Monday, December 7, 2015

Just a Short Line: The Story of the Rahway Valley Railroad

Just a Short Line: The Story of the Rahway Valley Railroad
Written by Richard J. King

When one considers New Jersey’s rich railroad heritage, images of the Jersey Central, the Lackawanna, the Erie, the Lehigh Valley, the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines, and the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad come to mind. There are, however, many lesser-known railroads that contributed to the tangled web of rails that once crisscrossed the state. They too were a boon to commerce, and deserve their place in history.

One of these little-known rail lines was the quirky, ostentatious, short, and perseverant railroad known as the Rahway Valley. For ninety-five years, this short line railroad ambled trains down its 11.8 mile long “streak ‘o rust,” built originally to haul golfers to the famed Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, NJ. 

A railroad is only as good as the people who work for it. Dozens of people came and went from the Rahway Valley in its 95 years of operations, but the total number of employees never exceeded twenty-five at any one given time. Many employees were local residents, and oftentimes left the Rahway Valley for greater prospects in the railroad industry. Some, however, stayed with the railroad for decades. In addition to the railroad’s story, the Just a Short Line book series captures the stories of the people who were responsible for the Rahway Valley being as successful as it was. Pictured here are Carl “Cadillac” Nees (master mechanic), George Davis (conductor), Paul Albright (brakeman), Tom “Happy” Mangini (fireman), and Frank “Dirty Neck” Froat. (Richard Fullerton photo, Carstens Publications collection)

The golf club’s owner and founder, Louis Keller, desired first-class transportation to and from the club. Keller was a man of inherited wealth and became well-known as the publisher of the Social Register, an annual list of society’s who’s who. In 1904, Keller banded together with the industrialists behind the recently-failed New Orange Industrial Association to charter the Rahway Valley Railroad. 

These industrialists, all from Elmira, NY, had come to New Jersey in 1894 to build what they had hoped would be a model industrial town. Called “New Orange,” this town was to have large factories and be home to tens of thousands of people. Their elaborate plans called for electric trolleys, a yacht club, a grand city hall, and a dedicated railroad. Despite early success and the construction of a short four-mile railroad called the New York & New Orange, the project flopped. The railroad was foreclosed upon and renamed the New Orange Four Junction Railroad, but remained in dire straits. The town of New Orange was later renamed “Kenilworth,” the name which it still bears today.

Through his partnership, Keller was able to acquire New Orange’s little railroad, reorganize it as the Rahway Valley Railroad, and extend it to Summit, NJ. With the construction of a small depot near his golf club, Keller was able to operate fourteen passenger trains daily to Baltusrol. Unfortunately, these passenger receipts proved to be inconsequential for the railroad and, much to Keller’s chagrin, passenger service was discontinued in 1919.

When the line was constructed, it bisected many farms, open fields, and sparse woodlands. The towns which the railroad served – Roselle Park, Kenilworth, Union, Springfield, Summit, and Maplewood – were virtually devoid of industry. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 spurred industrial development throughout New Jersey, and many factories constructed plants along the Rahway Valley for its proximity to New York City and eastern ports for the transatlantic shipment of goods to the Allies overseas.

After floundering financially through the 1920s, the line became a vibrant hauler of freight. Through the hardline business tactics of the Clark family, who came from Oregon in 1920 to manage the Rahway Valley, numerous businesses were attracted to Union County and patronized the railroad. The railroad hauled an endless variety of commodities, including steel, alcohol, cement, feed, coal, lumber, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, stone, and even telephone equipment. The railroad built Union County, hauling the asphalt that paved its roads, the lumber that built its homes, and the bricks that built its schools. A connection was forged with the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad in Summit in 1930, supplementing connections already made with the Jersey Central at Aldene and the Lehigh Valley at Roselle Park, which afforded the little Rahway Valley’s clientele competitive freight rates to all points in the United States and Canada.

Many remember the railroad for its folksy charm. The railroad only ever employed, at most, about twenty-five people at any given time. The train crew became familiar faces to neighborhood children who would wait for the train to go past their street, crushing pennies they had placed upon the rails. Some kids were even fortunate enough to get a ride in the locomotive. Others recall how the railroad would snarl traffic on the infamous Route 22 crossing at the most inconvenient hours of the day, as an unlucky flagman would attempt to halt traffic by wielding a small red flag.

There has always been a fascination with trains embedded in the American persona. They are big and awe-inspiring machines that have made our country successful. Small and independent railroads such as the Rahway Valley have an additional flavor that people find increasingly appealing – they are folksy and personable, they are the “hometown” railroad, and they harbor a charm that cannot be readily explained. Here two local teens watch as the last Rahway Valley passenger train departs Springfield on June 15, 1980. The railroad operated a special train in conjunction with that year’s U.S. Open being held at the Baltusrol Golf Club. (Daniel G. McFadden photo) 
Much of the railroad’s success, and colorful charm, can be attributed to the efforts of George A. Clark, a man once described as “big, awkward, and disheveled” as well as “moody and tempestuous, reflexively profane, and ribaldry humorous.” Having worked for the Rahway Valley for nearly fifty years, many referred to the Rahway Valley as Clark’s railroad despite his owning only one share of stock. Clark succeeded his father as the railroad’s President and General Manager. Despite dropping out of high school, his exceptional managerial and business skills earned the Rahway Valley profits during the depths of the Great Depression. Clark believed that his railroad was “the best barometer in the world for getting a line on business.” Clark believed diversification was key to the Rahway Valley’s success. He stated “We don’t look for big industry. Instead of a few big fellows we have dozens of little ones. In slow times the big ones shut down and everything stops. If you have little fellows some of them are sure to keep on.” Three generations of the Clark family managed the Rahway Valley from the pine paneled offices inside the Kenilworth Station, which stood on the Boulevard.

