Facebook Page
Chapter III

Chapter III:
Boom and Bust

“Then it came! War clouds gathered over Europe, thickened, and in April, 1917, enveloped us. For a short time the RV’s worries were over” (Young). World War I broke out across Europe on July 28, 1914 as the result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria, which set off a political powder keg which had been building across Europe for some time. While the Europeans suffered from all the plights that come with war, contrarily the Rahway Valley Railroad benefited quite nicely from the ensuing war effort.

The outbreak of the war prompted the construction of several war time plants, manufacturing mostly munitions, along the line of the Rahway Valley Railroad. “Freight business before World War I was only fair to marginal, until an influx of new industry; Eastern Tanning Corp., American Can Co., The Chiclet Co., American Laundry and Machine Co., and numerous coal and ice “docks,” lumber yards and a big gravel quarry on the Summit grade, all became important shippers of increasingly heavier freight manifests” (McCoy 12). Within a very short period of time the Rahway Valley was overwhelmed with the amount of business it was doing.

The United States developed a system of “cash and carry” where the sale of material to belligerents by American companies was permissible, as long as the recipients arranged for the transport using their own ships and paid immediately in cash, assuming all risk in transportation. “For a brief period preceding the entry of the United States into the war, the Government adopted the policy of “cash and carry” in the sale of munitions to the belligerent nations. Two munitions plants were built along the Rahway Valley tracks. A gunpowder plant was built by American Can Co., in a desolate area on the banks of the Rahway River in Kenilworth. Early production from both this plant and the “Fireworks Factory” on the Unionbury Branch was consigned to Czarist Russia, and shipped via the Rahway Valley to east coast ports for transshipment overseas” (McCoy 12).

With all the added activity at the newly constructed factories, an abundance of workers were needed to keep these plants at full productive capacity. “Upon the entry of the United States into the Great War, American Can Co. increased its facilities and stepped up production, which was not going to the U.S. Armed Forces. To provide the large numbers of war workers needed in this sparsely populated area, the . . . Central Railroad ran several special trains daily from Jersey City, Bayonne, and Elizabeth, over Rahway Valley tracks directly to the plant. The CNJ brought in as many as 5,000 arsenal workers for three shifts” (McCoy 13). William S. Young tells us that the Can Company even provided its own passenger equipment, “. . . the American Can Company, which opened a large shell arsenal at Eighth Street, Kenilworth, had a string of eight coaches, which were used. Every morning an RV hog picked them up from the Jersey Central to whom they had been delivered by a SIRT engine from Staten Island, and hauled them, crammed to the vestibules to the Can Co. plant” (Young).

World War I spring boarded Union County, as well as Essex County, into a period of great industrial development. One area that was seeing such development was Maplewood, NJ (then known as South Orange Township and was not renamed Maplewood until 1922). A section of this community, known as Hilton, was witnessing the construction of several fuel dealers, building supply companies, as well as a few manufacturing concerns. Either Louis Keller, in his infinite wisdom, or another such as James S. Caldwell or William W. Cole took note of this development at Hilton. Soon enough interest was gathered and on August 4, 1914 the “Rahway Valley Line” was formed, and subsequently leased to the Rahway Valley Company, Lessee, to construct a three mile spur line from the already extant Rahway Valley Railroad in Union to a terminus on Boydon Avenue in Hilton. Delays in acquiring right-of-way as well as the construction of long fills through Union Township pushed back the opening of the entire spur to early 1918. In later times the Rahway Valley Line, as it was officially known, would acquire a slew of nicknames including the “Unionbury Spur,” the “Maplewood Branch,” and the “Newark Heights Branch.” The latter name, “Newark Heights,” was a name the railroad coined for its terminus in Hilton. Freight depots were established at “Unionbury” (another railroad coined name) on Morris Ave. in Union and at Newark Heights. Interestingly, the bridges of the Rahway Valley Line which crossed Morris Ave., Vauxhall Rd., and Stanley Terrace all had abutments to accomodate two tracks. This was done for the following reason, “Morris County Traction, whose trolleys ran past the Unionbury depot and also within two blocks of the end of track in Hilton, offered to pay for the right to electrify the branch and run over it between those two points, thus providing a link between its two lines. This plan was almost carried out, but came to grief for reasons unknown” (Young).


