A Week at Lake Hauto

A Week at Lake Hauto
By Bob Sharpe

The Coaldale side of Broad Mountain in the early 1950’s was full of activity. A typical early morning in summer, looking out my bedroom window, was full of the sounds of huge diesel engines powering large earth mover trucks as they snaked their way along the various trails atop the culm banks created by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. This mining debris had been pulled out of the earth from nearly 150 years of activity below and then covered the entire south side of the mountain from Tamaqua to Nesquehoning to about half the entire height of the mountain. Anthracite coal was no longer king in the hierarchy of sources to fuel America’s need for energy. There was still a market for anthracite locally. Virtually every home in the Panther Valley was heated via a stoker or boiler in the cellar which fed on anthracite. There were still a few commercial outlets also heading east into New Jersey and south toward Philadelphia, but the era of “King Coal” had passed. The LC&N had morphed into the Panther Valley Coal Company at one point and then to the Coaldale Coal Company, but both of these were weak attempts to save a dying industry.

Earlier years in the mining operations, there was a need to easily transport coal from the Panther Valley to the rails and barges along the Lehigh River in Mauch Chunk. Previously they had used a primitive rail system called the “Switchback” which ran from Summit Hill to Mauch Chunk, but wasn’t able to handle the increased demands of shipment. In 1872 the LC&N cut a tunnel through Broad Mountain which went from Lansford (just 100 yards west of the “Big Office”) to the town of Hauto, about one mile distance through the tunnel. From there the Lehigh & New England Railroad connected to the Jersey Central and into New York or the Reading Railroad to Philadelphia That tunnel…known to all as simply the ‘Hauto Tunnel’…was often a point of discussion for many kids in the valley. The Pennsylvania Power & Light Company (PP&L) had built an anthracite-fired electric power plant along a stream which ran along the north side of Broad Mountain through the town of Hauto. The power plant needed plenty of water to make steam for the turbines and to cool the equipment. In order to insure an adequate source, they built a dam about a mile down from where the power plant would be located and called it Hauto Dam. Consequently this dam created the man-made Lake Hauto and it became an attraction for everyone in and around the valley. There were no municipal swimming pools in the valley back then. A cool dip on a hot summer’s day was hard to resist. The lake was also home to several species of fish, including bluegill and bass. Getting from the Coaldale side of the mountain to the Hauto side was a challenge for many in the early part of the 20th century. One could buy a ticket and ride the train through the tunnel, but for most it was too expensive. Climbing the mountain was another possibility but the climb itself was steep and difficult…trust me; I know from experience. Also the Coal & Iron Police of LC&N frowned on trespassing on company property.

     One method that I had been hearing about since I was a toddler was walking through the Hauto Tunnel. Often my mother mentioned about kids doing that when she was young. Looking straight on into the tunnel, one could see a very small spot of light…the other end…about a mile or so away. Of course there was no artificial lighting in the tunnel. All you had was the rail and the spot of light. The obvious question we all had was…what about the trains? A half mile into the tunnel, with the sudden noise of a diesel or steam engine and a bright light from behind meant you had better have a good plan within the next 30 seconds. Everyone said all that was needed was to stand up and spread yourself flat against the tunnel wall. That was usually followed up with a story about somebody who had slipped on a wet rock or had gotten sucked up in the draft of the train as it sped by. I never met anybody who could actually provide the name of a person who was killed or maimed by a train in the tunnel. As kids, we walked up to the tunnel several times, talking about all the stories we had heard and then talking about actually going through with it.

“I dare you, Tommy. Whatsa matter? You chicken”?

“OK Skrabby, I double dare you to go first. You keep saying you’re the leader”.

“Why don’t both of you go in? I’ll stay out here and watch for the train. I’ll yell to you if it’s coming”.

“Go to hell, Bobby. That ain’t gonna be worth spit half way in”.

“Look…maybe we can do this next Sunday. The mines are closed then so there won’t be any trains”.

“Yea, that sounds like a good idea…Sunday…don’t forget to remind me (I hope he does forget)”.

None of us ever went through the tunnel.

