A single, seasonally-aged leaf, carried by the mid-September billow, floated toward the main and side tracks paralleling the Delaware River at Phillipsburg’s Lehigh Junction Station-a sign of the time, and a sign that it was time for wine-one of the many products of autumn’s harvest. But, before I reveled in the oak-hinted vintages the latest grapes had produced, I first had to access a local winery-specifically, the Villa Milagro Vineyards, located some eight miles from here in Finnesville. That experience, combined with the rails, would result in what was dubbed the “Warren County Winery Train.” But why the rails?
A glance over my left shoulder up the hill to an imposing brick building, currently painted green, indicated more. Like a full-sized, living history book, it revealed its past. It was once the Phillipsburg Union Station, and the gravel on which I stood fronting the tracks while I awaited my wine-or at least my method of getting to it-represented but a shadow of the town’s former railroad self.
“Never the twain shall meet” goes the saying, but it did here, if “twain” could be defined as “train.” Located in western New Jersey, on the edge of the region’s Lehigh Valley and on the state line (here that line is actually a river) with Pennsylvania, Phillipsburg was incorporated as a town by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 8, 1861, and is today Warren County’s largest city, mirrored by its sister, Easton, across the water.
But that water, perhaps more than anything else, gave it rise. Situated at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, it naturally evolved as a transportation hub, linked, via the Morris Canal, to New York City’s industrial and commercial centers from the 1820s onwards, and to the west, via the Lehigh Canal.
After barge-negotiation of the waterways, products and goods were transferred to one of five major railroads, all of which also converged here: the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Local transportation was facilitated by five streetcar and interurban railways.
All these trains needed more than the splotch of gravel on which I stood to process passengers and products, and part of that deficiency was remedied by Union Station, located at 178 South Main Street and constructed by Frank J. Nies, architect for the Lackawanna, in 1914. It was also used by the Central.
Symbolic of the city’s great railroad era, it was the last vestige of what once encompassed a complex of stations, roundhouses, turntables, interlocking towers, signal bridges, and coal pockets. Having served as a political campaign headquarters, a pharmacy, a bank computer center, and a sporting goods store, it is occupied today by the Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center, whose members are restoring it to its turn-of-the-20th-century splendor. Negotiation of its required tools and equipment (and resultant dust), however, still offers a glimpse of its ticket windows and waiting areas, along with an n-gauge model railroad layout and a few artifacts.
Where did all the trains go? Like numerous other US cities served either by main or branch lines, the wheels were either transferred from the rails to the roads or the skies, decreasing demand prompting service reductions until the town had closed its book on the railway era. The Lackawanna, for example, had run its last passenger train to Phillipsburg in 1941 and New Jersey Transit followed suit four decades later, in 1983.
Today, the area is only served by two such rail concerns. The first, the Norfolk and Southern, operated freight trains and accessed Phillipsburg via the former Lehigh Valley Railroad tracks, crossing the river on the Lehigh and Hudson River Railroad Bridge. The second was a tourist railroad, the Belvidere and Delaware River (Bel-Del) Railroad, operating under the Delaware River Railroad Excursions name as far as Riegelsville.
With the sheer thought of it, I could now feel the fermented liquid running down my throat, since it would transport me to the all-important vineyard. But it first had to run on the rails before I could reach that point.
That railroad hardly plied smooth ones to get where it is today. Indeed, its own journey, which was characterized by obstacles and setbacks, was a circuitous one-and often without track and the rolling stock needed to use it. Then again, the situation was not as ironical as envisioned, because establishing a railroad was never its intention from the start.
Its origins lay with the New York Susquehanna and Western Technical and Historical Society, a not-for-profit educational group founded in 1988 with eight members, to restore engines and coaches and preserve New Jersey’s railroad history. With it came the first idea of establishing the previously mentioned New Jersey Transportation Museum.
Wheels first rolled, at least in the direction of its restoration destination, with the lease of a self-propelled, 1950 Budd RDC-1 (M-1) passenger car from the United Railway Historical Society intended for the museum.
