Whilst driving through the country roads of Pennsylvania, I happened to pass an incredible abandoned train station, which sparked a fun little research project about some of the abandoned stations and rails in and around Allentown.
The station in question is Mertztown, and it was formerly a stop on the East Penn Branch of the Reading Railroad (originally the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.) It is located on Chestnut Street in Mertztown, PA, and I believe the station building was built in the mid to late 1800s.
The Philadelphia and Reading train company (the predecessor to the Reading Railroad Company) was incorporated on April 4, 1833. Construction on parts of the railroad began in 1835, and the first portions opened in 1838 – 15 years before the London Underground ran it’s first train. It was completed to Philadelphia in 1838, and to Pottsville in 1841.
The branch of the Reading Railway on which Mertztown station is located runs from Allentown to Reading, and opened as the East Pennsylvania Railroad in May of 1859. This is commonly referred to as the East Penn Branch in many instances of railroad literature. Here’s an edited map which highlights Mertztown and Allentown, as Allentown will play a role in another blog post.
Here is a station list of the stops on the route, and below that an example of the network and connections in the Allentown – Reading area.
Although we have evidence of when the line opened, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when this particular station building was constructed. Online research suggests it was built in 1895, and this is supported by the styles of other stations along the line. Most of the other remaining stations and photos show buildings that are almost identical in layout and style to Mertztown, but also lack the dates of building.
From what we do know, the station has characteristics of both West Hamburg station, built 1877 and also Berne station, built far later in 1914 and in an identical blueprint layout, which would support Mertztown being built somewhere in between the two styles.
However, the next station on the line from Mertztown, Shamrock, is referenced in Reading: Trains and Trolleys as having had the station building rebuilt in 1899, and it is done so in a style very different to that of Mertztown, which is surprising given the supposed close proximity to the building at Mertztown, which could have been built in 1895.
So many stations in and around the line were built to be nearly identical to each other, and it seems unlikely that they’d all have been rebuilt at the same time. For that reason, I think this building is the original station building, and was most likely constructed closer to 1859.
The line running through Mertztown was used to run freight and passengers up until the 1950-1960s, at which point changes in economic priorities began to kill off the railroads. Many of the Pennsylvania railroads relied on the demand for coal to turn a profit, and also on the fact that people didn’t chose to drive great distances. This began to change when fuel and gas became more widely available and affordable than trains and coal.
The less reliance that Americans placed on coal for their heating and fueling needs, the less valuable the railroads became. Early in the 1950s, as more and more people began to turn towards gas and oil,passenger numbers drastically dwindled, and branches of the railway began to shut. Mertztown passenger station was shut in 1964, and as of March 31, 1976, the Reading Railroad ended 138 years of rail service.
In April 1976 Conrail was created by Congress to consolidate bankrupt northeastern railroads. The rails between Allentown and Mertztown are now used frequently for moving freight around, and although many stations still stand, the days of passenger travel have now long departed the railroads.
(The station and sign have both been lovingly re-painted as per their original colours and design by an employee of the chemical plant next to the station. Such a lovely historical gesture! This is mentioned here on this brilliant station reference website.)
Some brilliant references:
Reading: Trains and Trolleys
Philip K Smith (2004)
Railroads of Pennslyvania: Fragments of the past in the Keystone landscape
Lorett Treese (2003)
The Railroads of Pennsylvania, Roger B. Saylor (1964)
Not published; part of LCHS archives.
When the Railroad came to Reading!
The Reading Railroad: History of a Coal Age Empire – Volume 2: The Twentieth Century
James L. Holton