Vulcan Panorama


From horse to auto traffic, the Vulcan Hill always challenged travelers


By Terry Rang


Travelers have always found the Vulcan Hill challenging. The steep route between Mahanoy City and Barnesville was difficult on a good day and treacherous in the snow and ice. From horse-and-buggy days to the advent of automobiles, the history of the Vulcan Hill highway is storied. Over the generations, the route has undergone many changes to make the grade less steep and the highway safer. Many drivers today remember getting stuck on the Vulcan in a winter storm.


The Vulcan Hill, part of Route 54, is again being transformed to accommodate truck traffic flowing into the new Northpoint Development warehouses in Mahanoy and Ryan townships. This time, the changes include an eastbound turning lane into the business park, widening the eastbound lanes, expanding the center median, overhead lights and a traffic light at the entrance to the park. The park exit is on the Burma Road. Newspaper archives unearthed some facts about the early dangers and the development of the Vulcan Hill as a highway. Here are some of them:



Feb. 7, 1898: Horse throws riders after being startled by coaster


A couple heading to Barnesville were thrown into the snow when their horse became frightened by a coaster on the Vulcan Hill. The man held onto the reigns and was able to stop the horse. No one suffered injuries, according to The Record American.




Dec. 3, 1910: Coasters collide, rider breaks a leg


A Mahanoy City man was coasting on the Vulcan Hill collided with another coaster and broke his leg, ending up in the State Hospital in Fountain Springs, according to The Evening Herald, Shenandoah.


Jan. 7, 1911: Driver injured as team hurtles down Vulcan


A team driven by Fred Hetherington and owned by Harry Hart of Lakeside "dashed down the Vulcan towards the tunnel" before being caught by the P&R Railroad Station. The driver suffered cuts on his head and face, the Evening Herald reported.


October 21, 1919: New state highway to be constructed


A front-page article in The Record American carried an all-caps headline: WORK TO BEGIN SOON ON THE NEW STATE HIGHWAY FROM HOMETOWN THROUGH MAHANOY CITY TO ASHLAND. The newspaper credited state Auditor General Charles A. Snyder of Pottsville and the Honorable Paul W. Houck of Shenandoah, former secretary of internal affairs, with making the project possible. The project would connect "the Hazleton-Tamaqua state road to Hometown and will follow the old dirt road from Hometown to Barnesville, to East Mahanoy Junction, to Mahanoy Tunnel, to the Vulcan, through Mahanoy City to St. Nicholas, to Shenandoah, to William Penn, Lost Creek, Girardville, to Ashland." The road from Hometown to the Vulcan was to be solid concrete. The rest, for the most part, would be bituminous macadam, the article said. The work was to be done by the following summer. Engineers had to consider underground mining sites when mapping the route.


Vulcan Road Contruction



Road Construction


Road Construction


Road Construction


Colorized by PTC


The road contruction pictures above were taken from the family album of Jeanne Burke Woody, MTHS - 1950. Jeanne's father, Stephen Burke, worked for the Reading railroad and was a telegrapher at the eastern end of the Mahanoy Tunnel. The Burke family lived in Hosensock at the foot of the Vulcan Hill a short distance from the tunnel and within view of these road constuction scenes.



June 7, 1921: Drivers advised to stop using middle of the road


The Record American reported that drivers using the new highway leading up to the Vulcan Hill were traveling in the middle of the road and not using the lanes correctly. They only used the ends of the road when they wanted to turn. An inspector warned that constant use of the middle would weaken the "tarvia," a surfacing material made from coal tar, and create a ridge.


July 12, 1923: Passenger killed when car overturns; pedestrian hit by flying wheel


An early morning accident on the Vulcan Hill killed one man and injured two others, according to The Evening Herald. The car, heading into Mahanoy City, was going at a high speed when the rear left wheel flew off on a sharp turn, and the vehicle overturned, the newspaper reported. The wheel struck and injured an employee of the Vulcan slope who was walking home along the road. The impact killed one of the passengers.


