The Lackawanna Cutoff


Background

Completed in 1911, the Lackawanna Cutoff was the result of then Delaware, Lackawanna & Western president William Truesdale, to shorten the route between Port Morris, New Jersey to Slateford Junction, Pennsylvania. As president, Truesdale planned to upgrade and modernize the railroad to increase efficiency. Part of this plan included the Lackawanna Cutoff, which spanned just over 28 miles. The Lackawanna Cutoff eliminated 42 curves and was routed over lower gradients in order to increase train speeds. The completion of the cutoff replaced the “Old Road” which was the original route that spanned almost 40 miles, making the cutoff more efficient and quicker.

Prior to the Cutoff

Prior to the cutoff, trains traveling between the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania to New Jersey would have to travel almost 40 miles over steep grades and many tight curves, which restricted the speed on this line to 50 miles per hour. This line called the “Old Road” was completed in 1856, and served the DL&W for half a century. The Old Road was a joint effort between the DL&W, Morris & Essex, and the Warren Railroad, which was a subsidiary of the DL&W. The construction of this original line was led in part by John I. Blair, who took charge of the Warren Railroad. One of the driving factors that prompted the construction of a divergent route were the two tunnels along the railroad, the Manunka Chunk Tunnel, which spanned 975 feet, whose eastern end was flood prone, and the Oxford Tunnel, which spanned 2,969 feet. The Oxford Tunnel was prone to congestion as the railroad increased its levels of traffic. 

Planning and Construction of the Lackawanna Cutoff

When Truesdale became the president of the DL&W, he planned to upgrade the line to handle increased traffic. The DL&W was keen on purchasing brand new locomotives and rolling stock in order to accommodate the large increase in traffic, however, Truesdale realized that without replacing some of the railroad’s previous right of way, speeds would not increase and the railroad would still prove inefficient. He realized immediately that an alternative to the Old Road was desperately needed.

Truesdale studied several viable routes, many included having to travel through mountainous regions and the need to blast tunnels out of the earth. However, some of the proposed routes included flat land, and did not require the construction of many tunnels, the cutoff route was ultimately chosen and proved most efficient, as well as provide the railroad with the fastest train speeds. These routes that were considered were classified using letters, the route that was selected was route “M”, and would diverge from the original line at Port Morris Junction. The new route was a straight shot for most of the way, as it consisted of only 15 curves throughout the entire 28.5 miles. The route was flat and decreased the grade from 1.1%-0.55%, and included the complete elimination of grade crossings throughout the entire route.

To construct the route, many contractors were hired, and each received a portion of the route to construct. After much consideration, the route was divided between seven contractors, however, work was postponed due to market conditions that were out of the railroad’s control. Only a few contracting companies received equal mileage, as many were varied, however, it is believed that an individual named David W. Flickwir received the largest portion of the work, as his team completed the most challenging portions of the route.

NJT Train passing Port Morris Junction.
Source: Public Domain

The construction of the cutoff was rural, as this presented many challenges during construction. In order to ensure the work was being completed to the highest integrity, DL&W engineer F.L. Wheaton oversaw the project, as he monitored the work being done first hand. Because of the rural landscape along the route, many structures that were abandoned by farmers alongside the construction sites were converted into housing for the work crews. The local economy near the railroad flourished, as there were thousands of workers assigned to the construction of the cutoff.

Groundbreaking Engineering Practices

The infrastructure along the line was constructed with reinforced concrete, which amounted to 73 structures in total built using this method. These concrete structures included switch towers, stations, culverts, and viaducts.

Perhaps the most notable structures of the cutoff were the two large viaducts on the eastern portion of the line, the Paulinskill Viaduct, and the Delaware River Viaduct.

The Paulinskill Viaduct stretched 1,100 feet and provided the DL&W with a passage over the Paulinskill River and Interstate 80, and at the time of its construction in 1910, this viaduct was the largest structure in the world that utilized reinforced concrete. The viaduct was supported by seven arches that demonstrate some of the most ingenious engineering work of the time.

