The Railroad Comes to Mahwah

This article, written by Dick Greene, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in March 1984.

When the trees are bare and the wind is right, the blare of diesel horns from the Conrail mainline through Mahwah can be heard all the way to Fardale and into the Ramapo Valley.

For over 100 years, until the mid-1950s, the sound people heard was the mournful wail of the steam whistle, immortalized in Country and Western song and story.

Sparsely settled since the 1700s, Mahwah had its first real growth “boom” with the arrival of the Paterson and Ramapo Railroad in 1848, after the line pushed north from Ridgewood to Suffern. Why Suffern? Simple – because there the P&R could connect with the Erie Railroad Company which was building a line linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. The Erie was the culmination of a grand design by W. C. Redford for a railroad system from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Chartered by the State of New York in 1832, the Erie was an INTRAstate railroad and was not permitted to cross over the State’s boundaries as did the INTERstate New York Central.

The 446-mile Erie line was completed May 14, 1851, and ran from Piermont (on the Hudson) to Dunkirk (on Lake Erie). It was the longest railroad in the United States. The main drawback to the Erie was its eastern terminus at Piermont, where passengers and freight were shuttled on steamboats for 26 miles on the Hudson River to and from New York City.

To capitalize on this “inconvenience”, the operators of the Paterson and Hudson Railroad sought permission from the N.J. Legislature to extend their Jersey City to Paterson line from Paterson to the New York State border at New Antrim. New Antrim had a large and impressive station built by the Erie, which they called “Suffern Station”, after John Suffern. The hamlet, as well, soon changed its name to Suffern.

On October 19, 1848, the Paterson and Ramapo subsidiary of the Paterson and Hudson opened its service to the State line on a single track railroad surveyed and designed by John Allen, after whom Allendale is named.

There were only a few stations on the line: Suffern (actually in Mahwah, at the State line), Ramsey’s Station, Allendale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Godwinville and Paterson. Later, the Bergen County Railroad would connect the Paterson and Ramapo tracks at Ridgewood Junction to Hoboken.

With no real standards in use, railroad designers used various gauges- the width between the railheads. The Erie was built with a 6′-0″ gauge and the P&R with 4′-10″. At the time of construction, this mattered not, as no physical connection existed due to the INTRAstate nature of both lines.

Passengers and freight were transported by carriage and wagon for a mile between the two stations in the two states.



The North Jersey Rapid Transit Line

This article, by

Charles Anderson, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in March 1984.

Although the North Jersey Rapid Transit Company had trolleys running from East Paterson to Ridgewood in 1910, it was not until June, 1911 that tracks were completed through Mahwah to Suffern. After leaving Ramsey, the route continued to parallel the Erie Railroad to present day Wanamaker Avenue, then it curved eastward to cross the Franklin Turnpike, turned north in a straight line across Miller Road to Christie Avenue in Suffern, N.Y., and then went on to Main Street.

At that time, most of the area was wooded with a few residences ‘in the Cragmere Park section. At the east end of the Henrietta Building on Miller Road, waiting passengers had a shelter of sorts, but the other crossings were “flag stops.” Most people used the line to get to Ridgewood for shopping or to Ramsey to attend the High School, although there were also regular commuters to towns along the route.

With the exception of parts of Ridgewood, it is possible to’ follow the right of way from its southern end in today’s Elmwood Park all the way north to the Mahwah line. From there on, time and real estate development have almost obliterated the route. Having taken over the original line, the Public Service sold some parts of the Mahwah area to the Rockland Electric Company, which resold two large sections. Present occupants of these sections are the Short Line Bus Company, the Ford Display, A & P, and the Rockland Electric Company.

The route south to Miller Road is impassable, but as the right of way passes across the road and in back of the Police Station, it is clearly defined (although local residents have preempted it for gardens and a swimming pool). At Franklin Turnpike it can be followed on the south side of the apartment buildings, and then it is lost entirely as it begins to parallel the railroad. The last trolley left Suffern on December 31, 1929. It is to be expected that 55 years of urban development would tend to wipe out all signs of the trolley right of way, but only in Mahwah and Ridgewood is this so frustratingly apparent. In towns further south, it has become a bike-path as in Ramsey, and a pleasant walking path as in Waldwick, Hohokus and Allendale.

We put up historical markers for old houses and vanished grist mills. It might be a reasonable move to mark a section of the old trolley route while there is still some of it left in Mahwah.



