The Morristown & Erie Railway

The Morristown & Erie Railway

By Steven P. Helper (C) 1990
Reprinted with permission. Please visit the Whippany Railway Museum for photos and more of the M&E.

In the age before railroads spun their ribbons of steel across mountains, valleys and streams, many towns and hamlets began to develop. As communities grew, so too grew their need to transport their citizens and the materials they produced.

One such community was Hanover Township, situated in the heart of Morris County in northern New Jersey. Within Hanover's boundaries is Whippany, located along the banks of the winding Whippany River. Named Whippanong centuries ago by the Lenape Indians living in the vicinity, the river's name means "Many Willows," or "Place of the Arrow Wood." The river supplied power to the community's mills, including three paper mills, which were continually growing. It soon became clear that a railroad was needed to haul the booming daily output of paper products.

In 1895, construction began on the 4-mile-long Whippany River Railroad (WRRR). The tiny road was destined t become the present-day Morristown & Erie Railway, which proudly continues its century-plus tradition of providing personal service to its customers and is an important link in Morris County's transportation network.

The creation of the Whippany River Railroad in 1895 was the climax of several years of talk by owners of the paper mills around Whippany and the tradesmen in Morristown. In late 1894, James E.V. Melick turned his interest from building and operating the nearby Rockaway Valley Railroad to that of connecting the Whippany mills with the Lackawanna Railroad, 4 miles away at Morristown. Before the Whippany River Railroad started operating, nearly 40 teams of horses were required daily to pull huge wagons loaded with freight to Morristown.

Construction commenced on April 22, 1895 near St. Mary's Cemetary in Whippany, and on August 16, the WRRR opened for freight traffic. A special passenger train was run on September 2, 1895 to celebrate the opening of the line. Regularly scheduled passenger service between Morristown and Whippany began on December 4, 1895.

Despite all the work done by Melick, his railroad was very cheaply and poorly built. The 4 miles cost approximately $25,000.00, including land, minimal grading and track. Melick had promised to pay back all construction loans, but this proved to be impossible. By November 26, 1895, the WRRR was in the hands of a receiver.

At this time, the McEwan brothers, owners of the paper mills in Whippany, agreed among themselves that the railroad, properly maintained and managed, could become profitable with a bright future. They decided to acquire control of the line from Melick. By settling Melick's loans, they received stock control and ownership in 1897, and eased him out of the company. Over the next several years, the entire railroad was relocated on a new roadbed, and the 3-mile Malapardis Branch was constructed to the Moore Brick Manufacturing Company, later to become the Hanover Brick Co. Today, Hanover Township's Bee Meadow Municipal Pool occupied the former brick works site. The abandoned roadbed of the old Malapardis Branch, which was torn up in the mid-1930s, is still largely intact. Portions of it can be hiked during the winter months when foliage has died off.

Following the rebuilding of the line, the McEwans realized that it would be in their best interest to have a connection with a second large railroad in addition to the Lackawanna. The McEwan brothers organized the Whippany & Passaic River Railroad to build a line from Whippany east to Essex Fells in Essex County where it connected to the Roseland Railway, a branch of the Erie Railroad. Construction on the 7-mile extension was started in the Spring of 1903. On August 28, 1903, both the Whippany River Railroad and the Whippany & Passaic River Railroad were consolidated to form the 11-mile long MORRISTOWN & ERIE RAILROAD COMPANY (M&E). The final spike was driven on May 3, 1904. On that day, the first M&E passenger train arrived in Essex Fells.

    Of the seven McEwan brothers, Richard W. McEwan had taken the most interest in the operations of the Whippany River R.R. In 1896, Richard was made General Freight Agent. In 1897, he assumed the title of Superintendent & Secretary, and oversaw most of the rebuilding of the WRRR. When the M&E was formed in 1903, he became its first president and promoted the new line whenever he could. During Richard's administration, until he died in 1936, the railroad continued to grow and prosper.

The Morristown & Erie's passenger service was a small, local affair. From the beginning, one old, second-hand combination baggage/passenger car, hauled by one of the M&E's diminutive steam locomotives, was sufficient to carry passengers over the 11-mile route between Morristown and Essex Fells several times each day. Mill workers rode to Whippany, while shoppers traveled to Morristown. The commuters that worked in New York City were transported to Essex Fells where they transferred to an Erie Railroad connecting train to Jersey City and the quick, pleasant ferry boat ride across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

In the mid-1910s, the Morristown & Erie's expenses of operating its local passenger service continued to rise, as revenue derived from this service declined. In 1917, M&E President Richard McEwan decided to supplant the short, but expensive, steam-powered passenger trains with a small, gasoline-powered railbus manufactured by the White Company. From all accounts, it appears that Railbus No. 10, which went into service on the M&E in July 1918, performed admirably and fulfilled all of the Railroad's expectations.  No. 10 hauled passengers on the M&E for nearly 10 years and averaged eight trips per day. Although patrons seemed to appreciate the service provided by the railbus, continued and aggressive competition from automobiles and motor buses eventually put an end to the M&E's passenger servicee on April 29, 1928.

