The DL& W Railroad

DL& W RR Logo The Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad

Edwin Herbert,


The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Company "proudly proclaimed itself 'The most developed railroad in America' and there were few who could dispute that assertion."[1]  Developed from half a dozen small dreams, carefully strung together with daring and the flimsiest financing into one of the greatest Class 1 Railroads in the Eastern United States and Canada. Only nine hundred and ninety-eight (998) miles of mainline and working branches comprised this little giant at the peak of its corporate strength, but those miles were the cleanest, most carefully maintained high iron in this country.

During the Lackawanna's peak years a westbound journey started in New York City at one of three ferry terminals or you could also ride the Port Authority's Trans-Hudson Railroad to the train terminal. Boarding the crack trains such as the Lackawana Limited or the Phoebe Snow a traveler could seamlessly interline [Car Interchange] to the New York, Cincinnati & St. Louis RR. Co. (NKP) to Chicago and points west. This is the story of New Jersey's Little Giant.

The Lackawanna System, in common with other large railroads, is composed of numerous smaller corporations that were absorbed during the years of its existence.[2]   Originally chartered as the Morris & Essex Railroad. A series of initial and key alliances, negotiated, in conjunction with its charter on January 29th 1835 was with a company that would become one of its bitterest rivals in it's last fifty years. The Paterson & Hudson River Railroad (Erie RR) for the use of the Bergen Hill Cut.[3] The Cut, a joint venture of the P&H RR Co and the New Jersey Railroad and Transportation Company (CRR NJ), an economic competitor for regional services for its entire life. The Bergen Hill Cut opened on January 22nd 1838. It was called one of the greatest engineering feats of the early Nineteenth Century. Averaging forty feet in depth and almost a mile in length, cut through Basaltic Lava. By Irish Immigrant Laborers it was cut just three years using single jack drills and hammers. It is still in use today as the main route connection from Newark with the Hudson River Tunnels of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey's Trans-Hudson Railroad (PATH).[4]

The Charter of Morris & Essex is exemplary of the management standards that were in force until the merger with the Erie in 1960. It was so carefully negotiated that it allowed for use of the Bergen Hill Cut and the New Jersey Railroad's Passaic and Hackensack River Bridges as well as allowing for the connection with that road's tracks at or between Newark and Elizabethtown. "Even before its route was surveyed, M& E's backers wrote that they would extend tracks to the iron mines near Dover, then head vaguely toward Carpenters Point on the Delaware River, near Port Jervis.[5]

Initially the directors considered two routes over the mountains to Morristown, the southern route, through Irvington and Springfield was disregarded, despite gradients that were less than half of those demanded by the northern routes, when landholders in that area proved uncooperative. The Route through Orange, Maplewood, Chatham and Summit, well supported by landholders and local share-holders was selected even though Gordon's Gazetteer (1834) characterized Orange as "A straggling little village with 200 to 300 dwellings, four churches, two taverns, several mills and a large trade in leather shoes and hats."[6]

Construction started in 1836 and horse cars were running to Summit by 1837. The line took possession of its first steam engine in 1837; the Orange was a 160 tone 4-2-0 arrangement by Seth Boyden of Newark, the second, the Essex was delivered the following year, these engines had some problems with the steep gradients, as originally cut it was 1.140 (a 1.52% grade today - a vertical increase of 52 feet per linear mile.). The local residents at Summit often profited by leasing oxen to the locomotive engineer. Tracks to Morristown were completed in the late fall of 1837 and the first train ran to the county seat on January 1st 1838. The cost of the work, all totaled, was $328,056.83 to date, $82,000 more than surveyed. The net profit after three years was $392.92. A few miles south the directors of the Elizabeth & Somerville (CRR NJ) might have killed for that amount, they would be in the red for a number of years yet.

In 1840, feeling the pinch of hard economic times the M & E started hauling other kinds of freight. That year they delivered their first mail to the ever-expanding service area. In 1842 the line started laying 'H' pattern rail to replace the unsafe bar stock rails first laid. 1843 saw the first milk deliveries, a commodity that was to become a staple of the line. In 1844 the stockholders' patience was rewarded, the directors declared a dividend.

Late in 1846 the directors had cause to temper their optimism, a competitor had sprung up near Denville. The Miners, Manufacturers & Farmers Railroad was chartered, but it was financially still-born and the directors of the M & E continued their building program by breaking ground for the Dover extension, the first train ran through on July 31at 1848.

