Friday, August 9, 2013

Choo choo... moo moo: the railroad at Becker Farm

A few weeks ago we were knocking around Phillipsburg when we came upon the curious sight of several weathered old train cars sitting along what looked to be an old railroad siding. We'd come upon the property of the Phillipsburg Railroad Historians, who have been working for more than 20 years to establish a rail museum for the state on land that had once been owned by the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

Tiny tracks, as laid out
in Phillipsburg
Among the rolling stock, we noticed a curious thing -- very narrow gauge track, some of which had been laid down, other portions of which were stacked neatly. The whole thing reminded me of the old Lionel track lengths I used in my dad's model railroad layout as a kid, only there were no rail cars of proper size to run on it.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Hello :

    I would like to respond to your interesting article on the former Becker miniature railroad known as the Centerville & Southwestern RR, relocated to Phillipsburg NJ.
    The Phillipsburg Railroad Historians was established and incorporated in 1990 to document the history of railroading in Warren County. We acquired most of the assets of the former Becker Farms railroad line with the exception of the Pocono class steam locomotive # 1501, which was donated to the Henry Ford Museum. The rest of the equipment is on location here or in safe storage. We operate on leased property of the Town of Phillipsburg on the former Central RR of NJ yard site.
    PRRH is a stand-alone organization, being the first to make Phillipsburg our home. We supported the efforts at creating a State Transportation Museum here, although the project did not come to fruition. Our mission continues as we restore old equipment, maintain a museum, gift shop and RR library in a former freight house building that has been lovingly rehabilitated.
    Despite the loss of the state museum project, we continue to expand the visitor’s experience with the addition of operating railroad motif as well as extending the Centerville & Southwestern. Please go to www.PRRH.ORG to see our progress to date. We are open on selected dates and for Town events held at nearby Shappell Park.
    The little railroad operates on these dates.

    Paul Carpenito
    President

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  2. Hi, just a few additions and corrections to a great article on the Centerville & Southwestern Railroad & the Phillipsburg Railroad Historians. We were founded in 1990 to create a railroad museum in Phillipsburg to preserve the history of the five railroads that ran through the town. We are located on four acres of former Central Railroad Of New Jersey yard that we lease from the town. We acquired the C&S in 1992 from Monmouth County were the railroad was placed into storage on 1972. The only part of the C&S that went to the Henry Ford Museum was the steam engine, #1501. We had plans on running the C&S from our museum site to a larger site where the New Jersey Transportation & Heritage Center was to be built. Unfortunately, the land was sold out from under the Center and that project was halted. We have about 1700 feet of track laid along the Norfolk Southern's Lehigh Line. We hold Open Houses on select dates during the year where the public can visit our museum and ride the C&S free of charge. Our schedule can be found on our web site www.PRRH.org. We can also be found on the Phillipsburg Railroad Historians page on Facebook.

    Steve Winter

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  3. I remember dragging my parents out to the old Becker farm every summer weekend in the early 70s to ride the C&SW! The steam train (#1501) alternated with a bright red diesel switcher. I always wanted to wait for the steam train, but in retrospect the diesel was just as original. The ride was heaven for a young railway enthusiast, complete with working signals and switches, sidings, and a turntable. The track went through the farmland, past the donkey and pig pens, and through a lovely wooded area. When it closed I was traumatized, and I still avoid driving past that area when I'm back in NJ. I'm very glad to learn that part of the railroad has been restored in Phillipsburg, and I hope to take a ride out there the next time I'm back in NJ.

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    1. StanA, If you ever do return to NJ, please go to Becker Farms Rd. in Roseland and look for the concrete bridge and cement abutments that cross over the dry creek. You'll see the insignia of 'C&SRR 1968'. I, like you, no longer live in NJ. But I had the chance to locate it in 11/2014. When I did, I took pictures. But I also reminisced of my youth when I was about 9 years old when I went with my family. That put a smile on my face. If you go, you'll be glad you did.

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