From the Star Ledger:
Railroads have historically been instrumental to human development by connecting economic centers and providing people with enhanced access to opportunities. New Jersey is no exception. In the 1830s, numerous railroad companies jockeyed for access to Jersey City in order to capitalize on Manhattan’s economic boom.
Shortly thereafter, new train lines were built, and certain towns in the state gained access to Jersey City and Manhattan (see Benjamin Bernhart’s “Historic Journeys by Rail: Central Railroad of New Jersey Stations, Structures & Marine Equipment” for more information).
These towns, in turn, would explosively transition from agriculturally-based economies to diverse and white-collar hubs.
Unfortunately, railroad access to Manhattan was not granted equitably, and economic inequality between towns and counties expanded as time wore on. We see this inequality most clearly when comparing the success of towns with early, direct access to train lines to towns without such access.
Consider the towns of Plainfield and Westfield in Union County, where income inequality is abundantly clear. Westfield households earn 2.69 times more and the average property is worth $429,100 more than their neighbors in Plainfield. Until the Central Railroad of New Jersey built a direct line between Westfield and Jersey City in 1901, Westfield and Plainfield shared a similar history.
Both towns were largely dependent on agriculture for growth and sustenance. But once the connection from Jersey City to Manhattan was established, Westfield transitioned from a blue-collar to white-collar town and naturally experienced economic prosperity. On the other hand, Plainfield did not gain access to the Jersey City line until 1910 – for reasons which are still unclear.
Today, Westfield has an express line to/from Newark Penn station during rush hour that skips the seven other towns between Westfield and Manhattan. This has attracted more wealthy families to the area, led to a better school system and public services, and, overall, perpetuated the vast inequality between the neighboring towns.
We see a similar trend when comparing the fortunes of Garfield with that of Ridgewood over in Bergen County. The town’s Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that failed attempts to build a rail line in the 1870s – and a lack of early train access – were inhibitors to the town’s development.
Meanwhile, Ridgewood, which according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau today has a median household income of $147,823 compared to Garfield’s $45,469, got rail access to NYC as early as 1848. Ridgewood and similarly wealthy Bergen County towns point to the railroad as a critical turning point in the town’s success, as it attracted wealthy businessmen to a countryside lifestyle with work access.