Contributed by John Steen
Coal not only powered Northern New Jersey’s early railroads, the very transport of coal helped build the railroads. When the earliest rails were being laid across the state, coal traveled on the Morris Canal, a five-day journey from Easton, Pennsylvania, to Newark. Except in winter. Back then, the canal froze for four or five months a year. In the mid-19th century, several competing railroads laid tracks from the Pennsylvania coalfields in the Pocono region to the Delaware River. One of them was the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (DL&W), created in 1853.
The DL&W main line extended 396 miles from Hoboken to Buffalo and connected to other railroads, providing access to Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. It was known as the Road of Anthracite due to its route through the hard coal country around Scranton where it owned extensive coalfields.
The future site of Mountain Lakes loomed on its Boonton branch, which opened on September 5, 1867 to provide a reduced grade for heavy coal freights between the New Jersey Highlands and Hoboken. The Main Line through Morristown had a steep grade from the Passaic River near Chatham up to Summit. From the Main Line in Denville, the Boonton Branch went through Boonton, Paterson, and Passaic on the way to Hoboken. Mountain Lakes was 31.2 miles from Hoboken. The line was a boon to Boonton. Not only did it supply the town with coal in the winter months, but westbound trains carried its iron ore and finished iron products.
In 1900, in one of the most iconic inventions in the history of American advertising, the DL&W’s advertising department gave birth to an imaginary young lady named Phoebe Snow, who brilliantly evoked the railroad’s principal advantage over competing railroads. The leading roads were the New York Central with its Twentieth Century Limited and water level route up the beautiful Hudson River, and the Pennsylvania Railroad with its Broadway Limited and the shortest route to Chicago across the Pennsylvania mountains. Though the DL&W promoted its scenic route through the Delaware Water Gap, and its shortest route to Buffalo, it made more of the fact that its steam locomotives burned hard coal that produced almost no smoke and ash compared to the soft (bituminous) coal burned by the competing roads. The idea to do so was apparently stimulated by Mark Twain. After making a trip to Elmira, New York in 1899, he wrote to the railroad: “Left New York on Lackawanna Railroad this A.M. in white duck suit, and it’s white yet.”
Phoebe Snow took the form of a spotlessly clean, alabaster skinned lady in unrumpled, starched white linens, often adorned by a corsage of violets, who could make the trip and arrive as perfectly white as when she left. She was not only exquisitely illustrated, she was quoted in meter: “My gown stays white / from morn till night / upon the Road of Anthracite.” She was portrayed by Miss Marion Murray (Mrs. Marion Gorsch), a New York photographer’s model, who within five years became the best-known model in New York. She even appeared in the silent movie, The Great Train Robbery (1903), filmed on parts of the railroad.
The illustrations with jingles first appeared on advertising cards posted above the windows inside streetcars and el cars in New York City. She became so popular the public eagerly followed her travel adventures through newspaper ads, magazine articles, and fan mail. In less than a decade, she became a vaudeville figure worshipped as a celebrity much as the Hollywood stars of a generation later. She even inspired a popular line of clothes, hats, and accessories. Her promotion as symbolic of the DL&W lasted until 1917 when the Navy’s use of hard coal forced the railroad to switch to soft coal.
The railroad revived Phoebe Snow in November 1949 when it replaced its steam locomotives with cleaner diesel-electric locomotives pulling a brand-new, state-of-the-art, luxurious streamliner composed of nine steel cars including an observation tavern lounge car that since 1883 had been known as the Lackawanna Limited. The train was even rechristened by Mrs. Gorsch. Oil had trumped anthracite. In 1953, all of the road’s remaining steam locomotives were replaced by diesel-electrics.
The Phoebe Snow made its last run on November 27, 1966 on the Erie-Lackawanna Railway, the result of the merger of the DL&W with the larger Erie in 1960. Mrs. Gorsch (1882-1967) outlived her train by a year.
The attention that Phoebe Snow brought to the DL&W enabled the railroad to prosper in the early years of the century. This, in turn, made it possible for the railroad to play a strong role in developing the New Jersey suburbs, not to mention enticing and enabling New Yorkers to vacation in the Poconos. The railroad produced books annually that promoted the communities it served and the scenery along its route. The Phoebe Snow train used the Main Line, so it did not pass through Mountain Lakes. Mountain Lakes was served by local passenger trains on the Boonton branch, which ran from Hoboken to Washington, New Jersey, a distance of 66.6 track miles.
After World War II, the branch’s best commuter train, the Lakeland Express, included one air-conditioned car with more comfortable seats that was rented by Mountain Lakes and Boonton commuters. It would depart Hoboken at 5:30 PM and run nonstop for 29 miles to Boonton in about 40 minutes, continuing on to Washington, a trip totaling almost two hours. It was rarely late.
Passenger service began for Mountain Lakes on November 15, 1912 with the opening of the Jacobethan station designed by the railroad for which it appropriated $40,000, including road improvements with an underpass and the park landscaping around the station. The line at that time had two tracks, but two additional tracks were added in 1925-26. One was removed for the iron during World War II, leaving three. The branch became underutilized in the early 1950s; one of its three tracks was removed between Denville and Lincoln Park in 1953 and the railroad petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to end passenger service on it in 1955-56. However, after a protracted lobbying effort by the affected towns between Mountain Lakes and Montclair, with ex-Mountain Lakes Mayor Richard Wilcox as spokesperson, service was maintained – and subsidized by the New Jersey Department of Transportation after 1966. In 1976, the Erie-Lackawanna went out of business. Most of its routes were taken over by Conrail. In 1983, New Jersey Transit became the operator of the commuter passenger service.
Mountain Lakes began as a railroad suburb and owed its original marketing to both Herbert J. Hapgood and to the railroad he depended on for a steady stream of prospective residents. Fortuitously, the birth of the town in the 1910s coincided with the decade in which the railroad achieved the engineering, operating, and maintenance standards that established its reputation for the next half century. The railroad then served our commuters well and promoted New Jersey suburban life for more than a generation.