Our cabbie was a chatty guy, condensing almost 100 years of Atlantic City history into a 5 minute ride to the train station.  Eric and I had decided to return to NYC via train instead of the bus, our final destination prompting the driver to dive into tales of The Blue Comet, a now defunct line operated by the Central Railroad that carried passengers along the Atlantic coast from New York to South Jersey.  The Depression led to the demise of this and many other independent rail lines in New Jersey, the damage compounded in later years by the development of the interstate highway system and advent of automobile travel (I’m looking at you, Robert Moses).  He spoke of torn-up steel rails re-purposed for war production, the wooden ties left behind to be lazily paved over in the ’60s and ’70s, now oddly bumpy roads that puzzle drivers and hide the history beneath.

Needless to say my interest in New Jersey’s ghost rails was seriously piqued, despite the harrowing train ride that followed (or perhaps because of).

A Google search revealed that many of these old railway lines had been transformed into rail trails — paths designated for walking and biking.  Further queries led me to the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy, which operates the excellent TrailLink.com website.  Goldmine!  Clearly these needed to be explored.

Zooming into the New Jersey rail trail map I noted the West Essex trail, which after cross-referencing with Google Maps and NJ Transit timetables seemed relatively accessible via public transport, and a good place to start. Sandi, always up for adventure, needed no invitation, and as we discussed my Friday plans it was simply understood she’d join me.

The West Essex trail begins in Upper Montclair near the recently shuttered Great Notch station, bisecting suburban backyards before it joins the old Lenape Trail through Cedar Grove and into Verona.  The ghost of the Caldwell Branch of the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad lies beneath, and along the trail we identified a few vestiges — a torn up rail here, mile marker there, and several out of place concrete structures, mysteriously sealed.  It’s interesting to look at the evolution of this particular trail — from forest path to industrial rail line, back to forest path again.  Nature prevailing.

Some highlights:

Trail head

The snowy path

Danger: High Voltage

Crossing the Peckman River

Trail marker

Trestle

The trail terminates in the parking lot of the Verona High School, and from there we wandered suburban streets for another mile until we reached the bus stop, just in time to catch the 195 bus back to Port Authority.

I was too beat and my sneakers too waterlogged to figure out how to get to the Hilltop Reservation and find the old water towers.  Next time.

More photos here.

Pages of The Power Broker read: 5
Total pages: 224
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