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New Jersey Herald - November 10, 1991 issue
Hiking Secret

The Sussex Branch Trail

By Larry Krumenaker

Herald Special Correspondent


The Sussex Branch Trail is North Jersey's secret park. A linear part, no more than 100 feet wide, it contains most of the last-used portions of the Sussex Railroad of the Erie-Lackawanna.

Railroads are no longer a major transportation factor in Sussex County but the pathways they carved are a recyclable legacy, as rail-to-trail parks. The Sussex Railroad was a short-haul carrier. Born as the Sussex Mine Railroad in 1851, it began crawling, powered by mules and gravity, between Andover and the Morris Canal. At 3 years old, the renamed Sussex Railroad traveled by its own steam power between iron mines and Waterloo Junction.

Maturing, the line aspired to growth as far as Branchville and Franklin though it never reached its goal of a through route to New York and points north.

It also moved to a new home, starting from Netcong via the 1901 Stanhope Cutoff instead of Waterloo.

In mid-life it changed jobs, from iron to coal then milk products and passengers and shrank with age by selling off track. It was retired after 115 years and left out to pasture by the Erie-Lackawanna.

The Division of Parks and Forestry purchased parts of the line for recreational purposes in 1979 and 1982.

Rail trails are easy to travel on. To ease the strain of pulling heavy freight cars, landscapes would be modified. An abandoned track is an unnaturally smooth, too-straight-to-be-real path through woods or fields. Cuts are blasted through rocks, and low dips are filled in to provide miles of near-level grade.

Dark cinder ballast lies on or near the surface. Parallel mounds of stone or dirt border the tracks and provide runoff gullies. Rail debris--fallen telephone poles and cast-aside rotting ties--makes a rail trail interesting to travelers.

The cinder powder makes for easy walking but 10-speed bicycles sink in and skid like skiers in slush. Mountain bikes travel better. Motorized bikes are prohibited. Evidence for horse use is more extensive north of Andover. Dog sleds and cross-country skiing are permitted.

The trail, which extends 21.2 miles from Netcong to Branchville, is open during daylight hours only. Alcoholic beverages are also prohibited.

Those using the trail are cautioned that all surrounding land is privately owned, and are asked to respect private property.

Waterloo to Cranberry Lake

The Ore Carrier

The state-owned part of the railbed of the Sussex Branch Trail begins at Waterloo Road about 1 Mile west of Route 206 in Byram.

The Department of Environmental Protection has cleared a gravel parking lot on Waterloo Road across from Continental Drive.

To the north is the Sussex Branch Trail, which has been somewhat cleaned of brush and trash in this section.

Sites along the way include the junction between the Stanhope Cutoff and the Waterloo Branch, 500 feet north of the road.

Between Jefferson Lake, created for an ice manufacturing company, and Cranberry Lake, once the site of a railroad-sponsored resort, are remnants of the railroad's days as an iron ore carrier.

The half-as-wide Sussex Mine Railway track bed, covered in velvety green grass and small trees zigs and zags across the cinders. It is best seen by Jefferson Lake across the little creek and in two sections near two rock cuts.

The noise you hear is not the ghost of an iron horse but Cascade Falls, a pleasant apparition in a dark grotto near the abandoned Cascade Mine.

Cranberry Lake to Andover Junction


Because the trail condition between Cranberry Lake and Whitehall is wet and deteriorated, it is best to start midway, in Andover Borough, and hike either direction and back.

South of Andover Borough is one of railroading's most impressive engineering feats, the Lackawanna Cutoff. Built in 1911 to shorten and straighten the Lackawanna's path to the Delaware, the Cutoff is a massive, 28-mile-long, man-made ridge of rocky fill 10 stories high and level to 1/2 degree over it's length. The Sussex Branch runs through it's only tunnel at the cutoff.

When the southbound Sussex exits the tunnel in the woods it edges towards Route 206. At Whitehall it passes over its own Cutoff. the "Hole in the Wall" at Whitehall Road.

North of Andover, lies Andover Junction where the Sussex and the Lehigh and Hudson River crossed their tracks. Unfortunately, 30 years of illegal dumping is mixed in with the signals and other railroad debris.

Signal light towers are still in place on the Lehigh line, as well as track ties. The foundations of its station and the depressed clearings of its freight and coal houses show.