Initial train operations were not its own, but paved the way (a long way) toward it. Its members, along with those of another group, staffed those undertaken by New Jersey Transit to Hawthorne for skiing purposes and Vernon in early-1990, thus providing initial hosting experience of rail-facilitated events.
After the United Railway Historical Society signed a lease for the Morris County Central engine house in Newfoundland and four former Morris County Central members themselves began work on the M-1 in July, the need for funding arose and, looking back at the revenue-generating rail rides it had hosted, the New York Susquehanna and Western Technical and Historical Society elected to extend that effort, running trips with full dining service on the Susquehanna line.
Gleaming like a gemstone just polished by a jeweler, the restored M-1, periodically rolled out of the engine house, attracted considerable interest and it operated its trial trip to Sparta on September 12, 1992. While it had only been displayed when it had been rolled out, it was now ready to wear-or, more appropriately, ride-and the public was eager to try it on-so much so, in fact, that the tourist journeys begun later that month in Whippany had culminated with an oversold one at the end of the Christmas season, necessitating an impromptu capacity increase from its existing 88 seats to 117 with temporary folding chairs and the accommodation of five children to a seat bank.
Historic and scenic tourist railroads were hardly novelties, but those operated by single, self-propelled coaches were, and capacity could not be adjusted to meet demand by coupling another car to it, simply because the society did not have one. However, a scouting trip to Tennessee yielded two-as in “two more”-an M-2 acquired by it and an M-4 purchased by some of its members.
Intending to operate its own sightseeing excursions, New York Susquehanna and Western purchased a Mikado SY steam engine from the Valley Railroad.
Despite what appeared to be increasingly green signals, the September 11 terrorist attacks abruptly turned them all red, their resultant-and prohibitive-liability insurance requirements for steam engine operations leaving the Susquehanna little choice but to sell the society the engine it could no longer afford to operate on its own track. Leasing its cars, along with those of another rail concern, it was able to inaugurate its own service, using New Jersey Transit tracks.
Funding now proved its own obstacle. Escalating New Jersey Transit movement and inspection fees left it virtually trackless. Then again, it did not own any coaches to couple to its just-acquired locomotive, even if it had the rails to do so.
The latter problem was solved when it purchased five 1950s-1960s Long Island Railroad 3/2 Pullman coaches and three 1960 ex-Metra (of Chicago) Pullman Galley bi-level ones, and these were added to the vitally important equipment roster, which now included the three 1980 Budd SPV-2000s (M-1 through M-4), the steam engine, and the previously obtained 18-ton, 1938 Plymouth locomotive.
But rail journeys were not always smooth-especially this one-and yet another company seemed imminent to write its history with its wheels in Phillipsburg, chosen location of the state transportation museum. The Black River and Western Railroad, owners of the Belvidere and Delaware River Railway and operators of its own excursion trains between Flemington and Ringoes, acquired a gas-powered Brill Model 55 motor car for this purpose.
But, unlike the many derailing events that had characterized its historical journey, this one resulted in a synergistic car-coupling and not in the hitherto-expected competitive impact. That car coupling, representing its partnership, saw it inaugurate weekend steam train service on May 1, 2004 over an initial 3.5 miles of Belvidere and Delaware River Pennsylvania Railroad branch tracks laid in 1854 and these were extended by two miles in 2006 and by another 900 feet two years after that. Society members, for the first time, graduated from coach attendants to full-fledged conductors and engineers in the process.
The sooner the train glided into the Lehigh Junction Station today, the sooner the wine would glide over my tongue.
The brisk day, sending the scent of autumn to the senses, was suddenly assaulted by soot. Emerging from the natural tunnel of foliage surrounding the track and ducking under the trestle that had, only moments before, supported an elongated Norfolk and Southern freight train, a red caboose and four “Susquehanna” coaches were nudged into Lehigh Junction Station by the Belvidere and Delaware River Railroad’s signature 13-ton Mikado 2-8-2 coal-burning steam engine, #142, built by the Tang Shen Locomotive Works of the People’s Republic of China in 1989 and dubbed the Walter G. Rich after the late-CEO of the New York Susquehanna and Western.
