New Jersey's Streak o' Rust
Rahway Valley's President George A. Clark is trying, to find a way to beat the competition from highway freight haulers
Four or five times a day, depending on how heavy the freight traffic is running on the Rahway Valley Railroad, truckers wheeling their rubber-tired behemoths over New Jersey State Highway 29 (Route 22) become actors in an open-air
drama of trucks versus railroads when they are halted by a brakeman waving a red flag at the Rahway Valley grade crossing. They idle the engines of their massive rigs and glare impatiently at an old Baldwin locomotive puffing nonchalantly along one of New Jersey's shortest (15.28 total miles) railroads --- one with a commendable characteristic: it has made money every
year since 1934.
The Rahway Valley is a three-engine short line which links the Central Railroad of New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley at Kenilworth (Rahway's headquarters) with the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western at Summit. And as with many short lines, Rahway's success is pretty much a "one man" proposition. That "one man" is big affable, 49-year-old George A. Clark, president, general manager, secretary, auditor, traffic manager, and titular head of almost every department that needs one.
"Everything but treasurer," Clark amends. "They need somebody else for that in case I'm not around to sign a check. But he never sees a penny of cash." The treasurer of the Rahway Valley Company is Paul Donovan, who also has the
title of vice-president.
The Route 29 incidents are only skirmishes in the Rahway Valley's constant fight against the trucks. Yet nearly every move the Rahway makes is predicated on what the truckers do. The ability of trucking firms to "handpick" their business hurts all railroads in general and the Rahway in particular, Clark says. Take the case of a paint and varnish factory which has its plant on the Rahway: "We don't handle their loaded drums that go out on trucks at 500 pounds apiece. We bring back the empties," Clark points out. "They take up the same space but there's little weight. The same goes for that wire manufacturer across the street. His heavy wire goes out on spools - on trucks. We bring back the empty spools." Rahway's freight
traffic has been running 90 per cent inbound against 10 per cent outbound.
Clark believes there's room for both trucks and railroads in the freight business. But he insists that regulation must come to the trucks soon. "The lawmakers have got to even things up." But Rahway's boss doesn't sit around and cry about the competition. He goes right out and battles it. Recently he found that trucks had taken away nearly all the steel business the Rahway had enjoyed for years.
"Look across the street - that's our answer. We sold that land to a steel company and they're building a big warehouse right on our line. We'll get that business." The Rahway Valley also is planning to build a 1700-foot spur to a drug plant which will be built soon.
In 1949 the Rahway Valley Company did a gross business of $208,195, and spent $103,430 on operating expenses. After taxes, per diem charges on foreign-line freight cars (Rahway has none of its own), and $37,855 rental for two subsidiary lines were paid, the net profit was $20,947. The Rahway Valley Company is lessee of the Rahway Valley Railroad and the Rahway Valley Line; "rentals" are one-pocket-to-the-other exchanges to retire bonded indebtedness.
But 1949 wasn't Rahway's biggest year. That honor goes to 1946: gross business of $307,729, net profit before rentals of $70,863. This cash in the till isn't the result of hit-or-miss operating in such a lush area that it can't help but -make a profit. Indeed, the 53-year-old Rahway Valley had nothing but losses to show until 1934.
Cigar-chomping Clark, who stands very close to 6 feet 3 inches when he gets up from his modern desk in a pine-paneled Kenilworth station office, comes to work every day prepared for any role on his highly efficient short line. He wears dark trousers and a khaki shirt-plenty good enough for helping a crew in an emergency or for signing a profit statement. George Clark came to the Rahway Valley with his father, Roger Clark, an experienced short-line railroader. The elder Clark was first with the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh (now part of the Baltimore & Ohio), then with the Central Railroad of Oregon.
