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From the October 1982 issue of Railpace.
Riding the Milk Train to Branchville

(May 6, 1959)

by Bob Hart, Sr.

Happily presented here with permission from the author and publisher.

Story Subsections

Railfans must be prepared to suffer many things in pursuit of their hobby, and leaving a warm bed before dawn is just one of them. I had been on many Lackawanna trains during my first three years in New Jersey, but I had not yet ridden one north to Branchville. Not many trains ran all the way up the Branch, and in those days I had very few hours to indulge in the hobby. But two days a week I started work at Noon, and checking over a DL&W timetable, I discovered that it was possible to make the journey and still get to work on time. So, at about a quarter to five in the morning of May 6, 1959, I arrived at the dimly-lit station in Summit, New Jersey, not far from my home.

The Lackawanna had a milk, mail and newspaper train that left Hoboken Terminal at the ungodly hour of 3:35 a.m., and operating as Train 1009. Unlike other trains operating west of Dover, it took the old Morris & Essex electrified line via Summit, eventually reaching Branchville, way up in Sussex County, at 8:30 a.m.. Trailing an R.P.O. car and a rider coach, the train paused at Newark and Orange to pick up empty milk cars. Bordens had a milk bottling plant at Newark, and Henry Becker Dairies used the team tracks at Orange for unloading milk.

Stopping at certain stations along the way to unload mail, the train finally arrived at the crest of the grade at Summit just as I stepped onto the platform. Lackawanna F-3A #802-C was leading GP-7 #970, three milk cars of three different types, an R.P.0 and a Boonton-type combine. About ten minutes were spent in Summit unloading mail from the postal car, and morning newspapers from the combine. I bought my round-trip ticket to Branchville from the surprised conductor, and retired to one of the familiar Lackawanna rattan seats.

We pulled out just before 5:00 a.m., and headed westward on our lonely journey. Over-the-road speed was reasonably fast, but the lengthy station stops stretched out the trip. At Morristown, a fellow worker from my drug store climbed on board; the two of us were the only passengers on the entire trip! I had brought along two of my cameras, and when we made the stop at Denville at 6:00 a.m., it was just light enough for a slow shutter speed shot of the train on Tri-X film. At Denville, the "Morris and Essex" electrified line Joins the Boonton Branch, and we continued on to Dover, where there was enough time in the schedule for a quick breakfast at the local diner.

With the sun slowly rising in the sky at the beginning of a beautiful spring day, we left the busy commuter district of the DL&W, and headed west into the greening countryside. Brief stops were made at Wharton and Lake Hopatcong stations, then we veered left at Port Morris Junction, leaving the "Cut-Off" and its straight-shot to the Delaware Water Gap, while we headed down the "Old Main Line". The rails skirted the eastern edge of Port Morris Yard, which was a busy place in those days, with both way-freight and switcher crews based there. Soon we arrived at Netcong, the beginning of the Sussex Branch to Branchville, which diverged to the right of Netcong Station and headed due north. The "Old Main Line" continued south, around the back of the station on the upper level, to Washington, NJ. There it split, with one line going south to Phillipsburg, and the "Old Road" swinging northwest to Portland via Manunka Chunk.

At Netcong, in addition to the usual unloading of mail and newspapers, we had a meet with Train 1022, which began its trip at Newton at 6:40 a.m. Our meet was scheduled for 7:03 and at 7:07, train 1016 from Washington arrived, and it collected the passengers from the Newton train, which would lay at Netcong until 7:20, then continue east as Train 1024. Occasionally, Netcong was a bustling place!

After our meet at Netcong, we headed up country, rolling along the single-track line, protected by lower-quadrant semaphores; usually in opposing pairs. The countryside is mostly wooded, with many cuts and fills on a roller-coaster line. Soon we passed the old resort community of Cranberry Lake. Only a flag stop, and too early for the season, so we rolled right through the station and its platforms, on a curve right at the edge of the lake. In summer, passengers would detrain, cross the platform and pass over to the "island" on the little suspension footbridge. Many summer cottages lined the opposite shore, but all was peaceful this morning. Just ahead, after running through a rocky cut alongside the highway, we sighted the Lackawanna's "Cut-Off" overhead. Since the Branchville line had been constructed long before the "Cut-Off", a concrete tunnel had been placed over the tracks before the tremendous amount of rock and fill was dumped onto the valley floor to form the high fill for the multi-million dollar air line.

The lower portion of the Sussex Branch actually had quite a lot of traffic, as the Lehigh & Hudson River RR had trackage rights from Andover Junction into Port Morris Yard. Soon the Junction came into view, with a single diamond crossing of L&HR rails, and a connecting track to the L&HR main line. After making the Andover station-stop, we had to stop a second time at the L&HR diamond, protected as it was by signals and smashboards set by the operator there. The L&HR was very active in those days, and generally had the clear route through the interlocking.

