the Lehigh Valley Railroad surveyed at least three different routes from the Wyoming Valley to Harvey’s Lake and Bowman’s Creek to reach the North Mountain lumber tracts.  There also was interest by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in a similar line, and at least a rumor of interest by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company.  But no firm action was taken by these major railroads to construct a railroad in the early 1880s, even though the Lehigh Valley had purchased 13,000 acres of Bowman’s Creek timber lands in 1876, through which the railroad from Ricketts’ lands to Harvey’s Lake could be built.

In the background was Albert Lewis, a wealthy self-made lumberman from Bear Creek, near Wilkes-Barre.  Lewis grew rich from lumbering along Bear Creek but his lumber lands were exhausted in the early 1880s.  He converted his lumbering dams to ice harvesting.  He was seeking to expand his lumber empire to the Harvey’s Lake region.

Albert Lewis and his Lehigh Valley friends were surprised in October 1885, when a group of local investors, generally representing Wyoming Valley lumber, insurance, and ice interests, under the leadership of John S. Shonk, George W. Shonk, and A. S. Orr, incorporated the Wilkes-Barre and Harvey’s Lake Railroad Company.  They planned to build a railroad from the Wyoming Valley through the Back Mountain community of Dallas, to the newly developing resort at Harvey’s Lake.  The investors were initially divided as to inviting Albert Lewis to join the corporation.  But the capital necessary to purchase the right-of-way and to construct a railroad was heavy.  Lewis had both an interest and the financial resources to help Shonk’s friends, and Lewis joined the investors.  Lewis immediately recognized the importance of controlling the railroad to serve the Bowman’s Creek lands which he and his Lehigh Valley Railroad investors had purchased a decade earlier.  Within a year, the new railroad found itself $90,000 in debt to Lewis for advances made by Lewis to acquire the right-of-way through the Back Mountain for the railroad.  By June 1886 some original stockholders in the railroad had sold out to Lewis who then installed his own financial and legal friends and advisors as owners of the railroad.

Lewis employed a large number of East European immigrants, 300 men, to complete the railroad which reached Dallas in December 1886.  He planned to headquarter his Back Mountain lumber business at the north corner of Harvey’s Lake, which became the village of Alderson, named after William C. Alderson, treasurer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

On May 26, 1887, Lewis improvised a flat car for passenger use and ran a special excursion for friends to enjoy a party at his Alderson estate, where he had built a showpiece log cottage near the site of the sawmill he would build the following winter.  The cottage was a major attraction for many years and would become the lake home of Adam Stull, Lewis’s chief associate in the lake’s lumber business.  Regular passenger service on the twelve-mile Luzerne to Harvey’s Lake railroad began on June 16, 1887.

On August 5, 1887, Lewis sold the twelve-mile Harvey’s Lake railroad to the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  By August 16, 1887, two trains each way began a daily run to the lake.  In October 1887 the Alderson post office was created for the growing North Corner.  Edward Bush, the first postmaster at Alderson, was the freight agent for the Lewis lumber company at the lake.

From Alderson, Lewis also constructed an additional eleven miles of log railroad to Bowman’s Creek at Noxen.  Apparently, the Lewis log train road was the original track for an extension of the Wilkes-Barre and Harvey’s Lake Railroad Company from Alderson to the Bowman’s Creek timbering fields.  But the grades for the log road were too difficult for the heavier trains of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  The Lehigh Valley Railroad instead began to construct a new six-mile rail bed from Alderson to Noxen on a different route more suitable for passenger and freight service.

Lewis maintained the original line of his log train to tap the timbering tracts along Bowman’s Creek.  The Lewis log train ran west directly from Alderson and would link with the new Lehigh Valley line at Beaver Run immediately below Noxen.  From the log train line to Noxen, Lewis built a spur in March 1889 to Ruggles, where Lewis had purchased the J. J. Shonk lumber mill.

The Harvey’s Lake railroad began in Luzerne on the west side of the Susquehanna River.  Prior to 1891 there was no direct line from Wilkes-Barre to the lake. 

