Thursday, September 5, 2013

Nearly running the gauntlet in Oxford

In our travels, we've sometimes been fortunate to find hidden history in pairs, like the Warren County Alms House and its cemetery, separated by a few miles. Other times, we don't find the proximity until we're knee-deep in research, miles away from what was once so close it's surprising we hadn't tripped on it.

We found ourselves roaming the back roads of Warren County again recently, and made a quick stop in Oxford, the site of a historic iron furnace and its' founder's home, Shippen Manor. When you set off on a wandering mission, you always take the chance that a historic home or museum won't be open, and that always seems to be the case when I happen to be in the greater Oxford-politan area. Nonetheless, because Ivan hadn't been there before, I pulled onto the property and slowly drove the road that traverses behind the manor and wraps around the front.

Good thing I did, too, because we discovered something I hadn't noticed on my other visits. Embedded in the stone retaining wall between the home and the drive was this:

The Warren Railroad was a new one on me, but I wasn't surprised to discover that there had been yet another company operating what I assumed was freight transport in the area. After all, Oxford Furnace was just down the hill, and Warren County's own John Blair was the nation's most active builder of railroads in the 19th century.

Back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, I did some digging to find out where this plaque originally sat and why it was at Shippen Manor. And once again, I discovered that we'd been very close to more of the story without realizing it. The plaque had capped the top of the western portal of a now-abandoned tunnel built by an ambitious railroad executive.

Railroad history in New Jersey is long and convoluted, to the point where it would probably make for a good miniseries for someone who had the patience to work through it all. For the purpose of the Oxford story, it's only really necessary to know that the Warren Railroad was chartered in 1851 to connect the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western's terminal point on the Delaware with the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Hampton station. The goal: to further connect the coal mines of Pennsylvania with markets in New York City. The fact that the Oxford Furnace was nearby probably didn't hurt, either.

Construction began in 1854, and it was an ambitious task, pitting mid-19th century technology against the very stubborn gneiss rock of northwestern New Jersey. Most frustrating, it seems, was Oxford Mountain (now known as Scott's Mountain) at Van Nest Gap, where the path of the railroad called for a 3002-foot long tunnel to avoid laying track at a steep incline with difficult curves. In the words of the New York Times account of the tunnel construction, "The rock is of a syenitic formation, and during the progress of the job almost every form of underground operations proved necessary. From the hard, seamless rock, offering the most stubborn resistance to construction, every degree of formation was encountered, to quicksand, with an unusual quantity of water."

Understanding that the tunnel would take some time to build, Blair's engineers devised an alternate path around the mountain, enabling the railroad to commence operations in 1856. In fact, my research reveals that without realizing it, Ivan and I had driven along the interim right-of-way when we passed behind Shippen Manor. He'd noticed that beyond the current driveway, the trees directly ahead -- ones that would have been in the road if it had continued on a straight path -- were younger than those to the side. We'd surmised that it might have been a carriage path, not considering the possibility of a railroad running so close to the house.

The Van Nest Gap tunnel opened to train traffic in 1862, paralleling present-day Route 31 and shortening the trip between Scranton and the Hudson River by six miles. While it originally had two tracks to simultaneously accommodate traffic in both directions, changes in railroad gauge and an increase in the size of rolling stock forced a change to gauntlet tracks in 1900. Basically, another set of closely overlapping tracks was built parallel to an existing set, with traffic headed eastward using one track and the westward another. (You can find a more technical description here.) This allowed larger trains to pass through the tunnel but also caused delays, as only one train could pass through the tunnel at a time.

Meanwhile, the Warren Railroad had come under the control of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, which undertook yet another ambitious project to eliminate the Oxford bottleneck. The Lackawanna Cut-off reduced the length of the railroad's main line by another 11 miles and included the famed Paulinskill Viaduct, an impressive 110-foot high concrete bridge over the Paulinskill Valley. The Warren Railroad route was relegated to second-banana status, starting a decline from which it never recovered. By 1970, even the tracks were gone, leaving just memories, a partially flooded tunnel and a capstone that shares a hint of a story to the few people who might notice it behind a historic house.

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