War Time Freight Hauler! RV #8, ex-P&LE #9319, was purchased in 1916 during the middle of the World War I rush. Photo taken by J. Wallace Higgins, collection of Thomas T. Taber, III.

The Rahway Valley Railroad was abuzz with all sorts of activity. Thousands of workers from the big cities poured in along the RV’s rails daily and dozens of freight cars were moved to interchange points around the clock. “Activity was the order of the day. The arsenal loaded from five to twenty-five cars daily from a maze of spurs, while over on the east side, Carpenter Steel Company . . . sent out car after car of alloy tubing from four shipping spurs” (Young). According to Carl Nees, the railroad’s longtime master mechanic, as many as eighty car movements were made daily.

With all the added activity on the RV, motive power became an issue. The RV had retired #4 in 1911 and sold off both #5 and #6, which left #7 as the sole locomotive on the line. Throughout the war foreign motive power became a common site along the rails of the Rahway Valley, “Lehigh engines came up to Kenilworth for trains. Other LV hogs were leased to the RV, as was Jersey Central, and Pennsy power, with the latter road supplying its own crews” (Young). With the added cash made from the abundant car movements, the RV invested in its own motive power. #8, a big Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad 2-8-0 Consolidation-type, was purchased in

1916. A pair of ex-Pennsylvania Railroad 0-6-0 switchers came to the RV in December, 1917 (#9) and February, 1918 (#10) respectively. #7, the line’s beloved locomotive, left the Rahway Valley in 1917 as part of Uncle Sam’s war effort. According to one source #7 ended up at the Watervliet Arsenal in Watervliet, NY.

Strip ticket for an excursion to Asbury Park. Collection of Thomas T. Taber, III.
During the war the Rahway Valley and Jersey Central partnered to offer special summer excursion trips to Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore. “RV summer excursions to Jersey Shore points became just the thing for war time workers, who went via the Jersey Central armed with special strip tickets” (Young). Connecting  trains with the Jersey Central at Aldene offered residents along the Rahway Valley, as well as the many war time workers, the chance to visit Jersey’s sandy shores. Trips to the shore offered a day to forget the worries of the world and the intense battles being fought abroad.

There were worries to be had at home too. On July 30, 1916 the “Black Tom Explosion” rocked Jersey City, NJ. German saboteurs detonated ammunition stockpiles ready for shipment to the Allied forces in Europe. Along the little RV there were constant rumors and threats of German spies and sabotage. “A similar disaster virtually destroyed the Unionbury [ammunition] plant, and rumors of spies and saboteurs of Imperial Germany were rife. Railroad officials hired a number of local sharpshooters and railroad property was guarded around the clock” (McCoy 13).


The disaster, that McCoy speaks of, rocked Union County on September 18, 1914. "The Wright Chemical Company's plant at [Union, New Jersey], was wrecked by an explosion this afternoon. Three men were blown to pieces. The explosion took place apparently in a finishing and drying house where guncotton was being hauled. It tore this building and others about it to bits. Houses in all directions were damaged. Every pane of glass in some houses were broken as far as Cranford. The shock was very great, and at Cranford a chimney was knocked from a house. It is said the only men in the vicinity were the three killed, so that the death list is no likely to grow. In Springfield it is said in some houses the pictures were hurled form hte walls and dishes thrown from shelves and plaster cracked. The men killed were: John Reyley, foreman, of Springfield; Winfield Palmer, seventeen years old, of Springfield; and Grover Kleindents, also of Springfield. Several laborers working outside were somewhat injured by flying debris" ("Three Killed By Explosion; Many Houses Damaged")


Some months before Black Tom, a near disaster occurred at the American Can Company’s plant in Kenilworth, “One tragic day in October, 1919, an explosion in a loading cell rocked the area, killing several workers and injuring many more. The ensuing fire threatened a cut of several boxcars loaded with munitions. The plant’s armed guards threw a cordon around the perimeter in expectations of a major disaster. A crew form the Rahway Valley coolly backed their locomotive into the string of loaded cars, now beginning to smoke, coupled up and slowly withdrew from the scene. As the wood sheathed boxes rolled across the 8th St. crossing, hose crews of the Kenilworth Volunteer Fire Department wet down the train, preventing the tragedy which seemed certain to destroy the plant” (McCoy 13).

