Country Kids - September 2001 issue
On the Trail of the Rails
Sussex County's Railway Past and Present
by Jim Cort
The history of Sussex County is rich in the lore
of the railroad. The first railway in the county was the Sussex Mine
railroad. Built in 1851 to haul iron ore from Andover to the Morris
Canal port of Waterloo, it was more of a tramway than a railroad. The
ore cars were pulled by mules.
As the county grew, so did the demand for rail transportation.
Zinc and iron ore, livestock, grain, vegetables, milk and butter all
needed fast and inexpensive transport to markets in the rest of the
state and in New York, and Pennsylvania too. People wanted to be on
the move as well. The Sussex Mine Railroad expanded to become the Sussex
Railroad and the first passenger train pulled into Newton in 1854, powered,
not by mules, but by a fine steam locomotive.
More track was laid; more companies formed and merged.
By 1881, the Sussex Railroad had become the Sussex Branch of the Delaware,
Western and Lackawanna (later the Erie Lackawanna). The New York, Susquehanna
and Western built a line through the Paulinskill Valley to ship anthracite
from the coalfields of the Lehigh Valley down to Jersey City and New
York. The railroads were a vital part of the life and business of Sussex
Today they're mostly gone. The mines played out. The
creameries closed. Farmers preferred to move their produce and animals
by truck on the newly constructed Interstate 80. Everybody had a car.
Gradually the rights of way were abandoned. Tracks and ties were torn
up and sold for scrap. That's the bad news. The good news is you can
still follow some of the routes of these old lines courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails
Rails to Trails is a program that transforms abandoned
railroad rights of way into biking and hiking trails for everyone to
enjoy-linear state parks, if you like. It's a nationwide idea. According
to the Rails to Trails Conservancy of Washington DC, since the 1960s
almost 11,000 miles of such old railroad lines have been turned into
these public recreation corridors. There's at least one rail-trail in
every state. In New Jersey the State's Green Acres program is responsible
for buying up these disused lines, and the state Division of Parks and
Forestry maintains them. In Sussex County, that means Kittatinny Valley
The Sussex Branch Trail and the Paulinskill Valley
Trail both run through Kittatinny Valley State Park. The park is responsible
for maintaining them, except for a portion of the Sussex Branch Trail
that runs through Allamuchy Mountain State Park. Rocky Gott, superintendent
of Kittatinny Valley State Park, says the principal maintenance chores
are grading and filling the cider path, mowing and removing the occasional
tree, and trimming bushes and branches that encroach on the trail. The
trimming, says Gott, is done not only horizontally, but vertically as
well, to a height of about 12 feet, to accommodate horses and their
The trails are open to "anything not motorized" -hikers,
bikers, horseback riders, and cross country skiers and dogsledders in
the winter. Gott lists a few do's and don'ts for those using the trails:
- Leash all pets
- Don't wander too far afield. The trail corridor
is only 66 feet wide. Beyond that it's private property on both sides,
and you'd be trespassing. In addition, you run the risk of trampling
a rare plant. Best to stay on the trail.
- Bikers and hikers alike should yield to horses.
- Practice simple courtesy all the time
Kittatinny Valley State Park has a "Carry in Carry
Out" policy regarding trash that applies to the trails too. Put simply,
if you take stuff in with you, take it out again.
Aside from that, says Gott, "go out and have a good
The park can supply you with maps of the trails and
provide information on the trail conditions. Their phone number is (973)
786-6445. They have a web site at http://www.state.nj.us/dep/forestry/parks/kittval.htm.
The Sussex Branch Trail
The Sussex Branch Trail runs about 21 miles from Waterloo
Road in Mount Olive Township to Branchville. The trail skirts swamps,
lakes, fields and several small towns and features many created cuts,
fills, gradings and bridge abutments from its old railroad days. The
trail is in two parts: north of Newton and south of Newton. There's
about a one-mile section of the right of way that's owned by the town
of Newton. The state of New Jersey bought the northern section in 1979,
and the southern, in 1982. Two other sections of the Sussex Branch right
of way are being purchased for rail trails right now: one section from
Warbasse to Franklin, and another running from Ogdensburg to Hamburg.
You can see plenty of wildlife, large and small, along
the trail, including the occasional bear. There are many ferns and native
grasses, and wild herbs, including wild leek and sarsaparilla, New Jersey
tea and bugbane, and jack-in-the pulpit. The most common trees are maple,
birch, hickory, ash, beech and four different varieties of oak.
You can reach the trail from several parking areas
along its length. These include Waterloo Road across from Continental
Drive, in Andover about 5 miles south of Newton on Rte. 206, and on
Warbasse Junction Road (County road 663) in Lafayette, about 1/2 mile
in from Rte 94.
Dave Rutan of Frankford [Franklin -DR] has
created an impressive web site in praise of the Sussex Branch that includes
a handy guide to the Sussex Branch Trail. The URL is http://dlw-sussexbranch.com.
Dave is Vice President of the Sussex
Railroad Company, a group formed to commemorate
the Sussex Branch. [actually we promote Sussex County's Railroad
heritage -DR] You can find out more about them by calling (973)
The Paulinskill Valley Trail
In the 1960s, the Paulinskill Valley right of way was
sold to the city of Newark as a water pipe conduit from the Tocks Island
Dam. That pipeline was never built, and in the 1970's the right of way
began attracting the attention of a succession of environmental groups,
including the Sierra Club of New Jersey, who lobbied the state to buy
it for the Rails to Trails program. Their efforts were all unsuccessful
due to opposition from a group of landowners who wished to purchase
the corridor for their own purposes. In 1984, a group of like-minded
environmentalists formed the Paulinskill Valley trail Committee to take
up the fight. I asked Committee President Len Frank why they thought
they could succeed where so many other organizations had failed. "We
were naive," he said simply.
It took the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee ten
more years to achieve their goal, but the Paulinskill Valley Trail was
finally open for business in 1994. The trail is 27 miles long, from
Sparta Junction in Sussex County, to Knowlton in Warren County. It travels
mostly through rural landscapes, northern deciduous forests and wetlands
and towns in Warren and Sussex Counties. At one point, it cuts under
the majestic Hainesburg Viaduct, which was once part of the Erie Lackawanna.
The trail follows the Paulinskill River in the shade
of silver maple, basswood, sycamores and box elders - stately, graceful
trees that grow near water. This moist habitat is abloom in springtime
with a wide variety of wildflowers such as bloodroot, columbine and
mayapple. Because of the variety of flowering plants, watch for ruby-throasted
hummingbirds from late spring to early autumn. Fern enthusiasts will
find a variety of unusual ferns and wildflowers thriving in this ecosystem.
Waterfowl such as swans, mergansers, and wood ducks may be seen on the
lake. The Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee performs a bird inventory
each year and has identified over one hundred species. You might see
deer and bear as well.
One spot to access the trail is in Footbridge Park
in Blairstown. There are parking areas near Swartswood Station in Hampton
and on Limecrest Road neat Sparta Junction. The Paulinskill Valley Trail
crosses the Sussex Branch Trail at Warbasse Junction in Lafayette.
The Trail Committee sponsors monthly hikes and other
events. You can join for $10.00 per year. Find out more by calling Len
Frank at (908) 852-0597. Their web site is http://community.nj.com/cc/pvtc.htm.
Now that you know about these rail trails, take Rocky
Gott's advice: Go out and have a good time.