The Path of the Black Diamond

A history of one company’s undertaking to distribute Anthracite coal within New England. The Lehigh Valley Railroad & Bee Line Transportation Company

In the year 1791 Anthracite coal was discovered  by Philip Ginter in the Panther Valley of Eastern Pennsylvania near the town of Summit Hill.  Wishing to exploit the finding he traveled to Philadelphia in an attempt to market the fuel.  Eventually  Josiah White, a Philadelphia manufacturer of iron goods, took an interest in the fuel and he and several of his partners purchased land in the Panther Valley with the intention of mining and transporting coal to Philadelphia.  This was the beginning of a company eventually to be incorporated as The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. (LC&N).

Further exploration showed that the coal seams were vast in extent and soon many other independent coal mining operations came into existence in the valley.  Initially, transportation of the fuel to the Philadelphia market was accomplished by rafting loads down the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers.  But vagaries in the flow of water in the rivers and the loss of much of the cargo during transit led the LC&N company to build a navigation canal. The Lehigh Canal paralleled the Lehigh River and ended in the town of Easton at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers.  At the same time the State of Pennsylvania was building a canal northward up the Delaware River, also terminating at Easton, thus making an end to end junction with the Lehigh Canal and creating a canal route to a point on the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia.

Across the Delaware River from Easton lay the town of Phillipsburg, New Jersey.  Here was located the western terminus of the Morris Canal the eastern end of which was on the Hudson River just across from Manhattan, another major market for the coal.  A cable strung across the Delaware River made it possible for canal boats to exit the Lehigh Canal and  enter the Morris Canal.  These arrangements provided the LC&N with a virtual monopoly on the transportation of coal from the Panther Valley.

The independent coal mine and canal boat operators began to despise what they felt were the exorbitant tolls charged to use the Lehigh Canal.  The canals were also necessarily closed in the winter. Looking for a better way to transport their coal, they turned to a new technology, the railroad.  An additional benefit was realized in that railroads did not have to shut down during the winter months.  Several railroads had begun construction across New Jersey westward from the metropolitan New York area. The independents, as might be expected,  began to plan a railroad along the Lehigh River to connect their mines to those “Jersey” railroads in Phillipsburg.  The Delaware, Lehigh Schuylkill & Susquehanna Railroad (DLS&S) was chartered in 1846 to build a line from Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania to Easton and there to bridge the Delaware River to Phillipsburg, New Jersey.  Progress in building the railroad was slow and in frustration and fear that the charter time would run out, Asa Packer, one of the independent canal boat operators, pledged to finance the bulk of the construction with his own funds in turn for a controlling interest in the line.  Quickly, Asa Packer had the name of the line changed to the Lehigh Valley Railroad (LV).  The line was completed as chartered in 1855.  Asa Packer had always had visions of extending the LV eastward to the New York market and westward to the Great Lakes.  The line reached Buffalo, New York in 1890.

Advancing railroad technology did not escape the notice of the LC&N and in time they also built a competing rail line, known as the Lehigh & Susquhenna Railroad (L&S).  But that is another story and much beyond the scope of this writing.  Suffice it say that this competing line would lead to further developments of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.  In 1871 the L&S made a connection with the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) at Phillipsburg giving the LC&N an all-rail route to New York Harbor.

This competing action by the L&S necessitated a quick response by the LV, and resulted in the building of its extension eastward across New Jersey and the building of a salt water terminal by 1876.  The line was built by acquiring the charters of two, as yet unbuilt railroads in New Jersey, and melding them into a single charter for a line titled Easton & Amboy Railroad (E&A).  The eastern terminal was established at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a salt water port at the confluence of the Arthur Kill and the Raritan River.  Five piers were built of which three were gravity piers for the transfer of coal to barges and sailing vessels.

As important as Philadelphia and New York were as markets for coal, even more important were the cities in the New England states.  Early in the nineteenth century these had become centers for the industrial expansion, primarily because of the fast flowing rivers that powered the early manufactories.  But as steam began to supplant water power, the need for coal’s concentrated energy to fuel their growth became a major requirement.  Unfortunately, these states are geographically separated from the Middle Atlantic States, and their coal fields, by the Hudson River watershed.  In fact, there was no rail connection between the New England States and the Pennsylvania coalfields south of the Albany, New York area prior to the construction of a railroad bridge over the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1889.  Thus by the mid nineteenth century the shipment of coal coastwise from the New York City and Philadelphia to the New England cities became a major enterprise.  The railroads serving the coal fields began to build appropriate means to transfer coal from rail to coastwise vessels.  The Lehigh Valley piers at Perth Amboy were that company’s response to that need.  Eventually, in 1889,  the Lehigh Valley did extend its rail route into a terminal in Jersey City, New Jersey directly across the Hudson from lower Manhattan.  Still, the bulk of the company’s coal transfer to ocean going craft remained at the Perth Amboy terminal until its closing in 1954.