The Delaware River Viaduct provided the DL&W with a passage over the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Shorter than the Pauliskill Viaduct, the Delaware River Viaduct crossed interstate 80 also, as well as the DL&W’s former main line, the “Old Road”. This bridge included the tightest curve on the entire route, which was located on the Pennsylvania side of the bridge, and had a radius of over 3 degrees. This bridge, much like its counterpart, the Paulinskill Viaduct was created using reinforced concrete, and used a continuous pour process.

Paulinskill Viaduct shortly after construction.
Source: Steamtown National Historic Site

The viaducts were not the only engineering marvel along the route, as many cuts through rock and other materials were created to allow the track to pass through. The cuts were blasted from the earth using dynamite, which made working conditions extremely treacherous. These cuts along the cutoff were the McMickle Cut, Colby Cut, and Jones Cut.

The McMickle Cut was considered to be the longest cut on the line, stretching 1.04 miles long, and 54 feet deep, this cut went from milepost 47.1 to 48.1. Dynamite was used to create the cut, as over 600,000 yards of earth was blasted away.

The Colby Cut is affixed between mileposts 51.8 and 52.3, which equates to a stretch of 0.53 miles, and is 45 feet in depth. F.G. Colby, the namesake of the cut, was the individual that the DL&W purchased the land from. Trains passed through Colby Cut at speeds of 70 miles per hour.

The Jones Cut was named after William Jones, whom the railroad purchased the land from to build the cut. The track traversing this cut was designed for high speed operation as it allowed for speeds of up to 80 mph.

Colby Cut
Source: WallyFromColombia

Stations Built Along the Line

With the cutoff being used for a number of passenger services, stations were constructed. The stations built along the line included Greendell, Johnsonburg, and Blairstown, which served many passenger trains, perhaps the most notable, the famous “Phoebe Snow”.

The Greendell Station was located at milepost 57.6 along the cutoff. In addition to the station, a tower was constructed to control the siding designed to direct freight traffic.

Greendell Station

Johnsonburg Station was designed and constructed by Hyde, McFarlan, and Burke, which was one of the contractors assigned to build the cutoff. Passengers did not patronize this station well, as it closed to passenger traffic in 1940.

Blairstown Station was perhaps the most utilized on the entire line. As it accomodated trains such as the Lackawanna Limited, and later, the Phoebe Snow. It was also built by Hyde, McFarlan & Burke, as the station was close to the Johnsonburg Station. The station survived until the end of passenger service on the cutoff in 1970, and still stands today as a privately owned entity.

Blairstown Station
Source: Public Domain

Service Along the Line

The cutoff was officially opened for service on Christmas Eve of 1911. The first train that operated over the cutoff was westbound train 15. For passengers along the line, the cutoff was a scenic journey that included beautiful views of the infrastructure and the high elevation of the many fills along the line. Train speeds also increased as heavier rail and streamlined trains were introduced.

Because of the decrease in gradients along the cutoff, freight trains that used the route required fewer locomotives to pull trains, especially at Port Morris, NJ, which was the steepest grade on the entire route. A unique aspect of the cutoff was for the first ten years of operation, there was no posted speed limit for trainmen to follow, instead, they were told to use their own judgement as conditions permitted. Later on, freights were limited to 50 mph.

The cutoff, and the DL&W as a whole, sharply declined after World War II. As passenger and freight service declined over the course of a decade, the cutoff was reduced to a single track in 1958, and was expected to merge with the Erie a couple years later. For some time, the CNJ routed freights along the line prior to the creation of Conrail. The freight scheduled over the line was kept somewhat frequent after the Conrail acquisition, and even upgraded the cutoff. However, due to the steep grades of the Pocono mountains, Conrail saw other lines as a more viable freight route, and closed the cutoff in 1979.

Restoration Efforts by New Jersey Transit

ALP 44 locomotives stored on a portion of the rebuilt Lackawanna Cutoff

In 2001, efforts began to restore the Lackawanna Cutoff as the state had purchased the right of way. After a decade of planning and preparation, restoration began in 2011 when NJ Transit began rebuilding the line for service from Port Morris to Andover station, which consisted of over 7 miles of track. Currently, slightly over 4 miles of track has been laid, however, due to issues beyond their control, the efforts have been delayed, but are planned to continue construction in the coming years.

Currently, a portion of the Lackawanna Cutoff that was rebuilt is used by NJ Transit as a storage yard, which currently houses many stored ALP44 locomotives.

 

Josef

Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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