A separate Lehigh Valley Railroad train had to be taken on the east side of the river in Wilkes-Barre at 10:00 a.m., north to Pittston Junction.  There, a transfer was made to a Lackawanna and Bloomsburg train which crossed from the east to the west side of the river.  The train then returned down river to Bennett’s Crossing at Luzerne before it connected with the Harvey’s Lake railroad.  As a better alternative, Wilkes-Barre passengers to the lake initially could take a trolley from Public Square and cross the river to Kingston and then take a short ride on the Lackawanna and Bloomsburg railroad to connect to the Harvey’s Lake railroad.  In either case, the connections were very cumbersome and time-consuming.  To return on the railroad from the lake, passengers had to leave the Alderson station at 3:00 p.m.  This awkward schedule left only a few hours for tourists to enjoy the lake, and service on the Harvey’s Lake railroad was not profitable.  The railroad quickly planned a more economical route and the construction of a large amusement park at the lake to attract additional passenger service.

An eighteen-mile direct line from Wilkes-Barer to Alderson at Harvey’s Lake became available in 1891 when the Lehigh Valley Railroad constructed the Port Bowkley bridge across the river above Wilkes-Barre from Plains to Forty-Fort. 

Until recently, the piers of this railroad bridge could still be seen from the Cross Valley Expressway which crosses the river below the old railroad bridge.  The direct line at Port Bowkley, in 1891, coincided with the construction of mills and tanneries at the “boom towns” of Noxen and Stull, and also with the opening of the picnic grounds at the lake by the railroad.

By July 1891 the new Lehigh Valley track at Harvey’s Lake was carried an additional mile along the lake shore from Alderson to the picnic grounds where a small Harvey’s Lake substation was located.  By April 1892 the track was completed to Bowman’s Creek at Noxen.  Nearly seventeen miles to the west was Ricketts, another lumbering “boom town.”  Ricketts was connected to Towanda by 43 miles of track operated by the Loyalsock Railroad and the State line and Sullivan Railroad Company, subsidiary lines of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. 

Only eight miles of additional railroad between Noxen and Bean Run below Ricketts was acquired to connect Wilkes-Barre with New York State through the North Mountain.

Lewis constructed the missing link in the summer of 1892.  By September 1892 there was a direct rail line between Wilkes-Barre, Harvey’s Lake, and Towanda. However, the direct line between the Wyoming Valley and Towanda was not in use. There was a dispute between Lewis and the railroad company over the purchase price of Lewis’s vital link, and also over the rates the railroad would charge Lewis to use the line to haul timber.

In the meantime, a critical telegraph line needed to manage two-way traffic on a single-track system was not constructed.  Negotiations were slow and a hard winter with high snow delayed the telegraph line until later spring.  Freighters and the general public in the Wyoming Valley berated the company and Lewis and clamored to have the new railroad opened.  By May 1893 the Trexler and Turrell Lumber Company had opened their mill at Ricketts and had cut five million feet of logs which were ready to be hauled out by railroad, and 7,000 tons of bark were piked for shipment to the Noxen tannery.  In late June 1893 Lewis and the Lehigh Valley finally reached an accord and the line was ready to open, but not without incident.

On June 24, 1893, a special excursion train ran over the new line from Wilkes-Barre to Towanda.  In addition to Lewis, the train carried officials from the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Reading Railroad, the latter for a time operating the Lehigh system.  Twenty miles beyond Harvey’s Lake the excursion collided with a log train operating for the Trexler lumber firm.  Lewis Hunsinger, a train hand for Trexler, was caught between falling logs and had leg severed.  The lumber train had been warned to switch off to a siding until the special passed, but after waiting a time, the log train reentered the main line and attempted to reach another siding further along the line when the collision occurred. The two locomotives were badly damaged and the train officials were delayed until another engine could be brought to the scene.

Finally, on July 1, 1893, the Lehigh Valley Railroad acquired the complete line which provided direct rail service from the Wyoming Valley through the booming timbering fields of Luzerne, Wyoming, and Sullivan counties, and on to Towanda.  The 79-mile railroad was named the Bowman’s Creek Branch of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Closed circuit telegraphs were used by the railroad and its train dispatchers to manage operations - particularly important on a single-track operation like Bowman’s Creek.

By agreement with the railroad, Western Union services were also available on the same telegraph line, tying together the rural villages with each other and with larger cities.  Money transfers, too, were available by telegraph.  Stations had their own distinctive telegraph call letters: Wilkes-Barre (WD), Dallas (D), Alderson (DR), Noxen (NX), Stull (UX), Ricketts (RI), and Lopez (OZ). Towanda had two wire service designations: DP for freight, and DA for the passenger office.

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Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo

Copyright 2006-2008 F. Charles Petrillo