When N.j. Traveled By Comet

The Blue Comet, circa 1925. It had a memorable run before a last trip in 1941. On Saturday, an event will celebrate the line.
The Blue Comet, circa 1925. It had a memorable run before a last trip in 1941. On Saturday, an event will celebrate the line.
Posted: August 11, 2014

Too bad a sparkling blue train with a mighty engine isn't around to deliver thousands of tourists to Atlantic City.

There once was.

The Blue Comet had streaked across the length of New Jersey, bringing 367,000 passengers to America's Playground in a run that began a few months before the Great Depression hit in 1929 and that ended a dozen years later.

So where is this iconic train now, at a time when the troubled seashore resort searches desperately for new ways to again be a destination?

The history of the Blue Comet, including a wreck that spilled terrified passengers into the remote wilds of the Pinelands, will be explored at a daylong event Saturday in Chatsworth, a Burlington County village. It's the town's first-ever celebration of the storied train.

The Blue Comet was a sensation when it was launched, and an advertising campaign touted the wonders of a little train that could and did compete with those operated by the more prestigious Pennsylvania Railroad, said Paul Schopp a historian and coauthor of The Trail of the Blue Comet.

The key to the train's success was that the Central Railroad of New Jersey "really didn't spare any expense in creating a very special train for people to ride back and forth to Atlantic City, and didn't charge exorbitant fares," said Schopp, a speaker at the Chatsworth event.

The train was painted in two hues of blue and also beige "so that it looked like the sky, ocean, and the sand," he said. "It was known as the seashore's finest train."

Later, the Blue Comet became the stuff of history and the subject of books, news articles, and films. It even appeared in the HBO series The Sopranos, where it was a metaphor for the glory days and the ultimate demise of an era when Nucky Johnson ruled the glitzy resort town. In one episode, wiseguy Bobby Baccalieri marvels at the beauty of a Blue Comet train set made by Lionel and agrees the toy is worth $8,000. "Imagine riding in that club car sipping on a Negroni," he says.

A powerful Baldwin steam engine had pulled the parlor cars, observation cars, and a dining car on a 136-mile, three-hour trip between Jersey City and Atlantic City, chugging away at 70 m.p.h., Schopp said. A round-trip ticket cost $8.40, and a fine meal served on blue china was $1.60.

Atlantic City was the draw, but arriving in style was part of the allure, he said.

In its inaugural year, the Blue Comet attracted more than 62,000 riders and thousands of spectators, according to Robert A. Emmons Jr., a Rutgers University professor who made a documentary about the train. Some came from New York City via a ferry connection to the Jersey City station.

The film will be shown at the Chatsworth event, organized by the Woodland Township Historical Society. A dulcimer band will play on the porch of Buzby's General Store, and the train's famous apple pie with cheddar will be dished out.

The festivities also will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the train wreck, which occurred the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1939, less than two miles from the village station.

A "cloudburst of biblical proportions" had dumped nearly 15 inches of rain onto the area, causing a washout beneath the tracks, Schopp said.

After rambling past Apple Pie Hill, the engine hit the unstable rail and broke loose. The train's five railcars derailed and tumbled into a watery ditch, according to the Interstate Commerce Commission, which investigated the accident.

"It was very treacherous . . . ," Schopp said. "The cars were sitting at crazy angles and people were screaming because they thought the cars would fall and they would drown."

The next day, the front page of The Inquirer reported the derailment in the Pines had injured 17 and "jolted 30."

Among the injured was the dining-car chef, who later died from burns he suffered after a stove caught fire and he was trapped beneath a pile of chairs and tables.

Two months after the accident, the CNJ railroad requested regulators' permission to shut down the Blue Comet.

The train's death knell had been sounded a few years earlier due to the popularity of automobiles, but the wreck was a setback that made the railroad's decision that much easier, rail historians said.

After the train run was canceled in 1941, most of the railcars were scrapped. One sits rusting and rotting on a weed-choked track in Winslow, Camden County, waiting to be restored.

Another car is attached to the Clinton Station Diner in North Jersey and serves as a dining room. A handful of patrons who ate lunch there one day last week knew nothing about the train or the wreck. The menu mentioned the railcar was authentic, and a few patrons said that sitting inside a historical artifact was as fun as eating the diner's famous burgers.

Paul Reichel, one customer, couldn't resist muttering "All Aboard!" to himself, while slowly navigating the railcar's narrow aisle, turning his head from side to side as if he were a conductor. "It's unique," the Syracuse resident said later, pointing out the curtains decorating the tiny train windows.

In Chatsworth, there is no railcar, but memorabilia and old photographs will be on display at the White Horse Inn. "Every year for the past 10 years we would go to Clinton for lunch, as a tradition," said Deborah Grove, the historical society president. "But this year we're commemorating the event here."

A walking tour will include a stop at the village station, now a residence. But no one will be directed to the remote, overgrown wreck site.

To get there, one must creep or bushwhack through dense blueberry bramble and pygmy pines.

On a blue-sky day last month - with zero chance of precipitation - Bob Whipple led a small group through the thicket to Milepost 86, the approximate derailment location. The Blue Comet enthusiast, who helped with the event, has made the trek several times.

Part of the concrete milepost marker lay in a ditch, partially submerged in a tea-colored stream.

A few splintered and rotting pieces of telegraph poles and rail ties were strewn about, but not enough to give a sense of the chaos.

Whipple recalled reading accounts in which passengers had to wade through waist-high waters to get to safety. One frightened child had asked her father where the sidewalks were.

The rails, abandoned in the '70s, were rusting. Gazing down the track, lined with pines, Whipple said he could "almost feel the vibrations."

The quiet in this space evoked the ghost of a train that once passed this way, in the middle of nowhere. The only sound was that of two faraway birds having a spat.

The solitude allowed the imagination to summon up the faint sound of a whistle in the distance.

Some Pineys, as the locals are called, have told Whipple that some nights they hear an unusual foghorn-like whistle, similar to the sound the Blue Comet made as it rushed past.

But then, it fades away, without a trace.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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