Hunterdon Rail Trails

Station To Station

By Mike Helbing

When I first began leading long distance day hikes, I sought out routes along abandoned railroads beginning in northern Hunterdon County (map). While Hunterdon's system of rails was not as intricate as farther north, where mining was more prevalent, the county was home to many spur lines used to transport passengers and products to charming villages and hamlets.

The Columbia Trail

Vernoy
The Hunterdon section of the Columbia Trail includes occasional interpretive signs which relate the area's history. Created under the direction of Assistant Park Planner, Doug Kiovski, the signs are well laid out and contribute a great deal to the hiker's experience. Along the trail east of Califon this sign explains: "This area, settled in 1800 by Nathan Vernoy, became known as Vernoy, and did not produce iron ore but relied on limestone and its by product of burning: fertilizer. When the railroad came through this area, a spur line was constructed to the quarry. At the height of the limestone operation, the quarry employed approximately 50 men. Some of the present homes were built by people that were either employed by the quarry or the railroad."

The first rail bed I came across was the former High Bridge Branch of the Central Railroad of NJ, which I had walked to some extent as a child with my grandfather. The CNJ built its main line across Hunterdon County in 1853, extending to Phillipsburg in Warren County. The most important stop in Hunterdon was the Taylor-Wharton Iron and Steel Company in the town of High Bridge. The second oldest continuously owned company in North America (1742-1971), Taylor-Wharton produced railroad material, (couplings, axles, wheels, and switches), war material, and teeth for the steam shovels that dug the Panama Canal.

High Bridge took its name from a long wooden railroad trestle the CNJ used to cross the valley of the South Branch of the Raritan River. The bridge was soon deemed unsafe; trains crossing the structure would force it to sag between the piers that were constructed too far apart. Soon, the trestle was filled in with dirt in favor of the double portal stone culvert that still exists today.

Later, in 1876, the High Bridge Branch opened all the way to Port Oram (Wharton) in Morris County, primarily to haul iron ore from the mines in Hibernia, Chester, Mt. Hope, Edison, and along the Wharton and Northern and Ogden Mine Railroads, with which it also connected. In addition to iron ore, the branch saw a great deal of passenger traffic enroute to resorts at Schooley's Mountain and Lake Hopatcong during the summer vacation season. Most of the line closely paralleled the South Branch of the Raritan River, making for a pleasant and scenic ride.

Like most railroads in New Jersey, the heyday of the High Bridge Branch was finite, and passenger service was discontinued in the 1930s. Over the following years, the line struggled until it was finally taken over by Conrail in 1976. The line from High Bridge to Flanders was dismantled beginning four years later.

In the 1990s, the Columbia Gas Company of West Virginia made use of the rail bed as a route for a buried gas line. Surface rights to the rail bed turned over to the Hunterdon County Department of Parks and Recreation and Morris County Park Commission. Many improvements to rehabilitate the line as a multi use trail occurred over the following years, including the decking of old bridges, as well as resurfacing much of the trail with a crushed stone material.

One of the widest rail trails in New Jersey, the Columbia easily accommodates equestrian and bicycle traffic in addition to hikers and joggers. From the municipal parking area on County Route 513 (take 513 north from Rt. 31, pass under NJ Transit Railroad tracks, turn left through town, municipal lot is on the left), the trail is paved for two blocks. It then turns to the improved crushed stone surface to the Morris County line at Valley Brook Road where limited parking is available.

Columbia Trestle
Trestle bridge over Ken Lockwood Gorge

The most scenic point along the trail is within Ken Lockwood Gorge, where a 250-foot long deck style girder trestle crosses the South Branch below. This is also the location of a spectacular train wreck, which occurred 123 years ago in 1885, when a locomotive ironically named The Columbia pulling 45 cars crashed from the wooden predecessor of the current trestle.

