The Paulinskill Viaduct

Almost exactly a year ago I posted a piece here about hiking out onto the Pequest Fill, perhaps the greatest mound of dirt and rock ever pushed up in one place by the hand of man. The so-called “Lackawanna Cut-off” that rode the top of that long dike provided the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad with a straight, 70 MPH shot across the heavily wooded, steeply ridged terrain of northwestern New Jersey. That meant steam locomotives pulling long trains filled with the rich resources of the west would no longer have to follow the circuitous “old route” with its crumbling, single-tracked tunnel at Oxford. If that goal required burying an entire river valley, well this was the age of progress. On with it!

Not surprisingly the valley of the Pequest was not the only natural obstacle faced by the engineers of the DL&W. Just 12.5 miles west of where the fill rejoined the mountainside at Greendel they had to leap another river valley, this time that of the Paulinskill. The word “kill” when referencing a river or stream derives from the Middle Dutch word “kille”, and that hints at the early role this watercourse played in providing a route to the south for Dutch and German immigrants from the settlements in the Hudson River valley to the northeast. They came seeking land to farm, and metals to mine, and they found both, here, and in far greater quantities as their descendants moved westward into Pennsylvania.

The valley of the Paulinskill was the last major obstacle before the DL&W’s new route would leap the Delaware, and fortunately it was not so daunting a challenge as the Pequest had been. At barely a quarter mile wide it could be crossed by a bridge, and so it was. The resulting span was at one time the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Variously known as the Paulinskill Viaduct, or the Hainesburg Viaduct, the bridge still sits there, casting its broad shadow across a river frequented by fly casters and kayakers. Unused since the road was abandoned by Conrail in 1984, it has now become perhaps the worlds largest planter. A few weeks ago I decided to head out and have a walk around, and if I could manage it, out onto, the Paulinskill Viaduct.

The structure itself is easily spotted in Google Earth, especially if you know the route of the cut-off. Getting to it is a matter of following a winding trail of scenic rural highways so characteristic of this part of New Jersey. Eventually you drop down onto Station Road and follow the edge of the valley around the shoulder of a hill , the river winding its way on your left, huge trees blocking out nearly all view of the sky, and suddenly there it is: a massive, crumbling concrete edifice reminiscent of some post-apocalyptic Roman aqueduct. Just under the span, between two huge pillars, frequent use has carved out a small dirt parking area. I pulled the truck in, parked next to the trucks of fishermen and the Subarus of kayakers, climbed out, and looked up.

My first thought was: holy crap that is a lot of concrete over my head. My second thought was along the lines of “someday that’s coming down.” It then also occurred to me that I had watched maybe one too many episodes of “Life After People” on the Mystory Channel. Yes, it is going to come down, but it’s not coming down anytime soon barring some geological event. Structures like this, and dams, and perhaps even superhighways, become a permanent part of the landscape. Miraculously transport yourself 20,000 years into the future and visit this spot and you’ll nod and say “Yep, that’s the Paulinskill Viaduct,” even if it is no more than a straight line of rubble at the lower end of a small lake.

The bridge itself feels right in place with all the abandoned remnants of past industrial prowess that can be found tucked here and there in this urban-accessible stretch of very beautiful, very rural countryside. Various partiers have covered its flanks in graffiti. Wierd NJ has published lurid tales of possible demonic ceremonies deep within the hollow pillars and damp service walkways, and this has led to round after round of board-it-up/tear-it-down as the adventurous and credulous try to penetrate its interior reaches. The area itself seems scoured, the brush around the bridge ground down by legions of feet, beer cans and bits of household refuse scattered in the little recesses where the concrete forms corners, presumably protected from the passing gaze of patrolling police.

After getting a few pictures I turned my eyes upward. I wanted to see what the view was like from the top of this thing for the same reason that I had hiked out onto the Fill: because that was the most visceral possible impression of it. Stand at the base of a sky-scraping office tower and look up, and you’ll be impressed. Stand at the rim of its uppermost terrace and look down, and I guarantee you will be more impressed. I wanted to stand on the Paulinskill Viaduct and look down. But for the moment there didn’t seem to be any easy way up.

