CARLTON HILL BRANCH MEMORIES
Many of us with an interest in railroads can trace our enthusiasm back to the days of our youth. I certainly can. Although no one in my family worked for a railroad or regularly traveled on them, still there were trains just about everywhere I looked. Right down the street from us was the former Erie Main Line through suburban Carlton Hill, New Jersey. We did most of our shopping in those pre-mall days on Main Avenue in Passaic, where the Main Line paralleled the "miracle mile" of stores. Or, if we went to Rutherford's Park Avenue, we would drive past the local freight house, the passenger station, and BJ Tower (where the Bergen County Line and Main Line met). We did our food shopping in a supermarket nestled against the Bergen County Line, the Erie's major freight route through the suburbs and itself a major generator of carload traffic. (Interestingly, the supermarket was located in a building that once served as a carbarn for the old White Line Trolleys from Paterson to Hoboken). One set of relatives lived near the Erie's Newark Branch, and the other was not far from the Bergen County Line in Plauderville. And finally, my grandmother and grandfather lived in Passaic's Dundee neighborhood, home to various factories and knitting mills served by branch lines of the Erie and NYS&W.
As I grew up in the late 50s and early 60s, the many factories and warehouses in my vicinity still relied on rail transportation. Even if I didn't see a train, I could ponder the various box cars, reefers, hoppers, and tank cars scattered over various sidings whenever we took a local jaunt. In December, I would look for the Maine Central boxcars that showed up on the Rutherford team track. The MEC pine tree emblem accurately described their cargo: Christmas trees.
But back in those days of frequent commuter service and Erie long-distance runs, seeing a train was not difficult. A painful trip to the dentist in Passaic was often ameliorated with the sight of a black RS-3 leading a few green Stillwell coaches through the maze of downtown grade crossings. Perhaps I might spot a few mail storage cars and a yellow meat reefer on the sidings just west of the depot. My restless discomfort while waiting in the car with my father on a Saturday morning shopping trip would be temporarily mollified by the sight of the westbound Erie Limited, with its two-tone green E8s, its many baggage and express cars, and its string of coaches, diner and Pullman. The ubiquitous black EMD switchers that shuffled the local freight "drills" and work trains around were amusing with their bells ringing and raspy horns tooting. And the occasional road freight, with its black and yellow F-units, its serious "get out of the way" monotone horn, and its huge number and variety of freight cars (I always lost count) always left me in awe.
The best times were summer evenings. In those days before home air conditioners and backyard swimming pools became affordable to the middle class, my mother and father would walk my brother and I down to the Carlton Hill station after dinner to watch the last rush hour trains go through. My parents sat on a bench near the parking lot, where there was enough room for my brother and I to vent our 6 or 7 year old energies without endangering ourselves near the tracks. About a half mile west of the station was a manned and movable river bridge over the Passaic River (known as "BE Draw" to Erie personnel). We could see the home signal go from red to green whenever a westbound run was getting near, and would always get excited whenever that happened. And every now and then, a river barge would request a bridge opening, with plenty of deep steam whistles and the strange sight of the spiny bridge pivoting on its center. We would usually see the eastbound Erie Limited pass just after we arrived, the "big train" as I knew it. The passing of the somewhat more svelte Lake Cities, westbound for Chicago at around 8:30 PM, would mean that it was time to walk back home. After such an outing, my youthful energies were spent, my psyche was reassured that all was right with the world, and sleep came quite easily (despite continuing news broadcasts about nuclear bomb tests and civil defense drills).
By 1962, my family seemed to have better things to do than watch the old Erie (now EL) trains. I recall being told in April 1963 that the Main Line through Passaic was being abandoned, and I wasn't all that concerned about it. There was miniature car racing, bicycling, baseball, model plane building, sleigh riding in winter, summer vacation trips, and plenty of other things to keep me busy (in addition to the unpleasantries of school!). But in 1965, I got the urge to scout out what was left. The tracks in downtown Passaic were now a parking lot. But at Carlton Hill, I found that it was not too late. We still had a switcher drill that worked the sidings at Royce Chemical and the former bleachery every day except Sunday. Better yet, we still had commuter trains. In order to mollify local objections to the 1963 agreement that re-routed Main Line trains over the ex-DL&W Boonton Line, the EL still ran two weekday passenger runs each way to and from Hoboken on what was now known as the Carlton Hill Branch. The old wooden depot was intact and opened on inclement mornings to shelter waiting passengers, while the river bridge to Passaic was abandoned but still there for all to see.
The Carlton Hill trains were typically composed of an engine and two or three Stillwell coaches. In the morning, the first train would "deadhead" westbound from Hoboken. At Carlton Hill, the engine would run around the coaches, bring them east to the depot, then wait for departure time. After coming off the branch, the train would make a stop at Rutherford and then roll for the ferry slips at Hoboken. BJ Tower would next let the second set of equipment onto the line as to repeat the procedure. The evening program was inverted, with passengers carried westbound and deadhead equipment running eastbound to Hoboken. Interestingly, this short 1 and 1/4 mile section of the former Main Line remained double tracked, joined at the far end by a switch leading to a 20-carlength stub. Thus, the run-around move required the locomotive to leave its coaches on the westbound track, then switch to the eastbound rail and run the length of the branch to BJ Tower (which was still open, and survived until 1968). At BJ, the engine would be crossed over to the westbound track, where it would proceed back up the branch until it rejoined its cars. The crew would next shove the coaches onto the stub, throw the switch, and proceed east. Motive power was usually 900-series RS-2's and 3's, although GP-7's in the 1400 series were also regular visitors. I did hear testimony from an EL employee that a PA-1 was once used, an emergency measure no doubt given the need to run such a locomotive backward on the deadhead trip.
