Sunday, October 2, 2016

Caldwell, New Jersey's Disappearing Railroad Blues

Fifty years ago this past Friday, September 30, 1966, the Caldwell branch of the Erie Railroad in western Essex County, New Jersey, ended passenger rail service. As a result, the Essex County communities of Cedar Grove, Verona, Essex Fells, and Caldwell only had buses to Newark and New York for public transit.  At a time when other communities, like nearby Montclair, prize and cherish their passenger rail amenities - Montclair has six railway stations  - Caldwell and its West Essex neighbors have pretty much become autocentric communities; only the working poor ride the metropolitan New Jersey Transit buses.  The commuter bus to New York, DeCamp, isn't bad, but it takes an hour through heavy northern New Jersey traffic to get to and from Manhattan.
Caldwell was first connected to the Erie railroad network in 1891, and the line connected with the Erie's terminal in Jersey City, and then later Hoboken.  The line fed into what is now New Jersey Transit's Montclair-Boonton line, which, in addition to a connection to Hoboken, now has direct service to Penn Station in Manhattan.  You can understand why folks in West Essex must be kicking themselves now - commuter rail service is a strong selling point for any town, but Caldwell and its immediate neighbors no longer have it.
The Caldwell station sat between Mount Saint Dominic Academy, the girls' Catholic school on the campus of Caldwell College (now Caldwell University), and what is now a storefront along Bloomfield Avenue almost directly across from the Grover Cleveland Birthplace.  When the Erie and Lackawanna railroads merged, the new company reduced service to save money.  Both companies had been foundering thanks to competition from automobiles and buses; the merger was comparable to two drunks helping each other across the street.  The 1966 discontinuation of service was part of the Erie Lackawanna's plan to save money (alas, the railroad eventually went out of business anyway).  Freight rail continued on the track into the seventies until that was abandoned some time around 1976, and the rails were torn out in 1981.  The right of way west of Verona has since been built on, while the portion of the right of way between Verona and Cedar Grove is a nature trail.  A rail tunnel under Bloomfield Avenue was sealed off in 1997 when an intersection above was re-aligned, as if to make it clear that rail service to West Essex was dead for good.
I remember the Caldwell station, though it was hardly in the good condition depicted in the photo above (sarcasm).  It was a dilapidated, boarded up fire trap, with fading gray-blue paint and Ozzy Osbourne graffiti scrawled over it.  It was torn down all right, but it looked like it could have torn itself down.  It was sadder than sad to see it like that.  It was even sadder to think that the Caldwells' rich transportation heritage was just thrown away.  
Here's a great photo of the once-incredible diversity of Caldwell's transportation history.  This is Parsonage Bend, the point at which Bloomfield Avenue turns to the left going eastward to Verona and, ultimately, Newark.  A #29 trolley (replaced by buses on 1952) heads toward the center of town as the train heads east toward Verona and Cedar Grove.  The stone retaining wall in the photo is still there - behind it is a hill on which Lincoln Elementary School, my old grade school, sits - but everything else is gone.  The railroad tracks have been replaced by overgrowth. Another sad example of how passenger rail in the United States, including streetcars, got pushed aside in the name of "progress."   
Next time you hear an old white man complain about the America he remembers having disappeared, don't laugh at him.  Most likely, what I just showed you is the disappearing America he misses.
Below is Parsonage Bend today.  There's a lot to miss.    
   

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