I started to work my way up the side of the valley under the bridge. The ground had been scraped clear, and the gnarled roots of huge trees made for convenient footholds, but the way soon grew very steep and I found myself hauling my weight up by the arms. I used to be able to do that without feeling as if my lungs would explode. About halfway to the top a trail cut off to the right and followed a steep dry wash up to the level of roadbed. As I stepped out onto it I first looked east, and saw essentially the same view as on the Greendel end of the Fill: a cinder-black, narrow, very torn-up trail that is all that remains of the roadbed itself.

To the west the bridge, grass-covered and with mature trees growing along its entire length, presented a spectacle at once awe-inspiring and melancholy. A gate had been placed across the approaches but had long since been driven into the dirt. Out in the middle of the span a group of ATV riders had stopped to appreciate the view. The Lackawanna Cut-off is one long race track for them, from the Andover side of the Fill all the way to the Delaware. That may end someday if New Jersey Transit follows through on plans to re-open the Cut-off for a route to Scranton. If they do, they will have a lot of work to do on the Viaduct.

Everywhere the bridge shows the effects of age, disuse, and vandalism. Concrete is crumbling from erosion and trauma. The thick iron piping that formed the safety railing has in many places been pried or wrenched out, leaving an unprotected drop of 80-100 feet to rocks or the river. This is not a place you want to bring small children who aren’t leashed to you. The roadbed itself is just a dirt trail, indistinguishable from any other trail through New Jersey woodland, save for the concrete on either side, and the occasional open manhole that gives access to the drainage and service areas below. The previously mentioned trees lend an air of unreality to the scene. What are they doing here, 100 feet above the river on this concrete thing? I think the Mystory Channel people must have come here at least once.

The view from the center of the span is worth the climb. I hesitate to say that for fear that someone will read this, go out there, and get hurt or arrested. So before I say more let me add: the bridge is very dangerous, and you are not supposed to be out on it. If you go out on it, then your life and criminal record are in your hands, not mine. If you do, then when you reach the middle you’ll be rewarded by impressive views of the Paulinskill valley for maybe ten miles in either direction. To the west you’ll see Kittatinny Mountain and the Water Gap. Yeah, it’s worth it. But stay away from the edge, and watch for manholes. They tend to pop up at your feet, and I can’t say with perfect confidence how far you’ll fall if you step into any of them.

Back down in the valley, and quite a bit more breathless than when I arrived, I walked out under the bridge to the river, and looked up again, this time with a more critical eye. Yes, NJT will have their work cut out for them with the viaduct. The bridge is dying. The interior drainage system has failed in many places, corroded away or clogged into uselessness. Undirected flows of water are the enemy of all man-made structures, and concrete bridges are no exception. Water drips from seams between poured sections, and finds its way along rusty reinforcing rod, dissolving it until the rod is gone and only the water remains, forcing an ever-wider path for itself. Chunks of concrete have been pried loose by the seasonal forces of New Jersey’s climate.

So yes, unless NJT actually does rehab the bridge, it’s going to come down. If they don’t, then eventually someone is going to have to knock it down, or keep people out of the valley, and off the roadbed. That seems impossible, and maybe building a railroad to Scranton is easier. In the meantime it stands here with its furry crown of misplaced forest, a monument to a time when nothing, not a 3.5 mile-wide valley, and certainly not a comparatively puny little river crossing, was going to stand in the way of opening the west to American progress. The railroads of Northern New Jersey almost universally went broke. There were other routes west, easier routes, to the south and north, and none of these constructions in the long run did anybody any lasting good. But here they are, like so many other Ozymandian inventions, and as long as they are here people like me are going to be drawn to them, hearing some faint echo of the hopes and dreams of an earlier time.

You can view the full gallery of images from my visit to the Paulinskill Viaduct here.

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