Discussion relating to the PRR, up to 1968. Visit the PRR Technical & Historical Society for more information.
  by KillerB
I grew up in a model railroading family in the Shamokin, PA area, and as such I was familiar with Clarence Weaver's ore train video as a child. I recently became aware of the fact that I had never seen photos of PRR diesels pulling the ore trains on this branch. It appears that they were pulled largely by the I1 class of locomotives until 1957 or so, after which it would seem that the trains were discontinued altogether.

Why was this? The Bethlehem Steel plant in its namesake town remained in operation after this. I've heard some things about ore being imported from Latin America and shipped in via East Coast ports, as well as inroads from the St. Lawrence Seaway which was completed around this time. Or was it just that no one bothered to take pictures of these trains once they had been dieselized?

I've heard many times that the grade to Mt. Carmel was too steep on too slow a train for the diesels of the time to handle without overloading their traction motors, with the usual claims that "if the trains still ran, they'd still be hauled by steam," which I find hard to believe. Certainly there were plenty of legendarily difficult grades all over the country, and diesels worked out on those just fine. Or was it the combination of a very heavy, slow train on a branch that didn't allow the trains to pick up enough speed to make it over the line without operating below the maximum continuous speed of diesels at the time?
  by timz
KillerB wrote:which I find hard to believe
Good thinking. I remember Roberts making that claim, but I hadn't noticed anyone else. Nobody ever explained what was allegedly unique about the climb out of Shamokin, did they?

Another question: when did the ore trains start? Only a few years before they ended?

  by metman499
At some point ore came in via the PRR and the Bel-Del through Jersey. I think it was unloaded at Philly and then handed off to the LV.

  by KillerB
Roberts' claim in Triumph VII isn't the first time I'd heard it - old timers in the area used to say things along the same lines.

I suspect the trains began when Bethlehem Steel started growing in the Lehigh Valley - and when the PRR had control of the LV's stock. I wouldn't know when to pinpoint that, though.
  by 2nd trick op
By the late 1950's, the best of the Mesabi ore had long since been extracted; steel producers were developing alternative sources in Canada and South America.

The route from these sources to the Lehigh Valley involved only a short haul from Philadelphia to the mills. (Not sure if the ore was transloaded at PRR's new ore facility in South Philly, then handed over to the Reading, or if the RDG had its own ore-handling technology, but ore definitely moved on the Bethlehem Line by the late 1960's.

The rest of the journey was by sea, and the newer ore carriers weren't restricted in size by the locks on the Great Lakes.

Advances in steelmaking technology through the recycling of scrap iron and steel in electric furnaces probably also played a part; the portion of steel production requiring pig iron continues to decline.

As an aside, Trains published an article around 1962, citing the Pennsylvania as the #2 ore carrier. According to that story, PRR had by that time determined that any additional lake ore traffic would be better handled by diverting the move to the lighter grades of the Wilkes-Barre Branch, then interchanging with LV at Buttonwood.
Last edited by 2nd trick op on Tue Feb 05, 2008 1:30 pm, edited 3 times in total.

  by metman499
Both the PRR-LV and the Reading provided ore to the mill. Not sure how it got unloaded. I believe most of the ore to Beth Steel came from South America.

  by AlexC
The PRR ore was definately off-loaded in Greenwich Yard in South Philly.

The terminal was built specifically for that purpose in the early 50s.

I want to say it came from Venezuela.

update: well there's more here. http://kc.pennsyrr.com/model/ore.php
"Ore fields now being developed in Brazil are believed to be the largest in the world. In Venezuela, fields leased by American companies have at least one billion 300 million tons of high-grade ore. American interests have a proven 400 million tons in Labrador, and believe there is at least 600 million tons more. Other sources under development are in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa; Cuba, chile, and the Middle East. In addition, Norway and Sweden have long been suppliers of ore from American ships."

As a result, the PRR began construction of an 850 foot ore unloading pier in Philadelphia in 1951. It opened on March 19, 1954. It "can work two ships at a time, unloading 2,800 tons -- about 43 car loads -- per hour."

  by KillerB
Thank you for the link to the article - that was really fascinating and explained it perfectly. So it seems that the ore trains over the Shamokin Valley were simply done in by less expensive imported ore instead, as opposed to the lake ore taking a different route.

It's a shame Trains doesn't sell archive articles or issues in an online format.
  by Big2-10-0
I grew up in Sunbury and talked to many railroaders who worked for Pennsy and ran that line. They told me that the grade and the they way the track was laid out it was hard to get any speed. The poor cunductors in the cabin cars often feared for their lives when the helper engines would be coupled to the back of the train. The mighty I1's would often push the cabin car right up off the trucks. Here is an interesting story that I found.


