In the 1830s, canal fever took root across Pennsylvania. Across the state, workmen busied themselves along rivers and creeks and dredged channels for boats to carry people and goods to growing markets. But in Northern Dauphin County, the operators of a newly opened coal mine were thinking bigger.
Instead of dredging a winding canal along the Wiconisco Creek, engineers decided to construct one of the first railroads in the Keystone State. The sixteen mile stretch of track ran along the southern side of the Lykens Valley from newly opened mines in Bear Gap, which were owned by the Wiconisco Coal Company. And at the early date of 1833, the Lykens Valley Railroad did not yet have a steam engine. Instead, horses and mules dragged cars filled with anthracite coal, supplies, and passengers between the Susquehanna River at Millersburg and the coal mines in Williams Valley.
A historian later described how the railroad worked: “Coal was taken to Millersburg by horse power on a flat strip rail. It required two days to make a trip to Millersburg, as the road was a single track, badly constructed, and the cars frequently jumped the track…”
While the first shipment of coal would not be shipped from Bear Gap to the Susquehanna until the spring of 1834, a group of visitors made a journey on the Lykens Valley Railroad in November 1833. They described their visit in the Liverpool Mercury on November 21, 1833.
Lykens Valley. – A few days since, we indulged in a trip on the Lykens Valley Railroad, from Millersburg to the coal mines at Bear Gap; and seldom have we had a more pleasant excursion. This valley is destined, ere long, to be one of the richest in Pennsylvania. Its coal mines are apparently inexhaustible; and the facility which the railroad furnishes for conveying the coal to the Susquehanna, and to the canal, will soon enable the proprietors to compete successfully with the most enterprising Pottsville miners. A town is already laid out in the vicinity of the mines; and ere long a beautiful village will arise, where late was nothing but a mountainous wilderness. – Liverpool Mercury
Their predictions of future success for the mines at Bear Gap proved to be accurate. By 1848, the railroad had been upgraded and steam engines began carrying large loads of anthracite to a newly constructed canal on the eastern shore of the Susquehanna River. By the time of the Civil War, the mines at Bear Gap had built two large and thriving communities and fully industrialized Northern Dauphin County.
Sketch: A coal mining operation in Pennsylvania, 1849.