A brief brake snag, signaled by a screech, caused the collected crowd to approach and then funnel its way through the opened door. I settled into the last car, #533-one of the Long Island Railroad coaches with walkover seats and a blue interior, and reserved for winery passengers. Only half-full, it assuredly offered sufficient space for what would be full-full-that is, the bottles of wine purchased at the vineyard.
Once again releasing a bulbous gray belch from its stack and a whistle that tore the morning’s fabric, the locomotive gave a gentle nudge to its cars, as they glided back under the trestle and settled into a rhythmic sway and clack abreast of the Mica-glinting surface of the Delaware River now visible through the right-hand windows.
Across the river, at the site of Williamsport, was the so-called “Forks of the Delaware”-or the junction of the Lehigh and Delavare rivers, itself the funneling point of the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris canals.
At the southern edge of Raubsville, which was also on the Pennsylvania side, was the Delaware Canal’s double Ground Hog Lock–and its deepest, at 17 feet–next to which was the hydroelectric powerplant whose turbine was powered by canal-harnessed water.
Subjected to constant soot and smoke onslaughts from the locomotive, the coaches and single caboose bored their way through the arboreal tunnel, whose trees seemed equally coated in early-fall’s brown embers. Despite their lack of glitter, a rare nougat of autumn-brushed gold occasionally highlighted the collage.
Passing under the bridge that carried Interstate 78 from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, the train sliced through Carpentersville, once the location of a Bel-Del station and now little more than a hamlet formed by a scatter of vintage homes. A narrow road, as if compressed by a vice, thread its way between the tracks and the cliffs.
Rising, like two medieval monoliths beyond the third grade crossing, were two limestone kilns, once part of the almost two dozen which had graced the area and were fueled by coal, which itself had been transported by these very tracks. After locally quarried limestone had been ground into powder suitable for soil preparation and mixture with mortar, it had once again been rail-transported by the bushelful to Flemington, Trenton, and Monmouth County.
The coaches continued to sway-the very perception I expected to have after my wine, even if the train had not been in motion.
After a final burst of coal-created soot and cinders, and a last screech of the brakes, the train ceased motion, still immersed in dense foliage, now short of Riegelsville, one-time site of another Bel-Del station.
My dry throat, anticipating a vineyard oasis in what externally resembled nothing like a desert, prepared itself for lubrication, but the last mile or so of the journey, unable to be completed by the train because of still unrehabilitated tracks, required transfer to a yellow school bus. (Of course, I had forgotten to do my homework.)
Riegelsville itself was the location of one of the country’s few remaining, multi-span highway suspension bridges with continuous cables. Designed by John A. Roebling and Sons of Trenton-who themselves were the architects of the Brooklyn and Golden Gate spans-it connected Pohatcong Township with Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, and replaced the tri-span, wood-covered artery constructed in 1837 and used by foot, horse, and wagon traffic. Destroyed by a flood in 1903, it lent its piers to the current bridge, which opened on April 18 of the proceeding year.
Following the narrow, track-paralleling road and skimming the edge of the historic town, the bus shifted its way up a steep hill past a ceramic silo and threaded its way through tall cornstalks to the 104-acre Villa Milagro Vineyards, located in the Warren Hills Appellation and owned by Steve and Audrey Gambino.
Noted for its use of organic and sustainable practices to provide a protective habitat for native species of birds and plants, it produced ten varieties of grapes blended in the traditional European style to create complex wines.
An escorted tour of the fields, grapes, fermenting, and wine–making processes at last led to the tasting room, and the half-dozen varieties-from Merlots to Cabernet Sauvignons to Shirazes-accompanied by hot hors d’oeuvres finally enabled me to reach my physical and culinary destination.
Like the clinking of two glasses, my rail car, to which I had subsequently returned, seemed to toast the one ahead of it as their tensing couplings caused a momentary jolt and the smoke- and steam-emitting locomotive pushed them along the river-paralleling track for their journey to Phillipsburg in a backwards direction. With the wine I had had, at least it felt that way.