As asphalt was strewn across the Rahway Valley’s right of way and more people relocated to the suburbs, the railroad began to struggle. Industries were squeezed out of the area as Union County became increasingly residential, hurting the railroad’s bottom line. The real blow came when heating oil began supplanting coal as the preferred home heating fuel. The railroad once served dozens of coal yards along its tracks, but by 1971 there was only one left. The Rahway Valley abandoned its rails in Maplewood when I-78 came through, and continued to eke out an existence for itself in the face of dwindling business and revenue.

Not many railroads were as quirky as the Rahway Valley was. While most railroads have a single paint scheme for their locomotives, the Rahway Valley did not. Here are pictured the railroad’s two diesel-electric locomotives, Nos. 16 and 17, called the “red one” and the “green one,” respectively, by local residents. Both locomotives are now on display at the Whippany Railway Museum in Whippany, NJ. (Patty Clark Gilbride collection)
Beginning in 1975, through the efforts of new President & General Manager Bernie Cahill, the railroad began to reinvent itself. The railroad’s two diesel locomotives, built by General Electric in the 1950’s to replace steam power on the Rahway Valley, abandoned their individual red/yellow and green/yellow paint schemes in favor of a homogenized maroon and white paint scheme. Tracks were repaired and upgraded with heavier rail. A new logo was introduced. A fleet of seventy-five boxcars was acquired, to accrue additional revenue. The railroad even operated a special passenger train when the U.S. Open was hosted at the Baltusrol Golf Club in 1980.

Despite these efforts, business did not recover for the railroad long-term. The railroad lost its liability insurance coverage in 1986 and the Keller family, after owning the railroad for four generations, sold the line to Delaware Otsego Corporation. The new owner, a large railroad holding company with several lines in the northeast, did little to rejuvenate the line or keep a hold on the little business which remained. With only one customer remaining, the Rahway Valley Railroad operated its last train on April 21, 1992.

The Rahway Valley Railroad was a short but successful railroad, and is still recalled with great fondness by those fortunate enough to have witnessed its operations. For nearly a century, the railroad spurred growth in the towns it served by hauling freight cars to and from the many customers along its tracks. In a nod to its historical significance, The Garbely Publishing Company has published a two volume history of the Rahway Valley Railroad. The two-part series, entitled Just a Short Line: The History of the Rahway Valley Railroad (Volumes 1 & 2), written by Richard J. King, may be purchased online at

About the Books
Just a Short Line - The Story of the Rahway Valley Railroad, Volume I: History of the Line, 1897-1950 covers the history of the Rahway Valley Railroad from 1897 to 1950. Thoroughly researched and documented, this history traces the railroad from its inception as the New York & New Orange Railroad until the last full year of steam locomotive operations. The text is supplemented with over 200 previously unpublished photographs.

Just a Short Line - The Story of the Rahway Valley Railroad, Volume II: History of the Line, 1951-2009 covers the history of the Rahway Valley Railroad from 1951 to 2009. Thoroughly researched and documented, this history traces the railroad from the delivery of its first diesel locomotive through the shutdown in 1992 and revitalization attempts in the early 2000s. The text is supplemented with over 200 previously unpublished photographs.

About the Author
Richard J. “Richie” King has a passion for history, railroads, and particularly short-line railroads. Born two years after the demise of the Rahway Valley Railroad, King grew up in Union, NJ and often wondered about the abandoned rails in his hometown. This culminated in King’s pursuit of information about the RV. It probably also helped that King’s parents, and their friends, were some of the “river boys” roaming around the RV’s Rahway River bridge in Union – the locally famed “trestle.”

King has authored two volumes about the RV, which cover the line’s history in two parts – 1897 to 1950 and 1951 to 2009. King has given talks and presentations about the railroad’s importance at the Cranford Historical Society, the Cranford Public Library, the Jersey Central Railway Historical Society, the Roselle Park Historical Society, the Tri-State Railway Historical Society, and the Union Township Historical Society.

When not researching railroad history, King is often in the pursuit of genealogical information, camping in various states, riding four-wheelers, or spending time with friends and family. More recently, King participated in the cosmetic restoration of RV 70-tonners Nos. 16 and 17 at the Whippany Railway Museum in Whippany, NJ.

King holds an associate’s degree in business from Union County College of Cranford, NJ, and is presently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Management at Ramapo College of Mahwah, NJ.

Always willing to chat about the RV, King may be contacted at


Silly question, was this located in or have any attachment at all to the town of Rahway?

Silly question, was this located in or have any attachment at all to the town of Rahway?

i worked there from 1977 to 1986

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