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Lost in the woods I


n the late 1800’s, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, was at the center of New Jersey’s large peach- growing industry. In 1890 there were over four million peach trees in the state, and better than half of them were located in Hunterdon County. In this era before trucks and automobiles, farmers needed a rail connection to get their crops to big city markets, and for the folks around Pittstown, New Jersey, that railroad was the Lehigh Valley. At this time, the Lehigh Valley mainline extended west from New York Harbor to the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania and beyond. (An extension to Buffalo, New York, was in the final stages of construction.) In New Jersey, the line’s main purpose was to serve as a conduit to bring Pennsyl- vania anthracite coal to the bustling markets in the New York metropolitan region. It was not built to link towns together, as many other railroads were. Instead, in this rural section of New Jersey, the Lehigh Valley constructed branches off its mainline to provide rail service to nearby towns. One such branch, built in 1881, extended off the mainline at Landsdown, N.J., running a mile-and-a- half north to Clinton, the largest of the small towns and farming communities in the area. In addi- tion to the peach farmers, the Clinton branch served a variety of local industries, including a grist mill situated on the banks of the Raritan River and a quarry. At one time, the branch saw ten trains a day. Landsdown, where the Clinton line branched off, was also the closest station on the mainline to Pittstown, so to serve the farmers and a peach basket manufacturer in Pittstown the railroad con- structed a 3.9-mile branch south from Landsdown. It was completed in 1891. A wooden station was built at Pittstown and two flag stops were established along the route. While never as busy as the Clinton branch, the line to Pittstown still saw as many as four trains a day. Unfortunately, for both the farmers and the railroad, after just a few years the peach traffic fell off dramatically. An insect blight that originated in the orient, known as San Jose Scale, was brought to the area on plum trees imported from California. In just a few years thousands of acres of peach trees died off, and with it the peach industry in Hunterdon County was wiped out. Farmers in the area turned their attention to other pursuits, and in the early 1900’s the newly- formed Pittstown Milk Association began shipping milk by rail from the Pittstown station. Like so many other small, rural towns, as automobiles and trucks came into use and better roads were de- veloped, the need for the local branchline grew less and less. In a cost saving move made in the 1920’s, gas-electric cars operating as mixed trains replaced the steam-powered locals on the Pittstown and Clinton branches. By the early 1930’s, with the nation mired in the Depression, pas- senger service over the branches had been greatly reduced, and in 1937 it came to an end. The sta- tions at Landsdown and Clinton were demolished, but the Pittstown depot survived. Freight serv- ice on the Pittstown branch, what little there was of it, lasted another 30 years. The line was abandoned by 1968. The Clinton branch survived into the Conrail era before being abandoned in 1982, having provided a century of service. Still surrounded by farms, Pittstown has retained its rural charm. Today, the little village proba- bly looks very much like it did a century ago. The beautiful Pittstown Inn, a three-story stone structure which dates back to the 1760’s and was once a stagecoach stop, is still the town focal point. Not too far away, the railroad station, which came over a century-and-a-quarter later bring- ing with it such promise, stands neglected, hidden by the thick foliage that has grown up on the un- tended property. Like the peach farms that once dotted the area, it is all but forgotten. In the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, it is still possible to catch a glimpse of the old sta- tion if you know where to look as you pass through town on Route 579. Nature has taken back much of the right-of-way and mature trees surround the long-abandoned building. The roof is in bad shape, the windows are gone and the wood siding has long since shed its paint, but the station still tells a story to anyone who happens upon it. If you’d like to see if for yourself, the right-of-way between Pittstown and Landsdown is now a


walking trail. (Be sure to bring a good bug repellant.) Despite its dilapidated condition, it’s not hard on quiet evening to stand next to the station and conjure up images of what it must have been like when the building was new and the peaches were in season. New or old, the Pittstown depot would certainly make a great modeling subject.


CHRISTOPHER P. D’AMATO 40


photography/CHRISTOPHER P. D’AMATO SEPTEMBER 2012


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