Lehigh Valley Transit
Today, we review a new book about the Liberty Bell Limited, a classic Pennsylvania interurban line that carried passengers between Philadelphia and Allentown until abandonment in the early hours of September 7, 1951. President George H. W. Bush once mistakenly referred to September 7th as Pearl Harbor Day, but to Keystone Traction enthusiasts, it will always be a day that will live in infamy.
Along with our book review, we offer a generous selection of classic Lehigh Valley Transit photos from our own collections– mostly from the Liberty Bell route, but with a few from the Easton Limited, LVT’s “other” interurban, and even a city car to boot.
Riding the Bell: Lehigh Valley Transit’s Liberty Bell Route by Ron Ruddell
Bulletin 147 of Central Electric Railfans’ Association
There have been many books written about the famed Liberty Bell Limited over the years, including some excellent ones, but Riding the Bell, available now from Central Electric Railfans’ Association* and their dealers, is sure to stand the test of the time as the best and most comprehensive of the lot.
This is not the first time that the “Bell Route” has been covered in a CERA publication, of course. A roster appeared during World War II, and a 1000-series lightweight graced the cover of Trolley Sparks, the organization’s newsletter, when the line was still running.
The late author Ronald DeGraw included much information about LVT in his excellent book Pig & Whistle: The Story of the Philadelphia & Western Railway, published by CERA in 2007 as their 140th bulletin. However, that coverage only pertained to LVT’s use of the P&W line to Norristown, which became the Bell’s main route to Philadelphia in the early 1900s.
Author Ron Ruddell headed up a group of Pennsylvania traction historians, who labored for ten years to create a book equal to their subject. I am glad to say they have succeeded in spades. A tremendous amount of information has been put into Riding the Bell‘s 224 pages, and it would be hard to put anything else into it without needing to take out something just as important.
The 1950s were the twilight years of Keystone Traction, at least outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The LVT Liberty Bell Limited was, in some ways, the last great interurban in the eastern United States. It has been gone for 64 years now, meaning you would have to be a few years older than that to have ridden it, even as a youth.
Many Chicago-area railfans made a pilgrimage to ride it, but not all were so lucky. Ray DeGroote, still going strong at 85, did not get there until a few weeks after the interurban quit in 1951. He was able to ride and document the still-extensive LVT city streetcar system, and he saw the interurban cars in dead storage, but could not ride them. It was “one that got away.”
The Bell line is fondly remembered and riding it must have been, in some ways, like riding the world’s largest roller coaster. The area between Allentown and Philadelphia is not flat, with grades that certainly put a strain on LVT’s traction motors. It also included quite a lot of variety, with burst of high speeds, followed by numerous stops in many small towns. Several of the station buildings in these towns still exist.
Luckily for us, Lehigh Valley Transit must be about the most well-documented operation ever, perhaps even more so than the Pacific Electric or the three great Chicago-area interurbans. When it comes to photographs, there is literally an embarrassment of riches, and as a result, the book is full of fine photos, some in color. An attempt has been made not to duplicate ones that were already featured in previous LVT books.
As a subject, LVT operations covered so much ground that this book does not even attempt to document their extensive city lines or the Easton Limited, LVT’s shorter interurban. Those are wisely left to future authors and future books.
Faced with a need to either modernize or abandon rail service in 1938, LVT took the daring step of updating the Liberty Bell fleet. This task was made even more daunting due to a very constrained budget, which meant buying new PCCs or other such equipment was out of the question.
Fortunately, some relatively new (circa 1930) lightweight high-speed interurban cars were available at a relatively low cost, as the Cincinnati & Lake Erie had just been abandoned. 13 cars were purchased for the Bell, along with four Cincinnati curved-side cars for the Easton Limited, and LVT attractively modernized them.
The new cars were a hit with the public, and ridership increased. The facelift was never intended to be permanent, but was hoped to buy the interurban another five years of usefulness before the inevitable switch to bus. It ended up lasting for 12, a testament to the build quality and durability of these cars.
There were many unfortunate problems along the way. The ex-C&LE lightweights could not be coupled together. More passengers meant running additional trains in second and third sections. Inevitably, this led to a horrific accident in 1942, which was not the only such collision.
After one of the C&LE cars was destroyed in a fire, LVT purchased one additional lightweight car, which had been built for the Indiana Railroad. This was rebuilt into club car 1030, which became the standout of the fleet and one of the few Liberty Bell cars that has been preserved.