East of the gorge is the village of Califon, home to a unique stone railroad station. Now home for a heritage museum, it is open the first and third Sunday of each month from 1 to 3 pm. Constructed in 1875, the Central Railroad agreed to build the stone station with the condition that the town supply the blocks needed. These blocks came from a quarry in nearby Vernoy, which had a rail spur access. Following the trail northeast of Califon, the spur is visible on private land to the left, blocked by a few large rocks.

Further on, the trail seems to end just past the Morris County line at the Jenkinson tree farm. Simply turn left skirting the farm, then right on Rt. 513 briefly, crossing near the Jenkinson Nurseries sign. This was once a station stop known as Crestmoore.

As the trail continues, it crosses the South Branch once again on a much lower bridge, and then continues through Middle Valley to Long Valley. Construction is currently underway keeping the rail bed closed through parts of Long Valley. During this time, the trail can be regained by briefly following Fairview Ave. or Rt. 513/24. Both roads have access points for Gillette Trail, part of the Patriot's Path system which connects with the Colombia Trail from both locations.

Beyond Long Valley, the trail continues to Bartley Road near Flanders. There is no parking available at this terminus; however, parking is available at a state fish and game lot just south of the trail along Bartley Road.

The Columbia Trail is fifteen miles long -- seven miles in Hunterdon County, eight in Morris County.

Solitude Dam

The Lake Solitude Dam has enjoyed recent publicity as it has been identified by Preservation New Jersey as one of the top ten most endangered historic sites in the state. The group's website, states, "The last known remaining New Jersey example of an I-beam dam, Lake Solitude Dam, built in 1909 by master engineer Frank S. Tainter, to provide hydro-electric power for the Taylor-Wharton Iron and Steel Company, a prominent munitions manufacturer whose history spans from the American Revolutionary War through the Korean War.
"The dam holds significance for its civil engineering design and for the role that it played in permitting Taylor-Wharton ironworks, downstream, to expand. Both the dam and 35-acre Lake Solitude, created by the dam, are eligible for listing in the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places individually as well as part of a possible larger industrial historic district and the Taylor Iron Workers Historical Greenway connecting Columbia Trail to the Amesbury Furnace."
A focal point for the High Bridge historic district is the Solitude House Museum. Built around 1725, the house became the centerpiece of Union Forge Ironworks, later named Taylor-Wharton. Five generations of Taylors lived in the house, until 1938. A county historical marker explains, "Patriots imprisoned loyalist Pennsylvania Governor John Penn and Crown Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Chew here during the Revolutionary War. They named the place 'Solitude.'"

The Clinton Branch/Landsdown Trail

Another great rail trail trip in Hunterdon County follows the Landsdown Trail and the Capoolong Creek Trail for a 5 1/2 mile total. Both trails are former spur lines of the former Lehigh Valley Railroad (still active today as Norfolk Southern). The Landsdown Trail follows the 1882 Clinton Branch, a 1.8 mile spur that stretched from Landsdown into Clinton predominantly to carry passengers. A small single engine train called a Dinkey was used on the line. (Other short railroads have used the term as well, including the old Blairstown Railroad in Warren County, and the current short line to Princeton in Mercer County.) During the latter years of service, a single gas electric car was used on the line, and was affectionately named The Doodlebug. Passenger service was discontinued in 1936, and freight traffic was discontinued in 1982.

Landsdown Trail
Landsdown Trail. Photo by Mike Helbing

The trail surface today is a crushed stone base, similar to the Columbia Trail. Highlights of the trail include a nicely improved deck girder trestle, an derelict rail car remaining on a piece of track, and the restored Clinton Station, the only remaining original structure on that line, now a part of Fox Lumber. The trail ends at Clinton's Main Street.

Capoolong Creek Trail

The Capoolong Creek Trail, owned by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, is a 3.7 mile rail trail beginning on Landsdown Road. From the south end of the Landsdown Trail, cross the active tracks on Landsdown Road, and enter the woods on a path to the right.