But, before the days of the Clarks, the Rahway Valley was started as a 4-mile pike named the New Orange Four Junction Railroad, linking New Orange (now Kenilworth) with the Lehigh Valley and the Jersey Central. It was built primarily to accommodate New Yorkers who had come out to New Orange hoping to start a new industrial empire. An extension northwest to Summit on the Lackawanna was provided for in the charter, but lack of funds prevented building that far. Then in 1904 Louis Keller came to the Rahway Valley Railroad.
Most old-timers say Keller went into the railroad business because he wanted to give himself and his golfing friends easy access to Baltusrol Golf Club (of which he was a founder) near Summit. Keller, publisher of the Social Register (society's "who's who"), acquired control of the Rahway Valley in 1904 and extended the rails past the golf club to within a few feet of the Lackawanna. However, he was denied actual connection with the DL&W.
Outside of what Clark calls the "blue-chip fellows," there weren't many riders for Rahway's passenger trains. The original 14 passenger runs dwindled to six by 1909, and all were removed in 1919. In 1911 a 3-mile branch was built to Maplewood (now called Newark Heights), near Newark, making the Rahway pretty in as it is today except for the important
When the Rahway was projected to the Baltusrol Golf Club, Keller had a station built with that name at the links. The station is listed in the Official Guide, but is used as the Baltusrol post office.
Even World War I failed to help stabilize the little Rahway, although business picked up considerably. When Keller died in 1921 he left behind a real streak of rust, getting rustier every day from disuse and misuse. Roger Clark and son George had come East just before Keller's death. Roger took the managerial throttle; George, a former lumberjack, became traffic
manager. The bonded indebtedness of over $250,000 is practically all held by the Keller heirs.
"Plenty of times I went down to Trenton in those days and got down on my knees to the tax men," George Clark recalls. "We didn't know from day to day if we were going to make it. We didn't even have the money to meet our payroll when we started."
Cautiously, Roger Clark nursed the Rahway Valley along, building wherever he could, saving whatever he could, and keeping alive his friendships with the score of lumber and coal yards along the right of way. When the United States was plunged into depression, the Rahway began to have a little money to jingle in its pocket. President Clark reinvested the little surplus he
had in 1929 into two 1905 Baldwin Consolidations, bought from the Lehigh & New England. The link with the Lackawanna was forged in 1931 and Rahway Valley was on its way financially.
Roger Clark died in 1932 and George became president. The first actual net profit went on the books in 1934. "There'll be a profit this year, too," Clark asserts. "I don't believe in losing money. I don't lose money. Those trucks are hurting us more and more, but we're figuring out ways to meet them."
George Clark has a well-trained, highly cohesive group of railroaders working with him. "We've got 21 here, including me," he says. "One train crew - engineer, fireman, conductor and two brakemen - a section crew of six, three agents, two men in the shop, and the rest of us here in the office."
"Here in the office" means as long as everything is going smoothly outside. Clark was out on the road with a helping hand during a blizzard which swept the East on December 26, 1947, "I wasn't back here sitting until the snow began to melt in February," he says, grinning.
Generally, Clark believes in "leaving the boys alone - they know their jobs. I don't have to tell them that our only scheduled train leaves here at 8:30 on the button., I don't have to tell them we keep working until everything is finished. They know those things."
There's close camaraderie on the Rahway Valley. It can be sensed - the Rahway's letterhead featuring a cartoon of a dogcart lettered "Short Line Railroad." It can be felt in Clark's telling of "the fun we have here." It can be proved by the way the tiny line overcomes every obstacle.
There's a town in New Jersey named Rahway; but the Rahway Valley Railroad got its name elsewhere, Clark suggests, because Rahway rails do not enter the town of the same name. Probably the name comes from the railroad's
crossing of the Rahway River at Springfield, he says.
The Rahway Valley makes as many round trips between Kenilworth and Summit as are necessary. The three Baldwins* may move only four or five cars one day, but 35 to 40 the next. Clark points out that "35 is about what we can handle nicely." The 8:30 a. m. out of Kenilworth goes down to Aldene on the Jersey Central and picks up northbound cars. The rest of the day is spent drilling over the line to Summit and Maplewood and heading back to Kenilworth. State Highway 29 is crossed daily between 12:30 and 1 p. m., but the worst time to bisect the highway is between 4 and 6 p. m., when the trucks are strung out
all the way to New York City.
