Today, Mendham Township and Borough are bedroom communities with over twelve thousand residents, who live in a mixture of historic homes and more contemporary houses mostly built after WWII. There are several high-end housing developments, along with mansions sprinkled around the two towns. The Borough has the commercial district. There is a network of roads for travel, but no mass transportation. A failed bus service to Morristown was last tried in the 1970’s.

125 years ago, Mendham Township was a rural, farming community. Approximately one thousand four hundred people who lived in the small settlements of Brookside, Harmony, Mendham, and Ralston. Mendham was known for its schools, while Brookside’s commercial past was rapidly fading. Ralston was a small thinly settled area. Harmony was even smaller with a few homes and barns, awaiting its watery grave in third decade of the Twentieth Century with the building of the Clyde Potts Reservoir.

Second growth trees carpet much of Mendham Township today, but then the land, including farmland, swamps and hills were denuded of most trees due to active lumbering for business and home use. The connector roads remain today. A most significant difference was a narrow-gauge railroad, the Rockaway Valley Railroad (RVRR), which remains only as a memory.

The RVRR was conceived as a way to deliver the peaches grown across Hunterdon County to market, presumably to avoid the bruising caused when shipped by wagon. Initially the RVRR was estimated to deliver up to 200,000 peach filled baskets a year. However, the peach yield dropped in the 1890s and completely failed by 1900 due to a killing blight.

The railroad diversified its freight overtime. The stations at Whitehouse and Watnong were the conduits for delivery into and out of this area. RVRR hauled farm products such as grains and milk, along with mail, lumber, lime, cast iron, coal, ice, apple jack, and passengers, including Morristown High School students.

Applejack a popular locally distilled drink

Several times a day there was a rumble in the distance breaking the quiet. A whistle, a bell distantly sounded at Pitney and at Mendham from the south or at Day’s Hill from the north. In the distance, belching smoke arose. There were the sounds of metal on metal, train cars shaking, the engine roaring as the wheels locked to slow down, steam bleeding from the engine, and the bell announcing its arrival in Brookside.

The engineer and stoker waived and shouted to the station agent or anyone else within hearing. The conductor hopped off to sell or check tickets to various destinations. One can imagine children shouting or waving as the locomotive rolled by, receiving a shout in return or an occasional volley of coal.

The line earned its appellation of “Rock-A-Bye Baby Railroad” from the violent movement of the cars over the uncertainly placed and secured rails. Passengers had to hold on tight and put up with the violent shaking in the cars with packages rolling about. No baby lullaby! At times lumps of coal tumbled out of the coal gondolas or from the engine tender. A better slogan might have been “Going slow to make it.”

The travel times were short, so the shifting, the jolting, and the noise was bearable. The alternative of road travel over poorly maintained roads could be rough and challenging too and with longer travel times.

Soon after the completion of the line to Watnong (the Lenape name for a small mountain nearby), Morristown promoters hosted the people who lived along the RVRR. They offered two free rail trips to Morristown to sample the various shops and entertainments. People began visiting Morristown, as well as the other stops along the line. Rare adventures of the past became ordinary trips to town. When the mail contract was awarded to the RVRR in place of the stage line, Michael Coghlan, former stagecoach owner, became the Mendham station agent.

Customers were even able to hop on and off without the train having to stop at the depots. There were occasional stops in between the stations too. In one case, a conductor halted the train to deliver change due to a passenger at her home for an earlier trip. The engineers were known to slow the train and shoo cows off the track.

Rockaway Valley Engine 830 near Lades Mill

Notice that the locomotive is pulling the train cars in reverse, an example of the disadvantage of a single line rail line with inadequate turnabouts.

The Rockaway Valley Railroad passed daily through the Township stops, Ralston Shelter, Mendham Depot, Pitney (a flag stop only), and Brookside Depot.

1899 timetable

On a typical day in Brookside, a train left at 8:20AM for the Watnong Station with mail and passengers, including high school students. It returned at 9:45AM with the mail and freight destined for Brookside and other stops along the way.

Brookside Depot

The train chugged on to the other stations to the west ending at Whitehouse and the connection with the Jersey Central RR, returning by 4PM to Brookside. The train would then motor to Watnong and return on its final stop in Brookside around 5:45PM, including the High School Students.

The RVRR also offered special trips to county fairs, church picnics, scenic spots, etc. One trip was organized with the Jersey Central for the Allentown, P.A. Fair in September of 1910.

Coal was shipped daily and was an important source of revenue. Its key use was for lime kilns, which used coal to separate out the pure lime, which was then used in the creation of cast iron. Coal also became a popular alternative to wood for cooking and heating area homes. It was cheaper and burned cleaner than wood. The delivery price of coal by rail was $1 a ton versus road cart delivery for $2.

Day’s Mill was busy refining grain to ship. The mill owners discovered that they could make a better profit by importing midwestern grain to grind as opposed to the local product. The western grain was cheaper and more plentiful.

Train Car at Day’s Mill

The Central Jersey and the Lackawanna railroads, among others, explored building a rail line from Whitehouse to Morristown. However, their estimated cost was too high versus the expected return. The Lackawanna projected a cost of $27,000 per mile. Aggressive entrepreneurs, iron miners, and local peach farmers wanted a rail line. They hired John E. V. Melick as the chief engineer to build the RVRR. He predicted that a profitable line could be built for $15,000 per mile or about half the estimate of the Lackawanna. He encouraged a belief among local farmers that the line would be a success if they all helped. The work crew were primarily Italian immigrants, who toiled with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows to build a twenty-five, mile path and hammer the rails into place.

