We’ve seen some reporting as of late on ‘The Bronx Swamp’. I’m not honestly sure who began calling this abandoned freight rail line by this name but it is a very inaccurate one that doesn’t tell of the location’s true rich history. This section of track is much better known as the Port Morris branch, and it is not, nor has it ever been, a swamp.
While the newspapers, bloggers and authorities seem confused as to who owns property, I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt it was, at least up to 2003 owned by CSX transportation. Somewhat unbelievably, it was an active railroad until 1998, and was only officially filed as abandoned with the STB in 2003 (published in the Federal Register V68 N52 March 18 2003). It has also been covered on this site many times over the last few years. A 2002 outing for example documented how the tunnel under St. Mary’s park was used as a home by at least one migratory bird (a yellow crowned heron – which makes it’s home in caves).
Railroads are a tricky and very old business. Many rail lines are not owned by the railroads outright. They are owned by adjacent property owners who cede the land to the railroad only for use as a railroad. If the railroad decides to stop operating over that section of track, the property rights go back to the original owners. In the case of the Port Morris Branch, the tracks were build here in the 1840s. Since CSX filed for abandonment, it’s anyone’s guess who the owner is today. The NYC’ government’s attempt to get paid for the clean up work will likely at the least take years of litigation before coming to a resolution.
It should be noted here that the Port Morris would never have been abandoned if it wasn’t for two separate factors: The first being that the branch, with it’s tight curves and low tunnel under St. Mary’s park, was an obstacle for freight in NYC. The tight curves meant that longer freight cars could not be moved down the line, and the height of the tunnel restricted the taller intermodal cars from using these tracks. These higher and longer cars are a cash cow for railroads. The state was convinced (and rightfully so) that not being able to move these cars by rail was adding trucks to the roads of NYC. Their solution was to build a 1.9 mile railroad branch known as ‘The Oak Point Link‘. This segment of track is build on a pontoon bridge along the shore of the South Bronx, over the Harlem river. The link was also designed to eliminate the need for freight trains to run through Mott Haven Junction – a major junction where all commuter trains into Grand Central converge. For a freight train to get through the junction and onto the Port Morris branch, it had to cross all tracks, essentially blocking the entire junction – a recipe for an epic fail.
On September 18, 1988, just such a disaster took place. The daily Selkirk->Oak Point freight left Selkirk with a few cars that were too tall to fit under the bridges along the tracks in the Bronx. When this train arrived in the Bronx is smashed into the River Ave overpass near Yankee Stadium. The derailed cars blocked all of the Metro North’s Hudson line tracks. The head end of the train was well into Mott Haven Junction and about to enter the Port Morris branch. This effectively prevented any trains from accessing Grand Central – and all of this just in time for rush hour. Thousands of commuters were completely screwed.
After the accident Conrail (later CSX) began using the Oak Point Link that runs around the southern end of the Bronx – thus avoiding using the complex set of switches at Mott Haven Junction. This obliterated the need to operate the short Port Morris branch – which no longer had any local customers and the function of which was now significantly better served by the Oak Point Link.
The Port Morris branch was a hated necessity for the railroads up until ‘the link’ opened. Rotting crossties, decades of trash, deranged homeless druggies on the tracks – all were horrible conditions to run a railway in. Clean up efforts were apparently futile as neighbors and illegal dumpers used the tracks as their own toilet. This trash didn’t just magically appear here one day – it was ‘air mailed’ down onto the tracks by kids and neighbors who just plain did not care. Conditions were so bad that the railroad had to mandate that all of their engines running through the Bronx be equipped with snow plows year round due to the debris often thrown onto the tracks here. CSX was all too happy to shut the line down, rip out the rails, and disavow themselves of ownership completely.
There were various reports during the last decade that the Port Morris would be sold to the MTA for potential reuse as a transit line connecting Co-Op city to Grand Central. My quick search can find no record of such a sale though. Funding for this project has never materialized, and the Melrose Metro North station has been expanded northward to block the connection to the old Port Morris branch to boot.
There is no doubt that between acquiring half of Conrail and the line’s abandonment in 2003, that CSX was the owner of this property. It was most likely the railroad that removed the rails (which can usually be reused or at least have a good scrap value) sometime between 2001 and 2003.
Some are saying these tracks should also be opened as a park – calling it ‘the low line’ and suggesting that you can’t be charged with trespassing because no one owns it. The latter is false information. You can visit this line assuming no one has put up ‘no trespassing’ signs. Beyond that you’re taking a minor legal risk. Your chances of getting caught are about as low as Tiger Wood’s moral right about now, but if you are spotted by a cop you can and most likely will get a DAT (Desk Appearance Ticket – aka a date with the judge who can give you up to 15 days in jail). No police officer is going to listen to your argument that no one owns the property. Save that for the judge, or just take the fine or ACD that’ll be offered instead. That is, unless you want to piss off the judge and spend 15 days on Rikers.
It would make an interesting park, though perhaps it’s best to just leave it as it is. We’ve seen the fiasco that the administration of the High Line has become and we are not pleased. Maybe if it’s just owned by the city and doesn’t involve any strange non-profits with their own agenda it make for an interesting park free of egos.
I will be visiting this location soon for more up to date photos, but if you happen to get up there before me, feel free to email me some shots & I’ll link or post them here.
(Thanks to Shane for helping me dig up some info on rail line abandonment)