Once upon a time-September 14, 1956---four (4) Decapod, or 2-10-0 type locomotives and their crews got into trouble while attempting to lift approximately 9000 gross tons of iron ore and train 500 feet of elevation in a route distance of 27.1 miles. That is to say, they stalled.

This is the story of how they extricated themselves.

Only an incident, perhaps, but nevertheless rare on several counts. In 1956 coal-burning steam motive power moved just 7.99 per cent of Class 1 railroad gross ton-miles. The engines involved were of a design that dated back to 1916, and the newest member of the team left Baldwin 33 years before. Also, despite the implications of the lading and the fact that it was billed Pennsylvania Railroad, the action took place on an unremarkable single-track branch, officially the Shamokin Branch of the Susquehanna District of the Northern Region between Sunbury and Mount Carmel, Pa.

No radio, no roller bearings, no welded rail-just 90 cars of Mesabi rust, the heaviest kind of tonnage imaginable, clanking along to the impulse of superheated steam over a rural right of way which included a 13.9-degree curve and a 1.31 per cent ruling grade. Here, then, was isolated orthodoxy of steam and steel-and big-time railroading superimposed on a mixed-train-daily format.

Or so It seemed.

Actually, the 27 miles of the Shamokin Branch-which climbs from the Susquehanna River valley at Sunbury to a Lehigh Valley interchange in Mount Carmel-are but a tiny link for hopper cars making the Great Circle Route. The cars move under load from the ore docks of Erie, Pa., to Bethlehem Steel's home town of Bethlehem, Pa.; deadhead beyond to the piers of Philadelphia or Baltimore; haul import ore west across the Alleghenies to Johnstown, Pa., or Pittsburgh; then run empty back to Lake Erie to begin the cycle all over again.

As for the 2-10-0's, Pennsy had them in steam for a most practical reason. Until total dieselization of nonelectrified mileage could be obtained, the railroad was judiciously operating steam to move seasonal tonnage such as iron ore in essentially low-mileage polls where coal was abundant and water good. And the Shamokin Branch met these qualifications with a vengeance.

Thus on a overcast September 14th noon the engine crews of I1's 4646 and 4243 girded for battle outside the roundhouse at Northumberland, Pa.-which dispatched steam power out of Sunbury to Enola, Altoona, and Renovo, Pa.-before double-heading out to pick up 9000 tons of ore train for delivery to the junction in Mount Carmel.

What gutsy machines these were and what a chapter in the history of the American steam locomotive. For example, those who think of standardization of steam in terms of 275 New York Central Hudsons (albeit three distinct classes) or even 425 alike Pennsy K4 Pacifics need to ponder the fact that the original experimental I1 came out of Altoona in December 1916, was quickly followed by 122 sisters, and-just as soon as the USRA had passed-multiplied into an order for 100 from Baldwin in 1922 and 375 more in 1923! Imagine it-598 locomotives of a single class of a single wheel arrangement on a single railroad. Why, that number is a tenth of all the steam power operated by a big road like L&N in its lifetime…or more than double all those Central J's…or more that the total of all the 2-8-2's, 2-8-4's, 4-6-4's, and 4-8-2's that Santa Fe ever operated!

These I1's bore slight changes-deep K4 whistles instead of the original banshees, a gigantic 21,000 gallon tank on the 4616, relocated headlights and turbogenerators-but essentially, they were the same ponderous hippos of old. An engine with cylinders so large (30½ X 32 inches) that a Railway Age correspondent of 1917 wondered if three smaller pistons rather than two huge ones might not have been better.

Never mind, the pair of 2-10-0's soon had their train and were off to Mount Carmel on a round trip that would take 6½ hours under optimum conditions and otherwise work the crew perilously close to the legal 16 hours.

Up the wide, shallow valley of Shamokin Creek they came, hammering hard to overcome the inertial of apparently empty hoppers, burdened with an invisible (from lineside) glob of ore over each truck. Those enormous I1 main rods (11 feet 1½ inches) long; more than 8½ inches thick at the crankpin) rose and fell in time with the laboring exhaust as 9000 tons were pulled over gradients of as much as 0.33 per cent at 20 to 25 mph.

At Crowl, a hamlet of 40 souls with a passing track and a general store to show for it, the doubleheader took water, then held the main to meet a southbound local. In addition, two more I1's-3445 and 4268-coupled in ahead of the caboose for the 1.31 per cent grade ahead. Now the ore was entrusted to eight (8) engineers and firemen; 722 tons of Decapods, excluding tanks; and a combined starting tractive effort of 384,104 pounds-assuming 250 pounds of boiler pressure, no leaks, dry rail, and other ideal conditions that might or might not be present in the miles ahead.

