首页
Showing posts with label 20th century.
Showing posts with label 20th century.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Route 278: the Expressway through my house

Readers of a certain age might remember the old Bugs Bunny where our hero wakes up in the morning to find an interstate highway being built around his rabbit hole. He spends the rest of the cartoon outwitting the construction workers to such an extent that they build the highway around his modest 七乐彩彩票app下载.

Bugs' victory became real to me many years ago when my mom told me the story of how Interstate 278 was almost built through our living room in the late '60s. Apparently, my parents had bought my childhood 七乐彩彩票app下载 in Union without knowing that the neighborhood was on a Department of Transportation map of the planned highway extension linking Staten Island with the then-yet-to-be-built Route 78 near the Union-Millburn border.

Earlier commercially-sold maps show a route that would have preserved our immediate neighborhood, but the impact on the town would have been immense with that route, too. Already criss-crossed by the Garden State Parkway and U.S. Route 22, Union would have changed dramatically, with an entire section of town cut off from the rest.

Plans for I-278 had been announced in the mid 1950s as part of a Federal government program to replace existing U.S. highways. According to a 1958 New York Times article, U.S. 1 would be replaced by Interstate 95, U.S. 46 replaced by 80, U.S. 22 replaced by 78, and so on. Planned as a secondary, or spur road, 278 would also be called the Union Freeway and was expected to divert Union County-bound traffic off Route 78 while relieving pressure on State Highway 28.

Protest letters are a little more convincing
these days.
As we know today, the interstates didn't replace the older New Jersey highways as much as they provided a less commercial, limited-access alternative that eventually got equally as congested as populations grew. And unlike a lot of the construction done in less populated areas of the country七乐彩彩票登录, parts of some of these highways would be built through thriving, densely built-up communities. The notorious urban planner Robert Moses had already pushed the construction of the New York portion of 278 in the 1960s by force of will, tearing up neighborhoods as it meandered through four of New York City's five boroughs.

Fortunately, New Jersey lacked a personality of Moses' stature to force the road through. That's where my family's story comes in. By the mid 1960s, Union, Roselle Park and Kenilworth residents living in the path of 278 were up in arms over the potential of losing their 七乐彩彩票app下载s to a six-lane expressway. The Committee to Eliminate Highway I-278 was formed to organize Union residents in protest to state and Federal elected officials. I haven't been able to find much yet about the committee but discovered a letter sent to residents with office holders' names and contact information. Organizers claimed that more than 550 七乐彩彩票app下载s and 24 commercial properties would be claimed by eminent domain, pulling as much as $15 million in rateables off the tax rolls.

Local outrage eventually prevailed, and all that was built of 278 in New Jersey was a stub of a highway that opened in 1969, linking Route 1 in Linden to the Goethals Bridge in Elizabeth. Once the rest was effectively killed, the allocated funding went toward the Central Jersey Expressway, now known as Interstate 195.

And, of course, my family and I were able to continue to enjoy our 七乐彩彩票app下载, unbothered by the inconvenience of being relocated by a six-lane interstate.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Uncovering the Blue Comet in blueberry country七乐彩彩票登录

Near the center of the Pinelands community of Chatsworth, there's a sandy, partially grass-covered clearing on the side of the road. In it, there's a square plot marked off by a decorative black chain, and within the plot, a pair of rails embedded in the ground.

Apologies for the bad framing.
Photo shot from the car.
It's hard to see in the picture, but those rails extend far beyond the clearing, well into the woods in the distance. They mark the remains of Chatsworth's ties to the rise and fall of New Jersey's version of glamorous land travel.

Today, the strongest connection any of us have to passenger rail travel is likely to be with New Jersey Transit commuter trains and light rail, but for our earlier neighbors, that wasn't the case. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly before air travel became the norm, trains could be something very special. Long distance travelers could enjoy luxury accommodations on express lines like the 20th Century Limited, and even local commuter trains sometimes sported cars specifically for the first-class set.

By the 1920s, Central Railroad of New Jersey President R.B. White saw glamour as a way to attract riders to what had become the company's rather pedestrian, unpopular line to the state's southern shore destinations. The Blue Comet would run from New York to Atlantic City, but with style that lived up to its name in appearance and engineering. Capable of traveling up to 100 miles an hour, the train was said to be the first east of the Mississippi River to use roller bearings for smooth starts and stops.

White spared no expense in furnishings and design: passengers enjoyed luxurious upholstery and carpeting, fine dining and windows hand-etched with comets and stars. Each of the cars was named for a comet, including an observation car whose back deck could accommodate six travelers. The train was swathed in blue and cream colors, representing the sea and sand of the Jersey Shore, with nickel-plated accents. Even its whistle was distinctive, with Pinelands residents recalling a foghorn- or steamboat-like tone. When the Blue Comet made its maiden trip in February 1929, it became CRRNJ's flagship train.

Its introduction was ill-timed. Eight months later, the stock market crash plunged the nation into the Great Depression, leaving most potential travelers without the resources for luxury travel. By 1933, the train was making just one run a day, and competition from the Pennsylvania Railroad took additional ridership away. However, the Blue Comet soldiered on, logging an on-time record so reliable that people along the route set their clocks by the train's arrival. Legend has it that the people of Chatsworth counted on the northbound train to slow enough to drop off the New York and Philadelphia newspapers that passengers had read and discarded.

In fact, Chatsworth was little more than a brief blip of scenery to the Blue Comet until August 19, 1939. More than a foot of rain fell during a tremendous storm that day, with cloudbursts delivering the vast majority of it after 2:00 p.m. Poor visibility forced the train's crew to reduce speed to about 40 miles an hour, but restricted sightlines were just part of the danger ahead. 

