Old Sussex Train Lines Become Recreational Space
By Gary G. Gustavson
Where heavy metal locomotives once thundered, belching black smoke into the clean crisp air, people can now enjoy the pristine beauty of nature, thanks to the Rails to Trails program of New Jersey.
The Sussex Branch Railroad corridor, built in the 1800s, was terminated in the 1970s. At that time, the once busy tracks lay in abandonment, and the former bustling stations sat in desolation. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s that the Sussex County rail lines would feel the pulse of life again.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection purchased the lines and work began to remove the miles of rusted rails and rotted ties. Many of the old stations and depots were razed. The unattended overgrowth of brush was cut back, and the vibrancy of the abandoned Sussex County rail lines began to return after the Rails to Trails program reopened them for public use.
Today, the DEP and Division of Parks and Forestry maintain the cinder-based trails. Bike riders, hikers, horseback riders, and even cross country skiers now travel the paths the once great iron horse did. Historic reminders still dot the trails, and according to Sussex County railroad historian Kevin Wright, a keen eye can still recognize many of them.
“In Newton, at the Hicks Avenue crossing one of the best preserved relay circuit boxes is being hugged by an ever growing tree. The 1906 Freight house has been turned into a strip mall, but on the outskirts of the parking lot area there are still remnants of the cobblestone walkways which paved the public access area of this station, and over in the weeds, there are still signs of the old 90 foot turntable,” Wright said.
During the mid1800’s, when rails were the optimal forms of transportation, Sussex County was stitched into the network of lines. From Byram through Branchville and beyond, rail lines were constructed to allow easier transportation of both passengers and goods to and from the large cities of Newark, New York, Philadelphia and Scranton. By the turn of the century, railroads helped commerce in Sussex County to grow with the ability to reliably export both metal ores and farm goods.
“To folks who were around in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the railroad was the king of the transportation agencies. Everybody was railroad conscious in those days; the whole fascinating atmosphere of the iron rails was a potent factor in the life of the County,” wrote Sussex County railroad historian and author, Harold N. Coriell.
Tourism in Sussex County also increased. The railroad allowed residents of the metropolitan areas to enjoy the countryside. Railroads were a pinnacle of industry into the early 1900’s, but that would be short lived with the advent of the automobile and highway infrastructure.
By the early 1940s, rail service in and around Sussex County was significantly reduced. According to Wright, there were several major factors that lead to the railroad’s demise.
“In 1944, the Lackawanna first proposed a reduction in service to Newton. Construction of the 75-mile Interstate 80 corridor from Manhattan to the Poconos, between 1959 and 1973, combined with the dual lane reconstruction of Route 15 in 1967-69, brought commuters within range of city workplaces. Train service on the Sussex Branch of the Lackawanna, from Branchville to Andover Junction, ended on July 13, 1966. The Newton Passenger Depot was torn down in November 1970 and the remaining 7.5 miles of track between Netcong and Andover Junction were abandoned in July 1973,” he said.
Today, the eighteen miles of Sussex County Rails to Trails pathways are full of reminders of the past. All the concrete overpasses and tunnels bear their early 1900s construction dates. Along the old railroad trail beds, visitors can come across old switch plates, mile markers and water tower station remnants.
Sussex County Rails to Trails has lots to offer. For more information on locations and facilities, visit their website at http://www.railstotrails.org. It shows how people can now go out and enjoy a bit of the past, in the beauty of the present.
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