Roads of Yore

This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in March 1983.

In 1848 the NJ Legislature created Hohokus Township which included Mahwah, Ramsey, Allendale, Waldwick and Hohokus. The town committee met in Ramsey in a wing of an old hotel on Main St. People came here to vote also. Hence the roads that came through these towns had a common interest.

Such a road was the Franklin Turnpike which ran through Ramsey to Hohokus. It was the main road to New York City by way of Glen Ave. from the turnpike on Paramus Road, through Hackensack and over the meadows on the Plank Road to Jersey City and thence by ferry to New York.

In Ramsey, the Turnpike stopped at Arch St. which connected with the Island Road. This road was the main road through Ramsey and Mahwah and thence through the Clove to Orange County, NY. Before the railroad, transportation was by this route. In 1797 Dobbins and Tuston were given a franchise to run from Goshen, NY to New York City, by the route as aforementioned.

The Paterson & Ramapo R.R. came through in 1848. At first it stopped at the state line in Mahwah and people took a horse and wagon to the Suffern station of the Erie R.R. In 1850 the Erie tied in and you could go to Jersey City by train. Stations were at Ramsey, Hohokus, Glen Rock, Paterson and Passaic.

In the old days most of the roads ran north and south. Ramsey became a railroad station because there was an east-west road there from Saddle River west to Wyckoff. All good farm country. In the season a trainload of strawberries went to the city from Ramsey.

A very important north-south road was the Ramapo Valley Road, now Rte. 202. Originally an Indian trail it has seen many route changes. On the 1781 French map it is east of the river. At one time there was a road along the mountains. I remember walking with a friend along this and he picked up two copper, 18th Century English pennies.

This section ran from Yaw-pough (now Oakland) north to Suffern just beyond the railroad to Washington Ave., also connected with Island Rd. and thus went up through Suffern, through the Clove and upstate NY. At Suffern, there was a road which wandered east to the Hudson River and which was very important in Revolutionary days.

The old roads were gravel covered and it was not until the late 19th Century that crushed stone became the surface. This was called “macadam” and the Turnpike was the first in this part of the state. There was natural crushed stone where the Valley Road ran along Campgaw Mt. Theodore Havemeyer bought a stone crusher when he improved the Valley Rd. from Darlington Ave. north to W. Ramapo Ave. in Mahwah. About this time, there was a stone crushing business northeast of Suffern. The old steel wagon tires helped keep the gravel roads in shape. The towns also had team-drawn road scrapers which kept the roads in shape especially after the thaw at the end of the winter.

In winter the roads were kept snow covered. “Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh.” I remember doing this more than once. There used to be races on Main Street Ramsey. We had a one-horse sleigh, often called a “cutter,” and a larger one holding four and the driver. I have sleigh bells which the book says are 18th Century. Rich people even had silver-plated bells. We had a pair of chimes (three each) which fastened on the harness over the horse’s back. Snow weather also helped in bringing timber out of the mountains. The sleighs they used were made with two sets of runners. Wagons and sleighs were also made in Ramsey on Mechanic Street by my great-grandfather, John Y. Dater, who was born in Mahwah.



Old Railroad Days

This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in June 1979.

The Paterson and Ramapo Railroad ran its first train through Ramsey from Paterson to Suffern in 1848. Then you could get a horse and wagon to take you to the Suffern Erie station where the Branch Line runs over to Piermont. The Paterson and Hudson R.R. would take you from Paterson to Jersey City where you could take a ferry to New York. All this took about a quarter of the time it took to run from Piermont on the Hudson down to New York by boat.

In those days there was a Ho-Ho-Kus station where the road runs west from the Turnpike to the old factories along the Ho-Ho-Kus Brook. Here is where Ridgewood people had to come if they wanted to take the train to Paterson or New York. Where the present Ho-Ho-Kus station is was called Undercliff when it was built some 10 years later. About 1852 the Erie R.R. leased both of the short roads and thus came to New York. The only problem was the Erie tracks were 5′ 2” gauge, and the other roads were standard or 4′ 8 1/2″. There is a picture of this in the Old Mahwah station.

In the beginning, Ramsey had only a shed by the tracks just north of Main St. which was then called Dater Ave. The present station was built in 1862, and the room in Its south end was used for express and freight. Also, by the crossing and the open passenger shed was a small building called the “flag shanty”. Here there was a railroad man who came out and waved a white flag on the crossing when a train was coming.

