Sparta Train Station History

Let the conductor punch your tickets, then settle into your seats, and enjoy this voyage back in time to explore the Sparta Train Station’s fascinating history. 

The Sparta Train Station's Beginnings

An Important Recreational & Agricultural Hub

The original Sparta Train Station was a standard design once used in all the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad Co. (NYS&WRR) depots. It was one of 15 the railroad company built in Sussex County. According to an article by historian Jennie Sweetman for the New Jersey Herald, legal documents show the NYS&WRR obtained the 0.96-acre tract through legal proceedings on November 15, 1881, where the station and water tank were later constructed. A roof tile found within the walls of the station during refurbishment of the original structure in 2008 documents the start of the building’s construction in 1881 — Sweetman reported the Sparta Train Station was likely completed by July 1882. Until a devastating fire swept through the original structure in 2012, it was the last original NYS&WRR station standing in Sussex County. Its surviving water tower is rare within the region.

The Sparta station was once a destination for city folks taking a trek to get a taste of the country and to enjoy the many recreational spots available in Sussex County. One activity was an early test program to introduce tourists from the city to hiking. Founded by the men who later formed the Appalachian Trail, they would transport hikers from New York City to the Sparta Train Station, where they would begin their hike. The group would hike to the Hudson Guild Farm in Andover (where the idea of the Appalachian Trail was born) owned by railroad magnate John P. McRoy, where they would have lunch, before continuing their trek to the Mt. Olive Station to catch the citybound train back home. What a landscape the hikers must have observed in those early days of Sparta.

Starting in the late 1800s, Sparta thrived as a summer resort community, catering to tourists who came by railroad to swim in the county’s lakes and enjoy its pristine beauty. After arriving at the station, the visitors would be transported via a horse-and-carriage buggy ride to one of the many hotels, resorts, and boarding houses.“The station made Sparta a popular place to go in the late 1800s … there were 30 resort hotels in the area,” said local historian and railroad buff Bill Truran.

But the Sparta Train Station was also an important hub, Sweetman wrote, for transporting agricultural goods. Livestock, wood, fruit for applejack or brandy, and milk products were among the items hauled. A creamery was constructed close to the station with cans of milk placed daily on an afternoon train destined for Manhattan.

Reporter Laurie Gordon of The Sparta Independent wrote that cement, ice, coal, and mail sent to Sparta residents were additional items that passed through the Sparta Train Station in those early days.

A Lost Treasure

Neglecting The Past

By the 1940s the Sparta Train Station passenger service ended as the automobile began replacing trains as the easier way to travel between cities and the country. Historian Wayne McCabe wrote in the New Jersey Herald that the economic recession in 1957 contributed to the downturn of the NYS&WRR, and its quest to end its passenger services, with federal regulators eventually intervening in 1966 to bring the railroad’s commuter train travel to a halt.

The Sparta Train Station continued as a freight depot until the 1960s when that service was also discontinued. From the 1960’s until 1993, there had been a series of several owners who had created many problems on the property. The first company improperly disposed of toxic chemicals on the site while the second polluted the air with their antiquated systems of mixing chemicals. One of the chemical companies used the Sparta Train Station as an office and was making plans to expand the station with a conference room and more offices. The sloppy business practices of these numerous companies eventually led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to seize the property and clean it up.

During this time, groups that embraced train and railway history watched helplessly as the station fell into disrepair. Sitting abandoned for nearly 20 years, the Sparta Train Station endured every type of abuse, becoming a forgotten place where people made mischief, vandalized the structure, and covered it with graffiti. Many artists and photographers captured the haunted wreck the site had become, as the EPA continued its cleanup efforts between the 1990s through the early 2000s. The current owners purchased the property in 2008 at an auction in Newark.

Restoration

New Life From A Dream

A local family, the Dermodys, who owned property adjacent to the station, purchased the site at that auction. They dreamed that someday the station would have a new life away from the past chemical companies and vandals. Their restoration project removed years of garbage, neglect, overgrowth, and decay.“For four years we transformed the site from a dump into a showplace,” said William E. Dermody III.

As part of that transformation, a beautiful recreational facility was built on the property in a former industrial building and opened in 2011, which the Sparta Police Athletic League (PAL) and other amazing businesses continue to use. And the Sparta Train Station refurbishment efforts were ongoing that same year, with a new roof, the structure stabilized, the exterior painted, and new windows on order. Sweetman documented some of these updates to the station in her article

“We were so proud to be a part of the rescue of such a great old building,” said William E. Dermody IV.

Project Derails

Up In Smoke

During the early morning hours of Labor Day 2012, a car passing on Route 15 called in a fire to 911 as it was in process at the Sparta Train Station. This was a devastating loss for the Dermody family and the entire community. Nothing was spared in the blaze, and it was as if the building was never there. An investigation determined the source of the fire that swept through the station was attributed to a malfunction in the electrical system the utility company Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) installed.

This tragedy created a need for all new plans, approvals, and engineering for the building. The Dermodys sought out contractors who could stay within a modest budget while bringing back the original building’s charm and character. It was a trying and painful period, but as the first timbers went up, 2012 through 2016 became a new beginning for the station. Once it was finished, the Dermodys said the newly rebuilt Sparta Train Station felt like the original building had.

The Station Returns

A Place for the Community and Special Events

Since the Sparta Train Station was rebuilt and rededicated in 2016, it has become a venue available for community groups and individuals to rent out. From paint and sip gatherings, to film festivals, to artists and crafters who have “trained” people in their skills, to people who have held their weddings and other special occasions in this nostalgic building, it has evolved into a popular events destination. The Sparta Train Station is also home to railroad artifacts from the local area. Beginning in 2016, it has additionally become a stop for the Toys for Tots Operation Toy Train, which travels through the area every holiday season to collect holiday toys that the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve later distributes to families in need throughout the region.

The Dermody Family

A Special Dedication

The Sparta Train Station was dedicated to the memory of William E. Dermody Jr. in October 2016 at a special ceremony with more than 300 people in attendance. William E. Dermody Jr.   was a dedicated citizen of Sparta Township, New Jersey and his leadership helped to create many of the wonderful amenities that Sparta residents continue to enjoy in the community today. As he built his business and raised his family, William E. Dermody Jr. was pivotal in township improvements and projects like the Sparta Public Library, Sparta Ambulance Squad building, Knoll Heights Village, and the Reverend Brown School. Whether he was raising money for the Sparta Ambulance Squad or serving as Sparta Township Mayor (1972-1974), he did it with the admiration and respect of the people around him.

The station dedication to Bill Jr. was intended to remind future generations of the commitment and sacrifice of those who made Sparta what it is today. Bill Jr.’s legacy has been carried forward by his son and grandson, William E. Dermody III and William E. Dermody IV. One of those commitments was opening the Sparta PAL Building. Another was overcoming the enormous obstacle of rebuilding the train station after the 2012 electrical fire leveled it, while restoring the original station’s water tower. Historian Wayne McCabe, who was one of the guest speakers at the dedication ceremony, described the reconstruction of the Sparta Train Station “like a phoenix, literally rising from the ashes,” TAPintoSparta reported about the event. All these preservation efforts are testaments to the Dermody family’s commitment to better the Sparta community and protect properties like the Sparta Train Station for years to come.