I first learned of the trains at Hammonton through somebody else’s photos of them. Being an avid lover of all things old, all things rail, and all things romantic, I decided long ago that I would go to see them for myself someday. This was about a year ago.
I finally saw them for the first time recently. It doesn’t mark the first time I’ve seen abandoned trains in rural New Jersey–I went two years ago to see the Morris County Central train in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Inspired, as most people are, by a movie I saw that took place near it, I had to see it for myself. But, considering the fact I didn’t have a car and the fact that it was closer to an active railway, I was too scared to really do any significant exploration, and so my sojourn there ended quite earlier than I thought it should have.
In marked contrast, the trains at Hammonton are easier to explore. First and foremost, I can get to them in a car, and second, they are further from any active rail uses. Besides the Southern Railroad of New Jersey shop that stands down the street from these abandoned wonders, there is little preventing one from climbing inside the cars, especially on a weekend when the train workers at the shop are off duty.
One weekend, I decided on a whim, after all too much driving through the suburbs of Philadelphia, to get a slice of pizza in Hammonton on my way down to the shore. Bruni’s Pizzeria is one of my Uncle’s favorite places to eat in Hammonton, and I always try to follow through with his recommendations when it comes to food, as he rarely falters in his culinary choices. Unfortunately for me, the pizza place only sold slices for lunch, and seeing as it was 5:00, I could only buy a whole pie. The guy at the counter merely said “Sorry, Buddy” when I told him I drove all the way down to try it, and so I left, slightly frustrated. I walked back to my car, parked about 5 blocks away, since all the roads were closed off for the Food Truck Festival, and contemplated what to do next.
As I got in my car, I vaguely remembered that the abandoned trains I had read about before were close by. I consulted my great technology to see where the tracks were, and sure enough they laid only about 5 miles away from me. Thus, my adventure was determined.
I pulled off of S Egg Harbor Rd., just barely seeing the turn for Spring Rd. My first glimpse afforded me the train shop on the right and the hulking, rusting figures on the left. I had never seen so many old trains in one location; in general it is rare to find more than one abandoned old train in any given location. Here, there are twelve in total. Twelve sleeping, rusty giants, primed for climbing and walking through, and ready to be photographed. I made haste to park my car across the street in the dirt on the side of the road where a little rain had gathered from a drizzle the day before.
I only had so much time to explore the trains by myself the first time, since I was already late to dinner with my family who awaited me down the shore, at this point about 45 minutes away still. I quickly snapped some pictures and stepped inside the car that’s easiest to walk in and the most intact: the one that reads “Maine Coast” on its exterior. The seats still sat in neat rows, largely undisturbed from the years of neglect and abandonment they had seen. I walked over to the baby blue and yellow locomotive that sat under the trestle, chained to a Southern Railroad of New Jersey red and black locomotive which faced the opposite direction, took a few pictures, and then jumped back in the car.
The rest of my ride took me through backroads lined with blueberry fields and speeding pickup trucks. I blasted Creedence and rolled the windows down, and took it all in. Surely, I thought, I’ll come back to the trains when time affords it.
The second time I went to the trains was when Nick and I were driving back from the shore, stopping wherever we pleased, wherever we saw fit. We were taking backroads to avoid traffic, and we ended up in Hammonton yet again. Without telling Nick, I took him to where the trains were. He was pretty taken aback at first, and to be honest, so was I, seeing them a first time failed to really diminish the sense of wonder one is filled with upon seeing rail cars up close and personal. We pulled into the same spot again, and this go around, I had ample time to walk around and explore. So I did.
I went back inside the Maine Coast car. Its seats sat just as they had the other day, light shining in from the sun which was getting lower in the sky. I looked around the car, and wondered what kinds of people it had carried back in its heyday. Who sat in these cars? Who sat at the bridge tables and socialized on their ride? How much did tickets cost? The luggage racks above the seats were small, and I wondered how anybody fit enough luggage for a journey on them. Where did the Maine Coast car go, anyway? Did people need to pack big bags for trips on this car, or was it mostly a local train? And how the hell did it end up in South Jersey if it traveled along the rocky coast of Maine?
