Rahway Valley Railroad: The little railroad that helped build Kenilworth

The Cranford Chronicle, April/May 2011 by Dr. Walter Boright 

There is fascination and nostalgia about trains, even after they have disappeared from service. Fond memories of the little railroad that once headquartered in Kenilworth are no exception. Originally called the New York and New Orange Railroad, 1897-1901, it later became the New Orange Junction Four Railroad, 1901-1905, and thereafter as the Rahway Valley Railroad (RVRR).

The little rail line was envisioned in 1894 when real estate investors called the New Orange Industrial Association met in Elmira, NY. They planned on creating the City of New Orange from about three-dozen farms in sections of Union and Cranford, most of which now comprise Kenilworth. They recognized that a railroad was needed for their planned city to flourish.

This article, the twentieth in a series by Kenilworth historian Walter E. Boright, Ed. D., examines this little railroad that helped build Kenilworth during its earliest years.

Sources of information of this now defunct railroad are The Saga of a Shortline (1976) by John McCoy, a number of articles available on the Internet by Richard King (2009), the Cranford Chronicle archives, clippings from old newspapers, state and federal census data, and personal interviews. McCoy (1913-1980) lived in Kenilworth for many years with his wife, Mary (1921-2005). Both were active in local affairs. King had an interest in the RVRR as it ran through his hometown of Union when he was a young boy.

As farmlands gave way to the first houses built here in the late 1890s, there were but four ways to enter and leave the hamlet of New Orange: from the east, Galloping Hill Rd., aka Union Rd.; from the southeast, Faitoute Ave.; from the southwest, Orange Ave., earlier known as Bramstead Tavern Rd.; and from the north, the Road to Springfield, aka Springfield Rd.

They were unimproved, narrow dirt roads which readily turned into seas of mud in the rain or during winter thaws. The Industrial Association had erected four large factories here to attract manufacturers to New Orange. The factories themselves were referred to as “The Big Four.” They included the Wright Saw and Machine Co., which years later was occupied by the former Volco Copper and Brass Co. on the Boulevard at Market St.; the Circular Loom Co., on the hill where the present Kenilworth Inn stands; the Rica Musical Instrument Co., commonly called the Banjo Works, which once stood along the east side of Market St.; and the New Orange Decorative Leather Co., once situated near the south end of today’s the A&P parking lot.

Factory owners needed improved transportation to bring in raw materials and to ship out their finished products; residents, too, needed to be able to move easily in and out of the community. King wrote that by the late 1890s, “Citizens along with factories clamored for a railroad to be built the two miles to the Central Railroad of New Jersey in Roselle Park.” In June 1897 the railroad incorporators, including members of the Industrial Association, filed incorporation papers in Trenton for a privately owned, standard-gauge railroad, 11.8 miles in length to operate from the Central RR in Aldene, an early name for that section of Roselle Park, to Summit. It bore the name New York and New Orange Railroad. As originally envisioned the rail line eventually connected with the Jersey Central; Lehigh Valley; and the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western railroads. The initial investment was $100,000.

That summer surveying for the rail line was begun by J. Wallace Higgins, a civil engineer who later served off and on over a period of decades as borough engineer. He was assisted by a local surveyor named Anthony Grippo. Grippo would become a political force in the borough for nearly 40 years serving as mayor in the late 1930s. But a huge obstacle laid ahead for the yet-to-be-built rail line – Tin Kettle Hill, which rose 186 ft. above sea level, the top of which was at North Michigan Ave. Rather than attempting to go through or over the giant hill, Higgins and Grippo plotted a wide arc to the north east that then curved to the northwest encircling much of the base of the goliath. Work gangs that built the railroad included local residents. Timber was cut from the woodlands here to make the ties. Construction of a handsome, Victorian-style railroad station was undertaken in 1897 or 1898. It was located just north of the Boulevard about at the site of today’s Parkway Liquors mini-mall and stood until 1979.

