The inaugural Erie Railroad line in 1841 stretched over 400 miles from Jersey City to Lake Erie and briefly claimed the longest track in the world. The golden age of trains, however, ended in the 20th century, leaving behind a mess of abandoned tracks crisscrossing New Jersey.
One of those forgotten tracks is the Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad, whose last train left the station four years ago. The road from Jersey City to Paterson, more than 10 miles long, now crosses a no man’s land of swamps and industrial slums. This criminal trail has become the bane of community leaders, but a muse for urban explorers. Last year, during the pandemic, author of Montclair Wheeler Antabanez came all the way. His solo journey is now the focus of this sixth book, “Walking the Newark Branch,” which recently debuted alongside a documentary.
“I was doing this before they called it urban exploration,” said Wheeler, whose interest in off-grid places in his home state began when he was growing up near the abandoned Overbrook hospital. . “Every time you think you know everything there is to know about North Jersey, a new frontier opens.”
Part of the appeal of Wheeler’s work, which appeared in “Weird New Jersey” and was featured by a number of news networks, it’s that he takes his audience to places outside the fringes. He first heard of the Newark branch from a friend, the late WFMU radio host X. Ray Burns. The impetus to hike the trail came last year after her parents died less than two weeks apart.
âI just needed to take a long walk,â Wheeler said. “And the railroad tracks were there for me.”
Watching a preview of the film, I quickly fell in love with Wheeler’s storytelling. Its notable vignettes include a story about the night watchmen at the Clark Thread Factory in East Newark and a lost memorial to a 19th century engineer. The cadence of his reflections on these beautiful and gloomy places has a rocking effect.
Much of Wheeler’s seedy witnesses on his journey – rusty barrels leaching harmful chemicals, dilapidated warehouses, shooting ranges and prostitution walks – have been decried by local leaders, who are campaigning for converting two abandoned railway lines that run through Newark – the Newark Branch and the old Boonton Line, both owned by the Norfolk Southern freight company.
âNorfolk Southern has not been a good neighbor to the Town of Newark, to the residents of the North Quarter, as they have took over this property, âsaid Anibal Ramos, City Councilor for the North Ward at a recent panel hosted by the New Jersey Walk & Bike Coalition (NJWBC). âSince I have been on City Council for 14 years, we have dealt with the growing quality of life issues stemming from the inactive line, from illegal landfills to inappropriate temporary uses like prostitution etc.
Abandoned railroad tracks may soon be a thing of the past as they often become a sanctuary for criminal activity. The NJWBC is part of a coalition of nonprofits trying to convert the old Boonton Line into a nine mile linear park called Essex-Hudson Greenway. The Newark branch, meanwhile, could be converted to a light rail, connecting two of the state’s largest cities.
As communities rush to erase these places, urban explorers lament the loss of these secret trails that offer a unique type of âfreedom,â Antabanez said. âIt’s good to get out of here while he’s still here,â Antabanez said in the film. “It’s good to get out of here while I’m still here.”