A few years ago we were visiting Coaldale with my kids and took a drive around some of the old places. I stopped to look at the remaining foundation of the Big Office where I had toiled as a young teen, helping my Uncle Steve who was the custodian there. It had burnt down in the mid 70’s. We went for a short walk to the entrance of the Hauto Tunnel. I had told my kids the tunnel story many times and they wanted to see it. It was another hot summer day and as soon as we approached the tunnel, I remembered one thing about the tunnel that struck me as a kid. There was a very cold, damp wind coming out of that hole. On such a hot day it was both refreshing and frightening to my daughters also.

“Dad, you really weren’t serious about wanting to go into there…were you”?

“Kids…you just don’t know about the power of the ‘triple dare’…do you? But no…I never did”.

“Good. We think it’s one of Darwin’s tests on ‘Natural Selection’”.

The most common sense way to Lake Hauto was by automobile and by the 50’s most families had access to a car. Looking at a map, Lake Hauto is about one mile from Coaldale, as the crow flies. By car the distance increases to over 10 miles. Getting from Route 209 in town to Route 54 through Hauto means either driving to Nesquehoning or Tamaqua/Hometown in order to catch Route 54. It’s a toss-up either way.

I believe the year was 1955 and school had just ended for the summer. My cousin, Mike ‘Punch’ Panchura and I were about 9 years old. My mom and our Aunt Helen decided that what we all needed was a one-week vacation together…the 4 of us. The ladies rented a cabin along the north shore of Lake Hauto. Punch and I were pretty excited about this. We had never been ‘camping’ before and a week together at the lake seemed great. Mom and Helen packed the trunk of our ’49 Dodge with suitcases, food, plates and utensils, toys and games, etc. Hopefully everything needed for the week. Dad drove us over to Hauto, but needed the car for work, so we were on our own without transportation also.

For many decades now Lake Hauto has been a place where many families live year-round. All of the homes were built from the late 60’s onward and are generally a lot nicer looking than the typical miner’s home on the other side of the mountain. The streets are paved and full utility service is there. That wasn’t the case by a long shot a decade earlier. Back then all of the land surrounding the lake was owned by LN&C. They sold off parcels in order to improve cash flow, but there was no community-type approach as to how the land was to be used. Basically, Lake Hauto in the 50’s was like the Old West back in the early 1800’s.

Along with ownership by private individuals, many local organizations bought a parcel of land and put up a structure. Mom and Helen secured a cabin owned by the Coaldale Lithuanian Club. I believe the rent was $20 per week. It was a lakefront view and they had a small pier going out about 30 feet into the water and had a diving board at the end. The cabin was about a half mile west of the power plant, and of course on the opposite shore. The lake itself was nearly a mile wide and perhaps 4 miles long. It was mid-July so the lake had warmed up enough to not shock you when first going in. This was my first time going into water that was not surrounded by concrete and filled with chlorine. The lake bed dropped off gradually from the shoreline and we were able to walk out about 20 feet with the water up to chest height. The bottom was a combination of mud and smooth rocks, which took some getting use to. I was a bit freaked out by going in for the first time, thinking about all the fish with whom I was sharing the lake. I suppose the perspiration attracted the smaller fish and they enjoyed taking little nibbles on my legs. I figured if I kept jumping around for about 15 minutes, it would scare off the fish and help get the sweat off me.