Residents, factory owners, and investors anxiously waited for the day when the first train would arrive. That historic event came in July 1898 when the New Orange No. 1, a refurbished 4-4-0 locomotive, steamed up to the railroad station. McCoy wrote that it “glided over the new 70 lb. rails into New Orange, amid much whistle blowing and cheering from the local populace gathered along the right of way.” This was a most joyous time for New Orange. Finally, there was an improved means of transportation into and out of their hamlet of a few hundred people.

Within months the tiny railroad encountered a serious financial blow. Factories in New Orange shut down during 1899 and into 1900 due to a nationwide recession. Virtually all industrial use of the railroad ceased; the railroad had to rely almost exclusively on passenger revenues, which in a town of only a few hundred people were meager. Fortunately there were other sources of passenger receipts. Students and professors coming to Upsala College, then located here, rode the train. The train also brought large crowds for college events and religious gatherings held on the campus of this Lutheran-based institution. City dwellers frequented the line to come out into the country where they picnicked on the many hillsides and along the banks of the Rahway River, often bathing in its then pristine waters at the west end of New Orange.

In spite of the recession, the railroad pushed forward. In 1900 it was working to complete the Rahway River spur to reach the Palmer Leather Works at the west end of Monroe Ave. Nowadays Flexi Van Corp. is at that site and prior to that Monsanto Corp., Gering Plastics, American Laundry, and American Can Co. At one time there was a small station on this spur at the crest of No. 20th St. Before long it was moved east to just west of Michigan Ave. near Boyd Ter. It was renamed the Warren St. Station for a street that appeared on an early map of New Orange. Surveying began that year for extending the rail line beyond New Orange.

King explained that by 1901 the railroad soon became unprofitable, stopped paying taxes, “and was sold under foreclosure that year to the recently organized New Orange Four Junction Railroad.” The new name represented the fact that there were four rail connections to the four large factories erected in the late 1890s by the New Orange Industrial Association: Wright Co., Circular Loom, Rica Musical Instruments, and Decorative Leather.

That same year, 1901, interest rose to extend the line from New Orange, through Springfield near the Baltusrol golf grounds, and on in to Summit. In 1902 the railroad’s debt stood in excess of $83,000 and annual receipts were under $3,000. When Tin Kettle Hill was sold to the Pennsylvania RR for fill dirt in the New Jersey meadows, it was an economic boon to the tiny railroad. From 1903-1906 over two million cubic yards of earth were hauled out of town over its tracks. In 1903 an electric railway company started a project to build a rail line from Summit to New Orange, a distance of six miles. Louis Keller, affiliated with the Baltusrol golf course in Springfied, looked forward to the line in anticipation of making access to the golf course more convenient for the club’s well-to-do clients. The right of way was obtained but the railway company dropped it plans.

The Stock Market Crash of 1901 led to a recession during 1902-1904. Not only did this further adversely impact the fragility of the young railroad, but it was among causes for the New Orange Industrial Association itself to dissolve and form a successor organization, the Kenilworth Realty Corporation, to be founded with a resultant change in the name of the region from New Orange to Kenilworth.

In 1904 the Rahway Valley Railroad was created to extend the rail line those six miles into Summit anticipating a later link there with the DL&W railroad. The plan included that the RVRR would absorb the struggling New Orange Four Junction line once the line was completed in Summit. This occurred in 1905. Keller was president of the nearly 12-mile long RVRR which ran from Aldene, through New Orange, into Springfield, up past the Baltusrol golf grounds and quarry, and on into Summit. What was envisioned in 1894 was now complete.

Over the period of 1898 to 1905 the rail line made use of six different locomotives. Nos. 1 and 2 were gone by 1903. In 1905 the RVRR was making use of four: Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 6.

In 1906 the new Rahway Valley Railroad experienced competition in passenger service when the local trolley line began to run from Kenilworth to Aldene – Roselle Park today. In 1907, at the outset of the financial Panic of 1907, Kenilworth became an independent borough, freed from Cranford and Union townships. The RVRR knew a connection with the DL&W in Summit was critical to its economic success and starting in 1908 a legal battle ensued when the DL&W fought the connection. The battle lasted for 21 before the linkage took place. According to King the line once boasted fourteen round trip passenger trains daily, but cut back to six by about 1908. King stated, “In 1909, in an effort to reduce costs, Keller created the Rahway Valley Company to lease and operate the railroad for a nominal fee. Keller brought on board new management to operate the new company, because, although he would not admit it, he did not know how to operate a railroad.”

