The railroad lines operated today by NJ Transit as the Morris & Essex and the Montclair-Boonton Lines have a fascinating history, dating from the earliest days of American railroading in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. This page gives a brief history of the construction, improvement, and operation of these lines, which today form vital transportation links for the north-central New Jersey region.
Beginnings: The Morris & Essex Railroad
The name “Morris and Essex Lines” derives from one of New Jersey’s earliest railroads, the Morris & Essex Railroad (intended to serve principally the counties for which it is named), which was incorporated in 1835 and was one of the first rail lines to be built in the United States. By November 1836, it began service between Newark and Orange (using horse power until 1837!); connecting service to Jersey City was by arrangement with another pioneer line, the New Jersey Railroad; the two roads met at the vicinity of Broad and Market Streets. (The New Jersey RR was a predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad; even today, the street that parallels the Amtrak/NJT line thought Newark is called “New Jersey Railroad Avenue.”) The M&E continued to build westward, with steam service to Madison by October 1837, Morristown was reached by January 1838, and Dover by July 1848. Originally primarily built for passenger traffic, the M&E became increasingly interested in hauling freight as New Jersey industrialized and as iron mines were developed in Sussex and Warren Counties. The line continued west, reaching Hackettstown in 1854 and Phillipsburg in 1866; a connection was made to the Sussex Mine Railroad, running north to the Andover area, and eventually the railroad built its own branch north to Andover, Newton, and points north to tap the iron mines and to serve the agricultural communities of Sussex County. And the M&E, along with several other New Jersey railroads, was eying the rich anthracite coal resources of the Lackawanna Valley, in the Scranton, Penn. area. Eventually, the M&E would become part of a storied railroad company taking its name from this valley: the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. The DL&W, as its name implies, was at first a strictly Pennsylvania corporation, building in the 1850s between the Delaware Valley and the Scranton (“Lackawanna”) areas; eventually its line would cross the Delaware and Lackawanna Rivers. The Lackawanna needed a connection across New Jersey to the New York markets, but this was to be provided by fierce M&E competitor Warren Railroad, which built its line, over all the roadblocks the M&E could muster, from the Central Railroad of New Jersey at Hampton far to the south, north through Washington where it would cross the M&E’s line to Phillipsburg, and on to the Delaware Water Gap where it would meet the DL&W. Through service began in 1856, with a journey from New York to the Water Gap taking about five and one-half hours. The lack of a connection linking the Morris & Essex to the Pennsylvania coal fields left the M&E as a sort of an orphan; the result was that in 1868 the Lackawanna Railroad leased the M&E, began to route its traffic via the M&E rather than via the Jersey Central, and the foundation was laid for the modern Lackawanna Railroad that would provide the basis for today’s NJ Transit operations in north-central New Jersey in the 20th century.
Reaching the Waterfront at Hoboken
While the Morris & Essex was eying its connections to the west, construction continued at the east end as well. The connection for passengers with the New Jersey Railroad at Newark was not very efficient, so the M&E crossed the Passaic River, reaching Harrison by 1854; an arrangement in place with the Erie Railroad allowed service through to the waterfront of Jersey City by 1863, using that road’s Long Dock Tunnel through Bergen Hill. The M&E opened its own tunnel in 1876 to a new terminal on the Hoboken waterfront, the forerunner of today’s Hoboken Terminal. To tap the suburbs north of Newark, the M&E leased the Newark & Bloomfield Railroad’s line from Roseville Avenue (the present junction with the Montclair-Boonton Line, west of Newark Broad Street); this allowed service through to Montclair. To the north, as the Lackawanna took control, a “new main line” was constructed to heavy-duty specifications, from Denville, through Boonton, Paterson, Passaic and Secaucus; this new “Boonton Line” remains part of the Montclair-Boonton Line between Denville and Mountain View; and its eastern end, between Clifton, Secaucus Junction, and Hoboken, the Lackawanna/M&E’s Boonton Line is in service as NJ Transit’s “Main Line,” part of the “Main-Bergen” group of NJT operations. (The segment between Mountain View and Clifton was abandoned to make room for the Interstate 80 corridor through Paterson.)
