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An ode to the Garden State

Posted by Justin Franz
on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Morristown & Erie Alco rolls through Morris Plains, N.J., in 2015. Photo by Justin Franz.
A few weeks back, when Tri-State Railway Historical Society’s Kevin Phalon tipped me off that his group would be saving Morristown & Erie C424 No. 19, I got excited. Probably more excited than your average person living in Montana about the preservation of an Alco some 2,364 miles away, but I have always had a soft spot for railroading in the Garden State.

In many ways, the roots of my fascination with railroading are planted in New Jersey, despite the fact that I’ve never lived there. My father Tim was bitten by the railroad bug at a young age when his mother would take him to the depot to pick up his father off the train from Hoboken. He can still vividly remember the rattle and roar of a maroon and gray Alco RS3 leading a line of drab Erie Railroad Stillwell commuter coaches. My uncle David got his first job on the railroad pulling armstrong levers in Erie Lackawanna interlocking towers from Hoboken to Suffern. And my uncle Jon, who still lives in New Jersey, does most of his railfanning these days in the archives, writing up pieces for historical societies about the rich railroad history of New Jersey.

I have fewer memories of Garden State railroading, but they are vivid nonetheless. As a kid, I would often visit my grandparents in Fair Lawn and still remember when the windows were open on a hot summer night how you could hear NJ Transit’s U34CHs roaring in and out of the Radburn Station a few miles away - sadly, I don’t have photos of those bulky six-axle passenger locomotives. Thankfully, I did have a camera on another summer trip to New Jersey in 2006 when my Dad and I photographed the now-defunct New York and Greenwood Lake Railway running down Monroe Street in Garfield with a sharp-looking GP9 painted in Erie black and yellow. A few hours later, we were at Elizabeth shooting Amtrak’s Acela on the Northeast Corridor.

Perhaps it’s the diversity that makes railroading in the Garden State so fascinating. Sure, all roads lead to New York City, but a lot of them cut through New Jersey on the way. And if Chicago is the crossroads of American railroading, then one can certainly make an argument that New Jersey is the crossroads of eastern railroading (after all, over the decades, a dozen or so Class 1 railroads have operated there. Pretty good for such a small state).

Almost two years ago, I again got to witness the diversity of New Jersey railroading on a cold, wet morning at Morris Plains on NJ Transit’s Morristown Line. Standing at the end of the platform, my Dad and I watched a modern commuter train roll into the station. After the train stopped, passengers swarmed aboard like bees in a hive. Less than 30 seconds later, everyone was aboard and the train was again rolling toward Hoboken. The platform was suddenly silent again. After the commuter train went out of sight down the tracks, another headlight appeared around the corner. A minute later, a red Morristown & Erie C424 built a half-century ago roared through the station on its way to switch nearby industries.

In New Jersey, you never know what you’ll see when you go down to the tracks.

By the way, if you’re interested in helping Tri-State preserve M&E No. 19, be sure to visit their Go Fund Me page.

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