Sussex County History Today: Turning rails to trails

| 22 Apr 2024 | 08:16

During the past 20 years, I have been an enthusiastic advocate for turning our abandoned rail lines into trails.

I had the recent good fortune of speaking with Joshua Osowski, Ph.D., who is the regional superintendent of the New Jersey State Park Service.

The rails-to-trails programs have provided delightful opportunities for of all of us to get out into nature and enjoy the wonders of our Sussex County.

We can use such adventures also to contemplate how the railroads made such a difference in commerce and affected a growing population during the mid- to late 1800s.

A couple weeks ago, I spoke of the Irish and Italians immigrants who had worked so laboriously to build the rail lines. Many of them then settled in the area.

The railroad companies did a tremendously valuable job of moving ice and wood, iron and zinc from the natural resources of our county. The trains also helped farmers by transporting milk and butter from the dairy farms that were spread over our whole county. The railroads certainly had a major impact on our society here.

Times changed, technology advanced and the automobile superseded the trains, as we know now. Many of those rail lines became abandoned. They laid dormant for half a century and more.

Josh tells me about plans that the State Park Service has in mind. Studies had been made 30 years or so ago, presented as the Wallkill Valley Trail and the Iron Horse Trail. The state is pursuing these ideas.

This summer, they are planning to clear out the right of way of land that the Park Service owns. One trail will begin in Franklin on Wildcat Road and work southward to Maple Road, then across Cork Hill Road and toward Ogdensburg.

This is a beautiful trail in many aspects. One is the views of the Franklin “Furnace” area, where several iron mines existed, as far back as the 1760s. A furnace driven by waterpower was built, lasting into the 1910s.

With the rails bringing coal, one of the largest blast furnaces in the nation was built in the 1870s down at Franklin Pond. A lime kiln still exists near here, and a running spring provides clean water still - I know as I have stopped there often when doing long runs in marathon training.

The ever-flowing Wallkill River follows, quietly and stately as it has for eons, along this same route as does the rail-to-trail pathway.

Along the path there are several huge stone arch bridges. These were built about 1870 and still exist although needing some repair and repointing.

We should all be looking forward to an easy, level path along the old railroad beds and being able to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature and the rich heritage of Sussex County.

Bill Truran, Sussex County’s historian, may be reached at