A Walk on the Pequest Fill

County route 517 leaves Hackettstown, NJ as High Street, heading north. Not far past the huge Mars candy plant on the outskirts of town the road lifts itself up and over the shoulder of Allamuchy Mt., and then it is just 517, the road to Andover and Sparta. As you drive northward past the little crossroads town of Allamuchy,sheltering in the shadow of two highways and what is really a large hill, a broad valley opens up on your left. It is typical northern New Jersey farmland, rolling and rich, stitched into quilted patterns by old stone walls, bits of forest, and wandering streams. This is the valley of the Pequest River,  which has its start in Stickles Pond high on the slopes of Wawayanda, where they call it a creek. Down here in Warren County it is a river, whatever those Sussexers might say.

As you continue north past Lake Tranquility, another of those quirky little resort towns that grew up around New Jersey lakes before there was such a thing as subdivisions and suburbia, you can’t help but notice that the gentle progress of the valley seems to be interrupted by something very high, very straight, and very flat. As you get close it seems almost as if someone has thrown a massive earthwork across the valley from mountain to mountain, and then let nature have its way. This is what Hadrian would have built, with a million more men and fifty more years, because this damn well would have kept the Scots out. Not far from where you gaze up in wonder 517 punches under this massive edifice in a narrow tunnel and continues ascending the valley.

Instead of following it you take a left on Kennedy Road and rumble northwestward, parallel to the earthwork that reaches heights of 110 feet not far to the right, until you reach the town of Greendell. Greendell is a quiet little burg hugging a country crossroads, with little left of whatever bustle and prosperity it may once have had, and although you may not know it yet, the coming and going of that prosperity, like the rise and fall of many another little milltown in the Highlands, had a lot to do with that impossibly big mound of dirt you’ve been tracking. Taking a right on Wolf Corner Road you spot a thin, gray line on the GPS, crossing the road at nearly a right angle, and then suddenly you’ve come to a wider spot next to a chain link fence, with room to park. You hop out and pretend not to notice the sign that says “State Property – No Trespassing.” Around the end of the fence and over a mudhole between two bushes and you’re looking at a little concrete railway station with a green roof.

This is the Greendell station of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, opened in 1911, closed in 1934, and never of much use to anyone since. A muddy, cinder-black trail leads eastward past a concrete ramp and platform where cars were loaded during the brief time that the DL&W tried to serve Greendell. Bits of railroading history begin to appear here and there: concrete tower mounts, chair plates, old bolts and ties, lots of ties. Not very far along the muddy and undulating trail you see the remains of the Greendell Tower, its reinforced concrete shell as completely durable as every other structure the DL&W built when they made this line in 1911. It, and the station, stand as lonely sentinels on the western approaches to one of the most audacious, and remarkable feats of railroad engineering ever undertaken: the Pequest Fill.

When William Truesdale took over as chief of the DL&W in 1899 he confronted a serious problem. The railroad’s current mainline, known as the “old road” even then, had been built in 1856 on a circuitous route through Washington and Oxford to the Delaware River at Delaware, NJ. It was plagued by steep grades, low clearances, inadequate right of way, and most critically, by two choke-point tunnels at Oxford and Manunkachunk that could not be easily improved. The original logic behind the route, to make the railroad easily available for a connection with the CRNJ when a supposedly inevitable merger between the two roads was consummated, no longer applied when, by 1890, the merger was clearly evitable. Around 1905 planning began for a replacement route. More than a dozen potential routes were surveyed, nearly all of which would require more tunnelling than the current line. It’s an unfortunate fact for railroad engineers trying to get across northern New Jersey from east to west: you keep running into great piles of rock covered with trees.

As planning continued all of these other routes were rejected for obvious reasons, leaving only the one plan that nobody thought was possible. The route envisioned by this plan would be perfect: 11 miles shorter, with no grade steeper than 1.1%, and no curve that couldn’t be taken at 70 MPH by the steam-driven behemoths of the time. There was just this one little problem with the route: the Pequest Valley made a distinct, 3.8 mile wide, 120 foot deep gash right down the middle of it. If you have a railroad route running straight as an arrow at 750 feet above sea level, and you run into the valley of a river that is at 640 feet above sea level at the place where you have to cross it, then you have a 110 foot problem. This is the sort of problem that the average railroad engineer would solve with a trestle. But 3.8 miles is very long for a trestle. It would have required one hell of an expensive trestle, and it was that which had relegated this plan to the dustbin, until someone came up with a slight alteration to it: they would fill the valley with dirt.

