Montclair’s long history as a commuter haven

It’s 7:10 in the morning. Gwen Steuart has 34 minutes to get to her train. The recent college graduate is living with her parents and commuting to her job in the city to save some money.

“I could take the bus if I really wanted to,” she said, “but it really would be an insult to the town.”

That’s because the town of Montclair owes its existence as an incorporated town to the railroad. In 1858, the Newark and Bloomfield railroad was built from Newark into Bloomfield.

Railroad historian Kevin Olsen says the people living about three miles away from the last stop wanted the railroad extended to them but the line was underfunded.

“They did not want to extend the railroad, especially because Bloomfield would have to go into debt to buy bonds to build the railroad. So 10 years later, in 1868, Montclair broke away from Bloomfield, incorporated itself so that it could sell bonds to build what was the Montclair Railroad. Today, it’s the Montclair-Boonton line of NJ Transit,” said Olsen.

But Oslen says the founder of the railroad, Julius Pratt, had bigger plans than what he pitched as a local line for people to have better train service.

“What they were really doing was building a railroad from Jersey City up through the Great Notch, up to Greenwood Lake, where it would connect to another line that would connect that to the Great Lakes. So you would have a railroad from Lake Ontario, down through New Jersey, through Montclair, to the New York harbor,” Olsen said. “But by claiming that this was purely a local line for local interests, they were able to sneak the charter through the state Legislature.”

You might call him a genius because there isn’t just one place you can catch the train in this town of roughly 39,000. There are seven stops: Montclair State University, Montclair Heights, Mountain Avenue, Upper Montclair, Wachung Avenue, Walnut Street and Bay Street. It’s somewhat unusual to have so many so close together, but Olsen says it was promoted as a commuter railroad to help the people of Montclair.

“Towns that did not buy bonds could contribute to the railroad by building station, by providing land and building stations for the railroad. So this is really very much a community effort to make sure that people had the access to the outside world at a time when a lot, a lot, of people had carriages or horses,” Olsen said.

And remember this was during the time when people had to walk to the train station to use the telegraph office, to ship packages or to take a vacation.

“The stations really had to be within walking distance. Plus, this was a very affluent community. They could afford to build multiple stations,” he said.

Back to the present day, Josh Brands, a line chef at Sunrise Bagels, says the 6 o’clock commuting crowd usually goes for a bagel with cream cheese or butter.

“It gets a little more advanced, people who have the luxury of getting to work at 9, they get breakfast sandwiches,” said Brands.

Station regulars know who is and isn’t a normal commuter.

“It’s somebody that you see every single day for 10, 15, 20 years for 20 minutes at a time,” said commuter Tracy Breslin, adding that each station is like its own tribe.

Each station has a personality of its own. This first stop built in Montclair was where the Lackawanna Plaza now stands. If you look closely, you can see pieces of the past at this location.

The Upper Montclair Station was one of the neighborhoods that wanted to break away from Bloomfield so they could have their own railroad. While the original station has been replaced, the original red freight station remains.

But, the Mountain Avenue Station is one of the original buildings from the 1880s, 1890s era. Walking into station the station, you can see it has a lot of character.

“What was unique about this building is that there was a 3-bedroom apartment upstairs for the station agent and his family,” explained Olsen. “This was a very affluent community. People were used to their creature comforts, so you had a fireplace here, a comfortable waiting room.”

As Steuart makes her train with precision-like clockwork, it’s clear that commuters in Montclair are not only riding a train, but keeping a tradition that is over a century old alive.