We walked over to the Blue and Yellow locomotive and the SRRNJ car attached to it, but found that there was nowhere one could go inside those cars. In fact, all of the locomotives were closed and locked, with no entry method. But one could still imagine all the train conductors that once drove these. These locomotives were clearly designed to pull freight, unlike the Maine Coast, which would have likely had a smaller, passenger locomotive. I left my imagination to wonder at how they sounded in their prime, humming as they sat in the railyard, being hitched for a journey, or riding along the rials, cruising through South Jersey in the days before ConRail and the downfall of rail travel. These trains emanated a beauty that Norfolk Southern and CSX trains have a hard time matching. Their colors are decidedly more subdued than these pale blue and yellow colors, which fit beautifully into the South Jersey landscape of blueberry fields, seaside towns, and small working hamlets. There were several more locomotives that we saw, and then a few boxcars and flatbed cars which we climbed on top of, but nothing that we could get inside of.
Moving back towards where we came, we walked into the other cars that sat to the north of “Maine Coast”. There were a few more passenger cars linked together. They weren’t really passenger cars so much as they were sleepers and dining cars. Both of the ones we walked in had bars inside, one with an old-school bottle of Corona. Obviously, this couldn’t have been an original artifact so much as the leaving token of some wanderer like ourselves some years ago, which nobody had ever picked up. Behind the bar were pictures of people working on the railroad–people laying tracks, building locomotives, and the like. Faded and worn, they remained bolted to the wall, relics of a time when railroads employed hundreds of thousands and presented great hope for America. These were the people that built America’s first proper infrastructure network, these are the ghosts that have vanished, whose memories remain only in the old train graveyards that dot rural municipalities across the country, the people whose photographs are bolted into the walls of the rusting machines that they themselves created so long ago, as if they are chained to go down with their ships like the great sea captains of old.
Taking a ride in one of these trains would have been twice as glamorous as riding in any Acela Express. Already, trains like the Blue Comet, which crashed relatively close to this site, were able to reach speeds of up to ninety miles per hour. What’s more, they contained leather seating, lockers, overhead storage, beds, and bars, often all in one car. The people that rode in these cars on their way down to the Jersey Shore were probably rich main-liners and South jersey industrialists who had the luxury of affording second homes in quaint towns like Cape May, Ludlam’s Landing, and Atlantic City. These towns were booming 19th century shoretowns. Unfortunately, the only one that survives today from its early state is Cape May, which is littered with dollhouse style Victorian mansions, lining the beach in their stately gazes, oozing wealth and good fortune. What kind of industrialists rode these trains on their way to their second homes? Did Joseph Wharton ride them? Did Charles K. Landis ride them on the way to his new developments of Sea Isle and Vineland? What great Americans took passage on the same trains that I stood in just yesterday, with my digital camera, my skinny jeans and my electronic car key in my pocket? What kind of America did they envision for 2015?
When I think of old trains, I inevitably think of how cars ruined American cities. I think of how dependent we have become on cars because of suburbanizaion and the cheapness of fuel. I think of how much better off we would be if train travel was restored to its glory days at the turn of the century. I think of how people rode through forests and cities, looking out the windows and watching the world go by, and how they saw things differently than people in cars saw things. I think of Mom-mom as a little girl, riding the Pennsylvania Railroad on the way from Haverford to a young Sea Isle, as yet not covered in large, monotonous duplexes on every block. I think of the people that built the Bungie, and the memories they had, and they lives they led in that house, and how they built it with their own hands, and didn’t pay somebody else to do the hard work for them. I think of resiliency and beauty, and poetry and solid foundations, and I think of an America that has been lost to time, but which still exists on the walls of old abandoned train cars and which still exists in the memories of my grandmother and those who were around to experience it. I hope that one day, America will realize its fault with the car and begin to see trains as the answer, and that one day, trains will again be things we are proud of, and not just things that we remember. Maybe one day my dreams will come true, but for now, the only memories of trains must be had second hand through railcars that sit alongside of gravel roads designed for cars, seemingly cast aside to make way for the new dominant form of transportation which has replaced them