Excavation Completed on Mt. Jefferson Barney Pit

Bob Gormley (right) discusses with excavator Roy Henninger the best method of removing a building stone from the Mt. Jefferson Barney Pit. Gormley decided to speed up the operation of removing fill by using a backhoe.

Dig uncovers double track tie

Bob Gormley has labored for five years to unearth the secret of the Mt. Jefferson Barney Pit.

After purchasing the one-acre lot that had been identified as the site of the buried Jefferson Barney Pit at the intersection of Lentz Trail and Rt. 902 known as White Bear, in Summit Hill, with help from Pennsylvania Youth Services in Penn Forest Township, Gormley began an excavation of the site in October of 2002. Wanting to treat the dig as an archeological investigative site, Gormley opted to have the volunteers unearth the Barney Pit using hand tools.

As the years passed, Gormley decided that the project was proceeding too slowly and the time had come to switch gears and seriously remove dirt to complete the excavation. He asked Stoneylonesome Excavating to provide a backhoe to expedite the project.

On Aug. 9 at 9 a.m., Roy Henninger of Stoneylonesome Excavating of Summit Hill arrived at the site with a backhoe and dump truck. He met Gormley, who both owns the property and is the historian for the Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation, and Levio Grosso - president of the SBGRF.

They worked through the day as they lengthened and deepened the pit. The pit is now 11-feet wide and eight-feet deep. It has not reached its full length. Gormley is anticipating that they will soon reach the back wall of the Barney Pit. He has been anticipating this for several years. At the conclusion of the day, Gormley resolved that "the pit is longer than I had imagined."

Gormley hopes to get the wall repaired and stengthened by the summer of 2008. Eventually the strap rail will be made and installed. he will also be purchasing rail for the pit.

The big find of the day was a double track railroad tie. Inside the pit, there were two Barney cars. One would be at the top of Mt. Jefferson while the second was inside the pit. Levio Grosso measured the Barney car tracks and found that each set of tracks had a gauge on 35-inch centers.

The Barney Car came into use in 1843. In 1827, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard had succeeded in merging the Lehigh Coal Company - the mining company in Summit Hill, with the Lehigh Navigation Company - the company that improved navigation on the Lehigh River, by connecting the mine to the river by way of the first significant railroad in America, the Mauch Chunk - Summit Hill Switchback.

The Switchback delivered the coal from Summit Hill to the Lehigh River by coals cars on track. The power for the run was gravity. A team of mules returned the empty cars back up the mountain.

By 1843, the demand for coal created a need for a mechanized way to return the empty coal cars to the summit. Lehigh Coal & Navigation built planes at Mt. Pisgah in Mauch Chunk, now Jim Thorpe, and at M. Jefferson in Summit Hill.

At the top of mountain, an Engine House enclosed a steam engine. When a conductor pulled a rope at the base of the mountain, the operator in the Engine House had the steam engine turn a 28-foot diameter wheel.

As the wheel turned, steel bands that were wound around it, began to rotate. At the other end of the band, in a pit below ground was a Barney Car.

A Switchback Car had already rolled into position in front of the Barney Pit, and as the band moved forward, it pulled the Barney Car out from the pit, and behind the Switchback Car.

The tracks for the Barney car were closer together, at 35-inches than the tracks of the Switchback Car at 42-inches. As the Barney Car came above ground, a mechanism extended its wheels to the 42-inch gauge. From then on, the Barney Car began pushing the Switchback Car along the plane to the top of the mountain. This was the first roller coaster in America.

Although the Barney Car Backtrack was designed to return the empty coal cars, it immediately became a tourist railroad ride. in 1873, it became solely a tourist railroad. By the turn of the century, A Switchback roller coaster was built at the Coney Island Amusement Park.

The Switchback ceased operations in 1933 and its metal parts were sold for scrap in 1937. That was the last time that the Jefferson Barney Pit was completely open. After the metal rails were removed, the pit was largely filled in. Over the years, neighbors used the pit as a dump.

In April 1999, the SBGRF sponsored a study at the site by Paula Zitzler from The Allegheny Heritage Development Association shortly after the pit was located by the Summit Hill Historical Society. She recommended it be subjected to a professional archaeological study as part of a restoration process. At the time however the land in question was privately owned.

In September 2000, the property was purchased by Bob Gormley for the purpose of a historical restoration. His vision is to clear out the fill from the pit, restore it to the way it was during its operating days, and build an enclosure to protect it from the weather.