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Can Railroads Replace Canals as the Primary Means for Transporting Coal?
This was certainly a question that Asa Packer must have contemplated. In the 1840’s, most industrialists thought that canals sufficiently served the needs of the coal transportation industry. Railroads were mostly thought of as “feeders” that would ship the coal from the mines only a short distance to the canals, where a system of canals and rivers would get the coal to where it needed to go. Most industrialists thought that railroads were too expensive, impractical, and simply unproven to be a reliable source of transporting coal.
However, a minority of industrialists had the foresight to see the potential benefits that railroads possessed, although it was a major risk. Asa Packer saw the potential of railroads, since he apparently petitioned the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to construct a railroad along the path of the Lehigh River and Canal. But, like most companies in the 1840’s, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company still thought that canals were superior to railroads for transporting coal and they rejected Packer’s request.
A few capitalists eventually garnered enough support for a railroad and the incorporation of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company took place on April 21, 1846. This was Asa Packer’s opportunity to get involved in railroads. On October 31, 1851, he bought nearly all of the stock in the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company. There was just one problem: in the five years since the incorporation of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company, no actual railroad existed. In fact, the only actual work that was done in those five years was started on April 4, 1851, only because the charter was set to expire in seventeen days, on April 21, 1851. To keep the charter alive, the company began to grade one mile of railroad near Allentown on April 4, 1851, which just so happened to be the same day that Asa Packer first became a member of the Board of Managers.
With the charter for the railroad barely saved and Packer becoming the main stock holder for the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company, Packer decided that he needed to push to project forward; but he also realized that he needed help. In 1852, Packer asked an engineer by the name of Robert Heysham Sayre to become the Chief Engineer for the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company. Sayre agreed and proceeded to survey the land to procure a location for the railroad. Then, on November 27, 1852, Packer submitted a proposal to the President and Directors of the Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Railroad Company to announce his intentions of constructing a railroad that would extend from Mauch Chunk to Easton. Now all that was left was to actually build the railroad.