A quarter circle interchange track runs between the Sussex line and Route 206. The original line went to the Andover mines east of town. Now only a flat section of bed exists of the spur, at the corner of Limecrest and Old Creamery roads.

Andover to Newton

Modern Development

The section from the Sussex's crossing north of Andover to Drake's Pond at Newton is the only part of the trail that has been graded and cleared of brush and trash. It is the easiest section to walk and, while not filled with history, is the most peaceful. It is also the most used.

The southern end passes White's Pond. This was farm land with various small quarries along the way.

A major passage blasted through the Slate Cut often filled with with snow and had to be dug out before trains could pass.

Drake's Pond was the site of the original end of the line when the Sussex expanded to Newton. It is now the site of The Wharf, a nautically designed center anchored by Go Fish! with boating and fishing.

Beyond is a 1-mile gap in the trail from Hicks Avenue to the Newton Meadows. Much of the line has been obliterated in town.

The Newton Railyards can be found by taking Newton-Sparta Road towards town, turning right at Diller Avenue. The wide curved asphalt area you cross once were the rails and sidings of the Newton Railyards.

The only remaining railroad building is the cement and wood feed station, the 1906 replacement for the original Sussex freight station, on the north edge of the yard at Newton-Sparta Road and Spring Street.

Newton to Lafayette

Back in Time

Park in the railyard-cum-commuter lot. The Newton Cutoff continues over Spring Street and crosses Trinity, diving into the woods despoiled by a runoff gully.

The trail runs along a man-made cliff alongside this remnant of a glacial runoff stream, one of the headwaters of the Paulinskill.

Newton Meadows is a cattail swamp. A missing wooden bridge poses no problem in fording the creek. Eventually you emerge from the marsh to meet Hicks Avenue, which changes its name in Andover Township to Branchville Junction Road and in Lafayette to Warbasse Junction Road.

Three miles north of Newton, just before the trail crosses the road, lies Branchville Junction. This was the fork in the Sussex where trains went either northwest to Branchville or northeast to Franklin. The station itself burned in 1911. [and was immediately replaced by April of 1912-DR]

After the trail crosses the road, it intersects the cinder path of the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad, the focus of 7 years of contention between those who favor it as another rail park and property owners who oppose it.

At the edge of Lafayette, the foundation of the original passenger station emerges on the left. [Actually it's the creamery/icehouse foundation-DR]

The auto-parts store was once part of a creamery and still has its deserted railroad loading dock.

Lafayette to Branchville

Milk Runs

In these parts, the trains stopped at creameries, not stations. When the last creamery folded in 1964 it forced the demise of the Sussex's bottom line.

The only passable section is from Lafayette, downhill past Mudcut Road to the missing bridge at Snover and Decker Roads. Beyond this several more missing trestles over the now swift and deep Paulinskill make the trail impassable.

At the traffic light at Route 628 is the Catholic church, Our Lady Queen of Peace. In the back corner of its well kept grassy lawn is a wet-floored wooded "V" that marks the sides of the Branchville turntable. [Wye track, actually-DR]

The official trail ends past the church under the Route 206 overpass.

In the borough, the real end of the line is at Broad Street and Railroad Avenue. The last few feet pass between Bio Tech Labs, once a creamery, and the new Volunteer Hose Co. building, the site of the passenger station.

The depot itself, ramshackle in Lackawanna Blue [?], looks and is out of place. It has been moved back from its site by its purchaser, businessman Dick Roy, who intends to retort it as a professional center.

Photo Captions:

LACKAWANNA CUTOFF - The Sussex Branch Trail - from Netcong to Branchville - goes under the Lackawanna Cutoff in Andover Borough.

CASCADE FALLS - Falls are near the abandoned Cascade Mine. You hear them before you see them.

BEAVER POND - White's Pond in Andover Township has beavers and a beaver lodge in an idyllic setting

PLEASANT AFTERNOON - A couple on horseback ride along the southern portion of the trail.

HISTORY REVISITED - Sussex Branch Trail goes past Lafayette Mill Market in Lafayette. These buildings used to be a feed mill and a coal store. Nearby are the foundations of the original passenger station, a large two section building with a patio-like extension, and an auto-parts store that was once part of a railroad-served creamery.