Saturday, May 09, 2009

National Train Day

Today is National Train Day, inspired by this event: On May 10, 1869, in Promontory Summit, Utah, the "golden spike" was driven into the final tie that joined 1,776 miles of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, ceremonially creating the nation′s first transcontinental railroad. Isn't something Indians fondly remember.

I'm nostalgic for a more recent era, found on a New Jersey railroad map from 1946. Jersey came out of World War Two with a decently maintained network of freight & passenger routes plus a few light rail systems. One by one, they fell into disuse & disappeared. Who was thinking sixty years ahead? The greatest mistake was not preserving the rights of way for many of the lines.

I like the idea that one could take a train from Newark to Wildwood in Cape May by a roundabout route via the Jersey Central Coast Line & through the Pine Barrens, then to Tuckahoe. It was probably an 8 hour journey with all the connections. Or more easily, a train to Sandy Hook via Keyport & Keansburg, running along the shore below the highlands & across Shrewsbury River.

I grew up in a three-railroad town, midway between the Lehigh Valley line to the Hudson River docks & the Jersey Central Elizabethport line. The one track Raritan Valley railroad went past the park & high school athletic field. When I was very young, LV still occasionally ran steam locomotives, & I recall the whistles & the rhythmic clacking of the wheels. I was not a good sleeper, & I loved those sounds flying through the silence of night. There were miles-long coal trains with cabooses at their ends, & the engineers waved at little kids. There were also horrific accidents at grade crossings. My grandmother told stories of hobos coming to the door during The Great Depression; I got the impression she didn't care for them but usually gave out a sandwich or piece of fruit. Our house was a few blocks away from the railroad & the hobos must have figured the people living next to the tracks were tapped out. I remember the verse I wrote about the railroads in a song from my rock band days:
I grew up in crummy little town
near the railroad track,
in one direction was a big city,
people that went there always came back.
In the other direction
the rails ran straight out west,
wherever they led to -
we either read in a book or we guessed.
I thought they went somewhere better than Scranton PA.

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Sitting in Parkway traffic on Friday night, I curse the State of New Jersey for removing the NY & Long Branch RR tracks between Bay Head and Seaside Park following a fire that destroyed the railroad's bridge across the Barnegat Bay in the late 1940s.

Here is a scan of a 1945 CRRNJ schedule showing service between Jersey City and Barnegat. Here is what the RR's ROW looks like now.
Sad, too, that the commuter rail expansions NJ Transit seeks in Monmouth & Ocean Counties did exist. Oh yeah, tearing down the CRR Newark Bay bridge, that was real smart.
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