The economy remained stressed during the Panic of 1910-1911. In 1911 the railroad added two gasoline-powered rail buses to cut back on the need for so many passenger cars. King wrote that the railroad “dragged through 1912 and 1913, not knowing where the next penny was coming from.” Aggravating the impact of the Recession of 1913-1914 was another setback for the RVRR. A trucker won a mail contract taking that source of revenue away from the railroad.

Luciano “Old Louie” Vitale (1880-1972) recalled those difficult times in a 1969 interview. He said, “Times were tough. I was a fireman on the railroad for years. In those days nobody wasted nothing. We used to eat lunch at 12 o’clock sittin’ on the side of the tracks. If you had a little bit of stuff left, even a small piece of bread, you didn’t throw it out. You put it back in your lunch pail and took it home. We put it on the stove the next morning and heated it up to have with our coffee. People today don’t know how tough we had it.”

McCoy reminds us that in those early years the railroad and scenic countryside attracted the movie industry to Kenilworth. The filming continued here on into the 1920s. He said, “The bucolic countryside and the leisure schedule of the Rahway Valley Railroad, brought the movie makers to Kenilworth.” And that “The railroaders enjoyed the $1.00 per day bonus as well as the free beer and lunch furnished by the movie makers.”

During these early times numbers of local residents worked for the railroad. Some of them were engineer Michael Tiroley, brakeman Joseph Shallcross, conductor Jack Shallcross, conductor Arthur Halladay, fireman Glenn Halladay, fireman “Old Louie” Vitale, flagman Vincent Halladay, and brakeman Frazee Haines. Maintenance workers included Louis Rego, Leo Scaramuzzino, Louis Rastelli, Antonio Romeo, Guiseppe “Joe” Amoroso, and Pietro “Pete” Mascaro. Descendants of many of these men still reside in Kenilworth. Some family members have held prominent positions in the Borough.

When World War I began, the Rahway Valley Railroad (RVRR) continued its influence on the lives of those who lived in and around Kenilworth.

World War I, 1914-1918, led the American Can Co. in Kenilworth and the Fireworks Factory in Union to manufacture munitions. Richard King noted, “American Can Co. provided a string of eight coaches ... every morning loaded with passengers” and that there were “as many as 5,000 workers a day for three shifts.” He added that “freight traffic on the railroad became busier than ever before.” With increased industrial production, barracks and additional homes were hurriedly constructed in Kenilworth’s downtown section along Monroe Avenue and elsewhere in that neighborhood. People of that era referred to the homes as “munitions houses.”

In October 1915 an explosion at American Can Co. rocked the area. Some theorized that it was German saboteurs. The explosion killed several people and injured many more. John McCoy reported, “The ensuing fire threatened a cut of several boxcars loaded with munitions. A crew from the Rahway Valley coolly backed their locomotive into the string of loaded cars, now beginning to smoke, coupled up and slowly withdrew from the scene.”

The RVRR faced major challenges with an immediate drop in railroad traffic when World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918. King stated, “It was all over virtually overnight.” The extra leased locomotives were returned to their rightful owners, and American Can Co. dumped its passenger coach fleet that had brought thousands of workers to the plant around the clock. The RVRR was back to where it was in 1914.

To further economize King wrote that older locomotive No. 4 was scrapped, and passenger trains “were most of the time now only one coach long.” In the spring of 1919 Louis Keller, head of the Rahway Valley lessee company, dumped two of three coaches the line had, and retained one combine coach and refurbished one rail bus to mainly carry workers. “The passenger stations were closed, Baltusrol Depot was leased out, Kenilworth Station was turned into the company offices and the railroad’s maintenance facilities were moved there from the old and ancient, worn-out roundhouse on the Rahway River Branch (which ran to the end of Monroe Ave.). The Springfield Station was converted to a freight house, Warren St. station was torn down.”