On the freight side, however, the railroad operated successfully for nearly 75 years under the direction of the McEwan family. During their era, the McEwans created a paper dynasty and provided community residents with respectable employment that was passed on from generation to generation. For many years, a large sign not far from the Whippany station proudly stated: "Whippany Makes Paper... Paper Makes Whippany." Undeniably, paper made the Morristown & Erie.

Despite its small size, the M&E was always considered to be one of the most profitable railroads in the country. Indeed, in September 1940, the McEwan-led stockholders announced that they were paying off their last bond. The M&E was the only U.S. railroad to rid itself of all debt during the Great Depression.

In the mid-1940s, the railroad purchased three second-hand, heavy "Consolidation"-type freight steam locomotives. Once placed into service, they became the main freight power of this unique New Jersey shortline throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. The three sisters quickly became well-known representatives of the prosperous Morristown & Erie... an image of industrial power that remains today.

The M&E entered the diesel era on April 28, 1952 when its steam engines were replaced with a brand-new new diesel, S4-model No. 14, that had been manufactured by the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). The last steamers, Nos. 10, 11 and 12, were stored in the enginehouse at Morristown where they sadly gathered dust until they were finally scrapped in October 1955.  A second ALCO diesel, RS1-model No. 15 built in 1944, was acquired from the U.S. Navy in 1963 to assist No. 14 with the freight business.

Regrettably, the Railroad's fortunes changed drastically when the management of the mid-1970s caused the company to fall into bankruptcy by diverting freight earnings into unsuccessful, non-transportation business ventures.

Through the efforts of a Court-appointed Trustee, the Morristown & Erie Railroad continued to operate on an as-needed basis while in receivership. Compounding the railroad's misfortunes was the bankruptcy and shutdown of Whippany Paper Board. Over a period of three years, all three paper mills (Hanover Mill, Stony Brook Mill, and the giant Eden Mill complex) closed down, and freight carloadings on the M&E seemed to evaporate overnight. By 1980 the M&E was down to hauling a paltry sum of cars per week... a far cry from the thousands of cars it had once hauled each year.

The M&E was very fortunate when a business partnership, led by the late Benjamin J. Friedland (a member of the JCRHS until his untimely death) began negotiating to buy the railroad in 1980. On January 1, 1982, the company was reorganized and appeared as the Morristown & Erie Railway, Inc. 

With Friedland now providing the leadership, four additional locomotives were acquired, and the roadbed received its first maintenance in nearly a decade. Through Ben's tireless efforts the Morristown & Erie currently operates over three separate routes in Morris County, in addition to its original main line (now known as the 'Whippany Line').

Ben worked closely with customers along the former Lackawanna R.R. Chester Branch during their attempts to purchase the 4-mile line from Conrail in late 1983. The M&E has provided service over this branch between Wharton and Randolph for its owners since that time.

Ben also assisted the County of Morris during its purchase of two former Central Railroad of New Jersey branches operated by Conrail in the late 1980s. These County-owned lines are made up of the 7-mile High Bridge Branch between Wharton and Bartley, and the 6-mile Dover & Rockaway Line between Wharton and Rockaway. The Morristown & Erie continues to operate these lines under contract to the County.

In late 1995, the M&E became the plant switching operator at the sprawling Bayway Petroleum Refinery in Linden, NJ. The M&E's on-site crews typically switch over 8,000 tank cars each year at this huge site, which parallels the New Jersey Turnpike.

Today, the Morristown & Erie Railway continues to move forward in a vastly changing world. Despite the sudden passing of Ben Friedland in 1998, President & Chief Executive Officer Wesley Weis, Vice-President & Chief Operating Officer Gordon Fuller, and the entire staff of the M&E continue to operate a historic railroad company that has provided essential and friendly servicee to the many communities along the "Whippanong Trail" since 1895.

By: Steve Helper (c) 1990.

This page last updated December 15, 2014.
All content copyright © 2000-2019 JCRHS chapter of the NRHS.


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