"That crossing's a son-of-a-gun," Clark says grimly. "We're afraid of it all the time, even though we've never had a serious accident and darn few minor ones. You know the law says trailer and tank trucks must stop at a grade crossing. I swear the majority don't stop. They absolutely do not. I sweat to think of what might happen."
Outside of recurring, brushes with the trucks, the Rahway Valley's biggest obstacle is the steep grade into Summit. The road's present motive power can't handle more than eight loaded cars up the three-mile grade. The only rolling stock the Rahway owns in addition to The three engines is a red caboose bought from the Lackawanna in 1934.
Most of the scores of small, diversified industries which line the Rahway Valley tracks were started after Keller's death, in spite of the road's founders' dreams of industrial revenues. Clark wonders where he would put another plant if one came along looking for a spot on the Rahway.
Clark feels his railroad is "the best barometer in the world for getting a line on business" because of the diversity of industry the Rahway serves. Diversification is one of the Rahway's secrets of success, Clark says. "We look for big industry. Instead of a few big fellows we have dozens of little ones. In slow times the big ones shut down and everything stops. If you have little fellows some of them are sure to keep on."
That may account for the troubles larger railroads have encountered since the war, he feels. "All those big fellows went like mad with war contracts. Then the war ended and the bottom fell out. The bottom didn't fall out around here."
Anthracitic coal makes up about 40 per cent of Rahway's traffic, although the amount is dropping off slowly every year. The trucks have cut into the steel-hauling business, but the Rahway still carries plentiful supplies of cement, lumber and other building materials.
LCL (Less then Car Load)? "Plenty of it, although it's falling off to our friends the truckers," Clark states. "I wish we didn't have a pound of it, but we take what we can get. We carry lots of furniture l.c.l. What happens? The damage is terrific and often the claims exceed the revenue."
It's not uncommon to see a Rahway Valley Consolidation plugging along the 70-pound main or bisecting a golf course with a couple of boxes of merchandise riding on the pilot beam. Clark explains that when LCL shipments are few it's cheaper to carry them on the engine than to use an, entire car.
Since Clark came to work for the Rahway Valley in 1920 as a 19-year old kid straight out of the West he has taken only three vacations. He was getting all kinds of time off in the 1920's, and he took vacations in 1924 and 1927. The other one was last year.
"Took a month off, but I couldn't stand it away from here. I got back in three weeks," he says. "I swore that I'd take my 30th anniversary last June 10, but that went by without my remembering it. So did my 25th."
Clark is anxious to get back to the West where he came from (he quit a job in a lumber camp to accompany his father to the Rahway Valley). Last year his vacation was in the West with his family. Now all he thinks about when he's not figuring ways to keep the Rahway in the black is the West.
"Man, that's the country!" he exclaims. "I have an idea I'll get West soon. I miss it. I've got to go back."
Mechanical troubles with his three Baldwin 2-8-0's have made Clark think seriously about buying a diesel locomotive for the Rahway Valley in the not-too-distant future. "Within a year," he opines. Dieselization is a step that must come, he realizes, but the cost makes him hesitate. Clark figures one diesel will cost him $100,000 compared to the total of $30,000 the Rahway paid for its three secondhand steamers.
Major overhauls to Rahway steam power are made in the Lackawanna backshop at Kingsland; the Rahway shop is a two-track wooden building next to the station at Kenilworth.
More than the cost of a diesel is bothering Clark, however, and when you hear him talk you realize his railroading is deeper than just adding up the black ink columns on the balance sheet.
"Gosh, I hate to see those diesels come. Railroading won't be railroading without those big black babies puffing and blowing their black smoke. I don't like it, but things are tough."