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 Post subject: Historic Ashley Planes property about to go on auction block
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 9:30 am 
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Location: Anthracite Region of PA
Historic Ashley Planes property about to go on auction block
First Posted: 4:17 pm - August 1st, 2015 Updated: 4:35 pm - August 1st, 2015. - 1158 Views

Mike Dziak was surprised and concerned when he saw a 112-acre tract that played a vital role in the Wyoming Valley’s coal mining history listed in Luzerne County’s Aug. 27 back-tax auction.

Head of the nonprofit Earth Conservancy, Dziak and county officials had repeatedly tried to convince the property owner — the Reading Company — to lease or sell the tract in Hanover Township and Ashley so they could create the Ashley Planes Heritage Park.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Ashley Planes was a series of rail inclines and steam engine-powered equipment that moved millions of tons of coal from the Wyoming Valley to the top of the Wilkes-Barre Mountain in Mountain Top over a century for shipment to Philadelphia and other East Coast markets.

The Reading Company’s refusal to negotiate was a major factor in the collapse of the park plans and loss of more than $1 million in state grants that would have funded it.

But Dziak said he and many others never gave up hope the site could be used for a trail and history education in some capacity.

The auction presents both opportunity and risk. The site may get out of Reading Company’s control, but someone who does not appreciate its historical worth can submit the high bid and end up with the property, Dziak said.

Tax auctions sometimes attract buyers who don’t understand what they’re acquiring. When they walk away from new acquisitions, the county is powerless to list the property for auction again until taxes have been delinquent for two years.

As a result, Earth Conservancy plans to bid at the sale if the price doesn’t shoot up too high so the site can be put in safekeeping while a use is explored, Dziak said. The nonprofit’s mission is to put former mine property back into productive use.

“From our perspective, it would be good for that property to be in the public domain because of its significant historical value,” Dziak said.

NEPA history

Mountain Top resident David Estep has explored the Reading Company property many times and believes it’s worthy of protection.

There are ruins of boiler, engine and drum houses and culverts, bridges and dams. He also found remains of a shanty town where Ashley Planes employees once lived. Numerous available historic photographs put the lingering infrastructure remnants in perspective, he said.

“There is a ton of Luzerne County history buried there that is still very visible if you look and understandable with a little bit of education,” Estep said. “Every time I go up, I discover something new.”

He leads occasional hikes of the Ashley Planes for the North Branch Land Trust and said he has had to turn people away because the demand exceeded manageable numbers.

The Reading Company land also contains a swimming hole and waterfalls, officials said.

Engineering marvel

According to Earth Conservancy’s 2000 park master plan:

Ashley Planes was the primary coal and freight route out of the Wyoming Valley to the south until the 1940s and is “one of the nation’s transportation and engineering marvels.”

Traditional locomotives couldn’t be used because the route was too steep.

Instead, 7-ton steel devices on wheels called “barneys” were attached to a 2.5-inch-thick cable connected to a stationary steam engine at the top of each plane. The barneys pushed the freight in front of them as the steam engine pulled the barneys up the plane with the cable. Pulling the freight without a barney would put too much stress on the joints between the freight cars.

The upper planes generally followed the path of state Route 309, and some of the original remains were wiped out with the widening of Route 309.

Estep said the site can serve as a lesson on overcoming obstacles.

“They identified a problem — getting coal out of the valley — found a solution and made it work,” he said. “It was invented as they went, and the amount of mechanical engineering and masonry that went into this is unbelievable.”

A park also would shed light on another aspect of local coal history beyond the mines and breakers, he said.

“People know about breakers, but what happened to the coal after if left the breaker? This is a really important part of what made it work.”

Joe Kubic, another Mountain Top resident and history buff, said he was disappointed the park plans fizzled because the coal-fueled economy that built much of the Wyoming Valley depended heavily on the Ashley Planes. He fears its role is unknown to many or will be forgotten by future generations.

“Without this site, much of the Wyoming Valley coal could not have gotten to market. It’s the only history we have,” Kubic said.

Grants lost

The California-based Reading Company is linked to Reading International, which is involved in movie theaters and other ventures, public records show. The conglomerate ended up with former railroad property holdings, including the local one, through past mergers and acquisitions, records show.

The company initially seemed willing to work with Dziak and others in the early 2000s as the park plans developed but then backed out of plans to sell the land to the county. County commissioners did not proceed with taking the land through eminent domain because company representatives indicated they would contest it, officials had said.

The county lost a $130,000 grant to help buy the land because it couldn’t complete a timely purchase or long-term lease. A $1 million state grant to fund a parking area, kiosks explaining the site’s history and other amenities couldn’t be unlocked unless the county owned the land.

As a last-ditch effort, Dziak wrote to the Reading Company in 2012 pleading for sale or donation of the land but did not receive a response.

Project cancelled

The delays and increasing county fiscal struggles prompted county officials to cancel the prior commitment to own and operate the park, which would have been around 550 acres with adjacent land donated by Earth Conservancy.

Earth Conservancy sold its land in the Ashley Planes to the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 2013 so it would “remain undisturbed and available for public use,” Dziak said. Keeping land also goes against Earth Conservancy’s plan to eventually shut down once all its holdings are reclaimed, he said.

The Reading Company must pay around $17,100 in taxes owed on the two properties dating back to 2012 before the auction to get removed from the sale.

If that doesn’t happen, bids will start at $775 for both the Ashley and Hanover properties. Back taxes and liens are forgiven at this free-and-clear auction because the properties did not sell at a first-stage sale.

The properties are assessed at a combined $141,300 for taxation. County officials had valued the property at $125,000 in 2008 when they were contemplating eminent domain.

Dziak worries competition will drive up the price that must be paid by Earth Conservancy.

Prospective bidders should realize the property is not suitable for homes, he said.

The 4.33-acre Ashley tract is bisected by Interstate 81, and there’s no direct access to the 111.63-acre Hanover tract because the Game Commission now owns and controls the entry points off state Route 309 due to its acquisition of the Earth Conservancy land, Dziak said.

“It’s not the most desirable land. It’s long and rather narrow, steep and also is a historic site, which may make it difficult for someone to reuse,” he said.

The state may be interested in the Reading Company property if it is acquired by Earth Conservancy, but Dziak said pursuing that option is pointless unless Earth Conservancy acquires the land at auction.

“Our process at the tax sale will be to see if we can acquire it at a reasonable price and use it for the community in the best way,” Dziak said.

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Scott K
"Watch Your Top"


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 Post subject: Re: Historic Ashley Planes property about to go on auction b
PostPosted: Sun Aug 02, 2015 11:52 am 
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Joined: Tue Dec 02, 2014 1:17 pm
Posts: 70
Location: Central Wisconsin
Wouldn't the new owner be prohibited from altering the site because it is on the Register of Historic Places?


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