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  • Writer's pictureWilliam "Billy" Neumann

Rails to Trails in New Jersey: On Track for Open Space, Active Recreation, and Historic Preservation?

Rahway Valley Railroad Trail with Stephen Dunn.

Beginning in 1830 and into the mid-20th century, New Jersey’s farmlands, suburbs, and cities prospered amid the exploding growth of the state’s early railroad system. This dense web of 950 miles of trackage was packed into the third smallest state in America. [Reference Online Link to map of New Jersey’ railroad net work: Historical New Jersey Railroad Maps (rutgers.edu)]


Many historic railroads in New Jersey’s are no longer used. Rail operators such as CSX and Norfolk Southern are deactivating unprofitable lines while retaining the underlying real estate. Just as with any historic structure, “mothballing” the actual land under and alongside the rails produces immediate cost savings, but it can quickly deteriorate the physical property with serious consequences to its historic significance.


Communities in New Jersey are seeking new functions for their underused and abandoned railways. Many solutions are being presented by the aptly named Rails to Trails Conservancy (RTC). This national nonprofit advocates for local organizations to produce smarter use of abandoned railroads. The New Jersey Conservation Foundation has reported that “According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy… New Jersey has 52 rail trails totaling 329 miles. Twenty projects to create another 175 miles of rail trails are in the works.” The RTC vision for the future of abandoned railways is creating new transportation pathways in local communities that stretch, through regional links, to state- and nationally-connected corridors. One such proposed route is the East Coast Greenway, which would connect “15 states and 450 cities and towns for 3,000 miles from Maine to Florida.“


Once a railroad operator is persuaded to transfer its right of way to a municipal, county, state, nonprofit, or private owner, this real estate may be adapted in many ways. A municipal owner, finding acres of linear real estate newly available, can make a relatively easy decision to accept it as a valuable addition to its community green space. With the assistance of that municipality, a nonprofit conservancy or even a private owner can lease it from that government to make improvements.


Many times, the easiest improvement is to carefully excavate existing steel rails, wooden ties, trackside mechanicals, and gravel beds, then do some remediation and roll pavement over the roadbed. This provides a clean and safe pathway for walking, running, skating, and biking with minimal ecological impact. Further work might facilitate and maintain accommodations for comfort, trail egress, safety, security, site or street parking, or ADA compliance and so on.


Does this rush to recreation risk paving over the important historic nature of New Jersey railroads? How do you preserve history when the artifacts and integrity are gone? Yes, New Jerseyians deserve more open space. But shouldn’t they also have the opportunity to preserve and understand the railroad’s history and reduce the impact on its surrounding community?


Rahway Valley Railroad Truss Bridge

RVRR Summit Park Line interpretive signage along the trail.

The newly established Rahway Valley Rails-to-Trails program is part of the larger Union County Connects system. This program reflects a typical suburban New Jersey approach to railroad remediation. Funding success came in 2023 when the Union County Board of County Commissioners received $1.5 million from the New Jersey Department of Transportation to fund multiuse trails over the abandoned Rahway Valley Railroad (RVRR) throughout the county. Stephen Dunn is a local advocate for the project and has developed an educational walk along the seven-mile route. The entire project is still nascent with only a small section, The Summit Park Line, developed as an open trail. But already Union County Connects has installed permanent signage explaining the historic site. Signage describing the history of a railroad is always important and should be plentiful to document the history and provide user information on the trail. Much of the rest of the RVRR was a connector or “short line” for industrial freight use.


If the integrity of the physical rail road is removed, what else can be done to preserve its history, technology, and the associated built environment and reduce the impact on the surrounding community?


Structures don’t need to be sited on the roadway to be preserved. Bridges, trestles, freight sidings, retaining walls, traffic towers, switching apparatus, tender sheds, maintenance shops, and, of course, passenger and freight stations may be repurposed and documented to preserve their own related history. Off-site properties may already be subject to preservation measures. The documentation of surrounding communities and people that built and maintained the railroads offer ways to safeguard economic and cultural legacies.


Harsimus Preservation Rendering
Harsimus Embankment

A robust and very urban approach to mixing historic preservation and recreation is Jersey City’s Harsimus Branch and Embankment project (aka “The Embankment”). The Embankment is a series of raised masonry platforms on the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) Harsimus Branch that once supported freight tracks leading to the vast Hudson River Harsimus Yard docks and New York Harbor. As stated on the Embankment website, “It shaped Jersey City neighborhoods and contributed to the growth of the Port of New York.” The Branch is now a historic right-of-way that, in an Opinion by the State Historic Preservation Office, is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Branch’s stone Embankment is listed on city and state Registers, and determined eligible for the National Register but not listed because of owner (Conrail) objection. In SHPO Opinions, the Embankment contributes to the Hamilton Park, Harsimus Cove, and PRR New York-to-Philadelphia Historic Districts. In 2005 Preservation New Jersey listed it as one of "New Jersey's 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites."


The Harsimus Branch Embankment remains an architectural marvel and a testament to the industrial history of New Jersey. Because rail use stopped by the 1990’s, however, and it was left to nature’s devices, it has become a wild greenspace that rolls through the heart of Downtown Jersey City. A natural forest and meadows established themselves on top of each Embankment segment. Its potential as a platform for an urban greenway is unique and truly amazing.


The Embankment’s role in the Hudson County rail system, together with the historic districts and sites along it, relates to so many aspects of New Jersey history. Preserving this history is important to a founder and current coordinator of the Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Stem Embankment Preservation Coalition, Maureen Crowley, who says “There's nothing like experiencing history through such a powerful material presence as the massive stone Embankment.” The Embankment is often compared to the immensely popular New York City High Line, which transformed its neighborhood and is a major city attraction.


On June 6th, during the 2024 New Jersey History and Historic Preservation Conference, Rails to Trails: Is New Jersey’s next historic “High Line” within your community? (session S-3) will feature a panel of speakers who will discuss the extraordinary potential in developing Rails to Trails projects in New Jersey.


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Apr 22
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

As more cars & trucks than ever clog the NJ roadways, Rails to Trails are a must for bicycle-commuters (& pleasure pedalers) like myself. Most drivers do give the 4' space that our state law demands. But, the small percentage of distracted drivers & careless drivers make sharing the roads a scary, prohibitive proposition for all but the most experienced bicyclists. Rails to Trails routes that actually connect towns & cities with eachother are this cyclist's dream come true.

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