The Lehigh Valley Railroad was another of the many Northeastern carriers built to move anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania to points east and west (the Great Lakes). So, its motto, Route Of The Black Diamond, was quite befitting. The LV has also gained much interest to those who study American railroading history and the now-fallen flag carriers along the way; likely because of the railroad’s underdog status in the markets it served (Buffalo to New York City). Unfortunately the LV was never a strong carrier following the Great Depression and of all the Northeastern Class I railroads, the LV was without doubt the weakest, struggling to make ends meet for much of its last four decades of existence. Following the railroad’s inclusion into Conrail in 1976 its routes were mostly abandoned in favor of its surrounding competitors and today, much of the LV is but overgrown paths and walking trails.
The Lehigh Valley Railroad was officially created in 1853 by Asa Packer, the accredited founder of the LV, who took over the ailing Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad which was originally chartered to more efficiently move anthracite coal from the Mauch Chunk (now known as Jim Thorpe) region. With the help of finances from the Camden & Amboy Railroad the LV had constructed a connection between Mauch Chunk and Easton, Pennsylvania by 1855. Throughout the rest of the 19th century the LV looked to grow and expand from its home area of the Lehigh River valley/Mauch Chunk. Like all of the now classic fallen flags it did so through new construction and merging smaller lines into its system.
In the late 1860s the LV began to expand into western New York and during roughly the same time it began serving New York City via trackage rights with the Central Railroad of New Jersey (by the mid-1870s it reached Perth Amboy, NJ via its own rails and served Newark and Jersey City via trackage rights with the Pennsylvania). By the 1890s the LV’s system would be mostly complete when it reached the Great Lakes port of Buffalo, New York. One can perhaps argue that the end of the railroad began with the Great Depression. While the depression the entire industry hard it was a double blow for the LV as around the same time Anthracite demand began to fall away and would continue to do so all of the way through the railroad’s final days.
It was also during this time, the early 1930s, that the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased a controlling interest in the LV, something it would retain virtually through the railroad’s bankruptcy. While the surge in war traffic of the 1940s helped right the ship for the Lehigh Valley Railroad it was not enough to stabilize it, especially since it had over $8 million in federal loan debt. Realizing it needed to cut expenses and increase efficiency when, where, and however possible the LV quickly dieselized with models ranging from almost every manufacturer and by 1951 it had completed its transition over from steam.
Interestingly, even as earnings continued to sink (the LV would sadly show a profit for the final time in 1956), the railroad tried its best to remain competitive by moving bridge traffic via the Delaware & Hudson. It also introduced power pooling with the Nickel Plate Road in 1964, allied with the CNJ in using each other’s tracks to reduce costs, and introduced high speed TOFC trains with names like Apollo and Mercury. The LV also had a modest passenger train fleet, most notably the Black Diamond but with a system of just over 1,000 miles, and a route that tended to be slower than its surrounding competitors, passenger traffic was modest at best (although it did streamline the John Wilkes and Black Diamond complete with lightweight equipment and a beautiful Cornell red and black livery).
Alas, however, these innovations and ideas, while somewhat successful, could not stem the enormous losses still facing the LV; there simply was not enough traffic to remain profitable (as the region was just too saturated with railroads). As much as the railroad tried, it was unable to turn a profit after 1951, sinking deeper in red ink every year after. LV’s last hope for survival occurred when the PRR and New York Central attempted the ill-fated Penn Central merger that came to pass in 1968. After this occurred the LV was offered to be sold to either the Norfolk & Western or Chesapeake & Ohio as a means of remaining competition in the Northeast. However, the LV was in such poor condition that neither healthy carrier showed much interest and the company was eventually forced to join Conrail.
Maple Leaf: (New York - Toronto)
The Star: (New York - Buffalo)
Asa Packer: (New York - Pittston/Hazleton)
The John Wilkes: (New York - Pittston/Hazleton)
As the Penn Central literally began to fall apart after the first day of operations it came as no surprise that just two years later in 1970 it declared bankruptcy setting up a catastrophic situation as the entire Northeastern rail grid was threatening total shutdown (which included the PC, LV, Jersey Central, Reading, Lehigh & Hudson River, and Erie Lackawanna). As a result the government was forced to step in creating the Consolidated Rail Corporation or better known as Conrail, which began operations on April 1, 1976. Of course, it comes as no surprise that Conrail, in an attempt to streamline operations as quickly as possible chose the more direct routes of other carriers, such as the former main lines of the NYC and PRR, and shed much of the LV’s lines in the process. Today almost the entire western half of the LV is completely gone and what remains is mostly operated by the Reading & Northern and Conrail successor Norfolk Southern.