Wartime rationing of gasoline and tires also increased ridership. The wear and tear of all that hill climbing really did a number on those traction motors. Schedules had to be adjusted in the interest of safety, and running times between Allentown and Philadelphia increased.
What really would have helped LVT would have been some more of those ex-Indiana Railroad cars, which were very similar to the C&LE “Red Devils” but could be coupled together in as many as three cars at a time. More than two dozen of these cars were available circa 1940-41 but ended up being unsold and were scrapped just prior to the outbreak of World War II. They would have been quite useful to LVT.
Only two such Indiana Railroad lightweights were saved– car 55, which became LVT 1030, and car 65, which was sold to CRANDIC (Cedar Rapids and Iowa City) and eventually made its way to the Illinois Railway Museum, its first acquisition. Oddly enough, they were made by two different builders.
The end of the war in 1945 meant a steep drop-off in interurban ridership. By then, the handwriting was really on the wall for the Bell line, but the end did not come for another few years yet.
There was a piecemeal abandonment. For a variety of reasons, well covered in this book and in Pig & Whistle, service was cut back to Norristown. The Liberty Bell Limited never had a direct route to center city Philadelphia throughout its history.
Consideration was given to cutting service back to Lansdale, where the Bell could connect to Reading (now SEPTA) suburban commuter trains to Philadelphia, but this would have necessitated building a turnaround loop for the single-end cars. Since the Bell’s days were numbered anyway, LVT decided to simply let service continue as far as Norristown and the P&W.
By 1951, LVT had really let maintenance slide, to the point where, in September, only a few of the lightweight interurban cars were still operable. As soon as they could get approval for abandonment, the end was swift. Fortunately, the fans caught wind of it and the railroad allowed them to ride one last time. The rails began to come up the very next morning.
In some ways, this abandonment has some parallels in what happened a few years later to the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin. They decided not to continue running trains to Chicago’s downtown over the CTA Garfield Park “L” temporary trackage in 1953, due to expressway construction. In CA&E’s case, however, they kept up the equipment right to the end, as did the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee, which quit in 1963.
When CA&E got a local judge to allow their “temporary” abandonment of passenger service on July 3, 1957, they ceased operations immediately, stranding thousands of riders who had to scramble for a way home.
In LVT’s case, they offered a replacement bus service. Unfortunately, while the interurban could run in a straight line between towns, the bus had to follow a more convoluted path at right angles. As more and more highways were built in Pennsylvania, even the bus ridership evaporated, and the interurban bus quit without any fanfare in 1956.
While electric rail transit is undergoing a renaissance in many places around the world today, the chance that anything like a Liberty Bell service might return to the Lehigh Valley is very slim indeed. The cost would simply be too great, compared to the number of potential passengers.
But until it does, the spirit of this historic interurban is conjured up very well in this great new volume by Ron Ruddell. Hats off to him, and to the team that worked so long and hard to make this book possible. I would also like to single out John Nicholson, who acted as project coordinator for CERA in bringing this very worthy book over the finish line. Publishing any book like this is a very complicated effort.
The layout, by the veteran team of Jack and Ad Sowchin, is handsome and attractive. CERA merits a lot of credit as well for publishing this wonderful addition to the historical record.
Even if you do not live in Pennsylvania, the book may interest you. The Bell was one of the classic interurbans and, in one way or another, it had many connections to the Midwest.
It is highly recommended, and I urge you to purchase a copy if you have not done so already. Only limited quantities of such books are made, and once they run out, the prospect of them being reprinted is unlikely for a variety of reasons.
Many previous CERA books have become collector’s items and cost more to buy used than they did when new. I will not be surprised when this book sells out and if you don’t purchase your copy today, you may have difficulty picking one up in the future.
In addition to this book, there are also some excellent Liberty Bell videos on the market, and those will really give you an idea of what the line was all about, after you have whetted your appetite by feasting on Riding the Bell.
PS- You can also experience some of the twilight of Keystone Traction via one of our recently released audio CDs, featuring 1950s-era Hi-Fi recordings of Johnstown Traction, Altoona & Logan Valley, and Scranton Transit, available from our Online Store. Just look for the Railroad Record Club disc with LPs 23 and 30 on it.
*Trolley Dodger Press is not affiliated with Central Electric Railfans’ Association.
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