For many folks, the abandoned rail corridor along the Paulinskill River in Warren and Sussex counties wasn’t worth keeping. But Len Frank and a group of like-minded friends saw a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create a 27-mile multi-purpose trail for hikers, bicyclists, equestrians, cross-country skiers and nature lovers.
Len, who passed away on Jan. 17 at the age of 96, was the driving force behind a successful grassroots effort to turn the former New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad line between Knowlton Township and Sparta into today’s Paulinskill Valley Trail, one of New Jersey’s longest “rail trails.”
“Len was our ringleader, he really kept us going,” said Bob Barth of Fredon, who was part of the 10-year effort to get the Paulinskill Valley Trail established. If not for Len’s creativity and persistence, the trail may have never happened.
Back in the early 1980s, trail advocates thought it was just common sense that a trail was the best use for an old rail bed running through the scenic countryside. “We thought, it’s great – who could possibly be against that?” said Barth. The state Green Acres Program agreed to consider buying the property.
But opponents packed the room during the first public hearing on the rail trail proposal. “It almost turned into a riot,” recalled Barth. Neighboring landowners didn’t want a bunch of strangers traipsing through their backyards; they just wanted to buy little pieces of the rail bed to expand their properties. The state backed away.
But Len was up for the challenge. A Hackettstown resident and avid hiker, he had recently retired from Picatinny Arsenal and had time to rally public support for the trail.
Len and his group wrote letters, stuffed envelopes at kitchen tables, handed out brochures at the Sussex County Fair, raised money through a horseback “ride-a-thon,” and sought the backing of dozens of community organizations.
But obvious to Len was the need to get the local residents out onto the trail to see for themselves. Through the Sierra Club, he and his committee led regular hikes on various sections of the railway bed. The outings proved popular.
“The thing that really did it was those hikes,” recalled Barth. “People would go out there and see how beautiful the trail was.” One county freeholder was among the elected officials who came out for a hike: “He took one step on the trail and said, we can’t lose this; this is wonderful.”
Marty Grossman, the current president of the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee, said a hike with Len was more than just a chance to exercise amid pretty scenery – it was an educational experience.
“Besides being a hiker, he was an historian – he would give you railroad history, he would give you local history, he would give you the history of ironmaking because he was a metallurgist, and he would give you postal history because he was a stamp collector,” recalled Grossman.
In addition, Grossman said, Len’s wife Erica was an expert on local flora and fauna, so learning about nature was a part of every hike. And Len was interested in geology, so he would explain the rocks and formations seen along the trail.
The campaign worked. At one point, a local newspaper surveyed readers about preserving the rail bed. As it turned out, 75 percent were in favor. “Having people support it was a big plus for the state,” said Barth.
But preserving the trail took more than winning over local residents. The City of Newark had purchased the rail corridor in the 1960s, with plans for a water supply pipeline to a proposed reservoir on the Delaware River. However, that idea fell through when the Tocks Island Dam proposal was defeated.
Len and other trail advocates worked hard behind the scenes to convince Newark officials to sell the property, and the state of NJ Green Acres program to buy it. Finally, more than 10 years after the rail trail was first proposed, the state purchased the land for Paulinskill Valley Trail in 1992. It is now part of Kittatinny Valley State Park, which also includes the Sussex Branch Trail, another rail trail.
“Len Frank’s commitment to this corridor during the early days, when opposition was much stronger than support, really kept the flame burning,” said Peter Harnik, co-founder of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating trail networks on old rail beds. “He was really committed to taking people out there on the rail corridor.”
We are all grateful to Len Frank for not giving up on creating a rail trail along the Paulins Kill. For that, he is a true conservation trailblazer!
Next time you’re up for a fun hike or bike ride, check out the Paulinskill Valley Trail. There are many entry points along the corridor, and numerous signs explaining the railroad line’s history. You can see a map that shows entry points and parking areas here: https://www.traillink.com/trail/paulinskill-valley-trail/.
To see Len Frank’s obituary, go to http://www.hackettstownlife.com/forum/945687.
To learn about other rail trails in New Jersey, visit the Rails to Trails Conservancy website at https://www.traillink.com/trailsearch/?keyword=New+Jersey.
And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.