NJ writer, photographer chronicles New Jersey’s abandoned railways in new book
New Jersey is crisscrossed by old abandoned rail lines that are no longer in use. Some of them are being targeted for possible hiking trials or even brought back as light rail lines.
But in the meantime, there is a New Jersey photographer and writer who is taking inspiration from what he sees along these abandoned tracks.
It was a pretty dark period in Wheeler Antabanez's life. The world was in lockdown because of COVID-19 and his parents just died within two weeks of one another. Antabanez says he was drawn, as he often is, to the darkest corners of the North Jersey landscape.
“So the only safe, socially distant activity I could find was to walk the tracks. I walked all the way from Montclair to Jersey City on the old Boonton Line just to clear my head after my parents’ death,” he says.
The more Antabanez walked, the more North Jersey’s defunct rail lines became a path to inspiration. Antabanez is a writer and photographer known for his books and articles chronicling New Jersey’s post-industrial underbelly. He followed up his walks along the Boonton Line tracks with walks along the abandoned Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad which runs through Kearny, Newark, Bellville, Nutley and Clifton.
The photos and videos he took on these hikes became the material for a new book titled “Walking the Newark Branch” and an accompanying film.
“And I had to start my journey by walking all the way out into the marsh so I could meet the starting point of this track,” he says.
Antabanez's book and film take us along a forbidden journey that none of us will – or necessarily show – ever make.
“I’m surrounded by people. I’m surrounded by civilization. But this is a little island. I can’t reach them. They can’t reach me,” he says.
Antabanez says that along the way he found abandoned buildings and graffiti.
“I was lucky to do it when I did because even now, a couple of months after I finished, a lot of the buildings have been torn down and they’re building condos,” he says.
The Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad ran between Paterson and Jersey City between the 1870s and 1960s. Unlike the Boonton Line, which is targeted to become a hiking and walking path known as the Essex Hudson Greenway, the Newark Branch faces a more uncertain future.
In 2020, a Regional Plan Association reporter proposed reinstating a light rail passenger service along the line.
“It’s good to get out there while it’s still here. It’s good to get out here while I’m still here,” Antabanez says.
News 12 New Jersey must stress that people should not attempt to walk along any railroad tracks. While some may appear to be abandoned, they still carry the occasional freight train.
Antabanezsays that he is willing to face the consequences for what is technically trespassing. His books can be found on Abandonedbooks.org.