The South Bethlehem Greenway

In the Fall of 1940 steam locomotives pulled passenger trains into Bethlehem along this old rail line that ran between the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and Union Station in Bethlehem. This section of town on the south banks of the Lehigh River, now known as the ‘historic district,’ is where the former Bethlehem Steel plant lies in ruins and Lehigh University is situated, and the railroad is now the South Bethlehem Greenway. Going back to 1940, there was a young man on that train, 18 years old, traveling from Media, Pennsylvania, a suburb south of Philadelphia, to begin his freshman year at Lehigh. He was my father, James Holmes Callahan, and he was going there to study chemical engineering.

South Bethlehem Greenway
The South Bethlehem Greenway

A Personal Side Note

Dad was something of a child prodigy who had already taken college-level math and science in high school, and likely excelled at everything else he did. This was a man who finished the New York Times crossword puzzle in a 15-20-minute sitting without a dictionary or other reference material—and he usually did it in pen. Pen or pencil, there were no mistakes. He would sit in a chair in our family room, his writing the only audible sound, and after the he’d get up and drop the completed puzzle on the coffee table, exiting the room without a word. I would pick it up to look and not have a clue as to what any of the words meant. And I’ve always had a good vocabulary and grammar but this was way beyond me. I invite you to try it sometime and you’ll see that such a feat takes blazing intellect. But after all, it’s only a puzzle, a temporary distraction to exercise the mind and provide one with some entertainment…right? For Dad, maybe…!

I followed the old railroad right of way on its winding path through South Bethlehem…

South Bethlehem Greenway
The former Reading Company North Pennsylvania Railroad right of way in South Betlehem, now the South Bethlehem Greenway.

But back to the railroad. I mention all of this because (in addition to being proud of my Dad) a few years back I started a photography project in South Bethlehem to find whatever elements were left of my father and his time there some 75-80 years ago. That work led me to discover this old rail line, the North Pennsylvania Railroad (NPRR), built by the same and then leased and operated by the Reading Company.

  • approach to Union Station
  • Former rail yard and platforms

Pictured above: The old right of way approach to Union Station north of W. 3rd Street (along the brushy line); and the site of the former platforms and rail yard at Union Station (tall grassy area).

I followed the Greenway on its winding path through South Bethlehem and realized it had been a railroad. There is also a sign kiosk at New Street with a brief history and pictures. The trail is a neat little historic ride that you can take from right in town starting at the New Street kiosk to just a bit farther out along Route 412 heading south. The trail ends just before a concrete company that now lies on the right of way. After I started using the Strava app to locate rail trails I found the Saucon Trail just to the south and I realized it was part of the same railroad…and surely the one Dad took to university. That part of my research was now complete.

A Tale of Two Stations

Before figuring this out I had thought he arrived at the old Central Railroad of New Jersey depot across the river (before I learned it was the CRRNJ’s depot). It’s a beautiful Victorian building, now a restaurant. The CRRNJ brought that line into Bethlehem to compete with its rival, the Lehigh Valley Railroad. And then I discovered Union Station through online and on-the-ground research, and a historic 1938 aerial photograph. This enabled me to trace the path of the right of way directly to it. I finally drove down West 2nd street to Union Station Plaza to get a closer look and some closeup photos. It’s also right down the street from the Lehigh campus, so, it was a convenient walk for Dad. The building’s a bit hidden, nestled in a former rail yard area and in the shadow of the Hill to Hill Bridge. It’s currently occupied by St. Luke’s Hospital, having ended its life as a rail station sometime around 1980.

  • Former CRRNJ rail depot

Pictured above: The old CRRNJ depot on West Lehigh Street; and Union Station in South Bethlehem.

If you want to see the part of the railroad where it ended at Union station I recommend it…it’s really fascinating. The platforms are long gone now replaced by an area of tall grass…you’d never know they were ever there. There are tracks, buried in the asphalt and unused for decades on Union Station Place, the road that leads up to the station, in the old adjacent rail yard which is now more of a parking lot. You can find the station building by biking or driving down Union Station Place via West 2nd Street or just continue on West 2nd to Riverside Drive. It makes a great exploratory adventure in addition to your Saucon Trail rides, so you can get the whole railroad picture. And there is a lot of railroad history here.

Despite the multiple road crossings on the Greenway there are many historic attractions, most notably the former Bethlehem Steel site which is now an expansive live music and arts complex, with more such redevelopment to come.

Steel Stacks
Catwalk along the Steel Stacks at the ArtsQuest art & music venue

In all, it’s a short but fascinating ride and you’ll want to make lots of pictures. My hope (and supposedly the project is in the works) is for the Saucon Trail to connect to the Greenway via the missing segment just south of town. For more info go to the Trailink page for the South Bethlehem Grreenway and the Saucon Rail Trail website.

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