Pittstown Station
The Pittstown station still stands behind Perricone's Market on the Capoolong Creek Trail. (Mike Helbing)

The Pittstown Branch was built in 1891 and was an important line as it carried peaches, ice, lumber, animal feed, milk, and other farm products as well as passengers and coal (Pittstown was once known as the Peach Capitol of Hunterdon County). The line was abandoned, and tracks removed in 1973.

The Capoolong Creek Trail closely parallels the creek (also sometimes known as Cakepoulin) for its entire length. The little bridges along the route have been decked over, and a few sections have been improved, but the tread way remains mostly original cinder base. This trail is much narrower than the more developed trails but still offers enough room for passing cyclists or horses.

The Bel Del

Another rail trail in Hunterdon County seldom receives attention as a former railroad because it lies within Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park. While the D & R Canal is a significant part of the trail, the entire section from just north of Trenton to Bulls Island follows more closely the route of the railroad than the canal, and north of Bulls Island the trail follows solely the rail bed, as no canal was present.

The Belvidere and Delaware Railroad, more commonly known as the Bel Del ran from Trenton to Manunka Chunk (near Belvidere), and the section that now makes up the rail trail was completed by 1853. This trail, with an improved crushed stone surface offers superb views of the Delaware River as well as the Delaware and Raritan Feeder canal, which it closely parallels.

The northern terminus of the trail is a field just south of Milford (Hunterdon County) where the official trail dead ends at an old farm lane. The railroad abandonment to the north lies within private land. Access to the trail is located in nearby Frenchtown, where parking is available slightly over a mile south along Bridge Street. There is also access on 12th Street in Frenchtown, however it is encouraged that visitors utilize the parking just off Bridge Street. From Rt. 29 in Frenchtown, take Bridge Street toward Pennsylvania, and just before the bridge, turn left on Railroad Avenue where parking is available along the river just past the Bridge Cafe.

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Made To Order
  • Delightful fantasies beyond words! Gold, Platinum & Silver Jewelry, Wildlife Photos, Crystal, Lighthouses. Perfume Bottles, Santas, Witches Balls, Oil Lamps, Paperweights, Chimes, Art Glass, Wishing Stars. Now featuring Pandora Jewelry.

    44 Main St., Clinton 08809, 908/735-4244

  • Bobolink Dairy and Bakehouse
  • Artisanal cheeses, wood fired breads, 100% grass-fed beef, whey fed pork, and suckled veal, 100% grass-fed ice cream, pasta made with Emmer wheat and our own free-range eggs, and pesto made with our own basil! Bread and cheesemaking workshops are held on the working farm as well as weekend tours and occasional concerts.

    369 Stamets Road, Milford 08848, 908/86GRASS

  • Decoys and Wildlife Gallery
  • This wildlife art gallery contains the area?s largest selection of hand carved decoys, representing carvers across the US, as well as an extensive collection of original paintings by some of the nation's most renowned artists.

    55 Bridge St., Frenchtown 08825, 908/996-6501

  • Bouman Stickey Farmstead
  • 114 Dreahook Road, Stanton 08885, 908/236-2327

  • Ship Inn Restaurant and Brewery
  • New Jersey''s first brewpub where, in addition to14 British ales and hard cider on tap, you can enjoy selections brewed on-site. The menu is derived exclusively from cuisine from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lively weekend entertainment, on and off premise catering.