Earlier I described what life was like on Ruddle St. as a young boy. As primitive as it was compared to now, it was total luxury compared to that cabin. The cabin was most likely built in the 1920’s. It was all wood construction, probably using trees harvested from right there on the property. Basically it was post & beam construction, about 20 foot square in size, with rough sawn planks for exterior walls. None of the interior walls were finished and the ceiling was just open rafters. An interior partition wall separated the area into a front living area and a back bedroom area. The back area was again split in half, making two 10 ft. by 10 ft. bedrooms. The partition was only 6 feet high, while the rafters went up about 12 feet. Punch and I thought this was pretty neat and we had fun throwing things back and forth over the partition from one bedroom to the other. Utilities were about as basic as one could imagine. A couple of bare bulbs hung from the rafters and there were only 2 or 3 outlets. It did have a small stove which probably worked off propane gas and a refrigerator that was at least 30 years old. Plumbing facilities?....none! Water was found at a community hand pump. Take a container and walk a few hundred feet to the well. The ‘bathroom’ was a community outhouse! It was also a few hundred feet from the cabin, near the edge of the woods. Actually there were two outhouses side by side… ‘his’ and ‘hers’. The most vivid memory I had about that week was the smell of the outhouse. It was mid-summer and there was little attempt at any maintenance of the units. The ‘his’ outhouse was by far the worst. At first we tried holding our breath while inside. We weren’t very successful. On a few occasions we used the ‘hers’ side. One would act as lookout while the other did his business. It wasn’t a whole lot better, but at least you didn’t feel like you might pass out midway through. I suppose some of the women there made an attempt to keep the place tolerable. A few other times we just used the nearby woods. It was ‘bring your own paper’. Taking a piss was not a problem. As I said…there were plenty of bushes there.

I don’t think we could have survived an entire summer out there, but for a couple of 9-year old boys, the novelty outweighed the problems. I remember the first day, when Mom let us mix up a gallon jug of Kool-Aide. We drank the entire jug in less than an hour and then spent the rest of the afternoon throwing it back up again. It was my first attempt with a fishing pole also. We had nothing fancy…just a pole with a hook at the end, on which we squeezed on a moist lump of bread. All we ever caught were small bluegills, which…despite our pleas…Mom and Aunt Helen refused to cook for dinner. The bass either didn’t like the bread, or were too smart to let themselves be hooked by a couple of kids. Our particular area also had a small playground nearby. It wasn’t much…just a few swings and a sliding board. The sliding board was all steel and about 8 or 10 feet high. One of the kids in the area told us to use waxed paper on the board before going down.

“Yea, just rub the whole slide real good with waxed paper. It’ll make it real slippy. And then even better…sit on the piece of the paper when you go down”.

We ran back to the cabin for some waxed paper (back then every mother used waxed paper). We worked on that board for about 10 minutes and then climbed to the top with a fresh sheet to sit on for the maiden voyage. It was almost like free-fall! I shot down that board like a rocket. I hit the ground so fast I couldn’t keep my balance and did a couple of forward rolls into the bushes. After determining that I was still in one piece, I yelled to Punch, “Wow! That was great! Your turn”. If it wasn’t that the slide was anchored to the ground, we thought about dragging it onto the pier and use it as a water slide.

I’m not sure why…after more than 50 years…I still remember the name ‘Mr. Bender’ as part of that week. Mr. Bender was supposedly the man in charge there. At least the area in which we were staying. I said earlier that Hauto at that time was like the Old West. Well then, Mr. Bender would have been the sheriff. He didn’t wear a badge of uniform. We were just warned that, “If Mr. Bender catches you two doing something wrong, he’ll kick us all out”. Outside of an occasional warning about ‘acting crazy’ we stayed on Mr. Bender’s good side.

I wish I had a bunch of pictures to add to this chapter. I don’t…simply because I never thought to bring along a camera. Unfortunately everything I’ve described here is long gone and I regret not documenting it.

By the mid 50’s Punch and I were use to such things as television, radio, and record players. This was a week where none of those ‘necessities’ were available. Entertainment was whatever you made of it. Occasionally we took a hike down the road about a half mile to a small general store there. It was good for a candy bar and an ice cream or soda. At night we had a few cookouts in front of the cabin. Mom and Helen brought along a small charcoal grill, along with hamburgers and hot dogs. A few toasted marshmallows for dessert capped off a nice evening as darkness fell over the lake.

Along with the outhouse, one vivid memory I had about that week was just sitting on the pier after dark. There was no place else to go and none of the roads in the area had streetlights anyway. I just lay there on the diving board, looking at a million stars above on a moonless night and then the lights from the PP&L plant shining across the still lake surface. Lightening bugs lit up the woods all around us and crickets were the only sound to be heard. It was a totally different world from the one where I spent the first nine years of my life and it was only a mile away on the other side of the mountain.

Today a $20 bill can buy you a pair of mouse ears at Disneyworld (with your name embroidered on the back). Back then it bought four people a week’s worth of lifetime memories.