Morris & Essex again began expanding in 1852, building towards Hackettstown intending to reach the Delaware Water Gap from that direction, an action hastened by the desire to link with the Sussex Railroad at Waterloo Junction and Abram S. Hewitt's iron mines at Andover Furnace, but their plans for the Water Gap access were thwarted by John I. Blair, a prosperous merchant of the locality, chartering of the Warren Railroad from Belvidere to Hampton in that year During the time that western expansion was delayed by the competing associate railroads, the Belvidere & Delaware and the Warren RR Co. Simultaneously, across the river, in the land of anthracite Asa Packer, George and Selden Scranton, three of the primary purveyors of the 'black diamonds' founded two competing railroads, the Lehigh Valley and the Delaware Lackawanna & Western. The later, formed of the merger of two smaller industrial railroads that were built to deliver rails, the Liggett's Gap Railroad and the Delaware and Cobb's Gap Railroad, which was originally intended to link with the Erie. Considering that the conflict with the New Jersey Railroad and its wealthy cousin the Camden and Amboy Railroad had delayed them far to long the directors of the M & E reached an arrangement with John Stevens of Hoboken to build a connecting route that essentially paralleled the NJRR's road using the new Erie RR Co's tunnel from West End to Hoboken on the Jersey City Line. The first trains rolled through on November 14th 1862. Building west continued in April of 1862. The directors sought and had approved an alternate routing through Washington and Phillipsburg, completing that connection in 1865. Thereafter carrying both DL&W and LV's coal to Newark and Hoboken. For a time the M & E established a major yard west of Chatham, the heavy coal trains had to be split into two and sometimes three parts because of the extreme grades from Summit to the Oranges. The Morris and Essex wasn't still, the time delays caused by the additional car handling were a severe impediment. Finding a distinct weakness in the ownership, management and fiscal capabilities of the Miners' Manufacturers' & Farmers' RR. Co. they leased, and then bought it outright in 1868.[7] After the completion of a portion of the road from Denville on the mainline to Boonton that was quite serpentine but relatively flat rumors circulated that DL&W would seek full control when the branch from Boonton to Hoboken was completed. "Rumor became reality, on December 31st 1868 the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western leased the Morris & Essex and all its branches "in perpetuity."[8] This created on of the nations' first major trunk lines. DL&W's tracks now stretched from Hoboken deep into Pennsylvania and New York State. In 1869 they started the completion of the Boonton branch, completing it on September 17th 1870 when three trains pulling 180 cars with 1000 tons of rolled onto the Hoboken waterfront via the temporarily leased Erie Tunnel.

By late 1870 the smoldering resentment that the Erie held against its highly successful rival who shared its tunnel under Union City burst into flame. On December 2nd 1870 when the DL&W sought to replace its old connection to the tunnel with a new and wider track that could accommodate the wider coal cars of the Lackawanna, Jim Fisk one of the Wall Street scoundrels who had bled the Erie for a decade sought to block the new switch with a locomotive and a crowd of shoulder-strikers. It took the involvement of New Jerseys' Governor, Theodore F. Randolph and his threat to call out the militia [National Guard] because they were holding up US Mail to break the blockade.

The activities of Fisk and others of his ilk, Jay Gould, a principal among them, really slowed and complicated the work of working railroad executives and operators, while they served the industry by bringing financial support to it, their uncompromising quest for greater 'shareholder' value often hamstrung vital requirements for right of way improvements, maintenance and new equipment.

The management of the DL&W tired of squabbling with the punch drunk and penniless Erie dug their own tunnel from West End, just north of the Erie's portal, using the waste to construct a reinforced track across the marshes to Rutherford and Newark meeting and connecting its lines out of the mountains. They also created a large well-developed yard and service complex at the Hudson River shore in Hoboken, serving both passenger, car and freight ferries that ran through out the river and bays.

The tunnels and connectors were completed in 1876 and combined with the Pennsylvania Railroad's 'In perpetuity' leasing of the Camden & Amboy Railroad, about which the New York Herald "mocked", "The halo of New Jersey's glory hath left her. Her Ichabod hath departed. The Camden and Amboy road, the Pride of the State and ruler of the Legislatures, has been ceded to Pennsylvania; and Tom Scott like Commodore Stockton of old carries the little borough [New Jersey] in his breeches pocket."[9]

This action positioned the road in almost the best possible light for entry into the 'Golden Age of Railroading',[10] then in 1877 an ugly word, for cost conscious railroad management, 'safety' began to enter the picture. Driven by pro-worker unionists and journalists such as Lymann Abbot and Lorenzo Coffin who amassed statistical evidence damning railroad management nationwide for failing to install safety devices such as the Janney 'Knuckle Coupler' and sequential air brakes. In July of that year the workers struck hard at the DL&W, (their strike was in conjunction with a nationwide movement that effected everyone but the Pennsylvania RR) their principal grievances were wage and hour related, but safety was also an issue. The strike was settled without satisfaction on either side, setting the stage for a greater strike some years in the future. However, some key items were agreed, the roads collectively agreed to install safety devices on new cars and to upgrade cars as they were overhauled, it is however needful to say that they really dragged their feet on this. They also agreed to standardize their systems, to the newly decreed Federal Railway Administration's 4' 81/2" gauge. In 1880 after much careful planning, the DL&W made this changeover in one day.