It has been said that Sussex County has more cows than people, and many of these people live in the area around Newton, the County seat. Newton was the largest town on the Sussex Branch, and logically had the largest station, a two-story brick affair. Nearby, beside the small yard, was the wooden freight station, which still stands. [Editor's note: I think the author is referring to the Hart & Iliff lumber yard as the concrete freight house in Newton was built in 1906 and still stands.] Excluding milk, the greatest freight and passenger revenue came from Newton.

Still northward we rode, now with the windows open, inhaling the delightful scents of the countryside in spring bloom. The woodlands had given way to farmlands; some fields newly seeded with the spring planting, and others of grass for the many herds of dairy cows.

Another crossing lay ahead, this time with the Susquehanna Railroad. There was no operator here, nor interchange, Just a simple diamond crossing. The hand-operated gates were set against the "Susie Q", and we rolled right across. I don't recall the Lafayette stop, but it was listed in the timetable. I do remember the regular "set-out" we made just beyond. The conductor rolled up one of yesterday's newspapers and pitched it out as we passed through the backyard of one country home. A barking dog greeted the train's passage and caught his master's paper "on the fly!"

Soon we reached the Becker creamery at Straders, which was not listed in the timetable. Here we stopped, uncoupled, and the engines pulled a pair of milk cars from the front of the train and backed them into the creamery siding, alongside the main. Now, at last, the sun had risen high enough so that I could start using my 16mm movie camera. I climbed down to the ballast and began taking pictures, alternating with my still camera as necessary. The light engines pulled out of the siding, over a stream on a short deck bridge, and with the switch thrown, backed down to our shortened train. The brakeman asked about my picture-taking, and then invited me into the cab of the F-3. I resumed the trip in the cab, shooting movies as we rolled along. We made one more crossing of "foreign rails" as we approached Augusta, banging over the Lehigh & New England main line. Alongside the rusty interchange track was a black Ford pickup truck. More mail and newspapers were passed over to waiting hands, then it was on again to Branchville.

Just prior to arrival in town, we arrived at a short runaround track in the middle of nowhere. We stopped, uncoupled from the train and ran around the cars. We pulled up to the rear as the conductor was taking down the markers. Then, with the conductor leaning out the combine door, passing signals back to the engineer from the brakeman who was riding the steps of the first car, we slowly pushed our way into Branchville. We passed a pair of sidings with small industries on each side of the track, then stopping briefly at the road crossing, we pushed across up to the station.

It was 8:30 a.m., and we had arrived! The Borden's creamery was a brick building on the passing siding opposite the station. Evidently there were no other runaround facilities here, although there were still a number of old spur tracks in the yard just beyond.

The Borden's milk car was uncoupled and left in the yard, and while the last of the milk was being loaded into another car, the crew went for lunch. We had an hour layover here, so I Just walked around, soaking up the atmosphere of the little town, and taking more photos of the train at rest, which had been left on the main just south of the highway crossing and station. Nearby was a brook flowing clear under the tracks, overhung by trees bearing new green leaves. Over all the bright sun shone down out of a clear blue sky, broken only once by a huge "Vee" of geese flying north. The softly idling diesels and the spring countryside seemed at peace with each other.

Departure time was 9:30, and the train was backed over the crossing where it coupled onto the loaded milk car at the creamery, and then onto the empty car back in the yard. The train was then pulled forward, and the empty was left at the Bordens loading platform. Train #1028 was then headed south to Hoboken. Not until 7:40 Wednesday night would another train arrive at Branchville; it would depart at 8:00 p.m. for Dover. Only two trains each weekday made it to Branchville on a regular schedule in 1959. On Saturdays and Sundays there were two trains a day each way, but at different times. During summer months, a third roundtrip was run up to Branchville on Sundays. After this, my first trip, I would return twice more on Sunday round trips, bringing my family with me for an afternoon train ride into the countryside.

On my return trip on May 6, 1959, we made better time than earlier that morning, as the I stops were nominal. We picked up small quantities of mail, but no passengers. We two were the only fare-paying customers on the way back to Dover. As the sun was higher in the sky, I spent more time shooting 16mm movie sequences of the train running through the countryside. The Geep was running long-hood forward, with the F-3, combine, R.P.O, and milk car following.

Over the crossings were clattered again; L&NE, NYS&W, L&HR; and under the Lackawanna Cut-Off. We rolled into Netcong and rejoined the "Old Main Line" on our run to Dover. Train 1028 was to continue its run to Hoboken via the Boonton Line, so we detrained in Dover to transfer to an MU electric train to Summit. But we had company, as the as the diesel train departed. The MU train then backed in, coupled up to the milk car, and our new train was still a milk train!

As I left the platform at Summit, I felt like waving good-bye to the old Borden's milk car at the rear of the train. I had ridden this pair of milk trains for the first and last time, but it would continue to make its run from Branchville to Newark for a few years more.