In 1904, from Warren Street, Trenton, you could hop the Fast Line Trolley and arrive in New Brunswick after five hours jostling through central Jersey’s fens, villages, and woodlands. The fare for this 27.2 mile ride was 47 cents one way. Today those willing to pay New Jersey Transit $10.03 more, may shave four and a half hours off that time.
But now a new and vastly improved transportation opportunity has become visible in West Windsor and Plainsboro. Though the Fast Line Trolley runs no more, much of its smooth, bermed pathway remains groomed and accessible to walkers, joggers, and cyclists from Plainsboro to Mercer Park.
Some of it has already been transformed to a trailway, In l937 PSE&G purchased the failing trolley’s right of way and now one may retrace the old path beneath the utility company’s giant steel electric towers. The way has been kept relatively clear to accommodate the company’s maintenance trucks. More recently West Windsor acquired the rights to use 2.5 miles of it for the Trolley Line Trail, starting at Rabbit Hill Road near Cranbury Neck Road and continuing to Penn Lyle Road, near Village Road West.
A lot of people, including this writer and West Windsor resident Pete Weale, think a lot more could be done to create a inter-town, seven-mile wooded pathway from Plainsboro Pond down to Mercer Lake and its national rowing center — a trail system that would rival the D&R Canal towpath as a recreational amenity.
This writer’s personal dream of a PSE&G-sponsored marathon following along the old trolley route would demand some infrastructure improvements and the leaping of several other hurdles. But it lies tantalizingly within our communities’ grasp.
My dream begins with a well established Plainsboro natural resource: The 2.2-mile Plainsboro Pond path marks one of the town’s more scenic rambles. The narrow strip of smooth macadam, winding along the north bank of Cranbury Brook and Plainsboro Pond, delivers the wanderer into the groves of high oaks and vistas of heron-haunted swamp. Both the eastern trailhead, just off George Davidson Road near the Plainsboro Road junction, and the western head, by the Maple Avenue dam, offer ample parking.
Enter the Trolley Line. At the 0.8 mile post, from the George Davidson lot, the PSE&G/old Trolley easement crosses the path, with the towers making a laser-straight, southwestward march toward Mercer Lake. Of course, follow it left, and within 100 yards, this dream path’s first obstacle presents itself. The 20-foot wide, chest-high Cranbury Brook would demand a small wood bridge similar to others along the Plainsboro Pond trail. Yet once overcome, the remaining half-mile to Grovers Mill Road, near High School North, runs dry, and grassy with Jersey wild flowers.
The vision of the trail from High School North into West Windsor is best explained by West Windsor resident Pete Weale who, among others, has championed this trail since 2001. He invited me to journey the remainder of the route, and hear its history.
Weale has transformed the suburban sprawls of this area into his personal neighborhood. As we make our way along the trail, he waves and in turn is greeted by those in passing cars. Those on foot he invariably seems to know and stops to chat. On our return trip in his vintage 1957 pickup, he swings by the house of this one and that. His is a lesson in neighborliness we might all take to heart. Our disassociation from our fellows around us lies more in ourselves than in our housing development’s layout.
From High School North students might walk the several hundred yards along Grovers Mill Road to reach the Trolley Line Trail. Or they could take a short cut from the school’s playing fields, along the open area between the residential housing on Camas Court and Blossom Hill Court and the Millstone River to the main trail line. A school or family project to blaze this short trail might build student pride or earn an Eagle Badge.
Connecting the two high schools’ students via the way of transport most available to them holds a real charm. Doubtless, the Pirates and Knights would soon view it as “their path.” A venue for rendezvous and activities that does not involve large buildings and suburban vistas cannot be all bad.
Yet, here again, a minor obstacle occurs. Shortly after heading south from Grovers Mill, the hiker finds himself facing the upper reaches of the Millstone Creek. The 1921 rusted trestle offers two rivet-studded parallel spans, each a foot wide, on which one must balance for the 50 yard crossing. A bit tricky now, but it remains solid enough, if planked over, to hold the entire cast of “Born Losers” and the bus they rode in on.
Before heading down to the farms beneath, you will want to pause and refresh your spirit amidst the broad oak and shagbark hickory hemming this section of the upper Millstone River. A chorus of red wing black birds sound in the cat tails, and in low cherry trees planted by errant cardinals. Queen Anne’s lace, honeysuckle, and wild rose generate a busy insect hum. Another classroom worlds away from the brick and mortar.
My wife and I hold the dubious distinction of have paddled our canoe in just about every central Jersey body of water large enough to hold a boat. We have plied this part of the Millstone during exceptional flooding, and spied many raptors and owls.
