By Mike Schneider
It’s a quiet corner in America’s most densely populated state. But it wasn’t always like this in Phillipsburg. There was a time when the rails were humming, and Phillipsburg Union Station was at the center of it all.
“It was a facility where you could go anywhere in the United States. You could come here, you could buy a ticket and you could travel anywhere in the United States by connections with other railroads,” said Ken Miller.
Ken Miller is vice president of Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center. His wife Ann is president. And together they’re spearheading the ongoing effort to restore this century-old station.
“The Friends purchased it in 2004. We decided to try and take it back to what it looked like in its heyday,” Ken said. “Right now we are somewhere around $500,000.”
When asked where that money has come from, he said, “It has come from the county open space funds.”
It’s been expensive overcoming decades of neglect and decline. Passenger service ended here in the 1980s, and the station was later converted into a pharmacy. Ken and Ann have spent years uncovering some hidden gems here.
“The pharmacist told us that he had put asphalt tiles in here and he put it down with black mastic that was just… I bet Ann put in 1,000 hours just trying to get rid of this,” Ken said.
But they have no doubt that it’s all worth it.
When asked what got her excited about doing this work, Ann said, “Because when I was growing up, I used rail.”
“She got back and forth to college using the railroads,” Ken said.
The couple says it’s sentimental for them.
“There are not many examples of a two-level brick union station. And I say union because it served two railroads,” Ken said.
And here’s where a little bit of irony comes into play because as they strive to protect our railroad past, there’s also a sense that this railroad past could open the door to the future that this town needs.
“Our roads are so crowded today that we need some form of mass transit. And it has to be fairly quick.
When asked what goes through her mind when she sees a train run through town now, Ann said, “I hope now a lot of people are wanting to be a passenger because people come back and say we would like to be on this thing but being passengers. I said, well you’re gonna have to scream an awful lot to get that done.”
So, in the meantime, this retired couple will labor on, dusting off the old model that helped to convince New Jersey lawmakers way back when to preserve our transportation heritage, and looking for new signs of life along those rusting old ribbons of steel.