Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

In 1827, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company opened the Mauch Chunk Railroad — later known as the Switchback Gravity Railroad — in Carbon County to efficiently transport anthracite over a precipitous distance of nine miles from mining operations on the top of Sharp Mountain at Summit Hill to the Lehigh River below at Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953). The nation’s second oldest railroad, this engineering marvel marked an important step in the development of internal improvements in the Commonwealth. The rail line not only significantly saved the company money, but it reduced the round trip from an entire day to just three hours. The company continued improving the system until 1872, when the exhausted coal supply rendered the railroad obsolete.

Although no longer important to industry, the railroad became significant to the local economy as a popular tourist attraction, drawing visitors during the summer months to Mauch Chunk, which acquired the appellation “The Switzerland of America” because of its craggy mountains, steep gorges, and waterfalls. Hotels and resorts sprang up and, after enduring the Panic of 1873, flourished, spawning a host of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bazaars proffering “Curiosities & Novelties consisting of Anthracite Coal.”

“Mauch Chunk is a most interesting and picturesque place, as you doubtless know,” wrote Hattie to “Dearest Bertha,” a Mrs. J.N. Phillips, of Mansfield, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1908. “The ‘gravity’ road is one of the ‘features’ here.” For many, a visit to the region wasn’t complete without an excursion on the Switchback Gravity Railroad. During its heyday, companies and associations deluged the community with employees and members for outings and picnics. On September 26, 1894, five thousand guests of the Morris and Essex Benefit Association descended upon Mauch Chunk, taxing not only the Switchback, but Mauch Chunk’s other scenic attractions and hotels. Over the years, however, the gravity railroad’s popularity waned, and it ceased operation in October 1933. Four years later, the property of the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway Company was sold at public auction to Isaac Weiner, a Pottsville scrap dealer, for $18,100. Within a week, Weiner’s crews began dismantling the railroad.

For the role the Commonwealth’s vast natural resources — anthracite and bituminous coal, oil, water, and lumber — played in history, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has adopted “Energy: Innovation and Impact,” as its annual theme for 2009, which will be highlighted in the Spring 2009 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.