Following the grassy, rutted trail southwest to Cranbury Road, one soon realizes surprisingly that the PSE&G towers, almost like trail blazes, seem to drop out of one’s focus. The way is scarcely a wilderness experience, but the sylvan aura predominates over our modern steel necessities. A quick look past Cranbury Neck Road, brings the walker to Rabbit Hill Road and the beginning of the official trail head of the Fast Line Trolley Trail, which West Windsor constructed in 2007.
The initial half-mile of this narrow, winding black top invites hikers, skaters, and bikers alike, taking them down over the Pig Town Bridge into West Windsor Community Park. The bridge, so named for the nearby Route 571 trolley stop, spans verdant Bear Brook, which flows northwest to fill Grovers Mills Pond. Here the trail takes its first deviation from a straight course, wandering amongst the various ball courts, the skate park, tennis courts, and so on, coming out to Route 571. Other trails offer side trips.
Just a two-minute walk up Route 571, from where the trail leaves the park, High School South stands temptingly near. A matter of a short sidewalk addition. Here is where Weale proposes the final inter-school link be made. It is an intriguing thought that if a young athlete is able to slam a ball over the 385 foot fence in the High School South baseball diamond, his home run will roll off into a forest which the slugger probably has never wandered on his own.
The Trolley Line Trail, as it is currently completed, jogs left to cross Route 571 at the traffic light at Slayback Drive junction. It then cuts back and continues about another two miles down to Penn Lyle Road, where the paved way — and official trail — end.
But the utility towers and open pathway continue straight southwest toward Mercer Lake. Kristopher Grudt, executive director of the Princeton National Rowing Association and overseer of the Mercer Park facility, is among those who anxiously await completion of the remaining two miles of trail. In addition to Olympic and National teams, the center trains over 350 rowers from 23 area high schools. “The way it is now, I have to send them running up South Post Road, with no shoulders, and cars not expecting any pedestrians,” he says. “Frankly, it scares me.” Grudt and many others feel that completion of the trail would naturally entice more youngsters into the sport of rowing, which enhances both character and scholarship choices.
West Windsor township has plans that would connect to Mercer Park via a bike path. The path would veer from the easeway and follow Village and South Post roads. Part of the reason for not continuing with the Trolley/PSE&G path is the utility’s staunch reluctance to have anybody hiking around the garage-size power station right along side Village Road.
But there are difficulties in deliberately veering so far from the direct route. Will people detour a half mile to the right when the path beneath the steel towers beckons just across the street? Probably not. Is it a necessity that every pedestrian and bicycle crossing be at a traffic light? Definitely not.
Bike, walk, and rails-to-trail ways abound throughout the country, most with no crossing lights whatsoever.
There are other hurdles, however. The establishment of an inter-town pathway, no matter how ideal, is invariably laced with more hurdles than what kind of bridge should span this creek. The issue of who can do what with which part of the former-trolley easement is a complex one. Currently PSE&G holds an easement to the land, allowing them to erect their towers, string their wires, and maintain a pathway for their service vehicles.
Shortly after 9/ll, the utility became increasingly protective of this right of way, cutting an even wider swath of natural canopy and surrounding brush. It is not clear whom the increased visibility of this potential terrorist target is designed to benefit.
Generally, PSE&G has proved itself an amenable corporate neighbor, allowing people to pass beneath its towers — which in some corners have suggested a tempting challenge. As to how much more they are willing to work with the towns depends on with whom you speak. PSE&G president and CEO Ralph Izzo has stated that “the time is now for those working to provide energy and those working to provide a cleaner environment to become one and the same.”
Meanwhile, in order to construct the 2007 Trolley Trail, West Windsor mitigated PSE&G’s tax burden by $5,000 a year — and further agreed to take over the brush maintenance. Both Plainsboro and West Windsor, hard pressed for cash, have tended, out of necessity, to nudge this pathway more toward the wish list end of their budgets.
Then, of course, there is the third party considerations. It’s one thing to have a natural trail nearby. It’s quite another to have it running past your back garden. Loss of backyard privacy, security, and increased temptation of uninvited visitors wandering onto one’s land are viable concerns. Thus far, the existing segments of the path have been welcomed. But below Penn Lyle and Village roads, a long row of bordering homeowners might not feel so accommodating.
Of course, now is never the best time to consider adding more trails and preserved land for the residents of Plainsboro and West Windsor to enjoy. Times are unusually tough. Parks are a frill.
It must have seemed sheer madness to begin landscaping Central Park just as the Civil War was launching. And despite the current economic crunch, hundreds of communities at this moment are finding the cash and political will for new rails to trails efforts. And if you wonder about the benefits, we invite you to merely take a stroll.