OK, so this wasn't exactly Horseshoe Curve or Cajon Pass caliber railroading, but for a 12-year old rekindling his interest in trains it was quite fascinating. A friend and I started walking down to the station after school once Daylight Savings Time began in April, to await the arrival of the first train at 5:34 PM. After a small band of tired commuters dispersed, we watched as the black and yellow Alco ran to and fro before deadheading east with its train. We then stayed for a repeat performance heralded by clanging grade crossing bells and the 5:52 arrival of the second train. By 6:15, as the empty coaches disappeared around a curve to the east, we always felt that we had gotten our money's worth. School was out in June, which allowed us to go and watch the morning version of this little branch line ballet.
One summer evening after watching the first train, I suggested to my pal that we get more involved with things. As the second run arrived, I walked up to the head end and asked the engineer if we could get a ride. The conductor was standing nearby at the front coach vestibule, and heard my request. He motioned my friend and I to get in the coach; we could take a short ride up to the stub track. I misunderstood, perhaps intentionally, and started climbing the ladder of the gurgling RS-3. The engineer gave me a very negative look, and I knew that I wasn't quite yet ready for my first cab ride. But the coach offer was still good, so I backed down and climbed the vestibule steps. Given the balmy summer weather, the non-air conditioned Stillwell had most of its windows open, allowing us to savor the pure 244 Alco stack talk. The ride was over in about 60 seconds, but the conductor and trainman were both friendly sorts, and allowed us to stay until the engine came back from BJ and pushed the cars onto the stub. That gave us an extra 400 feet or so of mileage, and also a few more minutes to chat. I couldn't help but admire their hats with the silver and blue Erie badges. Soon, we saw the RS-3 creeping up on us, ready to gently couple up. After a minute or so while the trainman connected the air and signal hoses, we were ready for our little bonus ride. Then we bid our new friends adieu and started walking home, recounting our exciting day.
A few days later, we were back for another ride, and the answer was "sure, get on". We were really pleased with this evening diversion, and tried to do it at least once a week. One day we took even a longer ride, as my father drove us to Rutherford station. We offered to pay the standard fare between the 2 stations, but the crew didn't think that our quarters and dimes would do much to keep Chairman William White interested in continuing this operation. I recall once hearing a regular rider comment to the conductor that trains seemed like fun to kids, but wait until they grow up and have to ride to work every day on them. (Actually, I eventually did commute to Manhattan on an ex-EL line, albeit long after the Stillwells were replaced; I still enjoyed it). Even when school began we kept on taking our little rides, up until October and the end of Daylight Savings Time (my parents didn't want me wandering on the tracks in the dark, quite reasonably).
When spring came in 1966 and the longer days returned, we found that our friends were still there and that we were still welcome to join them. Unfortunately, in June our crew was reassigned and their replacements were not anxious for non-revenue guests. We still went down to Carlton Hill and watched, however, as we had read in the papers that the EL was seeking to end all commuter operations. Although the State of New Jersey made it clear that some EL commuter service would survive, the Carlton Hill Branch runs would not make the cut. White cardstock notices soon appeared on the Rutherford and Carlton Hill depots announcing the Sept. 30 date of termination. After reading stories in Railroad and Trains Magazine about last-run ceremonies for passenger trains, I wanted to honor the last runs to Carlton Hill. Unfortunately, I got my dates mixed up, and arrived a few days late. The silence and stillness on the Branch that evening was deafening. Luckily, 13 year olds don't get too maudlin over such things, but I knew for sure that a link to the happier aspects of my childhood had disappeared.
Within the ensuing years, the Branch was single-tracked, the Carlton Hill depot was torn down, BJ Tower was abandoned, the old bridge was salvaged for scrap, and the RS3s and Stillwells were replaced by modern push-pull equipment. The EL became Conrail, and the Branch was abandoned just a few years ago when the last freight shipper stopped using rail service. The rails and ties still await reclamation, covered by a layer of weeds and small trees.
While I was in college in the early 1970's, I befriended a group of fellow rail fanatics from the Fair Lawn area. After sharing stories of our childhood experiences, I found out that one of my Carlton Hill train friends (Mr. Chicorelli, the former conductor - “Chick” as he was known) had later worked a freight drill in the Fair Lawn area, and had extended his hospitality to my new associates. Then one evening, I was riding on a late night commuter run to Suffern (now with modern push-pull equipment), and I met the other fellow, the former trainman (“duffle bag”, as he was sometimes known). He was still working in passenger service, and as in the good old days, he didn't require me to pay for my ride. Not too long after that, my railfan associates and I came across our conductor friend Chick on a Hoboken-bound passenger run. He clearly remembered the Fair Lawn guys from his freight days but he had to think a bit to recall me and the Carlton Hill passenger runs before that. But with an "oh, yea" he finally did. I was glad for that.