Sunday, January 29, 2012

Penhorn Creek Railroad


The Penhorn Creek Railroad.

The name conjures up thoughts of a doomed short line railway to nowhere projected during one of the railway booms the country experienced one hundred or more years ago. Or maybe it was a logging company's railroad that brought cut trees from the woods down to the sawmill next to a Class I railroad line.

But in fact it ran from Jersey City to Secaucus, and it was built about 1905 to 1910.

And the Penhorn Creek has a web page created by "NE", that shows you where it was and gives some information from the Valuation Reports done for the ICC ninety years ago:

Why, after dabbling in New York area rail services for these many years, have I just recently discovered the Penhorn Creek Railroad?

It shows how one or two people can make a difference.

For the Morris and Essex lines, which were the local part of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, we benefit from the work of Thomas Taber senior and junior, who produced the The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Nineteenth Century and The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Twentieth Century in a total of three volumes. Thanks to them we can trace railroad openings, station buildings, the laying of additional tracks, route realignments and grade separations, subsidiary companies, and train services.

For the Pennsylvania Railroad, we have the Triumph series by Charles Roberts and David Messer. Their typically thorough volume on the history of the New York Division— from just outside Philadelphia to New York— tells you almost all you need to know about the Northeast Corridor's development.

But the Erie Railroad in New Jersey, in that kind of detail? No one has done it.

So, I find out only now about the Penhorn Creek Railroad.

What was it? As the Board of Public Utility Commissioners (New Jersey) wrote in their 1913 annual report,

the formation of the Penhorn Creek Railroad Company was an expedient adopted by the Erie Railroad Company to enable it to accomplish certain results, highly desirable in themselves, which by direct action it could not accomplish.  [...]

From the beginning the main line and branches of the Penhorn Creek Railroad Company have been employed by the Erie Railroad Company as a part of its main line, and the only trains which have been operated thereover have been trains of the Erie Railroad Company "which operate over some one or more lines of railroad operated by the Erie Railroad Company or some parts thereof."

They got a little lost in that second sentence where they seem to be quoting something a company official testified.

In short— the Penhorn Creek Railroad was a new passenger main line that bypassed the freight yards in Secaucus and crossed through Bergen Hill in a new four-track open cut, the cut that became known as Bergen Arches. The old main, including the two-track tunnel opened in 1860, became  the freight main. The Arches and the tunnel are parallel, the tunnel along the north side of the Arches and at a lower elevation.

Here's a clip of the 1955 map from my forthcoming New Jersey Terminals project, with a black line added to show the freight main line. The Erie is shown in lime green.

In this area, three Erie lines converged. The Erie-owned New York and Greenwood Lake Railway included trains of its Orange and Caldwell Branches and of the Erie's Newark Branch ; the Erie's Main Line included trains of the Erie-owned New Jersey and New York Railroad (now called the Pascack Valley Line) and the Erie's Bergen County line (mainly for freight) ; and the third line was the combined Northern Branch of the Erie and New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad.

The Penhorn Creek Railroad had a grade-separated junction between the busy Greenwood Lake and Main lines, with the outbound Greenwood Lake crossing under the Main. The Penhorn Creek ran four tracks wide starting at the junction. The less busy Northern-Susquehanna route, however, as far as I can tell, had an at-grade junction with the four-track Penhorn Creek main line. I imagine inbound trains from those lines just had to wait to join the main. There was no way to build a better junction in the very tight space available.

On the left there's a railroad in my base map with no colored line over it, with the lettering N AND NEWARK R R. Believe it or not it's part of what got me started on the project.

That route, from about the W east, was the Morris and Essex main line from 1863 to 1877. See how it lines up with the dark green Morris and Essex to the left. During this period the M&E ran through the Erie tunnel and then, east of the tunnel, curved north and east to Hoboken. And also during this period, in 1872, the Erie opened its Newark and Hudson Railroad, which completed a branch line from Paterson to Newark to Jersey City. The odd result was the Erie running on the M&E for a short distance. Once the M&E opened its own tunnel in 1877, it followed the routing shown above in dark green, and the Erie acquired the segment used for its own trains.

The Erie had significant investment in the New York and Greenwood Lake Railway from the early 1880s but did not actually acquire control until 1898. Some time around 1890, the Erie had a company called the Arlington Railroad construct a connection in the meadows from the Greenwood Lake south to meet the Newark Branch at a point just off the map above. This consolidated traffic over the lower bridge seen in the base map.

I know that the Greenwood Lake originally ran to the Pennsylvania terminal at Exchange Place. I think the re-routing via the Arlington Railroad marks the date that it started running to the Erie terminal instead. The upper bridge seems to have remained in use— at least maps continued to show it— and possibly it was used to bring freight over the old route to the Pennsylvania Railroad at Marion Junction.

Around 1909, another connection was built across the meadows, running from the Newark Branch northeast to the upper bridge. This seems to have been coordinated with the construction of the Penhorn Creek Railroad, and in fact some part of the line, I would say east of the bridge, is credited to the Penhorn Creek. The point was to get both the busy Greenwood Lake route and the lesser Newark Branch over the upper bridge to that grade-separated junction. A freight connection was also supplied curving north to the Croxton Yard around the old Erie main line. Once this was all in place, about 1911, the lower bridge was removed.

Well, that was a long way to go. I just wanted to point out that the Penhorn Creek Railroad used a little bit of the old M&E curve as it came out of the Arches.

And where is the waterway called Penhorn Creek? You can see it on the base map. It forms the boundary between City of Jersey City and Town of Secaucus.

And how has the Penhorn Creek Railroad fared?

The Erie and the Lackawanna (owner of the M&E) began to consolidate operations into the M&E's Hoboken Terminal in 1956. A connection was built where the Penhorn Creek came alongside the Lackawanna's Boonton Line, north of the Greenwood Lake junction, and the Greenwood Lake itself was also connected to the Boonton Line. This part of the Penhorn Creek remained in use until 2003, when New Jersey Transit opened a new connection near the Hackensack River from the former Erie Main Line to the former Lackawanna Boonton Line, as part of the Secaucus Junction station project. Most of this section of the Penhorn Creek Railroad is now part of a New Jersey Turnpike ramp for Exit 15X.

South of the Turnpike ramp, the former Penhorn Creek Railroad is abandoned, including the Bergen Arches. The Arches closed when the Erie's Jersey City terminal closed in 1958. The parallel tunnel, which was about 50 years older than the Arches, continued in use for freight for decades longer. I am not sure whether it is still in use.



  1. The Long Dock, the earlier tunnel though Bergen Hill, has remained in use for freight and was renovated in the 2000s by NJDOT and NS, who laid new track and heightened clearances for double stacking containers.
    All of this is part of the grander plan to built a post-Panamax container terminal at Port jersey/MOTBY to be serviced by the National Docks Secondary.

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  3. The Arches were still in use by the Lackawanna for local freight runs until the early 80's. After which the remaining track was ripped out and the huge Penhorn Creek Viaduct leading to the old Erie terminal in Jersey City was dismantled.

  4. Funny, I am a nut about the history of RR's in northern and central NJ, and all the machinations they went through to get into their well-known form of the 20th century. I was walking around Harrison and Kearny recently, looking at the old Paterson and Newark RR (Newark Branch) and the NYGL rights of way, and for the past week have been trying to figure out the exact history of the line (seen easily in aerial photos) that went from the eastbound NY&GL to the Paterson and Newark way way back when (west of the Hackensack). And I found your site by google and you nailed it. Thanks