The New York Central Railroad constructed a necessary tunnel near the area where Deer Creek empties into the Susquehanna River. The tunnel’s location was close to Coudley Station on the southernmost end of Girard Township.
It is today hard to imagine what railway lines once meant to the economy of Clearfield County. Railroads were not only major employers, but were also the only feasible way to transport the untold tonnages of coal that was mined and shipped through and out of the county. There was profit to be made by transporting passengers and freight, but coal made the railroads boom.
The Pennsylvania Railroad reigned overall at the top of the corporate ladder of railway lines, engines and cars. Not far behind was the New York Central as it eventually purchased smaller county lines such as the Beech Creek and the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh companies.
Others such as the Pittsburgh and Susquehanna’s Altoona and Pittsburgh (Alley Popper) and the Bell’s Gap Railroads were able, for a few decades in the twentieth century, to realize enough of a profit margin to stay afloat. Such was the business end impact of deep coal mining in Clearfield County in the years before World War II and the Great Depression.
The 1901 photo shows eleven laborers and one man, who appears to be a foreman, taking a breather for a few moments in order to pose for a camera. Theirs was truly pick and shovel labor as they seem to be clearing a roadway, which would be later used as a railway track bed that led into the tunnel.
It is also today hard to imagine the hard physical work that construction laborers once endured. They are a hard-working lot today, but they have use of heavy equipment and machinery to make earth moving faster and less punishing on the human body than the fellows shown in the photo.
The 12 men had to clear brush and shovel dirt and rock into mule carts to be hauled a short distance and dumped.
One storied source says that prisoners from Virginia, who happened to be African-American, were contracted, under what was likely the old forced prison labor system, to work on the Deer Creek tunnel.
The source goes on to say that a local man, hired as a guard, shot and killed four of them, whom he, the guard, said were trying to escape. Their bodies were buried at the worksite near the tunnel. Fear, ignorance and probably racism all likely contributed to this human tragedy.