Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Paulinskill Viaduct

My story with the Paulinskill Viaduct begins a few years, a few thousand miles, and a few adolescent broken dreams, ago.

As with many of the locales I find myself and my weary band of companions visiting during this period of my life, the allure of the Viaduct crept into my waking thought when I was younger, either in or just beginning high school. Having since dropped any resistance for hour-plus drives, we have seen numerous locations that had previously held that intangible air of legend and distance from our youth. The mythical nature of the Viaduct, however, had remained ever-so-present, as recently as a year ago.
With the advent of GPS-assisted mapping programs and devices, navigating these minor road trips was never a thought. I, however, made a fatal error and took these tools for granted, just over a year ago. My navigator had broken, yet I still pushed for that night’s adventure to come to fruition. Bear in mind, the Paulinskill Viaduct is just under two hours from my home location.
It’s an easy drive,” I thought.
Printed directions would suffice,” I willed.
A predetermined hour and forty-some minutes resulted in a nerve-wracking six hour romp to and from the wrong side of the state. (For those of you familiar with the geography, we were supposed to be hugging the northwestern portion of the state, near the Delware Water Gap: we almost enteredNew York City. You know, central / easternNew Jersey.) Truly, it was not as miserable as the drama wishes it to be. We found a handful of small towns, ranging from quaint to desolate. That does not mean it was not incredibly taxing to my psyche, especially the one that saw this location as a beacon of my childhood to conquer, claim, and hike. My fortune came once I was in the company of others who wanted to see this place as desperately as I had.
That first excursion was one for the history books of our group’s friendship. We had finally found the access road (at a neck-break angle from the main road) and parked in its shadow, shortly before sundown. We climbed the one side of the hill, finding footholds in the exposed branches and supporting rock, relatively quick, and stood at the maw of the trail just as twilight was settling. The large, metal gates that had previously stood to keep out trespassers (for safety, among other reasons) had been blown apart, from years of exposure to the elements and travelers who were marginally less-respectful than our party. We walked across the loose-stone where the rail used to run, posing for pictures, staring out across the abyss, and inspecting every detail that the Viaduct had to offer. I found myself in one of the opened manholes on the surface, yet could not see further than an inch or so into the wet tunnel. I assumed it to be inaccessible, useless. We were loving every minute, standing a hundred or so feet above the river.
Eventually, a gentle rain began to fall and we could hear the distant howling of dogs, whether they were feral, actual wolves, or just a man walking his pack of corgis, we did not wait around to observe. A small storm was approaching and we had no shelter on the structure, other than the treetops. Bear in mind, we were standing on the side of a mountain. After some rather impressive footwork and time management, every member of the group had set foot on solid blacktop just as the storm broke, soaking the hillside monument and forest. We cheered and screamed like morons, jumping in the middle of street. Although we were still getting wet, we had defeated the rain in our race to level ground.
Various portions of the group had gone back a few times since, but nothing beats that first exploration. However, although some of us had frequented the location more commonly than the others, none had really had the chance to enjoy the beautiful structure during the day, when it was actually visible from a distance. Just recently, we ended this nocturnal streak. We packed up “early” in the day (read: noon) and loaded up on unnecessary goods at Walmart. Although the supplies were ultimately useless (snacks and the like) considering that we stopped at a diner a few hours later, a legend among our friends would be born. After having had the power fail during a restroom visit (an adventure in itself) we found an out-of-place garden gnome watching us from atop the end of an aisle. Shanks grabbed him and he assisted us for the rest of the trek. With the assistance of an employee, we tracked down his native brethren and ended up buying a gnome, sporting the typical red cap. We now call him Otis and he shall insist on future excursions, that is, until we forget him and / or lose him somewhere. (You must understand, my friends are dedicated: we set up a Facebook account for the glorious little bugger.)
The Paulinskill Viaduct has obviously provided so much adventure and natural versus manmade entertainment for my friends and I. Although, officially, it is illegal to trespass on the trestle and within the tunnels, it does not appear to be heavily enforced, having become a popular connection between hiking and four-wheeling trails. Its rich past alone should merit a visit from any self-proclaimed local historian. The viaduct was completed in 1910 and was temporarily the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. The railroad line it served (the Lackawanna Cutoff) was opened the following year, on Christmas Eve 1911. In the succeeding decades, the achievement would be consistently one-upped by newer structures, some even in the state or across the river, inPennsylvania. I particularly enjoy the fact that the company that was responsible for building the Viaduct, theDelaware,Lackawannaand Western Railroad (the DL&W) would one day merge with a bitter rival, the Erie Railroad, who competed in the early days of the Viaduct. That was before falling revenues, natural disasters, andNew Jerseyproperty taxes forced the DL&W to seek such partnerships.
That historic merge was completed in October 1960 and would further shift revenues between the domestic entities. Eventually, the Cut-Of line (and in turn, the Viaduct) would be operated by another major railroad, Conrail, until 1979, when the line faced shipping sanctions and was embargoed. It was promptly abandoned in 1982, with its track being removed two years later. Time and the elements had just begun to weather the Viaduct when the New Jersey Department of Transportation reclaimed the trestle, with future prospects of restoring a line between New Yorkand Scranton, PA.Apparently, they see freight and passenger prospects from the proposal. Although in its glory, the Viaduct serviced freight coming from and to Coal Country and my beloved Pocono Mountains, I wish for those responsible for the program to remember that the coal industry both made and destroyed the line, once its capacities were drained. (And we know what happens when local and small-scale economies are based upon anthracite coal.)
Here's an excerpt from an information panel we found in the brush:

Towering 125 feet over the Hainesburg Station area is the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Viaduct, the largest concrete structure in 1911. Hainesburg was named for John Haines, a benefactor of the local school district. At this site (under the Viaduct) once stood a blacksmith shop, valve and wright shop, post office, church, school, hotel, two general stores, tannery, a grain mill and a brewery.The two-story station included a waiting room, an office and a freight station. Directly in front of the station was the turntable that the railroad built in the 1930s. In addition, there was the Hainesburg Creamery and Ice House.

Perhaps I’ve gone on enough. I hope my dear reader can sense the sincere and incredible affection I have for the Paulinskill Viaduct and my personal history with it. Regardless of what our modern engineering can do to breathe new life into this titan, I value the memories I already have of this formerly-grand and currently-resting little piece of New Jersey, and hope to wander its paths again soon.

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