From the end of the strike through the 1880's the management's treatment and characterization of their non-managerial employees as 'laborers' continued to simmer, however neither group had sufficient strength to challenge the other. The system and its economic development continued at a comfortable pace, gradually becoming the strongest of the lines that served Buffalo and points west. As an aside, the 'Scarlet Lady of Wall Street', the Erie continued to suffer the machinations of the financial community, much like New Jersey's own Delaware & Raritan Bay Railroad.

The relatively steady advance of the railroads in the Northeast came to a screeching halt in March of 1888. From the 14th of that month, for nearly seven days, back-to-back Northeasters punished the region dumping nearly six feet of snow and ice on the area with drifts that were over twelve feet in some areas. Everything, including the DL&W was paralyzed. The storm also had extreme economic effects throughout the region, the governors of five most severely effected states, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut declared an open ended state of emergency, the big cities, particularly New York City were short or out of everything. At on time the city had less than six hours coal and one day's foodstuffs on hand. Only the PRR and the DL&W were able to make inroads into the dilemma, they were the only area roads that could eventually get plows into action and eventually open their routes. There were still remnants of the blizzard in piles along the right of way in August.

In 1893 the railroad negotiated and completed its' connection with the regional short line, the Morristown and Erie Railroad (known at the time as the Whippany Industrial Railroad), a benefit to several rivals and allies, it connected the DL&W's mainline with its Gladstone & Peapack (Summit) Branch as well as the Erie, the New York Susquehanna and Western and the New Jersey Central, bisecting Morris County from its southwestern areas into Bergen and Passaic Counties. [Much of that line is still in use by the named carrier. It was never ceded to Conrail, despite the lines marginal solvency at the time. Today the M&E operates and maintains one of the best fleets of Alco 'C' class diesels in the eastern states.] By nineteen hundred the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western was stacking up traffic on its mainline and branches that they were forced to begin double tracking in areas that were so remote as to cause the management serious consideration. Realizing that they could save, over a period of years, much of the cost of the effort by shortening the line, through straightening, reducing grade ratios, removing at grade crossings and other similar work. Beginning at West End and continuing all the way through, almost to Buffalo a series of projects was completed. The most famous, the DL&W's famed Concrete Arch Bridges are today on the National Historic Registry for Engineering

In New Jersey there are three notable projects that were completed between 1904 and 1920. The elimination of at grade crossings from East Harrison through West Orange and the Summit Cut (they were a contiguous project), the Andover Highline (also Called the Paulinskill Viaduct), a series of cuts, fills and short tunnels running from Port Morris (the western end of Lake Hopatcong, at Netcong, New Jersey) to the Delaware River Bridge just north of Columbia, New Jersey (You can see both of these today. Ride north of the junction of route NJ 94 on Interstate 80, its less than a mile, you'll pass under the bridge, a side road, several hundred feet past the bridge will give you access to the bridge footings. Be careful the road is heavily used by large commercial trucks. The Andover Highline may be seen from various places along NJ routes 94 and 206. If you choose to check out this area on foot or similar means, seek the permission of CSX/NS it is an active road. You will also be able to observe occasional NYS&W equipment in the eastern areas of the old L&NE [one may also follow the ROW of the Lehigh and New England along CR's 521, 519 and 565, then following NJ. & NY. Route 284 running from Maybrook, New York (where it merged with the Delaware & Hudson RR) through Blairstown into Pennsylvania.   There is little left of this busy bridge line, but the scenery is magnificent.]).

In 1906-7 the now nationally unionized Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen struck the Nations Railroads essentially shutting the nation down. President Theodore Roosevelt ruthlessly broke the back of the strike, sending General John J. Pershing into the field with several divisions of troops. Never the less, the workers grievances did not fall on deaf ears. The following year, with presidential encouragement, congress passed both the Taft-Hartley Act, giving the president the power to order both a ninety-day cooling off period and mandatory negotiations and the Federal Railway Act which created both the Federal Railway Administration and regulated many of the day to day operations of the roads, including crew hours and crew rest. Safety of operation and safety reporting was also codified at that time, even though it was then and is now, poorly enforced. As recently as 1983 a worker for a major carrier was killed push-poling cars. By 1915 the DL&W possessed most of the motive power that would carry it into the diesel age. Although select orders for new steam engines were made, no order numbered more than fifty copies and almost all were dual purpose, having middle height drivers for both passenger and freight consists, with all the most modern appurtenances, such as Elasco feedwater superheaters and mechanical furnace firetenders. In the middle of that period the line patented the wide, shallow firebox to better burn the anthracite coal, a waste from the mines that could be had cheaply, a fuel that would shortly be identified with the line and its' ethereal spokes person, Miss Phoebe Snow. More importantly, they became among the first to investigate the capabilities of electricity as a motive power fuel.