    61 Bridge St., Milford 08848, 908/995-7007

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Comments

Chad Mathews
16 Oct 2014, 15:15
Are the railroads in glen Gardner still active
mike
01 Sep 2011, 05:17
Actually the rail car was there until last year. I worked for Hunterdon when it was taken out..wish they would've left it!
William Honachefsky Jr
25 Aug 2011, 09:24
Hey Mike \r\nI think its time to change the name.
Kent Loudon
21 Aug 2011, 11:10
FYI, the rail car on the Clinton-Landsdown trail was scrapped about 3 years ago. A historic marker has been erected at the Landsdown crossing describing the 3-story station that was once located there.
M'ke H
12 Jun 2011, 18:57
Maybe one of the tourist lines like at land of make believe or wild west city? Or Allaire village?
Scott
12 Jun 2011, 18:16
Does anyone know information about a railtrail that has a miniature village built a long the way? I read about it in a magaine but i am now unable to find the information
M'ke Helbing
04 Jun 2011, 19:15
I'm glad that we include that the Highlands Trail connects and follows Columbia Trail. There's a great new book on rail trails that just came out for NJ, PA, and NY, and it mentions the Taylor Steelworkers Historic Greenway, but makes no mention of the Highlands Trail. It's a shame that they did not use the opportunity to show how this trail is directly connected to the Appalachian Trail by way of these many greenways.\r\nFurthermore, the Patriot's Path in part following the Chester Branch of the CNJ, same line as Columbia Trail, connects in Long Valley. It's possible to follow this all the way to Livingston now!\r\nWhen I first wrote this article as well as the Chester area rail trails piece, the connections weren't as close.\r\nNow, the time is coming where a new rail trail will open connecting all of these out to Horseshoe Lake Park in Succasunna!
M'ke Helbing
25 Apr 2011, 20:18
One of the things that is really needed for Columbia Trail as well is something on the part of both counties promoting the fact that the trail is really a single unit, not two different trails. Hunterdon's brochures read that the trail is only seven miles long...and there is a sign saying to turn left away from the trail at the end of it to go to Teetertown. I recently met a couple down there who turned left and didn't know they could legally continue to Bartley.
M'ke Helbing
14 Aug 2010, 12:37
I think people would embrace and identify with a name change...the name of the line is a regional identy that would give locals something more to be proud of. Trail users would have an easier time finding the traul head too, since it would be in the name. But hey, that's just my opinion!
whona
14 Aug 2010, 05:46
Mike\r\nGood to see you back right on point. Who says we can't add change the proper historical name to the "Columbia"? Attach a small piece of wood to the county sign. The problem is getting it out of peoples heads? Today I'm starting with directional signs.
M'ke Helbing
12 Aug 2010, 15:53
The Columbia Trail did not take it's name from the infamous wreck in Ken Lockwood Gorge. It's actually, in my opinion, one of the most poorly named trails in the state. It's named for the Columbia gas line which runs beneath it. Apparently it was a stipulation that it be called that when the trail opened. Technically, it should be called the "High Bridge Branch Trail", not only to be historically accurate, but because there have been confusions with this and the Paulins Kill Valley Trail. The Paulins Kill Valley Trail begins in Colombia NJ and so people tend to think it's that trail. I have met users on that trail looking for Ken Lockwood Gorge, and people on the Columbia Trail looking for Paulins Kill Viaduct. Unfortunitely, there are no plans on changing the trail name.
Alan Edelson
11 Aug 2010, 05:08
Curious as to how the Columbia Trail got its name. Some people says its named for the wreck of the train Columbia, others say its for the Columbia Gas Co.
M'ke Helbing
15 Jun 2009, 12:23
I hope to be able to get a volunteer group together for the bridge thing near Solitude house...just a matter of managing my time! So much going on!
W Hona
13 Jun 2009, 14:29
Mike:\r\nGive you a call early in the week. Whats up?
M'ke Helbing
14 Apr 2009, 14:56
The canal project is going okay...I'm leading the hikes once a month on the former canal which act as a sort of feasability study. From there, my friend Matt may be mapping it all out to show where to walk on or closest to the entire canal. A guide pamphlet will be made and we'll approach municipalities to see where we can put yellow Morris Canal blazes. Two more hiks should finish the canal for us!
