If you live in central New Jersey, it’s hard to drive very far in any direction without crossing railroad tracks. I don’t mean the main line that many use to commute to New York or Philadelphia, or the Dinky. I mean the railroad that used to run from West Trenton to Jersey City by way of Manville and Elizabeth, or the one that ran from Bordentown and then joined the “main line” before reaching New York. Both of these actually started in Philadelphia, but they are long gone. Only their tracks remain. And there was also the single-track railroad that paralleled the D&R Canal along the border between West Windsor-Plainsboro and Princeton.
The train from Bordentown actually went through Hightstown, Jamesburg, and Perth Amboy. The tracks in Hightstown went right through the center of town, and you can still see the remains of the elevated roadbed near Main and Stockton streets. The train from West Trenton stopped at many places including Hopewell, Skillman, Belle Mead, and Bound Brook. Not only is its track still there, it’s still used occasionally for freight trains.
With all these railroads around the area, it’s probably not surprising that there are also many serious fans of trains and their history. Having grown up in the days of Lionel electric trains and their accessories set up to run on the living room floor, I was a fan, too. But when airplanes started to be the “way to go,” I switched allegiance. Nevertheless, railroads were still interesting because it was easier to use them instead of airplanes if you wanted to go someplace — and a lot cheaper.
The popularity of old railroads persists today partly because of the full-size tracks that remain to be crossed by so many roads, but also because of the popularity of model railroads. Serious railroad models that were replicas of the real thing with all the details became popular as HO gauge during the years before World War II. That popularity has persisted, and there are still many clubs that indulge, not only in the building and operating of model train layouts, but in inviting the public to come and observe.
One impressive model train layout in the area used to be on view in Rocky Hill. A homeowner there devoted his entire basement to the layout, and many, many people from the Princeton area went to see it, especially during holiday seasons. Sometimes it was hard to get in, and the owner had to make people take turns. I went at least twice myself — with the kids — probably during the 1960s and ’70s. It was very impressive to watch several trains running at once on the many tracks, and to see all the automated equipment like crossing gates in operation. I don’t remember when that layout was finally closed down, but it went on for many years. “Did you go see the trains in Rocky Hill?” was a frequent question in this area.
Today there is still an impressive model train layout in the central New Jersey area that is open to the public. This one is in Bordentown in the building that was once city hall. The railroad club that operates it is very serious about putting on a good show. After many years of not seeing such a show, I went last December and was very impressed. It was easy to understand how so many middle-aged guys could think of themselves as — at least temporarily — railroad engineers.
At one time — I think in the ’70s — model railroads became so popular that some clubs set up large layouts in public buildings and invited the public to come in and actually operate the trains. I remember one such location on a highway near Freehold. When we passed it on the way to the shore, the parking lot was frequently full.
Getting back now to railroad fans — the full-size ones, that is. There are many, and they can be very serious about it. In a way, they’re historians, and they seem to stop at nothing to enjoy their pastime. “Pastime” is probably not the right word for what they do, but when I mention that they are sometimes referred to as “foamers,” maybe you get the idea. That expression refers to the impression many observers get that these railroad fans are so serious that they actually “foam at the mouth” in anticipation of seeing or doing something special.
I was introduced to that expression by a one-time next-door neighbor who was associated with the Black River and Western Railroad, a tourist train line that once ran out of Lambertville. Today there are still tourist train lines in both Lambertville and New Hope, across the river. And I’m sure their are plenty of “foamers” among their clientele.
On two occasions, my wife and I were curious about what foamers were really like. So we decided to go on two special train rides to find out. In each case we had read about a special train trip in the newspaper. The first took place on September 13, 1987, and the second was on October 20, 1996.
One of the most widely used Diesel locomotives during the middle of the 20th century was the E-8. It hauled both passenger and freight trains, and many of them passed through Princeton Junction on the main line. A few probably went in to Princeton on the Dinky tracks taking football fans to Princeton games. Finally, its time was up, and its final trip was announced. It would run from Newark to Bay Head Junction, where the old E-8 would remain. Another train would return the passengers to Newark. We decided to go.
Everything about the trip seemed to be normal at first. There were conductors walking up and down the aisle taking and punching tickets and announcing the stations as we approached.
But there were also people who seemed to be passengers walking through the cars, too. They were carrying walkie-talkie radios and talking to each other whenever they saw something they thought was unusual or interesting about the train and its conductors. These were the “foamers.” Their enthusiasm was amazing.
I remember one time when we were about to leave a station and a nearby conductor told the engineer on the intercom that it was OK to close the doors. This little bit of routine procedure was picked up by the foamers and relayed to all their radios; “Wow! Did you hear that?” they said, among other things. They were truly excited to hear the “inside” railroad stuff that most people aren’t even aware of.
When we arrived at Bay Head Junction and disembarked, we were allowed to walk around the train yard for a while and take souvenirs that were easy to carry — like pieces of gravel. I picked up a railroad track spike, which I still have. I’m sure the foamers had their own ideas about suitable souvenirs.
Another opportunity to ride on a retiring train came along in 1996. It was announced in the newspapers that an old steam locomotive was going to haul a trainload of passenger cars from Hoboken to Port Jervis and back on October 20. It would travel on tracks that once traversed the northern part of the state and crossed the New Jersey-New York border as they approached the point where those two states meet Pennsylvania. Port Jervis is in New York, but only by a few miles. The train would be hauled by rebuilt steam locomotive No. 614 for the benefit of interested railroad fans, including foamers. My wife’s brother, Pete, and his wife, Nancy, decided to join us for the trip.
The trip from Hoboken to Port Jervis was uneventful, but the scenery was nice to see because the weather was pretty good. And, of course the foamers were doing their thing, especially up in front near the tender where the coal had to be shoveled into the locomotive’s firebox by hand.
But when we arrived in Port Jervis we were greeted by the high school band and a big crowd of “locals.” Everyone seemed to be having a good time. After everyone had disembarked and were standing around the big train yard listening to the music, the locomotive with its tender were uncoupled from the passenger cars and took off heading north. They went a half-mile or so when they came to a real old-fashioned turntable where their direction was reversed so they could head south and be coupled to the passenger cars going the other way — back toward Hoboken.
But first, for the benefit of the foamers and other photographers and sound recorders there would be a “run by.” The foamers were now in their element and in charge of everything. As the locomotive began to head south, the foamers went around in the crowd and told everyone that they must be silent as the train approached. No talking! The only sound they wanted to hear and record was that of the locomotive. They especially told the band: “No playing.”
Apparently everything went off as well as it could, the foamers were happy, and we all got back to Hoboken in good shape. But that was enough old trains and foamers for us.