When Doodlebug No. 4666 pulled up to the Ringoes train station, six-year-old Michael Shea could hardly wait to climb aboard the self-propelled passenger coach. It was 1989, and Shea’s grandparents, Charles and Rose Runge, were treating Shea and his brother Matthew to a train ride on the Black River & Western Railroad (BR&W) from Ringoes to Lambertville.
“That experience has never left me,” says Shea, now married with two young sons. When not working as a systems analyst for the Crayola company, he volunteers for BR&W and often treats his sons to train rides. “Over the years I’ve done most jobs at the railroad,” he says. Wearing several hats today, Shea works as a brakeman, conductor, train master, and coordinator of train excursions and special events open to the public.
Currently BR&W offers summertime round-trip jaunts departing from Ringoes and Flemington (no longer Lambertville but that may soon change), various themed train rides, and holiday adventure rides celebrating Halloween, Christmas, and Easter. The company also maintains a museum car and offers coach and caboose rentals for private parties and events.
“We’re known as ‘the friendly railroad,’” Shea says. Another way of putting it, he says, is that the railroad is, and always has been, accessible. Recalling his experience on the Doodlebug, he and the other children had been invited by the conductor to the front of the car where the engineer explained the controls and allowed each child to blow the horn. That simple experience — meeting the actual person who ran the train and being able to actually touch the controls — forged a passion for railroading that has stayed with Shea ever since.
Although the Doodlebug has been retired, today visitors can enjoy BR&W round-trip excursions on the popular Steam Engine 60, built in 1937 for the Great Western Railway Company of Loveland, Colorado; the newly restored 1920s-era Coach 1009; or one of the diesel electric trains owned by one of BR&W’s volunteers.
Volunteers are members of the Black River Railroad Historical Trust (BRRHT), a group that works closely with BR&W to preserve and protect the railroading heritage of Hunterdon County and to share the experience with the public.
The train service is almost 100 percent volunteer-run. Ranging in age from 17 to the 80s, many volunteers come from nearby towns but some come from Long Island and Delaware.
Shea, a board member of BRRHT, says the organization helps incubate interest in railroad careers. “Many of our younger volunteers go on to establish careers with larger railroad companies, an option that many young people are not aware of,” he says. “This growing industry is constantly hiring people into well-paid positions, which, in many cases do not require a college degree. Volunteers can join with no prior experience. Our training programs bring interested volunteers in the door and help them work their way up to any position they’re interested in.”
Currently there are about 130 volunteers filling several types of positions including mechanic, maintenance person, car attendant, trainman, brakeman, conductor, oiler, fireman, engineer, and manager.
To date, volunteers have cleared brush, repaired tracks, and recently installed about 135 new ties restoring one mile on the seven-mile route that is planned to eventually reach Lambertville. Volunteers come from all paths of life, including teaching, computer science, marketing, health, and trades. Some join as professionals from the railroad industry. “The common thread among all volunteers is a love of railroading,” says Shea.
In fact, a shared enthusiasm for the rail industry was the inspiration that formed BR&W and BRRHT. In the late 1950s Oldwick resident William Whitehead, some family members, and a small group of friends had a vision of starting a railroad. Although the expansion proposal for Interstate 78 and construction of Interstate 80 nixed the original plans, the group persevered in growing the railroad, and in 1961 Black River & Western Railroad was incorporated, named after the Black River, a body of water in the area of Chester.
In 1965 Black River Railroad Historical Trust was formed as a not-for-profit organization, and the railroad company began passenger service departing from Flemington. They originally leased track between Flemington and Ringoes from the Pennsylvania Railroad and eventually purchased the Lambertville-Flemington line from Penn Central and also the Flemington-Three Bridges line from Central Railroad of New Jersey.
Today BR&W is owned by the Burenga family and is part of the Black River Railroad System. In addition to passenger excursions, Black River Railroad System includes freight and commercial services plus locomotive leasing and switching services. Through its Norfolk Southern connections, the system’s services extend across North America.
“Our freight services support several local businesses and dozens of local jobs,” Shea says. “Many of our customers would be forced to leave the area due to the growing cost of shipping if not for the option to ship by rail.”
