The Bel-Del Line: A History for Passengers
Please send corrections and additions to Bill McKelvey at email@example.com.
Posted on LHRy website on 26 March 2018
History of the Bel-Del Rail Line
The railroad you are riding on today and the territory it serves has unique cultural and natural history.
This line was built by the Belvidere Delaware Railroad which reached Phillipsburg from Trenton in 1854, two years after the Central Railroad of NJ arrived from Elizabeth Port. The Bel Del became part of the great Pennsylvania Railroad system, then the Penn Central and finally Conrail, which abandoned much of the line as a redundant route.
The Bel Del line and the Lehigh & Hudson River Railway formed a major through route from the South to New England via the Poughkeepsie Bridge and the New Haven Railroad. It was an important route for passenger and excursion trains; as well as for coal, ore, general freight and mail; piggyback freight trains; circus trains; military troop trains and even special trains for the President of the US. A 1974 fire on the Poughkeepsie Bridge severed the route to New England.
In 1995 the Black River & Western Railroad purchased the Bel Del line from Conrail and it became the Belvidere & Delaware River Railway. The line has some of the heaviest main line rail rolled in the world.
Riding the Bel-Del
The line you are riding on today is the Belvidere & Delaware River Railway, an independently owned shortline which extends south along the Delaware River 16 miles to Milford. It is the only passenger train operation in Phillipsburg.
Your ride on the Bel Del parallels the beautiful Delaware - a designated Wild and Scenic River. As you depart Lehigh Junction Station you will pass the Morris Canal Arch on the river side and travel over its inclined plane, now filled in. At the same time you will be passing under the bridges of the former Central Railroad of New Jersey, now used by Norfolk Southern and the abandoned Lehigh Valley Railroad bridge.
Next you will pass Port Delaware which was the terminal basin of the Morris Canal where coal was transferred from rail cars to canalboats and where canalboats were built and repaired. This is the future NJ Transportation Heritage Center site.
You will also go under the tall and modern US Interstate 78 bridge. Look for islands in the river and historic lime kilns on your left.
Recommended reading: A Chronology of the Belvidere Delaware RR (a PA RR Co.) & the Communities/Region Through Which it Operated, by Warren F. & Catherine T. Lee.
Phillipsburg Railroads Today
Norfolk Southern Railway is the principal operator in Phillipsburg today and their main route is the East-West Lehigh Line with about twenty-five trains per day. It crosses above the Bel-Del just south of the point where you boarded the train. Canadian Pacific Railway also has trackage rights over the Lehigh Line.
The Norfolk Southern operates a secondary track extending north out of Phillipsburg along the Delaware River which connects with the Delaware Lackawanna Railroad at Portland, PA. The latter operates through the Delaware Water Gap to Scranton. The Bel-Del connects with Norfolk Southern at Union Square, Phillipsburg.
Another Norfolk Southern secondary track extends eastward from the Lehigh Line at Phillipsburg Union Station toward Washington, and connects with NJ Transit at Hackettstown.
Another Black River & Western Railroad is the nearby Lehigh & Delaware River Railway. It operates a short section of the former Jersey Central main line to service two industries in West Easton. Soon another family railroad, the Dover & Delaware River Railroad will begin operating the former Norfolk Southern Washington Secondary from Phillipsburg to Dover and NJ Transit connections in the Totowa area.
The New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center
A group of dedicated individuals has been working on this initiative for nearly twenty years. In 2001 Legislation to designate Phillipsburg as the primary location for the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center was passed and signed into law.
The Heritage Center collections include 90 pieces of railroad rolling stock (25 of which are locomotives); 30 historic buses; a half dozen trucks; several trolley cars, and over two hundred truckloads of artifacts, archives, supplies, parts and equipment.
Rail equipment and bus vehicles are stored at locations all over our state. Phillipsburg storage areas total seven acres, four buildings, and seven trailers or containers. Heritage Center leaders are vigorously working on the acquisition of the needed lands for the Museum.
The Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center is the booster organization for the State Museum and has over 500 members. They publish New Jersey Transport Heritage, a twelve page bulletin, six times per year, focusing on the progress and achievements of the Heritage Center as well as the transport history of our state.