The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western was seventy-five years old, managed by William H. Truesdale and operating 998 miles of revenue trackage. Like most other railroads they offered passenger and commuter services in their service areas, unfortunately however, most of the DL&W's routes were 'short halls' generating less revenue than her competitors who also shared the New York City suburban traffic, when the Holland Tunnel opened that year, the loss was felt, not only by the passenger divisions, but by their ferries as well. Driven to action in 1928 the directors authorized the electrification of 67 route miles (158 actual miles) at a cost expected to be less than eighteen million dollars. They also decided to convert some of the new car they had purchased in 1925 to dual use so they could be used with either steam or electrical power. They then hired James S. Thorp as engineer for electrical traction. Mr. Thorp, hailing from the Illinois Central, which had electrified its commuter services in 1926, soon caused his latest effort to resemble his last one, from the rattan seating to the numbering of the circuits in the catenary system.

The line electrified the branches from Hoboken to Dover via Morristown, Montclair and Gladstone branches. The first DL&W electric train ran on September 3rd, 1930 with Thomas Alva Edison on the throttle.The railroad purchased alternating current from local power companies, converting it to 3000 volt direct current with mercury-arc rectifiers feeding directly into the catenary wires. The system operated without any major changes through out the next fifty years. The last run of the DL&W Electrics was the NJ Transit 7:20 PM to Gladstone on August 24th, 1984.[11] NJ Transit is currently running 25,000 volt alternating current multiple unit consists there now and has built the Secaucus Junction to unify its system.

The electrification was a major hurdle among many major hurdles faced by the road in the thirties. As a sign of good faith, the line rather than follow common practice of the day, letting go most excess personnel, they retrained the personnel from the Hoboken Roundhouse and most of the construction crews employed in the electrification, who were on its completion, excess. While this cemented labor relations for the immediate future, it did nothing for the changing freight situation.

Much of the anthracite traffic was diminishing, the demand was no longer there, but other sources were developed to fill the gaps, heavy construction materials, cement, mixed freight and less than a car load traffic filled the heavy two and four tracked mains, however the railroad did, as all her sister corporations did, fail to appreciate the damage motor transportation would do to their business. It was not really damage; rather it was a failure to use their size and expertise, on their own behalf by defining the playing field and the rules. Even today, a tractor-trailer or a fleet of them cannot compete with a train for the efficient movement of a commodity over distance, only at the beginning or the end of the route is the truck superior. This, plain and simple, is why Intermodal Services are so superior and why so many trucking companies are seeking railroad partners today. Only the New York Central and the Norfolk and Western had the foresight to begin Trailer Trains, a forerunner of the modern Intermodal Services that currently moves 40% of the nation's freight. Alas, it was too little, too late.

Through out the thirties until the beginning of the Second World War the DL&W continued journeyman like service to its customers, to attract new customers and to juggle the constantly changing freight picture. The eighty Heavy Pacific's purchased from 1908 through 1920 were getting old in nineteen thirty-nine when a pair of GM's Electro-Motive Division were tested, from 1931 the line had been watching the Central Railroad of New Jersey's experiments with dieselization. CNJ's little doodlebug was all over the southern Trans Hudson trackage on a series of service connector interchanges that they controlled as well as doing some workman like service at the Harlem New York Harbor Car Float Service which was controlled by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western and New York Central Railroads, but use by all the lines in the area. The decision was made to begin dieselization in 1941 and the war traffic paid for it. The Lackawanna Limited, Train #1 became the Phoebe Snow in 1949, harking back to the Road of Anthracite's glory years. The glories of steam were not washed completely yet, the big Pocono's received during the thirties continued well into the fifties before fading into the past. By 1950 most of the consolidations, moguls and pacifics were relegated to branch and short line work, but name trains like the Scrantonian and the Merchants Limited still ran with the big Pocono's.

It is hard to give a definite date to the last steam engine on the property, they were still there in 1960, there are seventy some odd on the merger papers with DL&W's bitter rival, the Erie. In two short years they were gone, all that remains are two engines, a badly wounded mogul, #565, in the possession of Steamtown and a static museum display at the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum.