According to King, in 1919 the railroad hired Roger A. Clark as auditor on the line and George Clark, his son, as a brakeman. When the position of president opened in 1920, Roger Clark was named to the post. “Several lawyers became board members and with Clark guiding them they started working toward getting the line out of its pool of red ink.” Clark upgraded equipment and “rekindled business ties with former customers, and things gradually began to pick up.” He obtained revenue “from silent movies that were making use of the railroad’s equipment.” When Keller died in 1922, Clark discontinued all further passenger business service on the railroad. The railroad would be an all-freight business for the remainder of its years.

King said that Clark guided the RVRR to “steadily become a money maker, and ironically as the country sank into the Great Depression in 1929, that is when the RV began to make more money.” He also pointed out, “Perhaps Clark’s greatest achievement ... was the connection of the Rahway Valley Railroad and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad in 1931.” King added that from that point on, the RVRR “steadily began to make more money.”

When Roger Clark died in 1932, his son, 31-year-old George Clark, became president. King wrote, “George Clark guided the line to make its first true net profit in 1934, something it had not done since 1917. At this time the railroad purchased its first and only caboose, No. 102, which was seen around the Kenilworth railroad yard until the 1960s.

King noted that the post-Depression boom and industrial prosperity allowed the RVRR to prosper. In 1942, the line made a profit of $27,000 after all bills were paid and in 1943 the net profit was $20,000. During World War II, with no town siren system, the whistles of its locomotives joined the sounding of factory whistles for air raid drills and signals for tests. The railroad’s biggest profit ever was in 1946 with revenues of nearly $308,000 and a net profit of $70,863.” But there was more competition as trucks began to take away the railroad’s business.”

To keep up with the times, Clark continued to modernize. In January 1951 the railroad’s first diesel-powered locomotive arrived, No. 16. The 70-ton, General Electric, red and yellow engine was joined in 1954 by an identical locomotive, No. 17. But its colors were green and yellow. The last steam locomotive, No. 15, was put out of service in 1953 and sold in 1959 to the Steamtown RR. Caboose No. 102 was sold in the 1960s.

Numbers of residents recall the Jan. 13, 1959, strike conducted by four RVRR track gang workers who were members of the United Railroad Operators Crafts Union. They sought a pay raise from $1.43 to $2.03 an hour. Clark is reported in the New York Times to have stated, “If they strike, we are prepared to go on without them.” Clark kept his word. The railroad kept operating and Clark himself was seen from time to time in the engineer’s seat and also walking the tracks making repairs. The strikers, all of Kenilworth, included Peter Costa, Antonio Cuppari, Frank Palmadesso and Antonio Vizzoni.

As Kenilworth’s population grew and open space vanished, the little railroad encountered new problems. As houses came closer to the railroad tracks, there were complaints of soot and ashes dirtying family laundry hung out to dry and that sparks from coal-burning locomotives started fires.

One fire attributed to smokestack sparks occurred April 1948 at the lumber yard of Frank Belluscio and Sons on Michigan Avenue. Members of the Kenilworth Volunteer Fire Department had to leave a dinner-dance to extinguish the flames.

Increased population brought other problems for the railroad. When the railroad started in the 1890s the population numbered in the hundreds. By 1950 it approached 5,000 residents and by 1970 it exceeded 9,000. With growth, more streets were opened to through traffic, much of it attempting to traverse any number of the 17 different grade crossings throughout the borough, most of which never officially had been approved because at one time no paved street existed or traffic was minimal. Not until 1952 was the Market Street crossing officially sanctioned. The No. 14th grade crossing was granted in 1955 but only because the railroad agreed to vacate the 16th Street crossing.

Although the trains kept their speed to 10 mph or less, there were accidents in Kenilworth over the years with motor vehicles. In many instances it was the vehicle that crashed into the train. Route 22 had the most notorious crossings at times bringing rush-hour traffic to a standstill. In April 1955 a tractor-trailer driver, seeing a freight train crossing the highway, swerved and knocked down a utility pole and high-tension wires. The truck’s 15-ton plastic cargo spilled, further holding up traffic.

