Clad in black, fingernails included, Wheeler Antabanez parked his pickup truck in a lot off Grant Street and scampered down an embankment. Leaves were just beginning to drop from scruffy trees.

Atabenez reached the remnants of an old railroad track, the former Boonton Line, that became largely defunct on Sept. 20, 2002, when its last commuter train completed its circuit after the Montclair Connection was completed.

The Boonton Line tracks terminate at nearby Pine Street where the rails connect with NJ Transit’s Montclair-Boonton Line. Within minutes of Wheeler’s arrival, a passenger train rolled past.

“This is exactly where I started for the walk. My first steps for the book,” said Wheeler, the author of “Walking the Old Boonton Line,” a pictorial essay of the unusable railroad line that will become New Jersey’s newest and perhaps narrowest state park. His book will be released on Amazon and elsewhere on Oct. 30. 

In September, the state announced that it will buy the Boonton Line right-of-way from Norfolk Southern Railway for $65 million. The intention is to create the Essex-Hudson Greenway extending from Montclair to Jersey City, attracting pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists to savor a 135-acre corridor of flora and a path extending for an estimated nine miles. Total cost of the project is estimated to cost $100 million.

Montclair Local noted last month: “With Montclair and Jersey City as its end points, it will pass through Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Newark, Kearny and Secaucus. It will traverse urban areas, suburbs and industrial patches, cross the Passaic River and cut across wetlands.”

For more than a decade, many people and organizations, like the Montclair-based New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, have advocated for the greenway. Fronted by the nonprofit Open Space Institute, these groups have persuaded New Jersey to buy the right-of-way, with visions of the greenway uniting the eight municipalities through which it passes, and provide benefits for bicyclists, joggers and walkers.

Wheeler Antabanez, however, is skeptical of the greenway’s virtues and the likelihood of it being completed, even with vast expenditures of money.

“I wanted to see every bit of track before they pave it over,” Wheeler said of his book’s focus, as he stood alongside an ancient cement “whistle post” that alerted train engineers to blow the horn as they neared Montclair. “They call for it to become a greenway, but that’s what it is already. They’re going to pave over this habitats that come back. There are deer, wild turkey, coyote, opossums, squirrels. A lot of birds, beautiful birds.” 

Taken while walking on the rails, his images expose the backside of businesses and residences, including the disintegration of once-successful industrial structures that are now graffiti-covered ruins. Pictures spotlight such degraded infrastructure as rusted bridge girders and crumbled concrete on bridge supports, with protruding rebar exposed to rain.

“I see deteriorated bridge supports all up and down the line,” Wheeler observed. Citing the Ridgewood Avenue overpass in Glen Ridge, Wheeler maintained that “under the bridge deck, it’s all rotted away. It doesn’t take an engineer to know it is wrong.”

Where the line traverses the Meadowlands, Wheeler’s caption on page 143 states: “Something is wrong with Penhorn Creek. The water glows bright green.”

After dislodging an old rubber insulator from a fallen telegraph pole to add to his collection of 40-plus old rubber telegraph insulators, Wheeler strode to a strange sight located beneath a roadway span. There, atop the slope, in front of a large concrete panel adorned with vividly colored graffiti, a pile of rocks was arranged in a pattern above a charred center opening with a name drawn on it. A possible pet crematorium? An occult fire pit?

“Art is fun,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes you are living your life as art.”

Intrigued with the Weird

Growing up in Caldwell, Matt Kent was fascinated by a large abandoned Essex County Sanatorium in Verona and, a quick bicycle-ride beyond in Cedar Grove, the still-functioning Overbrook Asylum, renamed the Essex County Mental Hospital, a vast complex stretching over 300 acres. To reach these locations, Matt relied on an abandoned rail line that stretched from Jersey City to transport patients, visitors and goods to these facilities.

