A Montclair walker’s view of the abandoned rail line
Courtesy Wheeler Antabanez
By MARK PORTER
for Montclair Local
Wheeler Antabanez doesn’t hesitate before going off on long walks, ambling into areas that most people avoid. His attitude: “I’m just going to do it.”
His fascination with foreboding places inspired him to create “Walking the Newark Branch — A Photographic Journey of the Abandoned Rails of New Jersey,” a 200-page book teeming with images and descriptions of abandoned rail line.
Antabanez, 44, takes people on a journey that most people would never take on their own, mostly due to the fear of the journey itself.
His book captures the desolation and decrepitude of once-great track-side factory complexes along the Passaic River that economically and literally collapsed when the work moved elsewhere.
Drone shots look down on the NX Draw, a defunct railroad bridge spanning the Passaic River between Kearny and Newark that’s permanently locked into the vertical position, yet adorned with graffiti on its top girders.
Images reveal deer, feral cats and other wildlife surviving in winter amid scrub brush and debris. The book includes intricate details of ornate graffiti painted on tunnel walls, highway support beams and structural facades.
Appropriately for the book’s images and industrial-wasteland Goth theme, Antabanez is releasing “Walking the Newark Branch” on Oct. 30, known as Mischief Night. He’s created his own publishing house, Abandoned Books, and he’ll unveil the book and an accompanying 40-minute Youtube video of his walks along the Newark Branch at 9 p.m. Mischief Night on the AbandonedBooks.org site. His presentation is free, and everyone’s invited.
As a young teen, Antabanez, then going by his born name of Matt Kent, began sneaking into Overbrook Asylum in Cedar Grove, usually walking along an abandoned railroad line that extended from Jersey City past the huge facility, some of which was still operating when the youth would enter imposing vacant buildings.
Decades later, Antabanez became a forceful advocate for preserving some of Overbrook’s structures, which were the epitome of ornate brick-and-stonework asylums constructed more than a century ago. But the tract, owned by Essex County, was sold to a developer that’s knocked down everything and replaced it with a residential complex.
The razing prompted Antabanez, by now a Montclair resident, to write two books and create videos focused on Overbrook, also known as the Essex County Hospital Center. A videographer, photographer and writer who’s chronicled unusual aspects of the state for Weird NJ magazine, he has written several other books, always straddling real life and the netherworld.
As a performance artist influenced by the late poet Charles Bukowski, Antabanez has forcefully presented his writing in locales such as the Montclair Public Library,
Abandoned railroad lines had always fascinated him. Around Halloween last year, he read in Montclair Local about the proposed Essex-Hudson Greenway, envisioned as a pedestrian/biking route extending along the old Boonton Line from Montclair to Jersey City.
“Ever since I moved to Montclair, that’s been my go-to place to walk,” said Antabanez, citing as a motivation his late friend X-Ray Burns from the radio station WFMU, 91.1 FM.
“X-Ray always said, ‘You ought to walk in the Meadowlands.’” Last autumn, Antabanez did that, making several treks along the abandoned Boonton Line from Montclair to Jersey City. Those walks will materialize into a future book.
In December 2020, when Antabanez took his first walk in the Meadowlands along the Newark Branch, the U.S. was beset with the COVID pandemic, and each week several thousand people died from the virus. Earlier that year Antabanez’s parents died from non-COVID causes within two weeks of each other. Winter was setting in, adding to his sense of bleakness.
Anxiety hyper-motivated him to write 65,000 words of a yet-unpublished novel, “The Cemetery Clown.” “I wrote it nonstop in two months,” he said. “By the end, my hand was like a claw.
“COVID was stalking the land. My parents were dead. A lot of people were dead. The country was going nuts. To get out there on the train tracks, that’s how I dealt with that.”
He decided to explore the Newark Branch, a largely abandoned rail line extending from Paterson to Jersey City. Built in the 1860s, the line lost most service in 1966. The Newark Branch once connected with Montclair’s old Boonton Line in Newark. Now, both lines are mostly weed- and junk-filled rights of way, with tracks sometimes remaining and roadways and structures atop other areas.
“December 14, 2020, my first walk in the Meadowlands [on the Newark Branch], I left in the afternoon, in the rain, returning in the dark,” he recalled, acknowledging, “It was a little spooky, walking in the dark in the Meadowlands on an abandoned railroad track.”
The walk proved cathartic for Antabanez: “I was getting soaked to the bone, and it was one of the great walks I ever had. Next day I was out there again. A lot sunnier day. It had a good feeling to it. I just kept walking.”
Going into 2021, he totaled seven treks along the Newark Branch, from Kearny to Clifton, where the defunct line merges with an active NJ Transit line. There he halted the walk, not wanting to dodge high-speed passenger trains or go against the prohibition of walking along active lines.
During his Newark line exploration, Antabanez purchased a DJI Mavic Air 2 drone. He used his phone’s GPS to control the quad-copter.
His 40-minute video that will be shown Oct. 30 on his site includes astonishing aerial shots above the Newark branch, the Passaic River and abandoned industrial complexes.
To Antabanez, “the drone simulated an eerie ghost train” transporting him and other viewers to vistas only seen from high altitudes. “It was totally life-changing to get that drone and getting those shots.”
“Walking the Newark Branch” is revelatory in its depictions of the region’s Industrial Age facilities, train lines included, and their disintegration into mostly forgotten lore.
Antabanez’s take: “No judgments. Just here it is.”
‘Walking the Newark Branch’
- Book available Oct. 30 through Abandoned Books.
- Oct. 30, 9 p.m. — Visit AbandonedBooks.org for book unveiling and a 40-minute video of Wheeler Antabanez’s walks along the Newark Branch.