Melick had never built a rail line before. He chose light-weight rails which was atypical and a poor choice. He fashioned the bed by leveling the path with dirt, omitting the typical bed of rock raised six to twelve inches high to set the ties on. This created a porous surface which was a problem when rain and/or moisture caused the ground to become muddy. High points were cut back shovel by shovel with the debris used to fill in low spots along the way.

Railroad ties were fashioned from the local trees. After being cut to the proper length, one side was flattened as a surface to secure the rails. In this period, it was more typical to flatten at least two sides so that ties would sit in the rail bed on one flat side with the other flat side to secure the rails. Of course, Melick used a dirt bed which was more accommodating to a rough unfinished side. He placed the ties 30” apart instead of the typical 19”. This has been compared to building a city trolley line.

The main line was a single track approximately twenty-five miles long, starting in Whitehouse and ending in Watnong. Near some of the station depots there were additional tracks, turnabout pits, and switching areas. Water towers were placed strategically along the line at Day’s Mill, Ralston, etc. These were to replace the water in the tender, as necessary, before its main refilling at Pottersville. Additionally, there were sidings for a variety of purposes such as coal pockets for delivering coal from hoppers for sale to area residents.

A few trestles were built, with the Peapack Trestle being the largest. Even when new, it was considered to be so treacherous that the trains had to motor across it at a very slow speed. Numerous small bridges were constructed as the line crossed various brooks and streams of the Whippany and Raritan Rivers. RVRR crossed and recrossed them. In Brookside, a storage shed used by the RVRR was repurposed from a shed built earlier for the Connett Mill.

For all his faults and lack of knowledge, Melick built the RVRR. He would later build a second rail line in Whippany with similar flaws.

The poorly laid track caused the trains to move at a slow pace to avoid accidents. However, the line suffered from numerous derailments over its life (nine in 1908 alone), as well as the torching of two coal pockets, a new station, and four train cars.

Section hands were spotted along the line with handcars ready to service line problems. Of course, as in the picture above, another engine was necessary to pull the wayward engine back on the track. There were three crews with one covering Ralston to Watnong.

Except for the Peapack Trestle and a few other locations the line suffered from the vagaries of weather and especially rain. Overtime cinders from the engine fire box, local rocks, and the tailings from the Connett Mine were placed in between the ties to improve drainage.

The RVRR Company started construction in 1888. It reached Mendham Township in 1891 and finally as far as Brookside in 1892. In June, a locomotive whistle was first heard in Brookside. With its bell ringing the engine came to a stop at the Brookside Depot, fashioned from a former four-wheel caboose. The residents hung bouquets on the engine, while the crowd cheered the officers of the company. They thanked the employees of the construction company. Several speeches were made, probably including the Township Mayor. A reception trackside followed to celebrate the day, as the owners optimistically envisioned the line soon reaching Morristown.

The RVRR overcame difficulties of the Whippany River’s meandering path and occasional flooding reaching far as Watnong Mountain near Morristown in 1893. However, the grade to surmount the Speedwell Hill, which blocked the path to Morristown was well over the 8%. The cost of blasting rocks to lower the grade was beyond RVRR’s financial capacity. This inability to reach Morristown reduced the rail line’s profitability and effectively sealed its future as a failure.

Over the years, a series of owners kept replenishing the funds to build and to run the RVRR, through stock sales. The expected return on these investments never materialized. Group after group burned through the funds with the investors eventually receiving pennies on their invested dollars. The name of line was even changed to the Rockway Valley Railway after a few years, perhaps to confuse investors.

The RVRR filed for bankruptcy in 1895, 1906 & 1912. In 1905 the rail line was sold again and combined with another line. It was given a new name, but profitability remained an elusive dream.

The owners closed the line down in 1913 to make repairs and improvements. The various businesses who used the line championed the restoration of service. However, the owner’s aspirations to activate the line were overmatched by hard reality. The trains never ran again.

Automobiles were becoming a factor in travel and a competitor to rail service. The Ford Model T was put into production as “the farmer’s car” in 1908. Within a few years Ford and others were building thousands of cars each year.

Allen with his model T tearing up the RVRR track

The final owner of RVRR, Frank B. Allen, bought the line in 1917. He returned the two remaining locomotives to the Jersey Central, selling whatever remained of the rolling stock. He was the only investor to ever make a profit on his investment. 1917 was the height of WWI. Rolling steel was valued at a premium. Frank Allen removed the rails carefully with his Model T. He sold them to the French Government for approximately $150,000. The RVRR rails were then used by the French in their front-line trenches for a narrow-gauge line.

The RVRR has mostly vanished, except for a few old ties remaining in the right of way and the Brookside train shed. The New Jersey historian John Cunningham lived there as a child in the 1930’s. I have wondered how the Cunningham Family were able to burn these railroad ties in their wood stoves. However, since the ties were not bathed in creosote as a preservative and just local, hand cut wood, they would have burned nicely.

 

 

Sam Tolley June 2023 (one hundred and thirty-one years after the whistle first sounded in Brookside)

Sources:
“The Rock-a-bye Baby, A History of the Rockaway Valley Railroad,” by Thomas T. Taber III, 1972
“A Walking Tour of the Rockaway Valley Railroad” 3 part video by Mendham Township Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) 

Archives of the Mendham Township Historic Preservation Committee (HPC)
Jerseyman Newspaper
Tim Timpson research
Wikipedia