That the merger came about as a study of selecting the lesser of two evils, during the late forties ('47-49) when the Line was still in somewhat better financial condition, but looking for a way to shore up its bleeding financial picture, serious consideration was given to a proposed merger with their westward running partner, the NKP, it would have provided a direct connection to Chicago, something the DL&W had always desired, however that line was riddled with unsecured and bad debt, DL&W directors backed away, all they could envision was the NKP's creditors on line outside their New York City offices. By 1955 the financial news was dire, either a partner was found or at best, reorganization would be necessary, then only if they could find a judge who might rule in their favor. The Erie, a bitter rival for many years, a railroad slightly more than twice their size (at its peak the Erie owned 2,089 miles of track and controlled another 300.), was in similar straights, neither line had had the foresight to anticipate the changes wrought by time and technology.   They were officially 'married' in 1960 struggling forward with great effort for fifteen years. While the merger was modestly successful, the complete failure of the Penn-Central in 1971 doomed northeastern railroading. Between them the Pennsylvania and the New York Central Railroads controlled two many markets, three routes to Chicago, all the traffic for Washington DC from the north east, Buffalo and Pittsburg and almost all the south bound traffic from eastern Canada.   The government could not allow the closure of their services. The government Act of that year, created Conrail, gerrymandered by congress in 1971 to prevent a feared total collapse of the northeastern rail system. Swallowing two marginally solvent lines, E-L and the Reading Companies to save the big picture.

Today, only two of the major roads that controlled the east soldier on, the Norfolk Southern, a consolidation of the Norfolk and Western and Southern Railroads and CSX, another consolidation of nearly a dozen trunk and bridge lines who between them own the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). That act also set them free of the need to provide passenger services, reducing a major fiscal drain on their solvency. Additionally, the act formed the Surface Transportation Board, taking the place of the FRA in matters of service and line operation (and abandonment). Freeing themselves of non-profitable routes was key to the survival of many roads nationwide, but especially so in the northeast. If the FRA had been more liberal in its determinations, there would have been a totally different financial picture in the fifties and many of the fallen flags might not have fallen.

Virtually the entire commuter picture has changed as well, of the eleven railroads served the travelers of the northeast, none remained. It quickly became apparent to congress that the passengers were a necessary evil that could not be abandoned, nor could the states handle the changes without help, only Pennsylvania's S.E.P.T.A. (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) was close to ready, due to the foresight of several governors, to step up to the plate. In 1973 they passed the National Rail Passenger Act, creating Amtrak, but more importantly providing grant s and matching loans to the states and some for profit and non-profit companies to fill these needs. Now the state owned public transportation rail systems, which like every public-political agenda, are overburdened with bureaucracy and swamped in its own inefficiency (in the thirties DL&W commuter trains ran on a ten minute peak header, today NJ Transit runs a thirty minute peak header.), suckle heavily of the manna from the federal feed trough.

NJ Transit is trying hard, improving by leaps and bounds, but every step forwards is two steps back. They desperately need the guidance of the ghost of William Truesdale and the fiscal abilities of Jay Gould wouldn't hurt either.

The Secaucus connection, when fully operational, will be a major improvement, additionally they now operate through to Hackettstown and are considering Phillipsburg, Easton and Allentown as well as Stroudsburg and even Scranton because of the heavy commuter traffic from those areas.   Additionally they are making inroads into the areas once controlled by the old Central Railroad of New Jersey's Southern Division and the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines in addition to the already operational Atlantic City Railroad.

By: J. Edwin Herbert; May 8, 2004

[1] Lackawana Heritage 1947-1952, John Krause and Ed Crist; Railroad Heritage Press, New York City, New York; 1978.

[2] From the Hills to the Hudson, Walter Arndt Lucas; Mullens-Turtron Co., New York City, New York, 1944.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Railroads in New Jersey: The Formative Years, John T. Cunningham; Afton Publishing Co., Inc., Andover, New Jersey, 1997.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lackawana Heritage 1947-1952, John Krause and Ed Crist; Railroad Heritage Press, New York City, New York; 1978.

[8] Railroads in New Jersey: The Formative Years, John T. Cunningham; Afton Publishing Co., Inc., Andover, New Jersey, 1997.

[9] Ibid.

[10] There is credit due here, but I could not find the source of the quotation, if you know it, please email me at and I will amend the article.

[11] Preceding two paragraphs are paraphrased from the website of the National Railway Historic Museum "Steamtown" at Scranton, PA.

This page last updated December 15, 2014.
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