Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Rising from Despair: Waldwick Station and Erie Interlocking Tower

Rising from Despair: Waldwick Station and Erie Interlocking Tower

Waldwick, New Jersey is a relatively small town, with just over two square miles and a population over 9,000. It is home to two historic railroad structures which are important locally because they are rare surviving examples of late nineteenth century railroad architecture in Bergen County. As these structures became obsolete, they remained abandoned rather than being demolished. However, time took its toll on them, bringing them to the brink of no return. But both structures have been meticulously restored over time and finally reopened to the public this year.

Waldwick Station
The Waldwick Train Station was built in 1886 on the Erie Railroad line. It was primarily a commuter rail station but it also received freight. The building contained a sizable waiting room, ticket office, and semi-outdoor toilet facilities in a narrow space about four feet wide attached to the waiting room. Through the twentieth century, until it was boarded up by 1977, plumbing was never installed. The building was heated by pot belly stoves, of which the original waiting room stove is on display. After the building was boarded up in the late 1970s, the structure sat uncared for and unused.

By 2005, due to a lack of any regular maintenance, the building looked as if it was nearing the end of its life. There were gaping holes in the roof, broken windows, peeling paint, graffiti, rotted framing, and severe structural issues with the foundation.

It was at this time that the Waldwick Community Alliance recognized the structure's value and potential. The station had served an important role in the development of Waldwick and it had to be saved. Fundraising for the restoration project began in 2005. In 2009, the Alliance struck a deal with New Jersey Transit to lease the building and grounds surrounding it for twenty-five years.

After continuous fundraising, applying for public and private grants, and careful planning and analysis of the building, restoration began in 2011.

In 2011, Phase I of the restoration began, focusing on the structure. The building had been covered in stucco in the early twentieth century. One of the first tasks of the volunteers was to remove all of the stucco, which revealed the original exterior wood siding underneath. Due to a build-up of soil around the building over the years, the sill plate around the building had to be replaced. The roof, with its gaping holes, was replaced with period slate. The existing chimney, which had been rebuilt in the 1920s, was replaced with a historically accurate chimney using period bricks. Other exterior work included window and door replacement, exterior wood replacement, restoration of the original metal roof cresting, and exterior painting. The colors of the station were determined through paint analysis.

The Phase II of the project began in 2014. This part of the project included interior trim replacement, a new wood floor, interior lighting, and the installation of a modern HVAC system. The restoration took nearly five years to complete and cost over $600,000.

The museum officially opened to the public in May 2016. On display in the museum is a mixture of railroad items and changing displays of local interest. The ticket office is set up as it may have been. In the back of the ticket office is the station's original circa 1890 Fairbanks' Standard freight scale. In the main waiting room luggage is lined up along one wall and there are numerous display cases with artifacts related to the railroad, the station, its restoration, and items from the veterans of Waldwick. The original out-house type restroom area has been turned into a narrow gallery with images from Waldwick's past.

Circa 1890 Fairbanks' Standard freight scale.
Memorabilia from Waldwick's Post Brass Band.

Erie Interlocking Tower
Just down the tracks (and on the other side) from Waldwick Station is the 1890 Erie Interlocking Tower. Constructed by the New York Lake Erie and Western Railroad, it is the sole surviving example of six towers built in this Queen Anne design. It operated until 1986. Restoration was also recently completed on this tower and it is now open to the public.

An interlocking tower is akin to an air traffic control tower. The top level contained the latest technology to control train movements on the tracks below and gave the operators a commanding view of the train yard. At its height, the yard operated 24 hours a day and handled 100 trains daily,

The tower was added to the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places in 1987. New Jersey Transit sold the tower, but not the land it sat on, to a private railroad enthusiast. In 1999, this private owner donated the building to the Borough of Waldwick. After careful negotiations, the Waldwick Historical Society finally received a lease for the land. In 2002, a gift in the will of Robert Keeble provided the funding to begin the tower's restoration. The tower was so badly deteriorated that workers in hazmat suits first entered it to remove garbage, guano, and debris. The complete restoration took fifteen years and cost $200,000.

One important community member recognized at the tower is Harvey Springstead. Springstead, born in 1856 in Jersey City, moved to Waldwick in 1890 and was an engineer for the New York Division of the Erie Railroad. He was known for having one of the cleanest and best maintained engines in the United States. He was rewarded with every award that the Erie Railroad offered. He was made Foreman of the Road, effectively managing all engineers in the division. In 1910, Springstead became the first engineer to have his name in gold letters on the side of his engine. Locally, he served five years as a township committee man, two years as treasurer, and was elected to the office of special tax collector. He lived just a few blocks up from the rail yard, at the corner of Franklin Turnpike and Lincoln Place, and parked his engine in a location that he could see it from his house. Despite his death in 1933, Springstead is still well-known by railroad enthusiasts and there have been a number of articles and features published about his work and his life.

Additional photos of my trip to the Waldwick Station & Erie Interlocking Tower on Pinterest

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So many of us Waldwickians grew up with those structures, and even warming up in the old station on the way to school...an alert train worker in that tower observed people breaking into my work place across the tracks, and called police. Who can't remember the pedestrian tunnel, since filled by local contractor, Butch Wagner?

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