By Steve Sears
The Whippany Railway Museum (1 Railway Plaza, Route 10, Whippany) is 54 years old.
However, when you stand inside the 1904 freight house building that houses the museum, and see the old station bells, signs and more, you’ll swear you hear voices from the past, well beyond the museum birth date of 1965. Closing of your eyes will invite imagining yourself back to yesteryear and traveling on one of the trains stationed (pun intended) outside, maybe even aiding a conductor as he looks out from his cupola in one of the cabooses outside on the many yards of track.
There is a fascination with trains among a good portion of the public. Why? Mike Dodge, a volunteer at the location, offers his opinion. “I think for many people it’s the idea of being able to be taken somewhere, and this time they’re into because it seems so much simpler and calmer compared to the way most people travel. It’s a touchstone to earlier days, because nowadays when you’re traveling it always seems like rush-rush, and go to this line, and that doesn’t even get into the screenings which can almost make is seem like a cattle-call. This harkens back to a period when you were traveling, you went down to the station, you had a little more room, you could move around a bit, if you were traveling a long distance you had the sleepers, you could go to the dining car and sit down and have a civilized meal prepared for you on the train.”
Also, per Dodge, it harkens back to a time when you were traveling and getting to the destination was as enjoyable as what you were planning to do when you got there. “The other thing, for those that didn’t travel, (there was) just the idea that, if they lived near the tracks, here’s something (the train) that started who knows where and is going who knows where, and it just has possibilities. Generally, too, some of the sounds and such, like a steam whistle, you can hear it echoing through the woods and hills. It just puts you in a different kind of a mood. A lot of people kind of enjoy the fact that it’s all kind of symbolic of this whole big world that’s out there, and here’s a way to get to it.”
“That’s the lure for a lot of people.”
“Originally this building was located across the tracks next to the station,” says Dodge, explaining a bit of the history, beginning with the freight house. “In 1965 Earle Gil Sr., who was a local Morris County resident, had this vision of starting a tourist railroad powered by steam locomotives. Steam locomotives had basically disappeared from railroad service about 15 years or so prior to that. He thought that there would be a market for people who either remembered steam locomotives or were young and didn’t, who would want to ride behind one.” Gil obtained a steam locomotive from a short line In Virginia (Virginia Blue Ridge Railway), which is the No. 385-steam locomotive outside the museum. It was refurbished, and put it into service, the line opening as the Morris County Central. It was the genesis of the museum. “Along with that, he and other people associated with the Morris County Central had collected railroad artifacts, and they opened up a display of them in a small shack that originally was located on the other side of the tracks.”
The attraction proved to be a popular one, so two years later, the Morristown & Erie Railway decided to change the development of the property and no longer needed the freight house. It was offered to and gladly accepted by the Morris County Central, and it was rolled across the tracks to its present location. It then, in 1967, became known as the Morris County Central Railroad Museum. The Morris County Central relocated to Newfoundland in 1973, and in 1974 the museum went with it, living in a converted refrigerated railroad car, it now being called the Pequannock Valley Transportation Museum.
The Morris County Central last ran in 1980 and went out of business, but the museum continued and, in 1983, sought a new home. The original freight house museum was the place, and after members of the Passaic Valley Transportation Museum requested permission to rebuild it from the Morristown & Erie Railway, it was renamed as the Whippany Railway Museum and reopened in the fall of 1985.
Visitors to the Whippany Rail Museum have specific reasons for trekking to the Route 10 location, and that depends on interest and age range. Older folks may recall fondly their youth; the sight of a caboose was commonplace with freight trains, and the museum has a few stationed outside. When younger, many folks while watching the train go by might garner a friendly wave from the conductor from the caboose. Visiting the museum and seeing the cabooses will enhance recollection (“A pleasurable memory,” says Dodge). For current youngsters, it’s like a huge toy to see, and introduction to trains from shows like Thomas the Tank Engine have piqued curiosity. “Then they come out,” Dodge says with a smile, “and here’s the real thing.” The museum, when rides (better known as Excursion Train Rides) are in session, permits children to sit in the engineer seat of the locomotive, and they hook up a horn which the child can sound, much like an engineer would, or climb up into the caboose cupola like a conductor did in yesteryear. “It’s a chance for them to experience what they’re watching in a real way.”
Most of the items on display are historic original (there are reproductions in case an original could not be located). “For example, the lanterns,” says Dodge, pointing to the display, “ they’re historic, some of them dating over 100 years old. The headlights are from actual operating locomotives. The bells are from Morristown & Erie steam locomotives. These particular items were saved when the locomotives were scrapped, and they’re historically tied to the site because these locomotives were the ones used by the railroad that went through Whippany up until the 50s.”
The most popular indoor attraction for kids is the O scale layout model railroad. When the museum is open, the trains are running, children fascinated by the model train in motion around the tracks. Other items or interest are original steel milk cans, which were used up until the 1960s when many creameries shipped milk via train. “They are not specifically a railroad item, but they are tied to what the railroad did,” Dodge explains.
A visit to the museum will afford folks the opportunity to view trains that are in good shape for their age, although some need restoration and are possibly being restored. The normal practice is to have volunteers do restorations that they can do where their skills apply. However, if there is a job that requires skills not attributed to a volunteer, the museum will hire help to perform the function.
In the end, it provides a top notch, fun exhibit right off of busy Route 10.
Normal fees for the museum, which is open Sundays April to October, are $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for children. If train runs are scheduled, the museum admission fee is included in the excursion fee. On Sun. April 7, Sat. April 13, Sun. April 14 and Sat. April 20, the 27th Annual Easter Bunny Express, a 10-mile, 45-minute round trip excursion from Whippany to Roseland takes place with the Easter Bunny onboard. Departure times are 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 p.m., rain, snow or shine, and fare is $17.00 for adults, $12.00 for children under 12, and infants 1 year and under are free.
For tickets and more information on the events and general information about the Whippany Railway Museum, visit www.WhippanyRailwayMuseum.net or call (973) 887-8177.
The Whippany Railway Museum is always looking for volunteers, and no special knowledge of railroads is required. “A volunteer,” says Dodge, “ has to be willing to undertake the task. We have some people who come to us with a background in railroads and such, and we have other people who have never really set foot on a railroad, but they have an interest in trains. We have a couple of people that all they’re interested in doing is helping in trying to maintain the equipment. We have other people, they don’t want to help out with the equipment but want to help out on ride days. That’s fine, too.”
The museum, when open, also has an outdoor garden railroad, which is a larger G scale model railroad. “These are about twice as a big or maybe a little more than that (the inside O scale model). When they’re made, the thought is they’re going to be run outdoors. The track is larger and usually they get abut three or four (trains) going at the same time. The kids love watching these run back and forth.”
For Dodge, he echoes the true drive to what makes the Whippany Railway Museum a great place to visit. “A family should come here because it is a very good way to spend a little time to connect with each other, take a bit of a trip, have a chance to see a bit of history, learn a little it about the way things were – which can maybe help you appreciate how we got to the way things are (in modern railroading) – and have a chance to disconnect from some of the stresses from the other things that put a lot of pressure on families these days.”