WWII veteran Len Frank dies; helped save popular NJ trail
By ROB JENNINGS | nj.com | Published: January 23, 2021
EDISON, N.J. (Tribune News Service) — It is among New Jersey’s better-known trails, running 27 scenic miles through Sussex and Warren counties.
Had it not been for the efforts of Len Frank, who died Jan. 17 at age 96, the Paulinskill Valley Trail might not exist.
The World War II veteran was recently retired from Picatinny Arsenal and living in Hackettstown when he began organizing residents, in the mid-1980s, in support of the state buying the former railway bed and preserving it as a trail.
His efforts came to fruition in 1992, when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection purchased the land for $600,000.
Elisabeth Lescault, one of his four children, said the Paulinskill Valley Trail was “almost like a second home” to her father.
Lescourt recalled walking on the trail with him well into his 90s. She would drive up from Maryland and bring him over for a stroll and a chance to reminisce.
“He was so proud of it. He loved it right until the end,” Lescault said.
It is hard to imagine northwestern New Jersey without the Paulinskill Valley Trail, a popular draw for walkers, cyclists, runners and cross-county skiers. The site was the location of a railroad until the early 1960s and then proposed for a water pipeline to the Tocks Island dam project, which ultimately never happened.
Two decades later, with the rail bed starting to deteriorate, advocates formed the Paulinskill Valley Trail Committee — Frank was the co-founder and new group’s president — and began advocating for the state to buy the land, then owned by the city of Newark.
Initially, there was some local pushback. Bob Barth, who joined Frank in the volunteer effort, said some in the area wanted to buy up sections of the land and questioned the benefit of a permanent trail.
Frank won over skeptics by inviting them to hike the former rail bed with him, Barth said. From there, they could experience the Paulins Kill River, more than 100 species of birds and the occasional bear while walking along a path that includes bridges that once served the railroad.
“It made no sense to lose a right of way like that,” Barth said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, described Frank as an “environmental champion” whose legacy was cemented by the trail.
“He not only came up with the idea, but planned and built the Paulinskill Valley Trail, which is the sixth longest trail in the state and enjoyed by thousands of people every year. I knew and worked with Len, especially when it came to protecting the trail from widening, ATVs, and properties near the trail. He fought to maintain the trail that he loved,” Tittel said.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Frank served with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated with a degree in metallurgical engineering in 1948.
He and his late wife, Erica, lived on a farm in Illinois as they started their family, moving to Hackettstown in 1960 after Frank got a job at Picatinny Arsenal.
He expanded his interests in the outdoors and the environment after retiring, leading up led to his advocacy for the trail.
He and his wife backpacked extensively throughout the United States and regularly led Sierra Club hikes in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, but it was clear that the Paulinskill Valley Trail held a unique place in his heart.
After Erica died in 2013, her family placed her ashes into a stream along the trail, Lescault said.
She added that the “chances are very high” her family will honor her father in the same way.
“I would think that would be the right thing to do,” Lescault said.
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