The Lackawanna Cut-Off
December 24, 2008 11:35 PM   Subscribe

A glance will show / Why Phoebe Snow / Prefers this route / To Buffalo.
And Phoebe's right / No route is quite / As short as Road / of Anthracite.

In 1908 the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad began work on the New Jersey Cut-Off to make its New York to Buffalo mainline (the Road of Anthracite so liked by Phoebe Snow) even shorter and faster. It was to have no grade crossings, and was to be as straight and level as possible — through hilly terrain. The 28-mile Lackawanna Cut-Off, as it is now known, was built over three years, cost $11 million, and was an engineering marvel of massive reinforced concrete bridges, enormous cuts, and the largest railroad embankment in the world. All of this has been abandoned for years, though there are plans afoot to restore the Cut-Off for commuter rail.

All 73 bridges and culverts on the Lackawanna Cut-Off were made entirely of concrete. The route shaved 11 miles off the New York City to Buffalo trip, with a maximum grade of 0.6% and total height fluctuation of only 11 feet.

The two big bridges: Delaware Viaduct and Paulin's Kill Viaduct. Can you spot the Cut-Off on a terrain map? (That's Pequest Fill.)

The DL&W followed up with the Summit Cut-Off in Pennsylvania, building two more huge concrete bridges — the Martin's Creek Viaduct and the rather more impressive Tunkhannock Viaduct, which is possibly the largest one to date.

The New York Times ran stories on the completions of the two cut-offs. There is some more information about the construction here. You can also read a bit about working on the Lackawanna Railroad.

The beginning of the end for the DL&W was the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Diane in 1955. The rails on the Lackawanna Cut-Off were removed in the 1980s; the Summit Cut-Off still survives with one track in service. Naturally people explore the abandoned Paulin's Kill Viaduct and other portions. If you're ever in northwest New Jersey, you can tour the Lackawanna Cut-Off. As for the Summit Cut-Off, you can see much of it from U.S. 11 north of Scranton, which follows the old alignment. See also Steamtown in Scranton.
posted by parudox (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Great Post. I've spent a lot of time researching the NJ cutoff, it runs right through Blairstown where my in-laws live. Coincidentally, I'm planning on hiking the cutoff from Blairstown to the Paulin's Kill Viaduct this weekend. I'm particularly interested in seeing the Roseville Tunnel some day.

A lot more good NJ cut-off stuff at

For those who know the appreciable mountains of NW NJ, It's absolutely amazing that they could build a zero grade RR bed through this area at the time they did it and so quickly. The Roseville Tunnel was originally supposed to be a cut instead of a tunnel(they didn't want any tunnels on the cutoff), but the engineers and geologists determined that the cut would be so deep and the rock was so brittle that the walls of the cut might collapse onto the tracks, so they opted for a tunnel instead. There is truly a ton of rich history here, and not just for RR buffs (which I definitely am not).
posted by Rafaelloello at 11:59 PM on December 24, 2008

Awww man. Excellent post, but I thought it was a different Phoebe Snow. Don't let me down.
posted by cashman at 12:06 AM on December 25, 2008

Awesome post.

There were lots of these direct-route or "air line" railroads built around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, representing sort of the last great railroad build-out, which unfortunately have not been well maintained — despite the fact that they're much more desirable today than many less-direct "milk run" routes used for freight and local passenger service.

Up in CT, there was formerly a route called the "New York and Boston Air Line" running across the state from southwest to northeast, built at great cost and expense to minimize crossings, turns, and grades. Although not quite on the same scale as the Lackawanna Cutoff, it's still pretty amazing: a ruler-straight line running over, under, or through whatever happened to be in its way.

Some parts of it are still around as rail trails, but I suspect development would make it difficult to reopen. Which is too bad, because it would dramatically shorten a NY/Boston trip by rail. (Today if you take Amtrak north out of NYC, with the exception of an old freight line up the West Side that still carries occasional service to Albany, your only option is to go up through New Haven and then follow the shore, then go up through Rhode Island in order to get to Boston. I suspect the Air Line route would probably cut an hour off the trip, beating every other mode of transportation save perhaps private helicopter.)

The kind of rail system we desperately need now — high speed inter-city trains that can provide an alternative to the fragile air-travel network and complement regional commuter service — almost existed nearly a century ago. It was the Depression, in my view, that really put a halt to it, leaving many ambitious lines unfinished and some finished ones bankrupt or unable to turn a profit.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:46 AM on December 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

It was the Depression, in my view, that really put a halt to it.

Well, presumably the lack of a national transport policy that emphasizes getting people out of their cars and into public transport has something to do with it as well.

It's not that hard to make public transport work, and work well. But someone's really got to want to do it. America has too many people making too much money keeping people *off* public transport and stuck in private cars go give much of a shit about that kind of change.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:28 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Interesting writeup of the New York to Boston Air Line.
posted by zippy at 3:01 AM on December 25, 2008

Well, presumably the lack of a national transport policy that emphasizes getting people out of their cars and into public transport has something to do with it as well.

