The area on Alexander Street where Princeton University is now having the new Arts Campus buildings built (read, “moving the Dinky station”) was once used in other ways. Until about a decade ago, a large part of the area was used commercially for private businesses, especially those that faced Alexander Street.
Remember Grover Lumber Company, Princeton Fuel Oil Co., Boice Lumber & Coal Co., and Rosedale Mills? Those companies and others occupied the east side of Alexander Street for many decades, some back to the 19th century. They all backed up on the Dinky tracks. Some businesses in that area went back to the days when the Delaware and Raritan Canal was still operating and shipping heavy goods like coal and lumber. In those days what we call Alexander Street was known as Canal Street.
But in 1914, when Palmer Stadium was built on the Princeton campus, land use near the Dinky tracks began to change. For the next 40 years or so, part of that area became a railroad yard. As today a large portion of the area is taken over by a garage and parking lots for the temporary parking of automobiles, it was then devoted to the temporary parking of railroad cars, both passenger and freight. Actually, use of that area for parking railroad cars predated Palmer Stadium, but its construction put a focus on it.
The passenger cars were those on special trains that were arranged for by Princeton and other alumni groups from New York and other cities to provide transportation for fans to attend the weekend football games at Palmer Stadium. The trains would come to Princeton Junction on the main line and then be switched to a siding that joined the Dinky tracks for the trip in to Princeton. The cars were hauled by steam or diesel locomotives since the sidings were not electrified. Sometimes the trains would remain on sidings between the Dinky track and Baker hockey rink for several days, but because of the location of the sidings, they did not interfere with the normal operation of the Dinky.
After leaving the train, it was quite a long walk to the stadium, and it required crossing Washington Road at street level. Nevertheless, many fans went to games that way. Of course, some also took a taxi. Some of the siding trackage was also used by freight cars making deliveries to the businesses on Alexander Street.
Palmer Stadium’s horseshoe plus the temporary bleachers set up in the open end had a seating capacity of 55,000. Up through the 1950s it was sometimes sold out once or twice a year, and there were frequently crowds of 30 or 40,000.
Then in the ’60s things began to change. For one thing, there was mounting pressure on the university to allow undergraduates to drive and keep cars on campus. That was a time when student activists “demanded” freedom and “rights,” and having cars was a major case in point. That same student activism resulted in a drop-off in interest in football and other high-profile sports, a drop-off that accelerated when coeducation started a few years later.
It was also significant that the need for storage space for rail freight cars disappeared as freight delivery was taken over almost entirely by trucks. All this resulted in the end for the special trains and the need for the tracks in the “rail yard.” First it became a parking lot, and finally a large portion of it was taken up by the parking garage plus some other university buildings. Now they’ll add the Arts Campus.
Undergraduates of my era recall that a few decades ago, there was still enough interest in football for one Princeton fan — his name escapes me — to attend games in a completely different way. He flew — not to Newark or another nearby airport, but right to within about a half-mile of the stadium. He had a seaplane and landed it on Lake Carnegie. He tied it up near Harrison Street and walked or got a ride to the stadium. His airplane was a Republic Seabee, a single-engine plane with a pusher-type propeller. It was built in the late ’40s and was known for its loud noise. When it took off you could hear it all over town.