I entered the woods near Chester, New Jersey by stepping over a thin cable slung between two wooden posts and heading up a narrow gravel-covered track that disappeared in leafy dimness. The better part of forty-five minutes later I was barely a mile in, but then I had the camera with me, and had seen many things worth a short delay: a spring from which orange, iron-laden water bubbled; remnants of a 19th century sewage system; ancient stone walls lining a suspiciously regular cut in the earth; century old black cinders born in the firebox of a steam engine. The path I followed was unmistakable as an abandoned railroad right of way: unlike any forest track a railroad cuts long smooth slices through the terrain: no tight curves; no steep grades. It’s why they make such nice walking trails once the trains no longer need them. The starkly artificial features of these constructions remain visible against the fractal chaos of nature long after the rails themselves have been pulled up and melted down.
The land had been slowly dropping away on either side: marshy wetlands to the north; hilly forest to the south. The right of way was lifting itself up a long filled grade to cross the Lamington River, which I knew lay somewhere close by. Ahead the trail passed through a thick hedge of undergrowth that abruptly disappeared on the right, leaving only the blue sky at my shoulder as I stepped through. The dark earth and gray stone of the trail petered out on the edge of nothing and I looked down a sheer fifty foot drop to where the river’s waters poured through the broken remnants of a dam. Someone had tied blue barrier tape between two bushes on either side of the opening, and someone else had torn it off. I carefully edged forward, looking down. No body was visible. On the south side of the trail a narrow path descended the steep face of the fill to the river, and I scrambled down, turning at the bottom to look back upstream. Before me stood a great gray arch of stone, vine-clad and grimy, yet magnificent in its solid permanence. I was looking at the Lamington River viaduct of the Central Railroad of New Jersey’s Chester Branch; a road on which no train has run for nearly 100 years.
In the beginning the railroads came to the valley, like many of the people, not for the rich farmlands along the south branch of the Raritan river, but for what lay under them, and in the hills around them: iron. In the middle of the eighteenth century it was just a few thousand tons of ore a year; enough for cannon and shot, wood stoves and fire irons, horseshoes and tools. By the middle of the nineteenth, with the industrial revolution well underway, the iron mines of New Jersey were producing over 150,000 tons a year, and that amount continued to increase, peaking at nearly a million tons in 1882 before beginning a long decline caused primarily by the arrival of the railroads at the sources of much richer ores in the Lake Superior region. Jersey ore, delivered to hundreds of furnaces and forges around the state, was the principle source of the vital metal for the colonies from the Revolution through the Civil War. Mines with names like Hacklebarney, Hedge, Dickerson’s, and Hoppler sank their shafts deep into the heart of Schooley’s Mountain, the long ridge down which the south branch snakes on its way from Budd Lake to the sea. The mines are long sealed, but the shafts are still there buried in the rock, some of them half a mile deep.
The Chester Railroad, incorporated in April of 1867, was first into the valley, building its line south along the Lamington River to connect the Morris and Essex mainline at Dover with the sleepy village at the crossroads of an old indian trail and the Washington Turnpike. Very soon after completion the road was leased by the Morris and Essex, and not long after that the entire Morris and Essex was leased by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western. This is the way early railroading empires were built. The Chester line terminated at a little station located near the river off of Oakdale Road, and you can still trace the route through the forest and protected wetlands that surround the river today. The station itself stood on ground that is now behind a defunct aircraft wiring harness manufacturer, but when it was discovered that the company had been discharging waste into the river and marshes for forty years the station was demolished in the cleanup, around 1990.
In 1872 the Central Railroad of New Jersey obtained a charter to build north from their mainline at High Bridge to connect with the DL&W at Chester. Their goal was a chunk of the ore trade from the Hacklebarney mines southwest of the village. To get there they would follow the south branch of the Raritan upstream, passing through the towns of Califon, Middle Valley, and Long Valley, whose name was German Valley from the 1750′s through World War I, when it was thought by the residents that something different would be better. Just east of the center of Long Valley the line split, with the Chester Branch heading southeast, and the High Bridge branch continuing northeast over the former Longwood Valley Railroad to Port Oram, the town now known as Wharton. Today the location of this switch is buried beneath a court in a half-finished condominium complex, but the grade of the railroad can still be seen in a sweeping raised berm that curves gently toward the river to the south.