That lack was answered by a corporate national transport policy that emphasized the exact opposite.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:32 AM on December 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

cashman: interestingly, that Phoebe Snow took her name from the locomotive -- which took its name from the advertising icon. So, indirectly, it IS about Phoebe Snow, the singer. :)
posted by Malor at 4:44 AM on December 25, 2008

New Jersey Transit's project page.

The State of NJ, in its wisdom, neglected to purchase the alignment from Conrail. Jerry Turco (who passed away in 2003) purchase part of the alignment and planned to cart away some of the fill and fill in cuts with industrial waste. Only after that plan was unveiled did the State move to purchase parts of the corridor.
posted by johnjreiser at 5:17 AM on December 25, 2008

It would make an astounding Rales-to-Trails.

I'm not sure I buy Wikipedia's claim that is it comparable to the building of the Panama Canal. Perhaps on some mathematical metric of sqft earth moved or something but the conditions were very different. It is curious though how between the canals of the 19th century, the rail embankment "fills" of the early 20th, and all the coal mining, there has been a lot of digging in the region.
posted by stbalbach at 6:21 AM on December 25, 2008

Man, screw Rails-to-Trails.
I grew up in rural Maine, in the Ellsworth area. Back in the day, they used to have passenger rail service from Ellsworth up to Bangor, and then on to points north and south from there, not to mention the Ellsworth-Machias line.
They stopped all that in the mid-sixties, and cut off freight service maybe twenty years later.

Now, Ellsworth is at the traffic-laden chokepoint for Acadia National Park, and it's the typical exurban wasteland, with strip malls, a Super Wal-Mart, and not much else. Town planning has laid car traffic ahead of everything else, even as it's becoming pretty clear that things won't always work like that in the future.

Now back to the railroad. A private company will be fixing up some of the line between Ellsworth and Dedham, halfway to Bangor, and will be offering "train tours" in the summertime. It's still not public transportation, but at least they're using the rails for something and maybe we could get a year-round Ellsworth-Bangor line in the future.
But the Machias line? Currently, Machias is a college town up the coast, and if you want to do anything, you have to have a car, and drive it 70 miles down to Ellsworth- and even then you'll probably have to drive up to Bangor from there. And what are they doing with the Machias line?

They're doing a Rails-to-Trails, tearing up the tracks and putting the roadbed in perpetual trust as a bike trail. They're shooting themselves in the foot and passing up on the opportunity to run a train to Machias- ever. All that infrastructure, that could be used in the future when it just gets too expensive to drive the massive distances in Maine, is being thrown away.

Screw Rails-to-Trails.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:48 AM on December 25, 2008 [6 favorites]

Cool post. My Grandfather worked as a conductor on the D.L.&W. (Delay, Linger and Wait) for thirty years as a conductor. I'm sure that he'd be horrified to see the state of rail in this country today.
posted by octothorpe at 7:53 AM on December 25, 2008

Screw Rails-to-Trails.

Seconded. The same thing happened where I grew up. There's still public transit, but it's buses - worse environmentally, more subject to weather, completely at the mercy of the same traffic that makes driving a pain, and it goes to fewer places than the rail system did. On the other hand, during the warm months, people get to ride their bikes without worrying about cars. For me, that's not a win-win.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:55 AM on December 25, 2008

On the other hand, during the warm months, people get to ride their bikes without worrying about cars.

And furthermore, most of the people riding their bikes on the old Machias line are going to be tourists, while people who actually need to go to work or the store are stuck driving their cars. There's a bus system but it's only in the summertime and the routes are completely designed around the needs of tourists.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:23 AM on December 25, 2008

Fantastic. Does anyone else hear Emily Dickinson in the Phoebe Snow verse? Like this:

And Phoebe's right---No route is quite--
As short as Road--
of Anthracite--

I'm looking forward to exploring this post, thank you.
posted by jokeefe at 11:12 AM on December 25, 2008

This is fascinating - I grew up with a Phoebe Snow tin enamel advertisement on my bedroom wall (my dad being both an advertising man and a railway enthusiast). Living in the UK it was pretty baffling, but I can still quote the rhyme from my ad: "Phoebe Snow, Dressed in White, Rides the Road of Anthracite".
posted by featherboa at 4:06 PM on December 25, 2008

Man, screw Rails-to-Trails.

I guess if you didn't want the ability to reclaim railbeds for later reuse for railroading it might be nice to screw rails-to-trails.

It isn't RTT that makes a rail line go away, it's the lack of business for the private owner.
posted by wierdo at 10:01 PM on December 25, 2008

As far as railroad
Mascots go
I do adore
Miss Phoebe Snow

But my heart goes to
One not so dressy:
America's Sleepheart,
The kitten Chessie
posted by Spatch at 6:36 AM on December 26, 2008

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