|Tiny tracks, as laid out|
As I later discovered, this was a case where not just a few cars, but an entire railroad is in the process of being relocated, to be enjoyed by a whole new generation. We'd found vestiges of the Centerville and Southwestern Railroad, the line that once operated on Becker Farm in Roseland.
Say "Becker Farm" to many North Jersey residents, and it conjures the image of an office park where scores of Newark businesses settled after leaving the city for suburbia. Close by Route 280, the land is home to law firms, accounting offices and other white collar businesses. You could say that cubicle farms now stand where cows once grazed.
And on that dairy farm, it seems, was a real, operating train, not for transporting freight but for fun. Farmer Eugene Becker apparently was a bit of a rail fan, and starting in 1938, he built his own miniature railroad, fashioning it after the Sussex branch of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad on which his farm's creamery was located. He even nicknamed it "the Fresh Milk Line" and crafted a logo featuring a cow.
From 1940 until 1972, visitors to the farm could enjoy a ride on the C&S RR on weekends from early May until late October. This wasn't just a toy, though: Becker strove for authenticity, running the railroad as reliably as any full-sized operation. According to a brochure published by the family in 1955:
The C & S isn't as wide; nor as long; nor is it narrow gauge: It is a true miniature railroad, and as such, of necessity, it is operated in the same manner, as are its full size brothers. It is thought to be the only miniature railroad in the country that operates on a strict schedule; goes somewhere and comes back - not just around a loop; and runs through natural scenery, such as a trip on a full sized railroad would take you.
Visiting school groups could top off a farm tour with a ride on the railroad, and perhaps also stop by the farm stand for a cool glass of chocolate milk. Though the route was only about 7000 feet long, it had to be a real treat for rail fans, children and adults alike. Hills, curves and signalled intersections were all part of the ride, making real the fantasies of any kid who ever operated a model train set.
Like so many other great things in New Jersey, the C&S met its end with the planning of a highway. The state Department of Transportation took a large part of the Becker Farm in the construction of Route 280, denying the Beckers' request to run the Fresh Milk Line beneath the highway. Forced to reroute the track, the Beckers continued to run the railroad until 1972, when the local government changed the property's zoning from farming to commercial. Another New Jersey farm had perished, and along with it, a unique aspect of the state's railroad heritage.
Eugene Becker reportedly found a home for the railroad at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, but it fell into private hands ten years later, when curators decided it didn't fit the museum's mission. And, of course, we saw vestiges of it in Phillipsburg, where 1500 feet of miniature track has been laid. Unfortunately, plans for a more extensive layout were halted when the land was taken for other uses. Even if the Railroad Historians had been successful in laying a complete track bed, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the Becker Farm experience, bringing riders through pasture and countryside.
However, I'm told, if you look carefully around the Becker Farm corporate campus, you might find small remnants of the Centerville and Southwestern. A few bridges and cement abutments bear the railroad's insignia, a small reminder for those in the know that the once abundant New Jersey farms were both sources of fresh food and places for memorable experiences.