Recalling an up-close view of 1939 New Jersey train wreck

A crew from the Central Railroad of New Jersey works to upright the derailed Blue Comet the day after the wreck on Aug. 19, 1939.
A crew from the Central Railroad of New Jersey works to upright the derailed Blue Comet the day after the wreck on Aug. 19, 1939. (HERBERT AND EDITH GERBER / Courtesy of Robert Gerber Jr.)
Posted: August 16, 2011

Walter Brower's eyes lit up as he recalled the rain-drenched day in 1939 when he and a buddy were the first to arrive at a train wreck in the thick of the Pine Barrens.

"The cars were all over the tracks. . . . I expected to find people dead," Brower said as he recalled the Aug. 19 crash of the Blue Comet, a luxury train that had departed from Atlantic City with 47 passengers, headed for Jersey City, N.J.

For residents of the isolated area, the accident stirred the most excitement and alarm since the crash there of the Mexican airman Emilio Carranza 11 years before.

Brower, then nearly 13, and a childhood friend raced through a dense pygmy pine forest and waded through waist-high floodwaters to reach the scene, just about a mile from Chatsworth, their hometown.

The New Jersey State Police dispatched ambulances from four surrounding counties because it heard "rumors more than 100 persons were dead or injured," according to a front-page story in The Inquirer.

Instead, there were 32 injured passengers. A cook in the diner car, the only car to topple on its side, died later from being scalded.

The engineer, who was warned by Winslow station agents of possible washouts, had cut the throttle moments before reaching the compromised tracks at 4:37 p.m., the Interstate Commerce Commission later reported. He had halved the normal speed of 70 m.p.h.

Still, passengers feared for their lives as the train's five cars jumped the tracks.

Many on board were families that had gone to the popular seashore destination for vacation. They came from Philadelphia, New York City, and Hoboken, N.J., and included a 2-year-old.

"The suspense when the train started to lean was terrific. Everyone began to scream, thinking it would overturn in the water beside the tracks," said one, according to an Inquirer account.

"I was thrown to the end of the car and practically everything, including tables, chairs, and a flood of broken glass, smothered me," another said.

Brower, a retired Rider University dean of education living in Hamilton, Mercer County, said he made it to the wreck within minutes.

He is one of three coauthors of Chatsworth, Capital of the Pine Barrens, a book published by Arcadia last year that mentions the train crash and provides pictures.

But the book is short on details, and Brower was eager last week to provide a fuller account, saying, "I want to keep the memory of the Blue Comet alive. It meant so much to South Jersey."

Brower said the train, hauled by a Baldwin steam locomotive, was the pride of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

It was conceived as a luxury train with coach fares that would compete with the more established Pennsylvania Railroad line to the Shore, he said. Passengers could dine on a $1.25 steak dinner complete with appetizer and dessert.

After the crash, service was quickly restored, said Brower, a member of the Chatsworth Historical Society. But two years later, the train stopped running. The Depression and the rising popularity of automobiles made it obsolete.

The date of its last run - Sept. 29, 1941 - is approaching its 70th anniversary.

Brower's father, a blueberry and cranberry farmer, was a local leader in Chatsworth. While the train did not routinely stop in the hamlet of 300, the station agent knew the family and a few times arranged to have it stop long enough to pick up the youngster for rides.

"Everything was blue," Brower said, recalling the color of the plush seating, the walls, the carpeting, the dining car linens, and the trim around the china.

The Blue Comet's crew would toss a bundle of newspapers from the moving train so that Brower could deliver them to his customers, he said. "That's how we got our newspapers," he said.

The day of the crash, Brower and his friend, Harold Stevenson, now deceased, had been hanging out at the crossing, waiting as usual to watch the train go by, as did others. It appeared to be running late. Then the station agent came out to say "he just heard it was all over the ground."

The two boys bolted down the tracks. "We didn't tell our parents or anything," Brower chuckled.

He remembers seeing "water everywhere" as he approached the site. He wondered whether the track had washed out.

Then, Brower spotted the engine and tender, still upright. A short distance away were uncoupled cars, scattered across the tracks.

The Weather Bureau reported a record 15 inches of rain that day. The spongy soil of the Pinelands had eroded the ballast beneath the tracks, causing the derailment.

The engineer told the ICC that before the crash he had been "leaning out the side cab window and looking ahead; the range of visibility was a distance of only a few feet." After a jolt, the engine separated from the cars and traveled about a half-mile.

"I grew up very quickly," Brower reflected. "I wasn't a teenager anymore, and there was something I needed to do to help."

The crew would not let him enter the cars. So he helped people get their luggage off, holding the bags above his head as he trudged through the water. He led some passengers to safety until rescue crews arrived an hour later.

Brower said he struck up a conversation with a family from Tennessee.

"They had been to Atlantic City on vacation and had heard so much about New York City, they thought they would extend their vacation a couple days, and that's what happened," Brower said. Their daughter hurt a shoulder in the wreck.

Brower said some of the passengers were bloodied, but most of the injuries appeared minor. The scene was strangely calm when he got there. No one was "running in all directions."

Brower said that an hour after the news spread, "a horde of people" showed up to help. Medics had to use a rail handcar to get the severely injured to hospitals 20 miles away, he said.

Bob Whipple, a train buff and collector from West Berlin, has hiked the now abandoned and overgrown tracks to Milepost 86, the wreck site. He calls himself a "Blue Comet aficionado" and has had long conversations with Brower about the accident.

"Walter was there. He touched it. And he rode in the Blue Comet," Whipple said.

The train's palette was two shades of brilliant blue, to represent the sky and the ocean, and a cream stripe that represented the beach, Whipple said. "It was one of a kind."

Decades later, one of the few surviving cars of the Blue Comet is part of a train restaurant in Clinton, N.J. Another sits rusting on unused storage tracks in Winslow - waiting to be restored by the United Railroad Historical Society.


Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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