The Gladstone Branch
The Gladstone Branch, eventually part of the M&E and Lackawanna system, began life in competition with the M&E as the New Jersey West Line Railroad. Its goal was to build a line across New Jersey from Newark to Phillipsburg; by 1872 service was running between Summit and Bernardsville. The West Line crossed the M&E west of Summit, roughly where the Gladstone and Morristown lines meet today; its line was projected to run north of the M&E toward Newark, but it’s not clear that the line was ever completed. Still, traces of graded roadbed are said to be visible in Millburn and in the South Mountain Reservation parkland. After a short period the trains were diverted to the M&E’s Summit station. The West Line RR became the Passaic & Delaware Railroad; the name survives in the “PD” prefixes seen on railroad signals on the Gladstone Branch today. Unfortunately for the grand plans of this railroad, the need to build to Phillipsburg evaporated when the Lehigh Valley Railroad built its line across New Jersey in 1875; this left the P&D an orphan, and it was leased by the Lackawanna in 1882, which completed the line to Gladstone by 1890.
The Montclair-Boonton Line Evolves
The remaining piece of NJT’s lines in the area to be accounted for is the Montclair-Boonton Line east of Mountain View. After the construction of Interstate 80 forced the abandonment of the Lackawanna’s Boonton Line through Paterson in 1963, trains were diverted to the former New York & Greenwood Lake Railroad (later Erie Railroad; the line dates from about 1878) branch, which crossed the Boonton Line at Mountain View. This line was built to a lower standard than the Boonton Line, so the change was not to the benefit of the riders. Trains ran via this line through Great Notch, Upper Montclair, Montclair (Walnut Street), Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, North Newark, Arlington, and on to a connection with the east end of the Boonton Line east of Secaucus, and on to Hoboken. The line was at first called the “Boonton-Greenwood Lake Line,” but this was eventually simplified by NJ Transit to simply “Boonton Line,” since service to Greenwood Lake had long since vanished. The ex-Erie segment closely approached the end of the ex-Lackawanna Montclair Branch in Montclair, and at the turn of the 21st century, NJT reconstructed the railroads in that area, building a connection and rerouting the Boonton Line trains down the Montclair Branch to the M&E main line at the Roseville Avenue junction in Newark; service east of Walnut Street on the old Erie line was abandoned. Service began on September 30, 2002. This new routing, although slower, allowed passengers access to Newark for the first time. The line now acquired its present name, the “Montclair-Boonton Line.” At first service was on weekdays only, but on November 8, 2009, limited weekend service began as far as Bay Street, Montclair.
Early 20th Century Improvements: Hoboken Terminal
The original lines as built were quite primitive by today’s standards. Mostly at grade level, they included countless grade crossings, a nuisance as the suburbs expanded, growth largely spurred by the railroad itself. The stage was set for massive improvements and reconstruction, mostly during the first three decades of the twentieth century. These improvements would create the heavy-duty railroad lines and stations that form the backbone of today’s NJ Transit lines in the area. First, the Lackawanna Railroad needed a waterfront terminal in Hoboken worthy of its vision. Today’s Hoboken Terminal was completed in 1907 in the Beaux-Arts style, designed by architect Kenneth M. Murchison. NJ Transit has restored the station magnificently; in the New York area only Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan can compare to it as an example of the grand railroad architecture of the period. By 1900 the 1880-vintage terminal had proved inadequate, and plans were underway to replace it; but the old terminal burned to the ground on August 7, 1905, in a fire that started on a ferry and spread. This fire forced the rapid acceleration of the replacement program. The Hoboken Terminal is notable for being the first use of air-conditioning in a public space. To handle the heavy traffic expected, a second Bergen Hill tunnel was constructed; now four tracks would handle the traffic. At the West End (of the tunnel), a complex grade crossing with nine tracks of three railroads (the Eire, Pennsylvania, and Susquehanna) was eliminated by raising the M&E and depressing the other roads; the adjacent drawbridge over the Hackensack, called today “Lower Hack,” was replaced and expanded to three tracks in 1928. From Hoboken, ferry services carried passengers to three Manhattan destinations: Barclay Street, Christopher Street, and, until 1946, 23 Street; Hudson & Manhattan RR (“Hudson Tubes”, later PATH), completed a few years after the new terminal, carried passengers to midtown and downtown Manhattan. Hoboken Terminal grew in importance in 1956 when the Erie Railroad determined to abandon its historic terminal in Jersey City and move in with the Lackawanna in Hoboken; the move was complete by the end of 1958, and on a typical weekday the terminal was now handling 142 Lackawanna and 79 Erie eastbound trains (for a total of 221; today, with many passengers traveling to New York and with significant Hoboken cutbacks, the total is about 137 trains eastbound). The move presaged the merger of the Erie and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western to form the Erie Lackawanna Railroad, finalized in 1961.