In 1909 or 1910 the railroad began construction on what was known as the Lackawanna Cut-off, along with various other names. To span the valley of the Pequest the engineers required 6.6 million cubic yards of fill. To provide this fill the railroad acquired farm land, which they dug up as “borrow pits” to get the earth and rock they needed. Many of these pits became ponds which stud the landscape to this day. The bank itself would be an average of 110 feet high, and wide enough at the top for a double-tracked mainline and service road. At the base it was nearly 500 feet across, enough to completely bury the Huntsville schoolhouse, for which community the railroad agreed to build another. The original is still down there, entombed in the fill. To get the material to the spot and build a railroad required a railroad to transport it all, and so they stretched a cable across the valley and hung a set of tracks from it, onto which a small engine pushed cars loaded with fill which was dumped from the swaying platform more than 100 feet above the valley floor.

The enterprise was the marvel of its time, and remains the single largest railroad fill ever undertaken. Newspapers wrote awestruck articles, and foreign governments sent representatives to view the plans and methods, just as they had sent them to the inclined planes of the Morris Canal 70 or so years before. The Pequest Fill was the kind of thing that could only happen in the age of the great industrialists, when progress seemed the only worthy goal. The people of the Pequest Valley, by and large, were probably pleased with the arrival of the railroad and the possibility of prosperity. Some must have grumbled, too, at the bisecting of the valley and permanent replacement of the northward vista with an earthen dike. Try the same thing today and you’d be laughed out of the room or fired for even proposing it. Back then it made sense: there was anthracite coal in Pennsylvania, needed by the forges, furnaces, and factories of the northeast, and the DL&W needed a faster, straighter way to get to it.

My reason for coming to this spot on a day in May not long ago was twofold: on one hand I simply enjoy unravelling a mystery and following an old way to see where it leads; on the other, I wanted to walk out onto this thing and get a visceral sense of how big it really is. Over two and a half hours of a beautiful late spring afternoon I hiked 3.5 miles out from Greendell station, and 3.5 miles back. That took me to about the 3/4 point on the run to Andover, by which time I was pretty worn. It’s a strenuous walk, with the trail overhung by thick brush in places, and made rough and muddy by scores of ATVs that use the fill as a racetrack. Along the way I viewed the remains of a road that was a pivotal link in the northeast from 1911 until Conrail finally dismantled it on July 31 of 1984. I listened to the sounds of lawnmowers and kids in swimming pools floating up from far below me, looked down on farms and houses and sheds, and eventually I had my answer.  The answer is that the Pequest Fill is really, really huge. You can’t comprehend it until you’re out on the middle of it and looking down at the top of a tall silo in the yard of a farm 110 feet below. It’s mind-boggling, and it will be here in some form or other, I think, as long as there’s an earth, or at least as long as there’s a continent to hold it up. Never have so many worked so hard to pile so much dirt in one place.

If you’re interested in the history of the Lackawanna Cut-off and the story of the fill’s construction, you could do no better than to start with the Garden State Model Railroad Club’s page on the topic. There is also an excellent article on Wikipedia. In general there is a lot of information out there on the cut-off and the fill, all of it a lot more accurate and insightful than what I have here. You can also view the gallery of images from my hike.

If you plan on seeing the fill for yourself, a couple of words of warning before you go are appropriate. First, the right of way is now owned lock, stock, and barrel by the State of New Jersey on behalf of New Jersey Transit, which continues to discuss plans for rebuilding the cut-off to provide service all the way to Scranton. Only the area around the Greendell Station is posted, which is why I stayed out of the structure. Whether they want you walking out on the fill is a question I can’t answer. I’ve been there twice, parking on the side of the road by the station, and nobody has hassled me, just as they apparently do not hassle the ten or twelve ATVs and motorcycles that passed me at high speed during my walk. Which brings me to the second point: ATVs have torn the crap out of the service road. It’s muddy, and full of bumps and moguls, and makes for very tough walking, not to mention the danger of getting hit. Fortunately you can hear them coming a ways off.

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