All Steamed Up: Touring NJ’s Old-Fashioned Railroads

Autumn goes clickety-clack on Jersey’s scenic railroads.

The Morristown & Erie Railway often loans this still-active 1964 diesel to the museum.
Photo by Steven Hepler.

Here’s where to ogle old-fashioned locomotives and even hop aboard a restored passenger car for a ride through backwoods and along bucolic rivers for some of the best leaf-peeping around.

THE BLACK RIVER & WESTERN RAILROAD
It’s a banner year for the Black River & Western, based in Ringoes, as it wraps up the mammoth project of rebuilding steam locomotive No. 60, the only standard-gauge, American-made steam engine operating in the state today. Number 60 was built in 1937 and came to the BR&W from the Great Western Railway of Colorado in 1964. While the BR&W still operates freight service as far south as Lambertville and as far north as Three Bridges, passenger excursions run exclusively between Flemington and Ringoes—where the Black River Railroad Historical Trust operates a small museum out of a restored Central Railroad of New Jersey baggage car.

“Number 60 was one of the first steam locomotives I experienced as a kid,” remembers Railfan & Railroad editor Steve Barry. “My dad got me interested in trains, and the BR&W was one of the first places we went together. Kids are just naturally attracted to trains, and they get educated on these trips without even knowing it.”

The railroad celebrates fall with weekend excursions to Pumpkin Junction, where families can enjoy hayrides, a petting zoo, a corn maze and—surprise!—pumpkin picking. If you’d like something a little more frightful for Halloween, the Eerie Limited, a new two-hour evening trip launching in October, explores supposedly haunted old train wrecks and tragedies on the line. Every November, the railroad hosts a model train show at the Flemington Elks Lodge. Stangl Road, Flemington, and Route 579 N (John Ringo Road), Ringoes; 908-782-6622; flemingtontrain.org

WHIPPANY RAILWAY MUSEUM
Housed in its present location since 1985, the Whippany Railway Museum dates to the 1960s, when Whippany was home to the Morris County Central tourist railroad. Open Sundays only, April through October, the museum displays in its yard a slew of classic cabooses, several operating diesel locomotives with ties to the Garden State, and steam locomotive No. 4039. Built for the Army during World War II, No. 4039 later hauled freight in Virginia and, until 1980, passengers on the Morris County Central Railroad. In 2002, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The indoor portion of the museum, located inside a vintage freight house, features an interactive model railroad and a rotating series of historical exhibits.

“The Whippany Railway Museum probably has the most accessible collection of equipment that operated in the state,” says Barry. “New Jersey, like the entire U.S., was built on the railroads, and these tourist operations help maintain our connection to the past. Many smaller railroads, most of which are no longer with us, are represented by preserved equipment at Whippany.”

On Sunday, October 7, the museum celebrates its 12th annual Pumpkin Festival, complete with craft fair, haunted house, railroad memorabilia, antique farm tractors and, of course, pumpkins.

Make a note for next spring, when diesel locomotives will again begin hauling the museum’s vintage caboose collection on a 10-mile round-trip through the Morris and Essex countryside: Passengers who upgrade their ticket can ride in style aboard the beautifully restored 1927-era Jersey Central club car, the Jersey Coast, outfitted with leather seats and a refined mahogany and stained-glass interior. 1 Railroad Plaza (at Route 10), Whippany; 973-887-8177; whippanyrailwaymuseum.net

DELAWARE RIVER RAILROAD EXCURSIONS
With Halloween approaching, the Delaware River Railroad’s Great Pumpkin Train makes an ideal family day trip. Originating in Phillipsburg, the seven-mile route hugs the banks of the Delaware as it wends its way south to the historic Carpentersville Lime Kilns, where children can pick from a glen full of jack-o-lantern wannabes. More adventurous is the Corn Maze Train, which travels a bit farther south to a 10-acre labyrinth in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine. Adults may prefer a romantic ride aboard a reserved coach on the Winery Train en route to Finesville’s Villa Milagro Vineyard. A tour of the winery culminates in a tasting.

“For the most part, it’s inaccessible by automobile,” DRRE vice president and general manager Chris Cotty says of the railroad’s scenic path along the Delaware. “On one side you can almost reach out and touch the river, and on the other side is cliffs. It’s beautiful scenery, and it goes through some very historic towns, too.”
The star of the show is the railroad’s Mikado 2-8-2 steam locomotive. Constructed in 1989 in China, it stands among the last steam engines built in the world and pulls behind it a bevy of beautifully restored Long Island Railroad coaches built in the 1950s, restored in the ’90s. 98 Elizabeth St, Phillipsburg; 908-454-4433; phillipsburgnj.org

NEW JERSEY MUSEUM OF TRANSPORTATION
Though small in size, the Museum of Transportation’s Pine Creek Railroad is rich in history. Founded in 1952, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating narrow-gauge steam-preservation railways in the country, featuring equipment that dates back 60 to 140 years. With a mix of steam- and diesel-powered trains, the diminutive line takes passengers around a half-mile oval loop through the woods of Monmouth County’s Allaire State Park. Rides start and end in Wall Township at the museum’s century-old Freneau Station, which closed in 1953 at its original location near Matawan and was hauled to Allaire in 1964.

“It’s one of the few places in the United States where you can volunteer, learn to be an engineer or conductor, and practice it every weekend,” says NJMT chairman Victor Crisanto. “Or if you have or want to learn the skills of carpentry or metal work, you can put them to use maintaining and restoring old railroad equipment without the commitment of a full-time job.”

From September through November, the railroad offers weekend foliage trips through the park, perfect for pairing with a picnic lunch and a trip to Allaire Village, the park’s living-history museum set in the 19th century. Weekends in October, it’s all aboard the Haunted Express, an annual favorite for kids, featuring a spooky nighttime train ride and walk through the woods. 4265 County Road 524 (GPS location, 4625 Atlantic Ave), Wall Township; 732-938-5524; njmt.org

Princeton University graduate Anthony D’Amato is a freelance writer and a prize-winning singer/songwriter with a new album, Paper Back Bones.

Click here to return to the main Fall Day Trips page.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images
Read more Historic Jersey, Jersey Living, Outdoors articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.