Improvements in the Suburban Lines
West of Hoboken, massive improvements were in order, too. Newark Broad Street also needed a station befitting a major city on a major railroad, and the tracks were elevated through the station area, with the new station placed in service in 1903. This required moving and raising the Passaic River drawbridge, which also carried (on its lower deck) freight traffic to the Lackawanna’s freight yard adjacent to the station. Fascinating maps of the line and station reconstruction can be viewed in the interpretive panels in today’s Broad Street station building. West of Broad Street, in 1905 the tracks were depressed through the Roseville Avenue area; this eliminated grade crossings, and in combination with the elevation at Broad Street significantly eased the steep grade west out of the Passaic River valley. The two-track line proved unable to handle the heavy traffic, and a third track was laid to East Orange in 1905, and on to Orange in 1922; further west, a third track was laid from South Orange to the former Wyoming Station, Millburn, in 1901-3 (the former station stood at the point where the third track now ends, although for a period the third track extended further west, to the site of the current Millburn station); a new station at Maplewood was built at the same time. Summit, by the turn of the 20th century, was a bustling town and busy railroad junction (with the Gladstone Branch); reconstruction began in 1902 and the tracks were depressed through the area to eliminate the grade crossings. This project was complex: first the westbound, then the eastbound tracks were constructed, with service continuing during the work; the new line and new station were opened in 1905. Various projects reconstructed the line and built new stations through the period: Madison, 1916; Morristown, 1913; Morris Plains, 1915; Denville, 1903. The Denville reconstruction is notable, because at the time the Boonton Line crossed the M & E Morristown Line, which then looped north through Rockaway to Dover. After the reconstruction, M & E trains began operating on the current alignment, originally the Boonton Line of 1870, between Denville and Dover, although some trains continued to serve the “Rockaway Loop” until 1948.
The Lackawanna Cut-off: A High-Speed Line Across Northwest New Jersey
Improvements in the Lackawanna’s long-distance freight and passenger service were also undertaken; in 1908–1911 the railroad constructed the massive “Cut-Off,” a new railroad line leaving the M & E at Port Morris (near Lake Hopatcong) and running 28.5 miles through Andover and Blairstown to rejoin the Lackawanna’s main line in the Delaware Water Gap. The construction involved massive fills and viaducts across several valleys and a short tunnel; it shortened the main line by 11 miles and reduced grades and curves substantially. There was little local passenger service on the new line, with stations en route at Blairstown, Greendell, and Johnsonburg. The project was reported at the time to be the largest earth-moving project in human history, even exceeding the earth moved in constructing the Panama Canal. After the Northeast’s rail lines were reorganized into the Consolidated Railroad Corporation (Conrail), the Cut-off was seen as superfluous and finally taken out of service in April 1979. An Amtrak inspection train ran over the line in November of that year to consider restoring passenger service, but that came to naught and, after further efforts to rescue the line, the rails were removed in 1984. A proposal to “mine” the fills fortunately did not succeed, and the line eventually was acquired by the State. Today, there are proposals to replace the track and resume passenger service to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and even beyond; for the moment, NJ Transit is planning to restore the eastern few miles and institute local service as far as a new station being planned for Andover.