RV #10, ex-PRR #396 Class B-4a, was another war time acquisition. It is seen here at Kenilworth. Collection of Thomas T. Taber, III.
Incidents like these shook the nation to their core. Germans, as well as German-Americans, were constantly regarded as suspicious and accused of being spies for the German Empire. For this reason details of activities at war time plants were kept highly secret and confidential. The Chemical Company of America, a customer of the RV located in Springfield, was engaged in heavy war time production. The plant most likely produced mustard gas but the details still remain in question. Activities at the plant were so secretive that when a fire ravaged the plant on August 9, 1915, firemen were banned from entering the plant. “Orders forbidding the admission of all outsiders to the plant of the American Chemical Company of Springfield are so strict that guards stationed about the company’s property this afternoon refused to allow the local Fire Department to assist in extinguishing a fire that for more than two hours threatened to destroy the factory. The American Chemical Company announced a few weeks ago that it had accepted several large war orders from the Allies. With the doubling of the working force night shifts were decided upon and twenty guards kept outsiders from the factory grounds. The flames were first discovered from a train of the Rahway Valley Railroad that passes close to the factory buildings. The Fire Department answered the alarm, but the firemen were stopped at the entrance to the factory grounds. Captain Roscoe Ruby stated tonight that unless the chemical company explained satisfactorily its position to the local officials, he would refuse to respond to their alarms in the future” (“Bar Firemen From Blaze”).

This aerial view from 1923 shows the plant of the Chemical Company of America that was located alongside the Rahway Valley Railroad in Springfield, NJ. During the war the plant had Allied contracts, most likely to produce mustard gas. Activities at the plant were so secretive that even firemen, responding to a fire at the plant, were banned from entering. The Chemical Company of America suffered from at least three fires and explosions during its existance here. Union Township Historical Society.

The flurry of activity that resulted from the outbreak of World War I was a blessing for the little railroad, as well as the biggest boon in its history. 1918 and 1919 were banner years for the Rahway Valley Railroad. The railroad’s gross earnings for 1918 were $125,439 and topped out at $136,439. 1919 also marked the first year since 1909 that the railroad had reported a net profit. Freight and passenger revenues reached all-time highs. Gross passenger receipts peaked in 1918 with $10,690, up from a scant $703 earned in 1915.

“In short, it was the biggest boom in the pike’s history. Louis Keller patted himself on the back for sticking with the road for so long, but he probably reconsidered doing away with himself when the bubble burst with the signing of the Armistice” (Young). All too quickly, it seemed, peace came between the warring powers of Europe after American involvement. The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918 and effectively ended all conflict. Back on the home front, the boom of activity along the rails of the Rahway Valley Railroad hastily came to an abrupt end. The bottom fell out.

James S. Caldwell had managed the daily operations of the railroad during this time, and to his credit did so quite well, but the railroad trudged towards an uncertain future after the war concluded. The railroad also suffered the loss of William W. Cole, who had been serving as the President of the Rahway Valley Railroad Company, who died on December 20, 1915 while on business in Poughkeepsie, NY. His death was the result of an accident. Louis Keller succeeded him as President.

As an aside, there is a possibility that during World War I, when the United States Railroad Administration (USRA) took over the operation of the nation’s major railroads, a brief connection was made with the Lackawanna to facilitate movements of crucial war time materials. “Faced with the tremendous effort of all-out war production and troop movements, the U.S. Government took over the railroads. The Office of the U.S. Railroad Administration issued a directive that where possible, all main and branch lines were to be connected to facilitate the movement of war material. This offered the Rahway Valley another chance to press for its long sought connection with the Lackawanna, a scant 300 feet from its Summit terminal. The Federal order read, in part; “necessary track work, frogs and switches shall be laid at the convenience of the receiving line” (McCoy 13).



#7 and her crew pose in this photograph. Standing in the center is "Handsome" Jack Shallcross, then Frazee Haines, and Joe Shallcross. The Rahway Valley Railroad hauled thousands of war time workers to munitions plants located along its rails. Collection of Don Maxton.

Head Back to the Station!