Thursday, July 23, 2015

Uncovering the Blue Comet in blueberry country

Near the center of the Pinelands community of Chatsworth, there's a sandy, partially grass-covered clearing on the side of the road. In it, there's a square plot marked off by a decorative black chain, and within the plot, a pair of rails embedded in the ground.

Apologies for the bad framing.
Photo shot from the car.
It's hard to see in the picture, but those rails extend far beyond the clearing, well into the woods in the distance. They mark the remains of Chatsworth's ties to the rise and fall of New Jersey's version of glamorous land travel.

Today, the strongest connection any of us have to passenger rail travel is likely to be with New Jersey Transit commuter trains and light rail, but for our earlier neighbors, that wasn't the case. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly before air travel became the norm, trains could be something very special. Long distance travelers could enjoy luxury accommodations on express lines like the 20th Century Limited, and even local commuter trains sometimes sported cars specifically for the first-class set.

By the 1920s, Central Railroad of New Jersey President R.B. White saw glamour as a way to attract riders to what had become the company's rather pedestrian, unpopular line to the state's southern shore destinations. The Blue Comet would run from New York to Atlantic City, but with style that lived up to its name in appearance and engineering. Capable of traveling up to 100 miles an hour, the train was said to be the first east of the Mississippi River to use roller bearings for smooth starts and stops.

White spared no expense in furnishings and design: passengers enjoyed luxurious upholstery and carpeting, fine dining and windows hand-etched with comets and stars. Each of the cars was named for a comet, including an observation car whose back deck could accommodate six travelers. The train was swathed in blue and cream colors, representing the sea and sand of the Jersey Shore, with nickel-plated accents. Even its whistle was distinctive, with Pinelands residents recalling a foghorn- or steamboat-like tone. When the Blue Comet made its maiden trip in February 1929, it became CRRNJ's flagship train.

Its introduction was ill-timed. Eight months later, the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression, leaving most potential travelers without the resources for luxury travel. By 1933, the train was making just one run a day, and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad took additional ridership away. However, the Blue Comet soldiered on, logging an on-time record so reliable that people along the route set their clocks by the train's arrival. Legend has it that the people of Chatsworth counted on the northbound train to slow enough to drop off the New York and Philadelphia newspapers that passengers had read and discarded.

In fact, Chatsworth was little more than a brief blip of scenery to the Blue Comet until August 19, 1939. More than a foot of rain fell during a tremendous storm that day, with cloudbursts delivering the vast majority of it after 2:00 p.m. Poor visibility forced the train's crew to reduce speed to about 40 miles an hour, but restricted sightlines were just part of the danger ahead. 

By 4:30, flooding had washed the sandy Pinelands soil out from beneath the tracks at milepost 86, about a mile west of Chatsworth. The train's crew had no idea of the hazard they were approaching. Though the locomotive and coal tender made it over the now-unsupported track, the five passenger cars separated and came off the rails, resting at angles nearly parallel to the railbed.

Despite crashing in the sparsely-populated Pinelands, help wasn't long in coming. Realizing that the ever-reliable Blue Comet was late to the station, the concerned people of Chatsworth waded to the scene of the crash. Word went out that 100 or more souls could have died in the crash, drawing ambulances and doctors from distant communities. Of the 49 souls on board, 38 suffered mostly minor injuries, though the train's cook was fatally crushed and scalded when the dining car stove fell on him.The crash scene was so flooded that local residents later recalled wading through chest-deep water to help passengers in the train's last two cars.

The track was quickly repaired and service restored after most of the Blue Comet's cars were reconditioned, but the flagship train's days were numbered. Just over two years later, it made its final run, never having made much of a profit, if any, for the Jersey Central.

After finding the brief bit of track commemorated in downtown Chatsworth, we headed east on a road alongside the old railbed. The area may have become more developed over the years, but it wasn't hard to imagine what residents might have faced as they attempted to help the Blue Comet's passengers after the derailment. The track runs pin-straight for what seems like miles, often on berms of that classically-sandy Pinelands soil. Portions of the track were obscured by overgrown weeds and trees that had sprouted between the rails. Other stretches seemed to be clear enough to accept a train on a moment's notice. Someone with a good imagination could stand there at night and will herself to hear the roar of the Blue Comet, its foghorn whistle alerting local residents of its approach.

As seems to be the case with so many legendary trains, bits and pieces of the Blue Comet are still out there for the finding, with four complete cars still in New Jersey. One car, Biela, stands near Route 22 West, having been converted to a dining room at the Clinton Station Diner. Another three are owned by the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, with plans for restoration and eventual return to the tracks.

Sopranos fans might also remember the train's fateful appearance on one of the series' final season installments. Model railroad aficionado (and Tony Soprano's brother in law) Bobby Baccalieri is admiring an antique Lionel Train version of the Blue Comet when he's dispatched by two hitmen from a rival crime family. Perhaps the show's producers didn't resolve the story of the famed Russian of the Pine Barrens episode, but ironically, someone in Tony's crew received a Pinelands-related payback of sorts.


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