In March 1970 a motorist blinded by the sun’s glare sustained heavy damage to his vehicle as it rode into the train, damaging its steps. In December of that year the train’s brakes gave out allowing three freight cars to roll across the Boulevard, striking an automobile and crashing through the railroad garage and forcing an engine there off the tracks.

There were numbers of instances in which the train jumped the tracks while it was navigating the S-bend between North 12th and North 14th streets near Halsey Street. A railroad crane would be brought in and the locomotive or the train car would be placed back upon the rails. In February 1973 the Chronicle reported that the mayor and council asked the Transportation Department to investigate the mishaps. They stated, “...there have been three recent derailments and residents in the areas have expressed concerns for the safety of their homes and children.” A borough official commented, “Some are waiting for the train to come into their kitchens.” By and large the RVRR had an enviable safety record as far as railroads go.

James Rego, a lifelong downtown resident, grew up near the S-bend. He said this year, “There were a number of mishaps. The train crept along very slowly. I still can hear its horn blaring as it approached that S-bend with its big steel wheels screeching and squealing as it negotiated the curves. That’s where it jumped the tracks every so often.”

In the 1950s as the use of coal for home heating and industrial purposes continued to dwindle, the hauling of coal on the RVRR began to dry up. Up and down the tiny line, factories and businesses began to make greater use of trucks for moving freight, rather than to make use of the Rahway Valley. On into the 1960s and later many of the big users of the line discontinued rail usage for shipments or moved from the borough and the area in general.

In 1969 George Clark died and his son, Robert “Bob” George Clark, succeeded him. He worked with freight salesman Frank Reilly to bring back customers. The effort temporarily was successful. As economic issues confronted the railroad, the line that extended into Maplewood was closed in 1973. In 1974 there was an extensive fire that destroyed much of the historic Kenilworth railroad station. Following the fire the offices moved into a trailer. The partially burned out Victorian railroad station was offered to the Kenilworth Historical Society which was unable to raise sufficient funds to relocate and restore it. The landmark was demolished in 1979.

When Bob Clark died in 1975, Bernard J. “Bernie” Cahill became president. He worked to improve the physical and financial image of the railroad. In 1976 the offices moved into a railroad club car placed on a Kenilworth siding. That year the section from Springfield to Summit was closed.

A high point at this juncture in its history was the 1980 U.S. Open Golf Tournament held at Baltusrol Golf Course. Special passenger cars were brought in to bring spectators to the prestigious golf course. Meals and entertainment were provided on board. Those were the last trains to enter or leave Springfield.

King reported that in 1986 the railroad was unable to purchase liability insurance. The Keller Estate, still owners of all of the RVRR property and equipment, was forced to sell the line. The Delaware and Ostego RR purchased it December 1986. Cahill and other management personnel were discharged, although some employees continued to work for the D&O.

King noted that most of the improvements made by Cahill fell by the wayside — the office was moved to a worse-shape facility in Aldene, the Lehigh Valley connection was torn up, track maintenance became infrequent, and “customers became annoyed with horrible service.”

He added that 1990 presented two major blows to the railroad. Its largest user, Monsanto Corp., closed its Kenilworth doors and the Rahway River Branch was then torn up. Second, Jaeger Lumber in Union ceased to use the railroad. Much of the land along the former Rahway River Branch was subdivided into building lots upon which homes and in some locations offices were constructed. The last train, carrying two hoppers, left Kenilworth on April 21, 1992.

In 1994 the D&O sold the land to the N.J. Department of Transportation. By 2000 almost any remaining, standing symbols of the line had been removed. In 2001 the NJDOT contracted with the Morristown & Erie Railway to rebuild the line as a study suggested that its rejuvenation would be an economic boost to the region.

There was considerable opposition from residents living along the old right-of-way of the railroad. Some rebuilding took place, but when the funds ran out in 2006, additional funds were not allocated. The rebuilding stopped. An organization opposed to the rebuilding of line still monitors the inactive rebuilding project.

The little train that helped build Kenilworth had a run of 94 years. The Chronicle (1979) reported that it was one of the few railroads never to go bankrupt, not to have a mortgage, and to be debt-free beyond its current expenses.