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Lackawanna Cutoff Still an Engineering Marvel

By Jane Primerano

Monday, October 8, 2012 • 10:55pm

GREEN TOWNSHIP, NJ - The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

In construction, it is also often the cheapest.

The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad was looking for a straight route between the Lackawanna Railroad in Pennsylvania and the Central Railroad of New Jersey, to save both time and money.

The “Old Road” crossed the Delaware River and traveled southeast through Warren County to hook up to the Central in Hampton. It was chartered in 1851 and completed in 1862 under the supervision of John I. Blair, the railroad magnate, who founded both the Village of Blairstown and Blair Academy, as well as the Village of Delaware, which is on the Old Road near the Water Gap.

Trains on this circuitous route were limited to 50 miles per hour on the straightaways, and 20 miles per hour through two tunnels.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the Old Road was the Lackawanna’s biggest bottleneck. Part of the problem was bringing increasingly large locomotives through tunnels, the 2,969-foot Oxford Tunnel and the 975-foot Manunka Chunk twin tunnels, that had chronic drainage problems.

When William Trusdale became president of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western in 1899, he began looking for a straighter route. By 1905, engineers had surveyed more than a dozen potential routes between Port Morris and Slateford, Pa., Because any east-west route in Northwest New Jersey would cross the north-south hills, some tunneling seemed inevitable. Some of the routes surveyed would have required much longer tunnels than the Oxford Tunnel.

The route that was chosen had no grade crossings and its longest tunnel, Roseville, was 1,024 feet. It reduced the curvature by 1,560 degrees and the average grade from 1.1 percent to .55 percent. It cut the distance by 11 miles. The entire 11 feet of rise and fall was on an east-west upgrade on the Pequest Fill east of Greendell, meaning the majority of the distance saw a grade of less than .1 percent.

The downside was it required construction of the world’s largest land bridge.

Still an engineering marvel after more than 100 years, the Paulinskill Viaduct is 115 feet high and 1,100 feet long. It was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world, when it was built between 1908 and 1910.

Because it is hidden in the hills of Knowlton Township, the viaduct, also called the Hainsburg Viaduct for the nearby village, shocks first-time drivers who round a curve on Station Road off Route 94 and find themselves suddenly under a massive arch.

Visitors, mostly adventurous young men, inevitably climb the structure. They find their way into the arches and on top of the roadbed. Some announce their presence with graffiti written large. Others announce their presence by leaving beer bottles strewn about. A few have by ending their lives in a jump from the top.

The viaduct can be located on the Internet on the sites of Weird NJ, Vacant NJ, Lost Destinations, and XYDEXX’s Exploring and Modern Ruins. Urban legends abound, including a phantom train crossing the Viaduct and the spirit of a worker killed during construction, and buried in the cement of the arches returning and haunting the concrete structure.

The Paulinskill Viaduct may be the most impressive structure along the cutoff, but the entire project was amazing for its time.

The longest cut was the Armstrong Cut just west of the village of Johnsonburg, 100 feet deep and one mile long, mostly through solid rock.

The deepest cut is the Roseville Cut, 130 feet deep, just west of the Roseville Tunnel. Workers found the digging the tunnel was necessary when they encountered unstable rock when digging the cut.

Railroad historians believe this was a disappointment to Truesdale, whose experience with the Old Road made him want to avoid tunnels on the new cutoff. But digging the 1,024-foot Roseville Tunnel caused no operational problems.

The terrain required 14,621,100 more yards of fill than could be obtained from the cuts. The Pequest Fill, which runs from one mile east of Andover to one mile west of Huntsville, is 110-feet tall and 3.12-miles long and required 6,625,000 cubic yards of dirt. The Lackawanna Railroad purchased 760 acres of farmland, much of it in Green Township, for “borrow pits” for the fills, Sussex County Freeholder and Green Township resident Richard Vohden said. Earth and gravel was scooped out to a depth of 20 feet, he added.

Green Township also provided, “the general store and workers’ housing,” Vohden added. “There were barracks for the workers on the cutoff built in Huntsville. One of them is still standing.”

“The fils buried the old schoolhouse at Huntsville,” he noted.

When Vohden and some other volunteers were cleaning up in the Huntsville Cemetery they discovered there were some unmarked graves that may hold some of the workers who died on the job. 

Construction started On Aug. 1, 1908, in seven sections, each the responsibility of a different contracting company. By the summer of 1911 work was behind schedule. One of the contractors, Waltz & Reece Co., worked by torchlight.

Anyone who has driven through all the underpasses between Andover and Slateford Junction, Pa., would not be surprised to know there are 73 reinforced concrete structures: underpasses, overhead bridges, culverts, and the two viaducts. The viaduct that crosses the Delaware River is 1,450-feet long and 65-feet tall. It has five arches with a 150-foot span each. Workers excavated down 62 feet to hit bedrock beneath the river.

There were also three reinforced concrete stations, at Greendell, Johnsonburg, and Blairstown. Greendell and Johnsonburg were rural areas not previously served by trains. Blairstown was more of a regional center and became a regular stop for passenger trains.

In addition, workers built three reinforced concrete interlocking towers to handle signaling. These were at Port Morris Junction, Greendell and Slateford Junction.

The Port Morris tower, which is still standing, controlled the junction with the line to Washington. It remained in operation until the end of the cutoff’s operation in January 1979. The Slateford Junction tower controlled the junction with the Old Road. It was in operation until 1951 when its function was transferred to East Stroudsburg. The Greendell Tower, 12 miles west of Port Morris, controlled the crossovers, long passing sidings and short freight sidings.

With unrestricted 70 mile-per-hour service, the cutoff took 20 minutes off the passenger run and an hour off the freight run. With heavier rail on the route, the speed was upgraded first to 75 miles per hour, then to 80.

The cutoff was not without its problems.

In 1941, a massive rockslide near the Armstrong cut closed the line for a month. At 11:27 p.m. on July 2, 1948, a westbound passenger train derailed at the curve at Point of Gap, Pa. It had left Hoboken 38 minutes late and made up 14 minutes by the time it reached Slateford. The engine and tender ended up in the river. The engineer and fireman were killed.

In 1958 a string of cement cars broke loose at Port Morris Junction and rolled all the way to the river where they derailed on the bridge near the site of the 1948 accident. At lease one of the cement cars is still visible when the water level in the river is low.

The 1925 passenger train wreck in Beattystown was of a train that had been rerouted from the Cutoff to the Phillipsburg to Hackettstown line and a rainstorm caused a mudslide.

Rockslides and snow and ice build up caused problems in and west of the Roseville Tunnel. During World War II, the tunnel was watched carefully because of a fear of saboteurs.

The Central Railroad of New Jersey sold most of the right-of-way to Gerald Turco who proposed selling the fill to the now-defunct Westway project in New York City. Turco also proposed filling the cuts with garbage, although there was speculation at the time he was just trying to stir up controversy so he could set the line back to the state after he lost his source of revenue from Westway.

The state did buy the line back and is in the process of reopening it to Scranton, Pa. A new passenger station in Andover is in the works.

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