Electrification Improves the Suburban Service
With all the improvements in stations and line alignment, the main obstacle to further improvement of the local passenger service was the slow acceleration of the steam-powered trains, and the time and effort spent in turning trains around at terminals (to turn and reposition the steam engine at the opposite end of the train). To provide fast service with the short distance between many stations on the M&E, the only solution was electric operations. The electrification of the M&E was a first for a suburban system involving substantial grades; the technology chosen was overhead wire distribution of 3000-volt direct current. A fleet of 141 motor cars was ordered; an equal number of unpowered trailers was also employed, some rebuilt from former steam-hauled cars; the first train to Montclair on September 3, 1930 was famously operated for a short distance by Thomas A. Edison. Regular electric service began to Morristown on December 18, 1930, and service was quickly extended to Dover, Gladstone, and Montclair. The initial service plans were quite ambitious, involving local service to South Orange and expresses for Dover which did not stop in the Oranges, making their first stop at South Orange. Demand did not justify such frequency, and the locals disappeared by 1932, the Dover trains making all stops. Service was on a half-hourly headway.
Late 20th Century and 21st Century Improvements
In the late 20th century, the original electric car fleet began to show its age, and a bond issue passed in 1968 provided for the rebuilding of the entire M&E electrification. The usual delays ensued, and the new system did not go into operation until September 1984, when over one weekend all the old DC-powered equipment was taken out of service, the power changed to 25,000 volts AC, and modern Arrow III electric cars took over. The old cars were all towed away, but many found a future life as unpowered cars on various tourist railroad operations. The next major improvement in service required questioning the original operating plan of the Lackawanna Railroad: to deliver its passengers to Hoboken Terminal, and then on to New York City via ferries or the PATH trains. Ferry service had ended in 1967, and it was clear that many passengers wanted to go directly to Manhattan. NJ Transit had inherited all of the remaining commuter rail operations in the New York suburbs of New Jersey, but had continued to operate them much as had the predecessor railroads. Integrating the various operations was a major challenge, but a big step was taken on June 10, 1996, when the “Kearny Connection” between the M&E and the Amtrak/NJ Transit Northeast Corridor went into service in the Jersey Meadows. The connection allowed trains to move between the M&E lines and the Corridor to access New York’s Penn Station; the service was marketed as “Midtown Direct Service”. A state-of-the-art design allowed trains to move quickly through the connection. Since the beginning of the Midtown Direct service, ridership on the M&E has increased and, on other NJT lines, additional riders to Manhattan transfer at the Secaucus transfer station (opened in 2003), and now there are serious capacity problems into New York, so NJ Transit is proceeding to built a new “Mass Transit Tunnel” under the Hudson River; two tracks will lead to a “deep cavern” station under 34 Street, near to but distinct from Penn Station. [Update: The “deep cavern” plan was abandoned, in 2022, “Gateway” is the current project under consideration.]
Coates, Wes, 50th Anniversary 1931-1981, Suburban Electrification of the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western R.R., Clark, N.J., Jersey Central Chapter National Railway Historical Society, 1981.
Lowenthal, Larry, and Greenberg, William T., Jr., “The Lackawanna Railroad in Northwest New Jersey,” Morristown, Tri-State Railway Historical Society, 1987.
Scull, Theodore W., Hobken’s Landmark Terminal, New York, Quadrant Press, 1982
Taber, Thomas Townsend, The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Nineteenth Century; Muncy, Penn., Thomas T. Taber III, 1977.
Taber, Thomas Townsend, and Taber, Thomas Townsend III, The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Twentieth Century; Muncy, Penn., Thomas T. Taber III, Part 1, 1980; Part 2, 1981.
Wikipedia: Various articles, particularly “Gladstone Branch,” “Hoboken Terminal,” “Lackawanna Cut-Off,” and “Morris & Essex Railroad.”
Originally posted on previous Lackawanna Coalition Web site.