Barely in his teens, Matt explored Overbrook’s abandoned structures, often entering the fenced-off tract through a huge underground drainage pipe. Avoiding the facilities still in use, he marveled at the architectural grandeur of these deserted structures that had held hundreds of patients. Overbrook facilities were constructed with large rock slabs, bricks and ornate cement accoutrements, the multistory residences were designed more like prisons than counseling and rehabilitation centers.

Early on, the young intruder documented his visits with Super-8mm film, eventually transitioning to smart-phone videos.

These solitary ventures into Gothic ruination obsessed Matt Kent. One night, at age 15, he experienced “a crazy dream” of a bird viciously pecking into his skull, screeching the unfathomable “Wheeler! Wheeler Antabanez!”

That bird-caw became Matt’s nom de plume, a moniker he’s sustained through six books and numerous articles he’s authored in “Weird N.J.” magazine.

Wheeler moved to Montclair in 2007, which is when he first trod on the Boonton Line. “I was thinking about a book from the first time I stepped on these tracks,” he said.

For his previous book, Wheeler walked the abandoned Newark Branch of the Erie Railroad, chronicling his observations in “Walking the Newark Branch,” released on Oct. 30, 2021. It’s a photo-filled large paperback that Wheeler called “a study for the ‘Old Boonton Line’ book.”

The path of the Old Boonton Line. (COURTESY WHEELER ATABANEZ)
The path of the Old Boonton Line. (COURTESY WHEELER ATABANEZ)
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Nine Winter Walks

Wheeler’s journey from Montclair to the scruffy shoreline of Jersey City took nine separate walks through this past winter. He trod upon every accessible stretch of the abandoned Boonton Line. Truck depots and other businesses encroached on the right-of-way in Newark and Jersey City, requiring Wheeler to circumvent the fenced-off areas and use nearby streets to eventually access the line again.

Reaching Jersey City, the Boonton Line’s destination — once one of New Jersey’s largest tracts filled with trains and tracks - has been subsumed by commercial structures and residential high-rises.

Published by Wheeler’s own imprint of Abandoned Books, “Walking the Old Boonton Line” is 202 pages of images taken by the author, with relevant captions for the full-page photos.

His three-page introduction explains that, after his parents died in 2020, he inherited boxes of family photographs. Rifling through one container, he found pictures taken by his mother in 1983 of him as a 6-year-old self-described “nerd,” joining three young friends waiting for the so-called “Santa Train” at the Boonton Line’s Benson Street Station in Glen Ridge. Those old photos, along with Wheeler’s reflection on the loss of his folks and his craving for solitude in winter’s desolation, impelled him to walk on and document the Old Boonton Line.

Wheeler also inherited a Sony DSC-HX80 digital camera with which he took nearly all of the images in the “Boonton Line” and “Newark Line” books. “That’s my dad’s camera,” he said. “I’m trying to put in my dad’s memory into the books.”

Some of the aerial images in both books are taken by his Mavic 2 drone, a foldable compact Chinese drone. Earlier in October, a video appeared showing a Ukrainian Mavic quadcopter smashing into and disintegrating a Russian Mavic.

“I’ve managed not to crash it too many times,” Wheeler said of his slightly battered drone.

However, as he reached the end of his journey in Jersey City, ambling to the Hudson River, his drone startled a flock of gulls that flew at the Mavic, potentially wiping it out similar to the drone downed over Donetsk.

Graciously, Sara, Wheeler’s wife, hired a Kearny-based helicopter to fly over the Hudson River with Wheeler leaning out of the doorless chopper to take the book’s final images of where the Boonton Line once ended in Jersey City.

Wheeler’s “Walking the Old Boonton Line” book release occurs on Sunday, Oct. 30, timed to coincide with Mischief Night.

Simultaneously that night, at 9 p.m. on his publishing website, abandonedbooks.org, and on Facebook, he’ll air a 40-minute movie of his Boonton Line trek, enabling the Mavic to take a co-starring role. More information is available at Wheeler’s website, luckycigarette.com.

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