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Star Ledger - August 20, 1995 issue
State Needs Land from Newton for Park Trail

Former Sussex Mine railway path needed to finish 21.4-mile route

By Fred J. Aun

In 1852, when Abram S. Hewitt first proposed extending his Sussex Mine Railroad from Andover to Newton and beyond, the locals were skeptical.

According to the history books, people in Newton were willing to lend Hewitt money to run tracks to their growing town. However, they were afraid the capitalist would take the dollars and bypass Newton, choosing to instead lay rail straight to the lucrative zinc mines of the Ogdensburg area.

The fears of the "suspicious Newtonians" proved unwarranted. Hewitt's tracks came to town and eventually spread all the way to Branchville as well as the zinc mines.

Now, 143 years later, the time has finally come for the Sussex Mine Railroad to bypass the heart of Newton, and state officials have been quietly negotiating with land owners to buy a new route. [Note: The Sussex Mine Railroad only served the iron mines in Andover. The railroad name was changed to Sussex Railroad Company upon its rebuilding and extension into Newton. -DR]

Trains have not churned over the railroad right of way through Newton since 1966 and the tracks have been gone for about 20 years, so the bypass in question will have nothing to do with speeding locomotives or zinc mines.

The state, which now owns most of the old Sussex Mine Railroad route, has converted the right of way into the Sussex Branch Trail. As part of the new Kittatinny Valley State Park, the trail could become an uninterrupted 21.4-mile-long pathway for walking, biking, horseback riding and skiing.

The obstacle to that plan is Newton.

Over the years, the right of way through the town was paved and developed. The state never purchased the Newton property and this has left a 1.3 mile gap in the trail, a section known as the "Newton interruption."

John Garcia, chief of the capital planning and programming for the state Division of Parks and Forestry, acknowledged he has been negotiating with people who own land on the outskirts of Newton. He is looking to buy a corridor between Newton-Sparta Road and the north side of town, where the railbed heads into an extensive marsh through Andover Township.

"We would hope to be successful (in buying the land) by the end of this year," Garcia said.

To purchase the property, the state is using money from a 1992 Green Acres bond, Garcia said. Another infusion of Green Acres funds will be needed to build the trail, a job that will require clearing trees, erecting some fences and laying some "boardwalk" across wet areas, he added.

Since the Sussex Branch Trail intersects in Lafayette with the 27.4-mile Paulinskill Valley Trail, which is on the former New York, Susquehanna and Western right of way, completion of a route around Newton will create a 56-mile, uninterrupted path, Garcia noted.

He said the proposed Newton Bypass route is "still relatively undeveloped," permitting the state to retain the open-space concept of the corridor."

However, as it did when it proposed the Paulinskill Valley Trail, the state has bumped into some concerned property holders, Garcia said. Not everybody is keen on having a state trail in their back yard.

 "I think that's a standard situation almost anywhere," he said. There are those that want horses, those that do not. Those that want bicycles, those that do not. We do what we can to minimize our impact on neighbors."

The unhappy landholders might find solace in the fact that horses and mountain bikes are much quieter than the trains that once steamed over the railroad. And people choosing the Sussex Branch Trail for recreation may not realize they are trading on some truly historic ground.

Abram Hewitt and Peter Cooper, principals in the Trenton Iron Co. received a charter in 1848 to build a railroad from the Andover iron mine south to Waterloo where they could load the rich Andover ore onto Morris Canal boats and ship it to Phillipsburg, according to the Tri-State Railway Historical Society.

The first section of the railroad was only seven miles long. Having no locomotives, Hewitt and Cooper relied on mules to pull the heavy cars on the tracks.

"The existence of the Sussex Mine Railroad was so brief and remote, little is known about the technical aspects of its operation," says a Railway Historical Society book.

The road eventually became the Sussex Railroad and spread northward to Branchville by 1856. [1869 actually-DR] As the iron ore business dwindled, the trains served area farmers and the growing industries in Newton. Passenger service was also offered.

In 1881, the line was bought by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad. The Lackawanna abandoned most of the route, known as the Sussex Branch, in 1966, two years after its last commercial customer, a creamery at Augusta, closed.

Conrail came to own the line and removed the tracks in 1977. [The Lowenthal book LRR in NW NJ states that the Sussex Branch was left in the hands of the EL when Conrail was formed. The tracks from Andover-north were removed in 1967, Andover-south in 1977 --DR] The right of way was subsequently purchased by the state. Conrail's disassembly not only removed rails but also many bridge abutments.

Using money from a $1.8 million federal grant, the state has hired engineers to study the entire Sussex Branch Trail and design new bridges and other improvements, said Celeste Tracy, a supervising planner with the Division of Parks and Forestry.