The Boonton Branch refers to the railroad line in New Jersey that was completed in 1870 and ran 34 miles (54.8 km) from Hoboken to East Dover Junction as part of the Morris & Essex Railroad (M&E). Although the branch hosted commuter trains (and to a lesser extent, passenger trains), the line was primarily built as a freight bypass line. The term "branch", therefore, is somewhat of a misnomer since the Boonton Branch was built to higher mainline standards than the Morristown Line, the line that it bypassed. As a result, the Boonton Branch better meets the definition of a "cut-off" rather than a branch. Some of the towns that the Boonton Branch passed through included Lyndhurst, Passaic, Clifton, Paterson, Wayne, Lincoln Park, Mountain Lakes, and its namesake, Boonton.
History and construction
By the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the management of the Morris & Essex Railroad had recognized that the Morristown Line was inadequate as a freight line. The line was circuitous and had to climb the steep 1.5% westbound grade to Summit, New Jersey. Although not yet the issue it would become in the 20th Century, the Morristown Line also passed through numerous small towns that were served by passenger trains. (The term "commuter" was just coming into vogue at that time.) Rather than attempting to rebuild an existing line, the Lackawanna Railroad, which controlled the M&E, decided to build a completely new line. The new line would leave the Morristown Line just west of the Bergen Tunnel at West End and then would rejoin the Morristown line at East Dover Jct., a total of 34 miles. (In 1903, Denville Jct. would be created at its present location and East Dover Jct. would be downgraded.)
The Boonton Branch was built between 1869 and 1870. Reportedly, very few construction problems were encountered. The line more or less paralleled the Morris Canal for its entire length. This was hardly a coincidence for competitive and topographical reasons. From a competitive point of view, the canal still carried a significant amount of coal traffic at the time the Boonton Branch was built. Anthracite coal played a major role in creating a need for the Boonton Branch. As the Road of Anthracite, the Lackawanna Railroad tapped the anthracite-rich hills of the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Valley to supply the suburbs of New Jersey. That situation would rapidly change as the railroad's delivery schedule was counted in hours—not days (as was the case of the canal)—and the railroad didn't freeze over for four months out of the year, at the time when its more profitable commodity was in greatest demand. From a topographical point of view, the Boonton Branch's alignment allowed for fast freight service over a line that was relatively uncongested by commuter and passenger traffic. Westbound, trains had to overcome a ruling grade of 1%, which often required pusher engines and helper engines. Even so, the Boonton Branch's grade profile was a decided improvement over the Morristown Line's.
Growth and severing
The Lackawanna's freight business grew decidedly from the time of the opening of the Boonton Branch until the First World War. During the 1920s, it continued to grow, necessitating additional tracks being laid on the Boonton Branch. But by the time of the Second World War, the Lackawanna was already in decline, having suffered during the Great Depression (like most other American railroads), and although traffic saw a large upswing during the war, by the 1950s the financial outlook was bleak. In attempt to avoid inevitable bankruptcy, the railroad merged with the Erie Railroad in 1960. The new railroad, Erie Lackawanna Railroad (EL), was full of promise, but did poorly for its first few years, losing millions of dollars. During this time, EL management looked for ways to stave off receivership. In a move that was extremely controversial, the New Jersey Highway Department (now NJDOT) moved to buy the right-of-way of the Boonton Branch between Paterson and Totowa, New Jersey, for Interstate 80 from the Erie Lackawanna. The highway department approached EL management with an offer of $2 million if the railroad agreed to completely sever the route. The highway department would have permitted the EL to retain one track (it was a double-track line), but the railroad would not have received any cash. Public hearings were held where rail advocates criticized the idea of severing the line, but to no avail.
Since most of the railroad's freight had been shifted off of the former Boonton Branch at Mountain View, with the Erie's Greenwood Lake Branch to be used as the new eastern connection to Hoboken, creating the new Boonton Line for commuter purposes, the impact of the severing of the line initially seemed to be minimal. On paper, the severing of the line only affected the City of Paterson with the closing of the former Lackawanna passenger station located on a hill above the city. Paterson was already served by the former Erie mainline station in downtown Paterson and did not protest the move. What was lost, and what would eventually come back to haunt the EL, was that of a high-speed freight route.
Indeed, in a decade's time after the severing of the line at Garret Mountain, all long-haul freights would be brought back to the "Lackawanna side". The aforementioned Greenwood Lake Branch had a grade profile similar to that of the Morristown Line, a line which the Morris & Essex Railroad's management had decided to bypass a century earlier. The use of the Greenwood Lake Branch would prove to be an operational headache. And after the EL became part of Conrail in 1976, Conrail specifically would point to the severing of the Garret Mountain section of the Boonton Branch as a key reason in its decision to abandon the Lackawanna Cutoff.
With the opening of the Montclair Connection in 2002, trains over the Boonton Line were rerouted at Montclair over the Montclair Branch, resulting in the renaming of the line to the Montclair-Boonton Line.
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- Taber, Thomas Townsend, III (1980). The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Nineteenth Century. Lycoming Printing Company.
- Taber, Thomas Townsend, III (1980). The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad in the Twentieth Century (2 volumes). Lycoming Printing Company.