The peak of ore carriage on the road came in 1882, when 118 carloads transited in a single day. Like most of the Northeastern railroads the High Bridge Branch was a day late and a dollar short. The heyday of iron in New Jersey had come and was just about gone. While the line north through Flanders remained in use for excursion trains in the 20′s and 30′s, and remains partially in use to this day to service two large warehouses in Bartley, the Chester Branch remained in operation for only a few years. A 1909 article in the New York times mentions the CRNJ’s plans to run a train per day on a railroad that had been “all but dead for ten years or more.” In 1914 the citizens of Chester sued the CRNJ before the Board of Public Utilities, seeking to force an increase in the number of trains run. The board noted that the DL&W ran three trains a day, and that the single CRNJ train from Chester to Long Valley generated average revenue of fifty-nine cents per day. The citizens of Chester lost their suit. The rest of the High Bridge branch south of Bartley was officially abandoned in 1980. In the mid-90′s the Columbia Gas Transportation Co. buried a gas line beneath it, and the roadbed was deeded over to the Morris and Hunterdon County Parks departments. It was resurfaced and named the Columbia trail, that today stretches almost unbroken from Bartley to High Bridge.
If you follow the grade of the Chester Branch out of Long Valley today you will push aside thick undergrowth and brave ticks and mosquitos, but in the end you’ll come out on the bank of the south branch of the Raritan near where Electric Brook runs in off the mountain, and find yourself staring at the massive stone center support of the trestle that used to carry the railroad across the river. The stone is similar to the stone in the Lamington River viaduct four miles southeast, and cut in the same style. Between this point and the viaduct the right of way lies mostly on private land now, and to follow it you will need the permission of landowners. The portion from the viaduct south to the Washington Turnpike (now called Mill Road) is owned by the town of Chester and maintained as a hiking trail, some of which is encompassed in Morris County’s Patriot Path. Along the right of way you can still see rotting ties and some hardware, as well as the flooded remains of the Hedge Mine and the rich red chalybeate spring that issues forth from the old pit.
Not far south of the viaduct the Patriot Path splits off the right of way and winds north through dense forest. Follow it and you’ll soon pass the rusting remains of some riveted iron plate. A little further along you spy a pit lined with ancient stonework, and then you begin to see piles of bricks in the woods, rusting iron bolts sticking up from the ground, and squared off stones lying among the roots. Some of the bricks have the markings of their maker, the M.D. Valentine and Brothers brick company of Woodbridge. In another place down the trail someone has stacked a bunch of them up in the form of a cylinder or makeshift tower, perhaps in an attempt to mimic what was once here on this wooded site. The spur that connected with the DL&W once passed through these woods, and here in 1878 the Jersey Spiegel Iron Company built a furnace and works. The blast furnace was originally intended to make spiegeleisen, a form of manganese refined from the remains of franklinite, itself a strange ore found only in the vicinity of Franklin, New Jersey. That venture was stillborn, and the furnace was quickly sold to W.J. Taylor and Co. of High Bridge, who operated it as an iron furnace until it was torn down in 1891.
Today the site lies in the deep woods behind some upscale homes, off of the Furnace Road that was built to reach the works. It’s like that with old roads in the Northeast: the names often divulge the original purpose for which they were made. Along the abandoned tracks between Chester and High Bridge are many other moss-covered foundations and fading stories of pride and prosperity. Milltown that took power from the Lamington and turned it into flour and meal. Old Bartley with its mill and its farms. Naughrightville with its dairies. Bartley Road runs between them, and Naughright Road runs north up the mountain to the place near where my family lives. Further down the tracks Califon and Middle Valley were rural farming towns: whistle-stops where a farmer might get aboard for a trip into High Bridge to shop, or load milk and corn for transit to market. All these things go by truck now, from larger and more efficient farms in distant places. The railroad station in Califon is a museum, and the valley of the south branch of the Raritan river sleeps under a thick blanket of trees and memories, home to suburban commuters, soccer-playing kids, and the horses of the wealthy. But once, a century ago, the rails hummed, the whistle sounded its warning, and the black pufferbellies belched smoke and cinders as they dragged the red ore south to be made into the bones of a new nation.