Sussex Branch Trail History

New Jersey

At a Glance

Name: Sussex Branch Trail
Length: 18 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Sussex
Surfaces: Cinder, Dirt, Grass
State: New Jersey

A Brief History

The Sussex Branch Trail is named after the rail line by the same name that once ran between Branchville and Waterloo. This particular corridor began as a small, privately owned mining operation during the mid-19th century and was originally mule-drawn. It later transitioned into a steam-powered, common-carrier known as the Sussex Railroad and extended south to connect with an early predecessor of the later Delaware, Lackawanna & Western. The company had plans to continue its route north to the Delaware River, although these hopes never materialized, and during the 1880s it was sold to the DL&W. The branch remained in service for more than 80 years until declining traffic forced the then-Erie Lackawanna to abandon the property in segments between the mid-1960s and early 1970s.

The history of railroads in Sussex County date as far back as 1836 when the Morris & Essex Railroad (M&E) planned to construct a route west from Newark and commissioned surveys for a line extending to the Delaware River through northern New Jersey. The M&E was ultimately built but utilized a more southerly route to Phillipsburg. Interestingly, the county’s first actual railroad drew little fanfare. In July 1847, the owners of the Trenton Iron Company—Peter Cooper, Edward Cooper and Abram Hewitt—reopened the previously abandoned iron mine located near Andover and needed a way to ship ore to furnaces located at Allentown, Pennsylvania. At first they used wagons, but the steep costs of traveling the Morris Turnpike forced the company to look for alternatives. On March 9, 1848, the Sussex Mine Railroad was chartered, and while the company hoped the line would be partially funded through local support, mine owners largely bore the construction costs themselves.

By the summer of 1851, the new operation was ready for service, built as a 40-inch narrow-gauge railroad and entirely mule-powered. It stretched from the mine at Andover to Waterloo along the Morris Canal, where a small dock was located. When the railroad began service, the M&E was already near having extended its line to Dover during July 1848. It was soon planning a route to Hackettstown, and construction of this extension began during the spring of 1852. Realizing the Sussex Mine Railroad could provide a profitable interchange, the M&E wished to do so; however, it would require building and grading an entirely new right-of-way to support traditional locomotives and cars via a standard-gauge line (4 feet, 8 ½ inches). Since the M&E wanted the connection available as soon as it reached the area, Sussex officials had to work quickly. They gained a new charter for the Sussex Railroad on January 26, 1853, using a route that would connect with the M&E at Waterloo and run north to the Delaware River via Newton, Andover, and Culvers Gap.

Work began on May 5, 1853, and was completed to Newton by the fall of 1854. In January 1855, the Morris & Essex completed its extension to Hackettstown. With much more efficient transportation available, and a link established to the New York City metropolitan area, the Sussex Railroad witnessed a large increase in business. Freight was iron ore, milk, agriculture, and other general products, while passengers began using the railroad in ever increasing numbers. Not until 1867 did the Sussex focus on an extension north from Newton. At around the same time it also eyed a branch to Franklin where it would serve mines extracting zinc and franklinite. Both lines were completed and opened for service in July 1869. While the Sussex had planned to continue its tracks beyond Branchville it ultimately reached no farther north than that location. It did extend trackage beyond Franklin in 1871 where it reached McAfee. This move was in an effort to serve additional iron mines, although the line was used only for a decade before being sold to the Lehigh & Hudson Railway (later part of the Lehigh & Hudson River).

On July 15, 1881, the Sussex Railroad was sold to the growing Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W), which had already acquired the Morris & Essex, and the line became known as its Sussex Branch. The DL&W, or Lackawanna, goes back to 1853 with the merger of the Lackawanna & Western and Delaware & Cobbs Gap railroads. These two systems formed a network of trackage from the Pennsylvania state line at Great Bend to the Delaware River in New Jersey, running via Scranton (then known as Slocum’s Hollow). By acquiring the M&E, the Lackawanna gained access to Hoboken directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Through a series of acquisitions that included the Syracuse, Binghamton & New York; Utica, Chenango & Susquehanna Valley; and Green Railroad, the DL&W reached Syracuse and Utica, New York, via Binghamton. Still looking to further extend its network, the Lackawanna reached Buffalo by building a subsidiary known as the New York, Lackawanna & Western, which opened in 1882.

The DL&W was always a regional system similar to the Lehigh Valley in that it never became an extensive trunk line like the Pennsylvania, New York Central, Erie, or Baltimore & Ohio. Its network in 1950 was only 950 miles, and the railroad remained heavily dependent on the movement of anthracite coal throughout its corporate existence. It was one of the so-called anthracite roads, which included names such as the Reading, Central Railroad of New Jersey, Lehigh & New England, and others. The Sussex Branch, however, had largely always subsisted on ore, agriculture, and milk traffic. One final extension to the line occurred in 1901 when a cutoff was completed via Stanhope, located east of Waterloo, which provided a more direct route from northern Sussex County to New York. As the years passed, iron and related ore movements quietly disappeared, and the 9-mile extension to Franklin was abandoned in 1934. Additionally, improved highways and the trucking industry slowly stole traffic.

On October 17, 1960, the DL&W merged with the Erie to form the new Erie Lackawanna. By then, the Branchville line had fallen on hard times, made worse by the loss of interchanges with the Lehigh & New England, which shut down in 1961, and retrenchment of the New York, Susquehanna & Western. The final EL train between Andover Junction and Branchville made its run on July 13, 1966, while the remaining segment south of that point remained until July 1973.

Railroad attractions in New Jersey include the Black River & Western based in Flemington; Cape May Seashore Lines at Tuckahoe; Delaware River Railroad in Phillipsburg; Maywood Station Museum in Maywood; New Jersey Museum of Transportation in Farmingdale; Old Station Museum & Caboose in Mahwah; and the Whippany Railway Museum in Whippany.

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