The Phillipsburg Union Station
At the peak of the railroad era there were dozens of passenger and freight stations; roundhouses; turntables; interlocking towers; signal bridges; coal pockets and other structures in Phillipsburg.
The major remaining historic railway structure in town is the Phillipsburg Union Station at 178 South Main Street. It was built by the Lackawanna Railroad in 1914 and shared with the Central Railroad of New Jersey. It is currently occupied by the Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center as a mini museum and information center. The building is also occupied by the Canal Society of New Jersey; Tri-State Railway Historical Society and Anthracite Railroads Historical Society.
A large model of the future New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center is on display. The station is within walking distance of the Bel-Del Lehigh Junction Station.
History of Phillipsburg
Phillipsburg first appeared on a map of the area in 1749. The borough of Phillipsburg was incorporated in 1861. The Phillipsburg area developed into a transportation hub and a western gateway to New Jersey and it remains so today. It anchors the Southwest edge of the New Jersey “Highlands” Region.
Phillipsburg is at the confluence of the Delaware & Lehigh Rivers and both carried commercial traffic. Two turnpikes came across our state and met here. An early ferry carried early road traffic across the Delaware. The Morris, Lehigh and Delaware canals met here and exchanged canalboats, primarily carrying coal, by cable ferry.
Five railroads served the Phillipsburg area, as did five horsecar, trolley and interurban railways. The first successful diesel-electric locomotive in America was built by Ingersoll-Rand in Phillipsburg. Railroads, several motorcoach routes and numerous motor freight carriers continue to serve the area today.
Susquehanna No. 142
New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad 2-8-2 steam locomotive #142 was built in 1989 by the Tang Shan Locomotive & Machine Works in China. Its design is strongly based on a 1918 American design. There are some minor differences - such as the 142 being equipped with a steam “cooker” for rice for the crew.
When it became apparent that the production of new steam locomotives was coming to an end in China, several US rail tourist lines placed orders for the last steamers built. The Susquehanna Railroad ordered a sister locomotive, the No. 141. However, it was lost when the freighter on which it was being brought to the US sank in the Indian Ocean during a 1991 storm.
No. 142 was originally purchased by the Valley Railroad in Essex, Connecticut. They ran it a couple of years while their prime locomotive was being rebuilt. The NYS&W purchased No. 142 from the Valley Railroad and it has been operating on steam excursions throughout lower NY and Northern NJ for years. The New York Susquehanna & Western Technical & Historical Society purchased the locomotive from the Susquehanna Railroad.
The Trolleys of Phillipsburg
The Phillipsburg Horse Car Railroad Company began operating in 1871 between Union Square and Andover Furnace. In 1885 it was extended to Easton via the covered wood bridge over the Delaware River. Easton Transit Company purchased the Phillipsburg company in 1892, extending and electrifying the Phillipsburg division two years later.
The system came under the control of Easton Consolidated Electric Company in 1899 and the Lehigh Valley Traction Company in 1900, but reverted to Easton Consolidated in 1904 and later back to Easton Transit Company. In 1906 and 1907 the Phillipsburg routes were extended to Alpha and the Ingersoll-Rand plant. In 1916 Phillipsburg Horse Car Railroad was reorganized as Phillipsburg Transit Company. In 1922 both Phillipsburg and Easton Transit Companies were leased by Lehigh Valley Transit Company.
In 1906 the Easton & Washington Traction Co. commenced service between Phillipsburg and Washington. The line was reorganized as the New Jersey Interurban Company in 1923 but in 1925 autobus service replaced electric railway operations.
Both local Phillipsburg trolley lines ceased operating on October 31st, 1931. Lehigh Valley Transportation Company’s autobus service replaced the railway operations. But that was not to be the end of trolleys... On March 3rd, 2001 the North Jersey Electric Railway Historical Society moved their Public Service trolley car #2651 from Ringoes to Phillipsburg where it is undergoing restoration. Work days are posted on their website: www.NJERHS.org
Local bus service in Phillipsburg is currently provided by Delaware River Coach Lines under contract to NJ Transit. Warren County provides bus service between Phillipsburg, Washington and Hackettstown. Long distance motorcoach service is provided to the area by Greyhound, Trailways, and Trans-Bridge Lines.