Initially, the transfer of coal at Perth Amboy, was to privately owned vessels involved in coastal trade, many of which were schooner rigged sailing vessels.  Quickly, however, the use of barges towed by a tugboat became the norm.  It was inevitable that the LV would become more heavily involved in this movement of coal or “Black Diamonds”.  At a meeting of the LV’s Board of Directors in November, 1879, a letter was read into the minutes noting an interest on the part of several coal dealers in Rhode Island to establish a partnership with the railroad for the “reliable” transport of coal from Perth Amboy to their facilities.  In response the Board endorsed the construction of a tug and six barges for this purpose.  The tug and five of the barges were completed in 1880 and the sixth barge in 1881.  The success of this venture led the Board to quickly endorse the construction of another tug and eight more barges.  The Bouquet was a member of this second group.  The barges were “hold barges”, essentially floating boxes, with the cargo, coal, or other bulk material, carried in the hold.  Typically, they were loaded to the extent that the main deck remained above the water for safe transit at sea.  At sea they were towed “on the hawser” usually with several barges strung out “elephant style” behind the tug.

The Lehigh Valley fleet was operated by the E&A under the banner “Bee Line Transportation Company”, a non-incorporated entity, created for the purpose of ease in bookkeeping.  The reason for which the LV chose  the name “Bee Line” has not come to light in research, but it is noted that all of the barges were identified by a “B” initiated name.  Some have suggested that the term “bee line” can be taken as a reference to the shortest or quickest route between two points.

In 1903 the E&A and several subsidiary companies were combined and incorporated as the Lehigh Valley Railroad of New Jersey.  In 1904 the vessels were transferred to the Lehigh Valley Transportation Company of New Jersey.

Initially the Lehigh Valley Transportation Co. had been incorporated in New York (LVTC of NY) in 1882. The LV used the company as the operating entity for its fleet of steam ships operating on the Great Lakes out of Buffalo NY.  The Board of Directors (LV) noted the impending expiration of that company’s charter in 1902.  By early 1900 the marine operations of the LV were centered about New York Harbor and Perth Amboy.  So the Board chose to re-incorporate in NJ and place its entire fleet of harbor, lake and offshore vessels, as property of the LVTC of NJ, incorporated in 1901.

Between 1880 and 1912 the Lehigh Valley had a total of fiftynine offshore barges built new for its coastwise coal business.  In 1906 three barges were acquired, second hand, from Coxe Bros. & Co.  All of the barges built prior to 1908 were of wood construction, later barges were constructed of steel.  In 1895 a number of the barges were rebuilt to carry sail, typically rigged as two masted schooners, to aid in their movement when the winds were favorable.  Sixteen out of the nineteen barges built in 1899 or later were also rigged as schooners.   During the first and second decade of the Twentieth Century, seventeen of the barges were sold to other operators.  Between 1906 and 1918 ten of the barges were lost at sea.  The barges Beacon, Brilliant, Buffalo, Bravo, Berkshire were lost in Connecticut or Rhode Island waters.

Headlines were made in the New York Times in 1918 when the Lehigh Valley tug Perth Amboy and its tow of four barges came under shelling by a German submarine off Nauset Beach, Massachusetts.  The tug was severely damaged but salvageable, all four barges were sunk.  Three of the barges and were light, the fourth barge was carrying a load of cobble stone.

By the end of the Nineteenth Century the size of the offshore fleet began to decrease as the amount of the coastwise shipment of coal declined.  Further, the passage of the Panama Canal Act by Congress in 1912 led to litigation between the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) concerning its operation of steamship lines in competition to existent railroads.  The handwriting was on the wall and in 1920 the railroad sold the remnants of its lake fleet and offshore vessels.  The latter were sold to a new company,  the Bee Line Transportation Co., incorporated in Delaware, which continued operation out of Perth Amboy.

Even after the sale of its offshore fleet the Lehigh Valley Railroad supplied transportation for many kinds of freight, by water and by rail.  Thus the terminal complex was quite extensive with many sidings and branches to serve these industries. The Perth Amboy terminal continued to transfer coal to barges (Bee Line and other commercial operators) as well as coal for local delivery. At its greatest extent the LV had six piers on the Kill. Three of these were gravity piers to handle coal. Two were built for forwarding materials like general merchandise, grain, clay, and iron structural’s. The third was built to receive shipments of iron ore for forwarding to Bethlehem Steel. The decks of the coal piers were about thirty feet above the water. Hopper cars were unloaded there, their contents stored in bunkers under the deck. The coal was then fed by gravity to the coal barges for delivery in the New York Metropolitan area or to the cities of New England. In 1920 the LV replaced one of the gravity piers with a McMyler dumper. As the use of coal began to decline the gravity piers were abandoned. The last of these disappeared about the mid 1950s.

Dave Pearce, 2007