The ground shook as they whistled off and walked into the narrowing valley, steadily ascending a stiffening grade…0.25…0.4…0.75…0.76. On they came, through the village of Tharptown, past the Glen Burn Colliery, smack through downtown Shamokin, over a dozen grade crossings, rattling the windows of churches and houses, filling the air with the exhaust of eight cylinders turning 40 driving wheels. On the 1.31 per cent, they were, then, and down to an excruciatingly slow walk-slogging, pulling, heaving…then suddenly, slower, much too slow, then nothing.

They'd stalled-on the steepest part of the grade! Pops lifted, enginemen cursed, pumps raced to feed the air reservoirs.

The reason they'd stalled-perhaps because the air leaked--was academic. The ticklish bit was restarting those 9000 limp tons on the upgrade. Ticklish because there had to be coordination between road engines and helpers separated by 90 hopper cars. Coordination so that all engines drifted back as one to take up slack and then all move ahead on the same stroke. With only their whistles to guide them, the engineers to guide them, the engineers tried the trick-once…and failed when an I1 lost her footing and slipped wildly. On the next attempt emergency air suddenly clutched every break shoe on the train. The worst had happened. The road engines had eased back for slack, reversed, and moved forward while the helpers were still backing up! There is a limit to what equipment what can take, so the knuckle of the rear coupler on the tenth car from the front had cracked open, parting the train and air lines! Now, what to do. The only thing there was to do was to remove the knuckle from the front coupler of the front engine; lug it the length of two engines and ten cars and drop it into place. "If we need another knuckle," muttered the fireman who carried it, to a brakeman who watched, "you're bringing it from the rear of the train!"

Quickly now, the lead I1's recoupled the train, pumped off the brakes, then leaned into the 9000 tons once again. And once again the air-gauge needles in the cabs sank out of sight. (It developed that the helpers had run low on water, cut off, and drifted back to the plug in Shamokin. The flagman, setting hand brakes on the rear 10 or 15 cars, had heard the head end attempting to start alone and pulled the air.)

Just as the helpers came scurrying back to couple on again, the darkening overcast filled it's implication and rain began falling-a few drops, then drizzle, and soon a driving rain. Hope faded. If the I1's couldn't do it on dry rail, why even attempt it on wet? Once…twice they tried, only to lose their feet. It began to look as if the only alternatives were to double the hill or call out the Shamokin shifter.

Once more, however, the 2-10-0's on the markers' end eased back in acknowledgment of three brief whistle blasts from the head end. The helpers drifted a car length and more, reversed, and talked it up. Indeed, the rearmost I1 slammed forward so hard that water sloshed out of the tender of the engine ahead.

The lead helper couldn't anchor those five pairs of drivers, and fire rimmed the spinning tires. But the I1 behind, digging in on the sand laid down by her sister, kept fighting, kept straining, kept jostling, shoving, trudging ahead until her slipping mate took hold…and unbelievably, 9000 tons moved off up that 1.3 per cent, rain-drenched anthem of thunder to the gods of high iron.

Here's the link if you want to read more: http://www.trainweb.org/lamrrc/history.html
  by kemacprr
Quality of ore coming from Missabe thru port of Erie. Opening of Grace mine at Johanna on Reading was another. Import ore from Labrador and Venezuela was another. Ore ran until 1959 from sources I have talked with. Have seen shots of Sharks and F units on ore trains . Also some leased C&O Geeps. --------- Ken McCorry
  by kemacprr
Found out some additional info on the ore trains. Take a look at the new LV facilities book by Mike Bednar . Pictures on the Hazelton Branch west of Delano and states that the last Bethlehem ore train ran the PRR/LV MT. Carmel connection in September 1964. Later than I thought. ------- Ken McCorry
  by jgilles3
As a child I would often visit my grandparents at their home on E. Sunbury Street in Shamokin. On half block in back of their house were the double tracks of the PRR. When I would hear the whistle's of the engines from behind the silk mill I would run down the back stairs, through the small back yard onto the sidewalk next to the tracks. The first two l1's were simply awesome as they thundered past. I'd wave to the engineer. Usually the heavily loaded trains in the other direction would have two pushers at the rear of the train. However, I definitely remember seeing two helpers in the middle of some of the heavily loaded ore trains.

My Dad always maintained that steam was used on that branch for so long due to the curves and grades which diesels couldn't handle.

What a sight. Wish I had a camera during all those wonderful times.
  by ExNYC63
Diesels are far superior to steam on grades. You just can't beat the low torque of the electric traction motor compared to the steam locomotive's
reciprocating motion. Even N&W realized this with their unsuccessful "Jawn Henry" experience. They wanted to use line side coal as a fuel
and at the same time incorporate the advantage of using the same traction motors that diesels used. It was the steam turbine
problems that did "Jawn" in. The N&W was quite correct in then ordering off the shelf GP9s and RS11s to power its trains.