The Centerville & Southwestern Railroad
In 1938 the first 100 feet of the miniature Centerville & Southwestern Railroad was built at the Henry Becker & Son, Inc. dairy farm at Roseland, NJ. Over the years it expanded and provided rides for thousands of visitors. Pride of the line was 4-8-4 live steam locomotive #1501, built by H.B. Ayers in 1940. The Centerville & Southwestern RR last ran at the Becker dairy farm in Roseland on Sept. 4th, 1972.
Locomotive # 1501 was donated to the Henry Ford Museum. Several years later they sold #1501 to an individual. Monmouth County Park Commission acquired the balance of the railroad and related equipment and structures.
The town of Phillipsburg acquired the C & S RR from Monmouth County in 1992. In 1997 the Phillipsburg Railroad Historians began to install the C&S at their site near Cross Street, Phillipsburg. For a schedule of operating days check their website: www.PRRH.org
The Ingersoll-Rand Company in Phillipsburg to 1940
The Ingersoll-Rand Company was established at Easton, PA in 1871 to manufacture the first practical steam powered rock drill. In 1892 I-R began building a new plant in Phillipsburg. In 1902 I-R began manufacturing air compressors used to build subway tunnels and the Panama Canal. By 1910 I-R had developed a producer gas internal combustion engine used to power two experimental tug boats on the Lehigh Coal and Navigation (canal) system.
In 1913 I-R developed the world’s first railroad ballast tamper - powered by compressed air generated by one of their compressors. A year later I-R began experimental work on a diesel engine and by 1918 was producing stationary single cylinder diesel engines for industry. Two years later they began producing multi-cylinder oil (diesel) engines for industrial applications. In 1921 I-R began working with the General Electric Company to adapt the I-R engine for railway use. In April of 1923, General Electric shipped a test carbody they prepared and the main generator to Ingersoll-Rand's Phillipsburg plant for installation of a 300 HP I-R diesel engine. On December 17th the completed unit was test operated on the extensive I-R plant trackage in Phillipsburg. Early the next year I-R demonstrated the new locomotive to railroad officials. They were impressed, but not sold. They wanted to test it in actual railroad operations.
The new diesel made its first test appearance in NY City in 1924. The 300 HP 60 ton locomotive got a 93 car train moving on level track! It was also successful in a tug-of-war with a steam locomotive used on street trackage in Manhattan. The I-R locomotive hauled the thrashing, smoking, steamer away without spinning a wheel. Because it was twice as expensive as a steam locomotive, no orders for the I-R diesel were generated until a law was passed which would prohibit steam locomotives in New York City. Undaunted, I-R began manufacturing them for future sale. Ingersoll-Rand shipped their new diesel engines to the General Electric plant at Erie, PA for installation in carbodies built by the American Locomotive Co.
In 1925 the first production diesel-electric locomotive in America was completed by General Electric and tested at Erie, PA. It was operated under its own power from Erie to Phillipsburg. The 470 mile run was made in 16 hours, using 110 gallons of diesel fuel at a total cost of $5.50! About the same time I-R began producing diesel-electric power plants for marine applications.
Ingersoll-Rand #90, the Phillipsburg plant locomotive, was built in 1926. The unit was equipped with roller bearing journals, one of the earliest applications to any locomotive. It was also equipped with electric starting, setting the precedent for most diesel locomotives which followed. In 1928 I-R produced the first diesel-electric road locomotive for the NY Central Railroad.
In 1929 I-R received an order for 41 locomotives from NY Central RR - this was the world’s largest order for diesels to date. Ingersoll-Rand sold the last of their diesel locomotives in 1937 and withdrew from the diesel locomotive manufacturing business to concentrate on non-rail diesels for industrial service. Over the years more than 120 locomotives had been powered by I-R diesel engines manufactured in Phillipsburg. A major, 22 page, feature/documentary article, Ingersoll-Rand: catalyst of dieselization, by David H. Hamley appeared in Trains Magazine, December 1970 issue. All former facilities of Ingersoll-Rand in Phillipsburg have closed and most of their buildings have been demolished.