W Honachefsky
14 Apr 2009, 14:40
I understand. What's up with the Canal Trail?
M'ke Helbing
14 Apr 2009, 14:04
I just noticed the 19th is a Sunday, and I'm already committed to a hike in PA this Sunday (every Sunday I have something) but please let me know of future meetings and how I can help with this project.
William Honachefsky Jr
14 Apr 2009, 05:57
Great Mike!\r\n\r\nDitto. Glad to see another trailblazer, See you there. Allison, the Solitude Dam (part of the Greenway) is going to be remediated and in negoiations to be reused again to generate hydro power.
M'ke Helbing
13 Apr 2009, 18:57
Thanks for that update! I would like to attend that meeting as well. In addition, I would like to offer my services to blaze the new trail should you need someone to do so. I'm involved in Appalachian Mountain Club, New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, as well as a member of Land Management and Trails Committee for Hunterdon County Parks, so I'm experianced with it...and I'll do it for free just because I'm so happy this is moving forward!
William Honachefsky Jr
13 Apr 2009, 12:49
Hi Allison:\r\n\r\nAs this is Mike's blog, Please contact me at william.honachefsky@sprintmail.com. \r\n\r\nWe are having a meeting on finishing up the Greenway on April 19, 2009 at Solitude House located at 7 River Road in High Bridge. Hopefully you can attend. \r\n\r\nWillian Honachefsky Jr\r\nUnion Forge Heritage Association
alison Irvin
13 Apr 2009, 09:34
What is currently being done to preserve the Lake Solitude Dam?\r\nThank you
M'ke Helbing
02 Feb 2009, 13:59
Thanks so much...I'll be in touch...so much is going on, but I want to really help moving this project along...
William Honachefsky Jr
01 Feb 2009, 09:38
Nice Article about the Canal Trail. If you need assistance, please let me knoew.
William Honachefsky Jr
14 Aug 2008, 12:20
Mike, Sorry. \r\nThe initial markings were in preparation for more detailed signage coming at the end of August 2008. The Greenway has many scenic views, abuting the Taylor SteelWorkers Historical Greenway.
M'ke Helbing
03 Aug 2008, 14:29
Thanks again for the information...I followed some of the trail ther other day. The route can be somewhat confusing in that every paint blaze signifies a turn even when there are no turns. One blaze mark above the other and off to the side would signify a turn in the direction of the top blaze, but on this trail every blaze looks like a turn blaze so it's easy to get off the trail when leaving Colombia Trail.\r\n\r\nAlso, Colombia Trail is not seven miles long as stated above. This only accounts for the mileage within Hunterdon County. The trail continues all the way to Bartley in Morris County.
WilliamHonachefskyJr
02 Aug 2008, 13:28
Description of the Taylor Steelworkers Historical Greenway\r\n\r\nDirections are from: Voorhees State Park County Road 513 Glen Gardner, NJ. \r\n\r\nDIRECTIONS: Exit park by turning Right onto CR 513 South and after 2.0 miles turn Right onto Church Street following signs for CR 513 South. Turn Left onto CR 513/Main Street and take immediate Right turn into the Municipal Parking Lot. Walk out of parking area and cross the street to where trailhead begins. Directions Icons: Food Gas\r\n\r\nACCESS AND PARKING: Open daily from dawn to dusk. There is good parking at the High Bridge Municipal Parking Lot at the southern end of trail. There is no parking at junctions of trail with area roads. Created by Union Forge Heritage Association in 2007, the Taylor Steelworkers Historical Greenway can be accessed approximately 1/4 mile from the start of the Columbia Trail. The trail can also be accessed from Solitude House Museum (circa 1717), the historical Taylor Ironworker and Steel Company Complex, the oldest standing example of ironworks administrative structure (TISCO)(circa 1742) and Springside Farm (circa 1803). During inclement weather the trails may not be accessible. No motorized vehicles of any kind. Parking is available at the TISCO Complex, Solitude House Museum and Springside Farm. \r\n\r\nSITE DESCRIPTION: The seven-mile Columbia trail is formed from the roadbed of the old High Bridge Railroad, which for almost 100 years carried iron ore from the mines of Morris County to local forges; it ceased operation in 1976. The Columbia