A Little History
This week’s installment of Art, Self-Isolation, Abandonment And Decay focuses on the old abandoned railroad bridge that stretches over the South Branch of the Raritan River in Neshanic Station, New Jersey. I’ve been photographing this structure over a period of 8 years since I moved to the area. It’s of interest to me not only because it fits in to the spectrum of historic and abandoned subject matter that I photograph and write about, but it also ties in with my childhood memories of Flemington, New Jersey. And those imagined recollections are the conceptual foundation of my “Reflections” series. So, you could say that this work is an outgrowth of that project and intimately connected to it.
My father used to take us to Flemington when we were kids and we would ride the historic railroad on the western segment of this line. It still runs to this day, in fact. The Eastern-most segment of the railroad used to cross over this very bridge. I never rode the train over the Neshanic bridge, as passenger trains had stopped running on the line before I was even born—the last one made the final trip in November of 1953. But this bridge is part of the same railroad, I found out through research, and that led me to a connection with my own history and my memories of Flemington, and with the photography work I was doing there for my master’s thesis.
(If you’re interested in learning more about this partially defunct rail line, Google the ‘Black River & Western Railroad’. They have weekend and special holiday trips so it’s definitely worth checking out and the history is interesting.)
The Physical, Metaphysical, and Time
The history is a point of fascination for me but my reasons for photographing this place (and for writing this post) are about the physical aspects and also the metaphysical and philosophical lenses through which I view it. This may sound like a lot of academic hot air—and I am an academician—but these things are what compel me to make the pictures…as they do for many other fine art photographers. Abandonment, decay and isolation are the factors I mentioned in my last post and they have inspired countless photographers in the Post Modern era, which we are still in today.
I feel a certain exuberance at being in a space that is so separated from the everyday flow…
There are many thoughts that run through my mind when I visit and photograph the bridge. Some are rooted in my childhood memories of Flemington, others are concerned with the span of time as it relates to the bridge itself. When I climb the embankment up to the old track bed (and it’s a steep climb near the abutment) the first feeling I’m struck with is that ‘this is an old place.’ I view much of my fine art photography work as a form of visual archaeology, and it also involves a lot of introspection and self-discovery, all of which apply here. It’s also a place that most people don’t or can’t go…I feel a certain exuberance at being in a space that is so separated from the everyday flow…to be well off the beaten path. The fact that the railroad was but is no longer part of the moving living world is a key point that makes me want to seek answers as an artist.
…a train has not rumbled across the bridge in over 40 years…
One of the more intriguing aspects of this bridge for me is that a train has not rumbled over it in 4 decades—since I graduated high school in 1978. That’s a long time in human years. As you would expect, the bridge is well overgrown at each end especially in the summer months when all the greenery is filled in. At that time of year I can stand up on the old rail bed and feel the excitement of the summers of my youth. Contemplating the passage of Time gives me many thoughts, such as what it was like when there was a passenger train running through here. It was a different time, a slower time when most people didn’t have cars and traveling from one town to another was a much bigger consideration than it is now. Then one day there were no more trains. Freight trains continued in small numbers until they, too, ceased. And then the tracks were quiet forever…and eventually removed. It seems a shame to take them out; it would add so much to the romanticism and mystery of the railroad if they had been left in place. At least the bridge, depot and track bed still exist. And it’s one of the more fascinating aspects of my work, to follow former rights-of-way to see where a train once went. Some are so well erased by now that you need to employ a detective’s mindset and eye to find them.
Sometimes I allow my mind to run free and think ludicrous thoughts…like sitting at the old station depot and waiting for the train to come. It’s an apartment house now, well-kept but a little overgrown, which adds to the feeling of Time past, and you can imagine the train coming over the bridge, through the woods and pulling up to it with brakes squealing and steam venting. (Passenger trains on this line were pulled by steam locomotives.) I’ll think, maybe if I wait long enough one will come, like in a Twilight Zone episode.
When I climb up the embankment to make pictures I think about venturing out towards the middle as I have on the Readington bridge farther west on the line. I haven’t made it very far yet—it’s about a 30-foot drop to the river below. But you can imagine summers long ago, back in the 40’s and 50’s, when some kids might have climbed up onto the bridge and jumped off into the cool water below, daring each other to do it before a train comes. It makes me think of the movie Stand By Me in both time and mood.
A Tree In Time
Eventually the tree took over the tracks…
There is one aspect in particular that strongly illustrates the element of Time and its effects on the bridge and the trains that would have passed though there. A tree that took root at the bottom of the abutment on the west bank of the river has grown all the way up some 30 feet through the railroad ties, or what’s left of them, and well beyond. Above the track bed its trunk is thick and continues upward. You can see it in my photograph at the top of the post. I would guess this tree to be about 40 years old, so that means it sprouted as a tiny seedling at about the time the trains stopped running here. Then it became a sapling as it continued reaching up towards the bridge and tracks. Eventually its leafy top reached the underside of the bridge and began to poke its delicate branches through the rail bed. Unimpeded, it continued its way up. But no trains were coming by to trim it and keep it from growing larger and stronger. Eventually the tree took over the tracks.
Eventually—and this is what I like to think about—it got too thick for a train to pass. If the tree was just sticking through the rail bed with its new growth, trains coming by on a regular basis would easily have kept it at bay. But now, a thick trunk courses up and branches off through the former tracks. Even if trains didn’t come by too often and the tree continued to grow, a train could easily have trimmed it. But at some point the tree became too thick for a rain to pass and that seems to me a singularity in the time of the railroad and the bridge—the point when the passage of trains on the bridge was over forever. The removal of a section of track and overpass just east of the bridge where the railroad crossed River Road really made it final, but the tree seems a more natural progression of things. Sounds like a crazy person’s thoughts, perhaps? But it’s interesting to think about. For me, anyway…
What’s In The Future?
The Readington bridge is the same iron truss type farther own the line towards Flemington that is still in use. Trains only cross it a couple of times a week but it’s in good condition. I’ve photographed that bridge extensively, too, and I expect it will be around for a while longer. But the Neshanic bridge, which was built in 1917, may not be around as long. It’s pretty rusty and since it has been abandoned for around 40 years it hasn’t been maintained. It’s very picturesque now but at some point it will probably have to be dismantled for safety reasons. Perhaps a good blow could send it crashing into the river. Other parts of this railroad were quickly demolished and essentially erased when passenger service stopped running on it, particularly the station depots. Thankfully, the bridges are much bigger considerations and so this one remains. I think they add much to the aesthetic of our historic landscape. Eventually, though this one will come down and someone who comes after me might have less to go on in discovering this old railroad. And that’s another consideration of Time.
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1. The photographs in my Reflections series visualize deep impressions of each place that are driven by memory. In a similar way, the photographs I make in this series are inspired by the same memories. In his seminal book, “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard suggests that real images we see are engraved in memory by the imagination; the engravings replace the real images and deepen our remembering so that they become ‘imagined recollections.’ This is a concept that underlies much of my fine art work.