The Wreck(s) of the Rock-A-Bye Baby
By C.G. Wolfe ● Postcard Courtesy of The Old Mill Bookshop
“Push the throttle up the grade/Switches, trestles, siding scales/Careful not to push the steam/Or this old, iron horse, she may throw a spike, and jump the rails” “Rockabye” from the album, Welcome to the Past, by Gordon Thomas Ward
Wherever rails traverse the countryside, legends are soon to follow. In the Tewksbury/Peapack/Mendham area, it’s the late Rockaway Valley Railroad, a shortline railroad that ran from Whitehouse Station to Watnong, near Morristown, stopping at stations along the way in Oldwick, Pottersville, Peapack, and Mendham, that captures the imagination of local steam train enthusiasts. In operation from 1892-1913, the railroad offered freight and passenger service, but its foremost function was to haul the local peach crops to markets hungry for Jersey peaches.
Inadequately funded, ill-designed, and poorly constructed, the R.V.R.R. was plagued by financial and operational hazards from its onset. One passenger, Sue C. Blackford, recalled in a letter published by Thomas T. Taber, that “this railroad has had many jokes told about it. It was often called the “Rockabye Baby Railroad” because the road-bed was so rough. (The passengers were ‘rocked,’ but not to sleep.)”
Construction of the railroad was overseen by its greatest proponent, Chief Engineer, John E.V. Melick. In his book, The Rock-A-Bye Baby, Thomas T. Taber wrote, “… Melick was the railroad ‘builder.’ The word is used advisedly for his experience was limited, and his ideas on how to build a railroad were not in keeping with good practice.” But what he lacked in engineering skills, he tried to make up for in public relations, tirelessly promoting his creation and persuading publications to do the same. In 1891, in an effort to drum up passenger business, The Jerseyman wrote a romantic review of the R.V.R.R that read in part: “From Peapack to Pottersville is a little over three miles, and the cars take you thru the suburbs of a real country village, but little known to people ten miles distant, which is richly endowed with natural advantages. It is situated on the Black River. At Pottersville the river passes through a most romantic and wild gorge…”
Although no one seems to have been seriously hurt, the part the promoters left out is the very good chance that you may not make it to the gorge (unless on foot or horseback) due to the constant derailments and occasional wrecks. The wreck pictured on the above postcard, occurred on July 5, 1908, just south of Pottersville near John LaTourette’s mill. (The R.V.R.R. merged with the Speedwell Lake Railroad in 1904, to become the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Railroad.) That same year, excerpts from Conductor William Dilley’s notebook recorded eight more wrecks and derailments between February 22 and December 5.
Despite Melick’s best promotional efforts, the doomed short line railroad, due to a myriad of problems, the worst of which was a blight that destroyed the peach crops and devastated local orchards, the Rock-A-Bye Baby ceased operation in 1913. The only man to eventually turn a profit from the well-intentioned endeavor was railroad president, Frank B. Allen, who had the tracks torn up and sold for scrap iron during World War One.