'Last train' left Shamokin 50 years ago today
SHAMOKIN - One day a year, local residents take advantage of a rare opportunity to board a passenger train and take a spin out of the city.
That special occasion, a 45-minute round trip that's part of the Anthracite Heritage Festival of the Arts in May, gives young riders a glimpse of the past, while sparking memories for older folks of the smell and noise of train engines rumbling through neighborhoods.
Passenger train service from the city is long gone. In fact, it was on this date in 1963 - 50 years ago - that the last regularly scheduled passenger train left Shamokin. That's when "King Coal," operated by Reading Railroad, pulled out from Reading Company station, which stood in front of the municipal parking lot at the east end of the city where parking stalls on Independence Street are located today.
The occasion signified an end to almost 100 years of railroad passenger service to
Shamokin. A photographer from the Shamokin News-Dispatch, a forerunner of The News-Item, captured the historic moment as two passengers embraced while a conductor waved goodbye from the back exit door on the last car.
Neither the conductor nor the passengers were identified in the photo, but family of the late Edward F. O'Brien, a lifelong resident of Shamokin and Reading Railroad employee, believe it was him. O'Brien, of 108 S. Vine St., who died June 11 at age 92, was employed by Reading Railroad as a freight train brakeman and as a passenger train conductor. The family declined an opportunity to be interviewed for this story.
According to a News-Dispatch story and accompanying photographs, the crew for the final run included Donald Reed, fireman; John Denchak, conductor; Victor Starr, flagman, and Matthew Ferentz, engineer. Alternate crew was Gilbert Chamberlain, fireman, and Raymond Troy, engineer. Only a handful of people were on hand to see King Coal leave on its last run.
The iconic image of the train's last departure was represented in a painting, "Last Train from Shamokin," by the late Michael Zyla. The prints, measuring 14 by 20 inches, have made their way into many local homes and businesses.
Making the transition
The primary mode of transportation from train to automobile was in gear by the 1960s. That's not to say people did not take advantage of passenger trains; they did. However, when crowded trains arrived in Shamokin, they were often filled with people on scenic tours, similar to today's excursions in Jim Thorpe and Steamtown.
Oct. 14, 1962, eight months before paid passenger service ceased in Shamokin, a Reading Railroad Company "2100 Ramble Iron Horse" made a one-hour layover in Shamokin to take water and allow approximately 1,450 passengers from the eastern part of the state to visit the Glen Burn Colliery. Members of the Shamokin Area Junior Chamber of Commerce served as guides.
The train consisted of two engines that pulled 19 coaches and a dining car. It was one of the largest trains to travel through Shamokin since the troop trains of World War II.
But local residents were also moving from train to automobile. This was evident on May 4, 1963, when more than 40 patrol boys and chaperones traveled via coach bus to see the Philadelphia Phillies, instead of taking a train.
In fact, in the early 1960s there were more advertisements in the Shamokin News-Dispatch for bus companies and car dealerships than train schedules and prices.
End of an era
Two years after the last train from Shamokin, in 1965, the city purchased the Reading Railroad Company freight and passenger stations, which became vacant after passenger trains stopped moving through the city. In October 1965 the city razed the passenger station, and the freight station was razed the following spring. It was replaced by the municipal parking lot.