Trail parallels the South Branch of the Raritan River, passes above Ken Lockwood Gorge and continues through mostly-upland deciduous forests north to the Morris County line. Designated as part of the Highlands Trail (HT), it is now theoretically possible to hike north from High Bridge on the Columbia Trail, connect via the HT to the Appalachian Trail (AT) in North Jersey and hike north to the trail's terminus on Mt.Katahdin in northern Maine, or for that matter, south to the AT's southern end at Springer Mountain in Georgia. The Taylor SteelWorkers Historical Greenway is a 6.5 mile trail that winds its way through High Bridge criss-crossing a number of historical sites and beautiful scenery. This is the perfect trail for wildlife watchers and history buffs alike. Follow the Columbia Trail for approximately 1/4 mile looking on the Right for the trailhead gate that includes a sign and entrance for the famous Lake Solitude Dam. Heading in a southeasterly direction from the Columbia Trail, this trail proceeds to the historic structures of the TISCO Complex and then onto a 100 year old truss bridge. This bridge is impassable at the moment but is due to be refurbished the summer of 2008. After crossing the bridge, the trail proceeds north along the South Branch of the Raritan towards the Lake Solitude and Lake Solitude Dam (circa 1858), Solitude House Museum and the Union Iron Works ruins (circa 1742). From there the trail continues on to the entrance of the Nassau Trail, works its way to Springside Farm (Springside Lane, High Bridge) and its adjoining woods and proceeds from there to its end at Lord Amesbury's Furnace, circa 1752 , located in Clinton Township. For more information about this trail contact Union Forge Heritage Association at 908-638-3200 \r\n\r\nWILDLIFE: Bald Eagles are a familiar sight in the region. They often are easier to spot in winter when trees are bare of leaves. Check the trees along the trails; seasonal sightings include Brown Creeper, Eastern Phoebe, Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Palm, Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireo. Look a little deeper into the woods for Hermit and Wood Thrushes, Veery, Ovenbird and Red-eyed and Blue-headed Vireos and Pileated Woodpecker. \r\n\r\nDON'T MISS: Several miles north of High Bridge, the Columbia Trail passes over Ken Lockwood Gorge Bridge, built 80 feet above the gorge floor. This steel span was built in 1930 to replace the original wooden trestle bridge, which was the site of a memorable 1886 train wreck. \r\n\r\nSITE ICONS: Bike Trails Butterflies/Dragonflies Handicap Accessible Hiking Trails Ideal for beginning birders Parking Picnic Restrooms Wildflowers\r\n\r\nFor more information :\r\nhttp://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=4901\r\n
M'ke Helbing
16 Jul 2008, 14:05
The following link takes you to the Morris County Parks department's Patriot's Path overview map, which incorperates the entire Morris County portion of the Colombia Trail, though not all that detailed. It's also included on most county maps.\r\nhttp://www.morrisparks.net/aspparks/patpathtr.asp
Paul Schertl
16 Jul 2008, 12:32
Can you tell me where I can get a trail map for the Morris county portion of the Columbia Trail? Any information would be greatly appreciated.\r\nThanks,\r\nPaul Schertl
M'ke Helbing
27 Jun 2008, 21:16
Forgot to show my e mail... sneezehorse@hotmail.com
M'ke Helbing
27 Jun 2008, 21:12
Thank you for your great comments! Regarding the trail at Lake Solitude, I'm glad you posted it because I originally intended to include it in the story, but was told by someone that it was not an "official" trail. I will certainly look into it now! Maybe I'll see if I can focus one of my Saturday hikes in that area soon. Thanks again! Feel free to contact me any time.
William Honachefsky Jr
27 Jun 2008, 05:34
Taylor Steel Workers Historical Greenway, a 6.5 mile recreational trail, established by the Union Forge Heritage Association in 2007, which connects most of the former Taylor Wharton properties. The trail offers some breathtaking scenery for the hiker. It was created as a lasting legacy to the men and women who worked at the foundry.\r\nParking is available the Commons on the Wye/near the Columbia\r\nTrail Head,Solitude House or Nassau Rd. The entire trail is 6.5 miles.\r\nPictures at www.hmdb.org . Contact Union Forge Heritage AssociaTION AT 908\r\n638 3200
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