Every good “ghost story” tells the life story of the person whose soul is stuck between this life and the after-life. The audience learns his or her trials and tribulations, and usually what “unresolved issues” are keeping the spirit circling its childhood home. The best stories actually help the ghost right its wrongs or otherwise find closure, allowing it to graduate to a peaceful repose.

New Jersey: The Land of North America’s First Railroad

The “Ghost Tracks” of New Jersey’s Cape May shoreline may be aptly nick-named. The 1900-era short line train tracks, which carried sand to a glass fabrication factory, might be the only track to make regular appearances to beach-goers, but it is far from the only railroad track in New Jersey that lives a partial existence, hanging around its old haunts like a ghost. These and many other abandoned—yet still intact—train tracks are a testament to the pivotal role of wood preservation technology in the economic expansion of the United States.

New Jersey was ground-zero for the early-stage “boom and bust” of the American railroad industry in the 1800s. The country’s—in fact, the continent’s—first railroad was actually established in New Jersey; the 1815 charter for the Camden & Amboy Rail Road was the first of its kind. And yet, by the early 20th century, the state had also accumulated the most abandoned railroads in the country. 

In the early 1800s, the C&A was championed by the Revolutionary War Colonel and steamboat magnate John Stevens, who operated steam boat routes on the Raritan Canal between Philadelphia and New York. He worried that up-and-coming railroad technology would threaten his shipping business, so he got ahead of it. 

In 1826, Stevens successfully built a steam-powered locomotive using an experimental track at his home in Hoboken. Just 5 years later, he imported North America’s first steam-powered locomotive, John Bull, from the UK to operate on the C&A, which Stevens designed to run parallel to the Raritan canal and his steamboat routes. With the help of the New Jersey Legislature, Stevens merged his canal and railroad companies in 1830 as the “Joint Companies,” effectively giving Stevens a monopoly over transportation in the most populated region of the young United States.

John Stevens by an unidentified artist, c.1830, oil on canvas. Public domain.

Wood Preservation Technology Fuels Railroad Expansion

Steven’s timing could not have been better, because the most influential innovation in wood preservation technology occurred right after he invested in railroads: the invention of the Bethell Process in 1838. In the decades that followed, railroad infrastructure took off around the cities of the East Coast and Midwest, reaching into the Great Lakes where tracks could connect with the Grand Trunk Railroad at the US-Canadian border. While it is not clear exactly which railroads were the first to take up creosote-treatment, the creation of the first creosote wood-treatment plant in 1875 in West Pascagoula, MS, indicates that demand for longer-lasting ties was growing. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growth of creosote wood treatment paralleled the construction of railroads in America: both took off in the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1870, 45,000 miles of track crawled across mostly the East Coast, but by the close of the century an additional 170,000 miles had been laid, including several transcontinental railroads and a myriad of regional and short-line tracks. New Jersey railroads reached their peak number of miles in 1920 (2,300 miles), when all the northeast’s major coal-transporting and trunk-line railroads passed through New Jersey. The United States as a whole reached this milestone around the same time, in 1916 (254,037 miles). 

The advent of the automobile and the airplane at the turn of the 20th century led to a major downturn in the railroad market. Between 1920 and 1965, 500 miles of track were removed from New Jersey, and another 900 has been since abandoned. Today, the state maintains around 1,000 miles of track, only 43 percent of its peak mileage. In fact, New Jersey holds the US record for highest number of closed railroad tracks; on average, states have discontinued between 45 and 50 percent of their tracks.

Looking downstream in the Delaware & Raritan Canal lock. 1936. Public domain.

Crosstie Technology So Good That It Outlived Its Original Purpose

If they could speak, the Ghost Tracks of the defunct Delaware Bay and Cape May Railroad might argue they had unfinished business, that their mission was unduly cut short by the “next new thing” in transportation. However, unlike the typical ghost trope, these tracks did not close due to any fault of their own. They have no wrongs to right or debts to pay. The Ghost Tracks’ creosote-treated ties were just more prepared for the job than turned out to be necessary. One could say they were “over-engineered,” and therefore just overperformed. 

So maybe the “Ghost Tracks” and other abandoned railroads are more of a reminder of a job well done, rather than a frightening lesson about what not to do. Left over from another time, these and other abandoned railroad tracks are more like modern-day ruins: structures that are still standing because they, proverbially speaking, “out-lived” their creators. Just like ancient ruins, the Ghost Tracks remind us that although times have changed, our predecessors accomplished amazing things. 

In fact, the first American railroads in the 19th century, with ties that were treated in creosote using the full-cell Bethell Process, should probably receive some credit for helping spawn their competitors at the turn of the 20th century. By fostering exponential population and economic growth in the young United States, innovators like Stevens helped grow the very cities where the Wright Brothers invented the airplane in 1903 (Dayton, Ohio), and Henry Ford invented the Model T in 1908 (Detroit, Michigan). 

Luckily, creosote-treatment methods changed and did not become obsolete. Just three years before the Delaware Bay and Cape May Railroad opened for service, a more efficient method of applying creosote was invented by German scientist Max Rüping. The Rueping Process used the same preservative as the Bethell Process, coal-tar creosote, but less of it. Rather than filling the entire wood cell with creosote, the final step of the process ejected creosote and left the cell of the wood “empty,” leading it to be nicknamed an “empty-cell process.” In 1906, American scientist Cuthbert Lowry further simplified the empty-cell preservation process

For more than a century since, the Rueping and Lowry processes have served as the gold standard in wood preservation and continue to this day to support railroads and other American infrastructure. If today’s railroad tracks, preserved by creosote using an empty-cell process, are still intact in the 22nd century, it will certainly count as a success—whether or not trains still travel on them. 

Note: This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Crossties Magazine, a publication of Railway Tie Association.