There’s something a little melancholy, for me, in walking along an abandoned railroad. I feel it whenever I explore the remains of our national past, but old rights of way bring it out most strongly. Partly this is because I was always a little bit of a railfan, and partly it is the significance of these narrow strips of landscape, empty and overgrown where once great steam engines chugged along hauling the commerce of a young country. A century and a half ago the great men of the day gathered in smoke-filled rooms and clinked their glasses in celebration of the last rail layed and the last spike driven, and yet now it is all just memory.
Northwestern New Jersey is well-striped with the remains of these old iron roads. At first they were built to reach the output of colonial iron mines and furnaces, and to bring the produce of the state to markets in New York. Later they crossed our rugged landscape to connect the rich coal fields of Pennsylvania and the industrial regions of the midwest with New York and New England. Most were abandoned long ago. The story of northeastern railroading is one of shortlines, interconnects, big dreams and little success, corporate mergers, changing economic conditions, and finally, the financial debacle out of which Conrail emerged in the 1970’s. It was Conrail, whose name is an amalgam of Consolidated Rail, that proved the death of most of these old roads. There were too many of them going to the same places, and so the rails were pulled up, the ties tossed to the side to rot, the signals disconnected, and the station signs removed. But something always remains to tell the story.
Not far north of Hackettstown on state route 517 the road to Allamuchy forks off to the left. At the crossroads stands a general store, a couple of houses, and not a lot else. Take a left on the road to Johnsonburg and continue out past the township school and you will soon see a small, yellow frame building sitting on concrete pilings just off the north side of the road. A sign identifies it as the Allamuchy Freighthouse, and next to it a wide trail disappears into the forest, heading northeast. If you don’t have a GPS or map in hand, with the thin grey gray line crossing the roadway at nearly right angles, then the telegraph pole and crosstree next to the station is probably the first clue that here was once a railroad. Enter the leafy tunnel and walk northeast and other clues quickly emerge: the ballast stone underfoot; the piles of ties; more telegraph poles.
A glance at an old topographic map identifies this as the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad, at one time a major interconnect line from the Pennsylvania RR at Belvidere, NJ to the big Central New England yard at Maybrook, NY. Not far up the right of way from the station at Allamuchy you can find a remaining milepost, showing 54 miles to Maybrook (“MB”) on the one side, and 18 miles to Belvidere (“BD”) on the other. Like many of New Jersey’s 19th century railroads, the LHRR got its start as a shortline built to serve local interests. A group of farmers in Warwick, NY got together in 1860 to charter a line that would haul their produce southwest to the New York and Erie line at Greycourt, NY. The line was completed in two years, and initially operated by the NY&E as the Warwick Valley Railroad.
In 1870 a railroad was chartered in Belvidere, NJ to build out across the Delaware river, and another to build northeast to the New York state line. Someone saw this new effort as a competitive threat, and promptly chartered the Lehigh and Hudson to build a competitive line, relying on the Wawayanda Railroad to cover part of the distance to New York. Sanity somehow prevailed, and the three companies were joined together as the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad, later also attracting the Sussex Railroad and the Warwick Valley to form the Lehigh and Hudson River Railway with service from Belvidere to Greycourt by 1882. The final piece of the interconnect was put in place in 1888 when the Orange County Railroad was chartered to build from Greycourt up to the Central New England RR yard at Maybrook.
With the completion of the Maybrook extension the LHRR became an important interconnect between the Pennsylvania Railroad with service south to Washington, D.C., and the New York and Erie with service to New York and New England. When the railroad bridge at Poughkeepsie, NY was completed in 1888 the LHRR became part of the “Poughkeepsie Bridge Route” from Washington to Boston, and for many years the famed Federal Express trains of the Pennsylvania used this route. In 1972 the LHRR filed for bankruptcy when the Penn Central road decided to stop using the bridge at Poughkeepsie. In 1976 the road was merged into Conrail, and largely abandoned. Today its northern portion is still intact and in use to service some industries in the Sparta and Franklin areas, but most of the line shows little evidence of it’s former importance in the transportation web of the northeast.
There are a few more pictures in the gallery here. Those interested in exploring the route should be aware that I don’t know the ownership status of this right of way. I did not encounter any barriers or posted signs, but you may be walking on private land in places.
For more information on the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad, see the following pages: