Last revised: April 13, 2023
By: Adam Burns
The state of New Jersey's rail history can be traced back to the industry's earliest days. Its first was the Camden & Amboy which opened its first segment on October 1, 1832. The railroad later became a part of the classic Pennsylvania Railroad system.
Due to its close proximity to several major cities, such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Wilmington (Delaware), railroads blanketed New Jersey. Nearly all of the major eastern "trunk" lines had some kind of connection to the state, or would later serve the state.
Today, a number of museums and heritage railroads have popped up to tell the history of New Jersey's railroads. A few these offer special events for the holiday/Christmas season, which are highlighted below.
(Ringoes): The Black River & Western was a startup tourist attraction conceived by William Whitehead who initially wanted to build a railroad along a section of the old Rockaway Valley Railroad.
After, for various reasons, this attempt (and others) failed he eventually entered into an agreement with the Pennsylvania Railroad to lease its Flemington Branch between Flemington and Lambertville.
The first train of what was known as the Black River & Western Railroad departed from Flemington on May 16, 1965. Five years later PRR successor Penn Central sold the property to the BR&W, thus allowing the little short line to enter the freight business.
Things went well for the next 25 years until poor track conditions shutdown operations entirely in 1998. A new group of enthusiasts formed the Black River Railroad Historic Trust (BRRHT) in 2001 to save the line from certain abandonment.
After more than a decade of work passenger service was revived in 2016. Today, they continue to restore the property and expand services. For Christmas, two trips are offered; the Christmas Limited and North Pole Express.
The former is an early event held in mid-November where kids can ride along with Santa, take pictures, enjoy a cookie and hot chocolate, and receive a small gift. The latter is the marquee experience.
The North Pole Express running from late November and through December, takes visitors to the North Pole Station where kids enjoy treats, sing Christmas carols, visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and receive a small gift. To learn more please visit their website.
(Wall Township): A division of the New Jersey Museum of Transportation (NJMT), the Pine Creek Railroad offers the Christmas Express where kids get to ride with Santa; trains depart all day from Thanksgiving Weekend through mid-December.
For more information please visit their website and plan ahead as this ride, which has been offered for over three decades, sells out quickly. The NJMT is one of New Jersey's oldest museums.
It was born in 1952 during a great transition within the railroad industry; the iconic steam locomotive was being retired in favor of the new diesel-electric while Americans were abandoning rail travel for automobiles and airliners.
The group's general mission has always been rail history and preservation. It all began with the acquisition of Raritan River Sand Company 0-4-0T #10, acquired in 1952 (still owned by the museum).
Since then they have acquired a growing list of rolling stock, including seven steam locomotives; perhaps the most famous is Ely-Thomas Lumber Company 2-truck Shay #6, built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1927.
While NJMT sits next to the former right-of-way of Pennsylvania Railroad's Freehold Jamesburg Division that property is now the Capital To The Coast Trail. Instead, excursions are hosted on a short loop of track around the museum.
(Woodstown): This excursion launched in 2022 and is a division of SMS Rail Lines, a short line freight carrier which has served New Jersey since 1994. From a historical standpoint, the operation utilizes about 16 miles of restored ex-Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines trackage between Swedesboro, Woodstown, and Mannington. The railroad is currently offering 32-mile round trips with some trains.
As a new railroad their excursions are still limited. However, for the holidays there are two events in which they are taking part:
"Woodstown By Candlelight (Friday December 2nd from 4 - 9 PM): Come on out to the quaint town of Woodstown, NJ to meet our friendly team and check out the craftsmanship on our red Reading Caboose! Take a stroll through the beautiful downtown and tour historic homes, snack at the food trucks, listen to live music, ride in a horse-drawn carriage, and visit with Santa! It’s going to be a great night and a wonderful way to kick off the holiday season!"
"Home for the Holidays, Salem, Yuletide Tour of Homes - A Historic Yuletide Tour of Salem (Saturday December 3 from 1 -6 PM): Join us for a fun and festive event based out of historic Salem, New Jersey. Meet our friendly team and take a close-up look at our restored red Reading Caboose! You can enjoy shopping in the unique shops, visit with Santa, and tour through historic homes and venues!"