In addition to the BR&W stations (Three Bridges, Flemington, Ringoes, and Lambertville), the Black River System includes the Belvidere & Delaware River stations located in Phillipsburg, Carpentersville, Riegelsville, and Milford, plus one in West Easton, Pennsylvania. The company’s passenger excursions include the aforementioned BR&W, and Delaware River Railroad Excursions departing from Phillipsburg.
The rail line that serves the current Flemington/Ringoes excursions was built in 1854 with the primary goal of reaching an area known as Copper Hill based on the belief that area was rich in copper. The belief turned out to be false, but the rail line turned into an asset for several communities, connecting residents and businesses in the Lambertville/Ringoes area, Trenton, Phillipsburg, and other towns.
For several years the commodity most shipped from the line was peaches and dairy products. Shea says the red engine-house in the Ringoes station yard was originally a creamery.
The railroad company enjoyed success into the 20th century, but by the mid 1990s freight traffic was waning in Lambertville and industries were leaving the area. In 1997 a decision was made to mothball the Ringoes-Lambertville segment of railroad, cancelling scheduled freight and passenger service. BR&W continued supporting the rest of the railroad while hoping to resume service to Lambertville when the time was right. And it appears the right time has come.
As Shea observes, a lot has changed since 1997. Lambertville is now a weekend destination town, attracting visitors to antique shops, restaurants, and D&R Canal State Park. The town also attracts thousands of visitors for events such as “First Fridays” fireworks, Shad Fest, and more. “Much of the attraction of Lambertville centers on the town’s historic charm, and BR&W feels that the only thing missing is the train,” Shea says.
Although Black River Railroad System sees no potential for freight service to and from Lambertville, BRRHT sees great potential for passenger excursions and is currently rehabilitating the rail line — known as the Alexauken Division — for that purpose.
“It’s a major project,” Shea says. In addition to the one mile already repaired, there are almost six miles of needed track restoration before a train can roll into Lambertville. “In order to avoid taking resources away from our current operations, we’re dividing the project in half,” he says.
The first phase will return service to a former stop on the railroad line, Bowne Station, in Stockton. This stop once served as a station, a post office, and the medical office of Dr. Bowne. The station is located in an area surrounded by beautiful woodlands and preserved farmlands including WoodsEdge, which raises suri llamas, alpacas, and Tibetan yaks. The farm is open to the public on weekends and hosts private events as well.
“At our new station platform and picnic grove at Bowne Station, our guests will be able to disembark the train and enjoy a guided tour of the farm on a covered wagon,” Shea says.
The first mile of track from Ringoes to Bowne Station is already back in service, thanks to the volunteer track crew, and Shea expects the remaining 1.5 miles to Bowne Station and WoodsEdge Farm to be completed in time to offer service to the station in 2017.
Shea says that after they have established service to Bowne Station, they will begin plans for service to Lambertville.
Shea hopes that current passengers will discover the same joy he experienced on the Doodlebug when he was six years old growing up in Milford. Eager to learn more about how trains operate, young Shea would take many more rides with his grandparents and parents — a father who worked in food processing at Johanna Farms and a homemaker mother. Today Shea continues his family’s love of railroading with his own family, his wife, Erin, and sons, Robert and William.
“Almost any BR&W volunteer could offer a similar story of that ‘aha!’ moment when they realized they could become a railroader,” Shea says. “The details vary, but the outcomes converge on one common theme: all of us at BR&W love what we do.”
Shea finds that sharing their passion for locomotive transportation and local history with others is just as important as taking care of the track and equipment. Says Shea: “BR&W’s purpose is not just to preserve historic machines; it’s to share them with new generations and create lasting memories just like the one I treasure from that day in 1989.”
Black River & Western Railroad, summer excursions Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4, 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. from 80 Stangl Road, Flemington. 10:45 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 1:45 p.m., and 3:15 p.m. from 245 John Ringo Road, Ringoes. Trips are approximately 90 minutes. Ages 12 and up, $14; 3 to 11, $7; 2 and under, free.
Ringoes Station Open House, Saturday, September 24. Guided yard tours, a short caboose ride ($5), and a ride in a steam locomotive cab (ages 18 and over, $30).
Triple Header Day, Sunday, September 25. Three locomotives pulling excursions.
Pumpkin Trains, Saturdays and Sundays, October 1 to 16. Ride to a farm to pick pumpkins and apples.
Halloween Costume Party, Saturday and Sunday, October 22 and 23. $14 to $19. 908-782-6622 or www.flemingtontrain.org.