The Henry Hudson Trail – Freehold Branch

The Henry Hudson Trail is one of New Jersey’s best rail-trails. At 22 miles long it provides unmatched diversity in wooded scenery and pastoral serenity from Monmouth County’s interior to stunning azure views of the Bayshore. Add to that its well-maintained paved surface and you’ve got a stellar riding route that you can pickup at many locations along its length.

north terminus
Trail head at Big Brook Park in Marlboro

Also known as the Monmouth Heritage Trail, the Freehold Branch is the premiere rail-trail experience. It’s divided into 2 north-south sections: the northern or Morganville section begins in Matawan Borough and ends at Route 79 In Marlboro, while the south section begins a mile or two south at Big Brook Park on Route 520 (also in Marlboro) and continues to Route 537 in Freehold Borough. The latter is what I’m covering in this post. The former is also a nice ride. I’ve made that trek and certainly have plans to go again…I highly recommend that section also. My dream is to one day have the missing segments completed so that trail riders can bike the entire trail from Highlands to Freehold.

Maybe ‘you can never go home again,‘ but this feels pretty close.

The Henry Hudson is the only fully paved trail of such length in the State. My preference is for the micro crushed hard-packed gravel surfaces that most rail trails have…it’s fast, provides a solid sooth ride and it makes a delightful sound as your tires roll over it. But on some days it’s a nice alternative to dirt when I feel like riding without muddy holes or puddles after rain or snow, or just keeping my bike clean. The Marlboro to Freehold segment gives me that and its also a personal favorite – it’s the first rail-trail I rode back in 2006 after researching the railroad that used to run there. It was quite a thrill to get out on it after seeing the work finally begin to remove the old tracks and pave the roadway. It’s also quiet with more woods and fewer crossings and it’s in my old neck of the woods. Maybe ‘you can never go home again,‘ but this feels pretty close and I think you will love it, too.

History

Route 18 bridge
The railroad bridge over Route 18 at Buckley Road in Marlboro, my usual entry point. It’s likely that this bridge never saw a train.

The Freehold Branch was originally founded as the Monmouth County Agricultural Railroad with the intent of providing a more expedient method for getting produce from the many interior farms to the Keyport docks. First proposed in the late 1840s it was fully realized by 1880. At about that time, passenger service was initiated and the railroad hauled freight as well from the light industrial plants that sprang up along its route over the years. The line’s usefulness extended well into the 20th century and although the decline of the region’s railroads began well before, it became more pronounced after World War II. The automobile, trucks and air travel became the modern modes of transport. Passenger service ended in 1953, with freight continuing in limited runs until the early 1970s. After about 1971-72, all trains on this section ceased. It’s been said in online postings about the railroad that the bridge over Route 18 at Buckley Road in Marlboro, (New Jersey, pictured above), built as part of the Route 18 extension south from East Brunswick in 1972 probably never saw any trains!

Freehold Boro station
The portico of the old Freehold Boro station on Jackson Street – January 2019

Contemporary Status

Luckily, the line never was officially abandoned. Since the corridor has been considered for light commuter rail, it was ‘railbanked’ (most likely by its current owner, New Jersey Transit) under a 1983 amendment to Section 8(d) of the National Trails System Act. This means the railroad can mothball it indefinitely without being liable for maintenance of infrastructure or taxes, and it can be leased for trail use while dormant. While NJT weighed whether or not to reactive, the right of way was leased to the Monmouth County Parks System in 1999 until 2020 as a multi-use trail. This route and two others in Monmouth have been considered for commuter rail since the 1990s. The Freehold branch has been on the table, then off, and now on again. 

This long wait on reactivation has resulted in a hold on completing the missing sections in Marlboro at Route 520, and the Matawan-Aberdeen section from Stillwell Street to Lloyd road, which would connect along the existing wooden trestle bridge over Lake Matawan and the bridge over the Garden State Parkway.

Atlantic Avenue bridge looking East
The right of way from the Atlantic Avenue bridge looking East…part of the missing trail section in Matawan.

If the Freehold Branch is reactivated it would be the first time in our country’s history that a railbanked line was brought back into service. I’m not sure it will ever happen and while I am all for reactivating old rail lines for commuter and inter-town travel as part of developing alternative transportation I’m torn about this one. On the one hand I would be thrilled to see trains running on it again and contributing to reduced carbon emissions and congested traffic. Knowing the area as I do my opinion is that the rail corridor is much needed. On the other I hope it doesn’t happen on this trail. The Marlboro – Freehold section of the HHT is my favorite rail-trail by far for the reasons already mentioned and it contributes greatly to my physical and psychological well-being. What I most earnestly want to see for this section of the trail is to have the missing segments completed. It would be another step towards the vision of connecting the country by rail-trails.

When you experience this for yourself, you begin to see the brilliance of rail trails.

A Nation Connected by Rail Trails

I had been riding this part of the trail for a while when I decided one day to make a trip that would mimic the original train ride from Marlboro. So I began at the old station depot there and rode to Route 537. I then crossed it, turned left onto Jackson Street and took that down to the old Freehold Station. It’s currently a Mexican Restaurant, I believe, but it had been the office of Holland & McChesney, a feed company, for years. From here I turned right on Mechanic Street which takes you a short distance to Market Yard, a parking lot behind the buildings that line Main Street and a former loading place for shipping farm produce on the railroad. I realized that riding the trail had afforded me a safe, enjoyable and relatively quick path to Downtown Freehold from Marlboro without biking on the heavily trafficked local roads. A person could easily commute from one of the communities on the trail to their workplace there or bike downtown for one of the regular street festivals during the warmer months. When you experience this for yourself, you begin to see the brilliance of rail-trails.

Freehold Boro depot
The old CRRNJ depot in Freehold Borough, NJ January 2019

Connecting communities via these old rail corridors is the primary concept behind the mission of organizations like the Rails To Trails Conservancy. Not only are they preserving America’s railroad history but they’re working to build a nation-wide network of trails to facilitate green alternative transportation. I think it’s exciting and I’m putting my professional skills in photography, writing and historic preservation to work towards this effort.

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