Feb. 26, 1925: Shenandoah racer no match for a train


According to the Daily News of Mount Carmel, racing to be the first car over railroad tracks on the Vulcan turned out badly for three Shenandoah men. Two vehicles in the race cleared the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, but the one with the Shenandoah men crashed into a train. Suddenly, the driver locked the brakes, cutting a deep groove into the road and sending the car crashing into the train engine. The car also hit a baggage and other train cars. All three occupants were injured but survived, and their vehicle, a Jewette, was demolished.





Demolished Car

Images above are from the vast photo collection of the late John Koehler of Weatherly and are courtesy of Greg Gunshore.




Aug. 16, 1927: Vulcan jammed with travelers to parks


An editorial in The Record American called for highways leading to Lakewood and Lakeside parks, other than the Vulcan, to be improved to provide additional routes to the parks and alleviate the traffic jams on the Vulcan. The editorial noted that improvements to the Delano-Lofty highway and the road through Locust Valley would relieve the congestion


Note: Centre Street in Mahanoy City was designated Route 45. The first signs appearred along Centre Street in April of 1927.


July 20, 1949: Chamber advocates for improvement to Vulcan


Mahanoy City's progress depends on a good highway, North Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce President Miles Kelleher told the Mahanoy City Rotary Club. He noted the chamber's work to get improvements to the Vulcan, installing an underpass at the Pennsylvania Railroad crossing, and regrading the Tunnel Hill.


March 22, 1950: Chamber again pushes for work on the hill


The Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce asked the State Highway Planning Commission to act on the proposed work to Route 45 at the Vulcan Hill, noting the danger of the current winding road over the hill. The chamber president proposed "a long, gradual grade beginning at Centre Street in Mahanoy City," according to The Record American. He said, "The route is the most direct between central Pennsylvania and the large eastern cities." (At the time, eastbound traffic traveled from Mahanoy Street up the Vulcan while westbound traffic came down the Vulcan and turned onto Mahanoy Street to get into Mahanoy City. The highway did not extend to Centre Street as it does now.)


Feb. 2, 1951: New road reported to be on the way


The Evening Herald reported that a new road would start at East Centre Street in Mahanoy City and would eliminate the grade crossing on the Vulcan by building an underpass. The road would be about 1.5 miles.


April 11, 1952: No dead end on Mahanoy Street.


The Record American reported that Mahanoy Street would join the new road going east from Centre Street to the Vulcan. The State Highway Department assured that Mahanoy Street would not become a dead end.


May 8, 1952: Work to connect Centre Street to the Vulcan progresses


The Record American reported that excavation work has been completed near the Vulcan-New Boston road to reduce its steepness, with work by contractor Mahlon Livengood of Walnutport proceeding well. During the work, traffic detoured up Main Street to the New Boston hill road, past the cemeteries and over the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks to the Vulcan. The story noted that slow-moving truck traffic was annoying car drivers on the detour.


Oct. 15, 1952: Blasting for new highway upsets residents


Vulcan residents complained to state police about the blasting occurring for the new road, The Record American reported. The residents said it endangered them and their properties.


Oct. 21, 1953: New road opens as final work continues


The new four-lane road from Mahanoy City to the Vulcan opened. Workers were applying the final blacktop coating and will place the dividers within the week. The final inspection was set for the next week. Motorists using the road were asked to use caution while work continued. Three stop signs have been placed – at the intersection with the cemetery road, at the entrance to Buck Mountain, and at Mahanoy Street. The Record American expected the new road to create a parking problem in the 1400 block of East Centre Street, where cars parked on an angle. The newspaper suggested parallel parking to avoid any bottlenecks.


July 20, 1965: Lighted Kaier's sign removed for I-81 work

Crews dismantled the illuminated Kaier's Brewery sign on top of the Vulcan to make way for construction of Interstate 81 in that area, The Evening Herald reported. Kaier’s stored the sign until it could find a new site. (The sign never reappeared.)





Kaier Sign on Vulcan Hill


Sept. 29, 1967: Route 54 opens to two-way traffic as part of I-81 project

All four lanes of Route 54 opened to traffic on top of the Vulcan as work on Interstate 81 continues. The ramps to I-81 will open later, The Record American reported.


Note: Penn DOT changed the name of Route 45 to Route 54 in May 1966.



(Rang, former editor-in-chief of The Morning Call, Allentown, and managing editor at The Republican and Herald, is a volunteer for the Mahanoy Area Historical Society. She can be reached at