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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 County.

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 program.

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 State Park.

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 riders.

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 time."

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

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 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) 300-0177.

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

Now that you know about these rail trails, take Rocky Gott's advice: Go out and have a good time.

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