This lasted until about 1900 when a “gate tower” was built there and pneumatic gates were installed either side of the track. The operator had to push one arm to work one gate and another to work the other. Then in 1903 the four tracks were put through from Suffern to south of Glen Rock where the main line went to Paterson and the Bergen Co. Short Cut ran through Warren Point and Fairlawn to Rutherford with 4 tracks to Jersey City. Old timers said that in the early days trains crossing the meadows often derailed or the tracks sunk. Then there was the trip through the old tunnel In Bergen Hill when a trainman came through to light the gas lights in each car.

There was not much electricity around in the early 1900’s. Rockland Electric had just secured their franchise through Mr. Elmer Snow of Mahwah. About 1908 the crossing gates were made electrical, and they were operated from the old gate tower. There was also a tower east of the tracks down where the parking lot is. Here there were big levers to operate the switches from one track to another and also levers to operate the block signals. This was before they had electric block signals or switch motors. Lon Hagerman of Mahwah ran this tower for years, and we kids used to go visit him and help pull the levers.

In the old days when it was a pleasure to travel across country there were express trains through Ramsey. There was the Chicago Express, the Erie Limited, the Southern Tier and the Tuxedo Express for the big shots in Tuxedo Park. There was also a Wells Fargo train which carried money, and guards would get out, armed with rifles, and patrol the train. Another feature was the figure 4 devices near the east and west bound tracks on which mail bags were hung. The mall cars had arms which picked up these bags, thus insuring fast service.



Mahwah Historical Society History: Second Installment

This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in “The Old Station Timetable” in October 1978. For the first installment, click here.

A synopsis of the first installment tells the story of the formation of the Society back in 1966. The first major project was the moving of the old 1871 Railroad Station and its restoration work started in 1967. It is located opposite Winter’s Pond and serves as a museum open to the public from 3 to 5 p.m. Sundays through October.

After the roof there were a great many details to be accomplished such as special moulding for the outside, window glass Installed, doors repaired and the chimney. The partition separating the agent’s office from the waiting room had to be replaced as well as some of the flooring. A lot of the Interior work was done by the author. One day he was visited by one of the vice presidents of the Erie and the general superintendent who had heard what we were doing.

At last all was ready for the ceremony of dedication which took place Sept. 22, 1968. Of course, all the local officials were present. The principal speaker was Gov. Richard  J. Hughes, now Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court. Also present were Vice President M. F. Coffman of the Erie, R. J. Downing, General Superintendent, and George Eastland, their publicity man. It was a fine ceremony and well attended. Congressman William B. Widnail was also a guest.

Already In the station on exhibit was the 1 1/2 scale working model of a Pacific steam locomotive. This was made by apprentices of the Dunmore shops of the Erie about 1918. It was given to the Society by Stephen J. Birch, Jr., and it had been given to his father, S. J. Birch by the Erie. Mr. Birch was an active stockholder of the Erie and also an official of Kennecott Copper. The locomotive was operated on the Birch estate for young Steve. It is a very finely built model. In the museum are other railroad items, documents and exhibits which are changed periodically.

The Society itself meets monthly except during the summer in one of the school auditoriums. At first, meetings were held in the 1890 school in Darlington. While it had a lot of historical flavor, the acoustics were bad and so was the parking.

In 1970 plans were made to procure an old Erie caboose and locate it on trackage near the station. One was purchased that had been used as a club car In one of the western freight yards. The Erie brought It East, and it was stored on a siding of Abex in Mahwah. Ground was leveled off for the track, and Mr. Downing of the Erie donated ties and rails If we would pay the track crew to lay them. This was done, and the caboose moved over one Saturday. It was necessary to bring the trucks separately. These were the heaviest part of the car, and it was practical for the crane to handle in the half mile from Abex along local roads in two trips.

The history of the caboose was researched. It was built in Hoboken about 1910 according to the experts. Blueprints were secured for the Interior fittings, most of which had been removed. But it was finally painted up to use as additional museum display area. One of the main items is a topographical model of the main line of the Erie Lackawanna from Jersey City to Chicago showing all the major cities traversed ‘by the route. This was previously on display in the railroad president’s office, but it was given to us about the time they moved to Cleveland.

The Society co-sponsored an archaeological dig with the Board of Education of an 18th century house on Ridge Rd. Roland Robbins, a professional archaeologist of Lexington, Mass. had charge.