By 4:30, flooding had washed the sandy Pinelands soil out from beneath the tracks at milepost 86, about a mile west of Chatsworth. The train's crew had no idea of the hazard they were approaching. Though the locomotive and coal tender made it over the now-unsupported track, the five passenger cars separated and came off the rails, resting at angles nearly parallel to the railbed.

Despite crashing in the sparsely-populated Pinelands, help wasn't long in coming. Realizing that the ever-reliable Blue Comet was late to the station, the concerned people of Chatsworth waded to the scene of the crash. Word went out that 100 or more souls could have died in the crash, drawing ambulances and doctors from distant communities. Of the 49 souls on board, 38 suffered mostly minor injuries, though the train's cook was fatally crushed and scalded when the dining car stove fell on him.The crash scene was so flooded that local residents later recalled wading through chest-deep water to help passengers in the train's last two cars.

The track was quickly repaired and service restored after most of the Blue Comet's cars were reconditioned, but the flagship train's days were numbered. Just over two years later, it made its final run, never having made much of a profit, if any, for the Jersey Central.

After finding the brief bit of track commemorated in downtown Chatsworth, we headed east on a road alongside the old railbed. The area may have become more developed over the years, but it wasn't hard to imagine what residents might have faced as they attempted to help the Blue Comet's passengers after the derailment. The track runs pin-straight for what seems like miles, often on berms of that classically-sandy Pinelands soil. Portions of the track were obscured by overgrown weeds and trees that had sprouted between the rails. Other stretches seemed to be clear enough to accept a train on a moment's notice. Someone with a good imagination could stand there at night and will herself to hear the roar of the Blue Comet, its foghorn whistle alerting local residents of its approach.

As seems to be the case with so many legendary trains, bits and pieces of the Blue Comet are still out there for the finding, with four complete cars still in New Jersey. One car, Biela, stands near Route 22 West, having been converted to a dining room at the Clinton Station Diner. Another three are owned by the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, with plans for restoration and eventual return to the tracks.

Sopranos fans might also remember the train's fateful appearance on one of the series' final season installments. Model railroad aficionado (and Tony Soprano's brother in law) Bobby Baccalieri is admiring an antique Lionel Train version of the Blue Comet when he's dispatched by two hitmen from a rival crime family. Perhaps the show's producers didn't resolve the story of the famed Russian of the Pine Barrens episode, but ironically, someone in Tony's crew received a Pinelands-related payback of sorts.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No pita with this Gyro: Earle Eckel's hidden airport

State Route 57 in Warren County seems like some sort of supernatural entity. No matter how well I think I get to know it, no matter how many times Ivan and I travel its length, subsequent trips always seem to reveal something new.

Or, more accurately, something old.

Just the other day, we were driving the road west of downtown Washington when I looked to the left and saw this:


How could we have missed Eckel's Autogiro Port near the corner of Route 57 and Mill Pond Road? Look a little closer at this seemingly freshly-painted sign, and you can see a claim that this is the first exclusive autogiro airport in America. THAT I would have remembered; we're always happy to find new airfields.

As I discovered with a little research, we'd stumbled upon one of Washington's more accomplished citizens, Earle S. Eckel. Born in 1891, he showed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and ingenuity from a very young age. By the time he turned 20, he'd already fulfilled a contract to string telephone wires from Philipsburg to Washington, built a steam engine that both powered his mom's washing machine and heated the wash water, and operated his own mobile movie theater enterprise, among other ventures.

Detailing all of Eckel's enterprises will make for a good future Hidden New Jersey entry, but for now we'll stick with the autogiro port. Long story short, an interest in motorcycles eventually got Eckel into automobile sales and repairs in Washington, and then to gasoline and fuel oil. Petroleum was good to him: in partnership with his brother, he opened a chain of nine service stations, which they sold to the Tidewater Oil 七乐彩彩票app下载 in 1930. The windfall was substantial, and he used a portion of it to buy his own airplane. Predictably, that led to another business: Eckel Air Service, which offered flying lessons and charter flights from Easton Airport.

Eckel eventually left the airline business when it proved to be less than profitable, but the venture whetted his interest in aviation, particularly when it came to a craft that he could keep on his Mill Pond Road property. He didn't have enough room for an airplane, so he selected the recently-developed Pitcairn autogiro. Sporting both a nose-mounted propeller and a helicopter-type rotor above, it offered the joy of flying at slow speeds with the convenience of shorter takeoffs.

Reflecting his usual enthusiasm for new ventures, Eckel built a well-equipped airfield on his property in 1931, clearing a runway, installing floodlights and erecting a hangar. Two years later he bought a second craft, building another hangar to store it.

Eckel with Tidewater's autogiro Miss Vedol.
According to some accounts, Eckel held the nation's first transport autogiro pilot's license and flew the first airmail from Washington NJ to Newark during National Air Week in 1938. Locally, the autogiro made Eckel a few bucks in towing advertising banners and offering flying lessons, while he often traveled to out-of-state air shows to fly stunts competitively. He found his real success as a pilot for the Tidewater Oil 七乐彩彩票app下载, which hired him to fly two multi-state promotional tours for their Veedol motor oil. Estimating that he flew a total of more than 4000 passengers in the autogiro, he told the Schenectady Gazette that "safety is the keynote of the autogiro, these ships being able to land in small patches of level ground far too small for conventional type planes."

Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at the port even after selling the property in 1942, but as his interests turned to other pursuits, the field reverted to its former use as farm fields. Meanwhile, improvements in helicopter technology and the relative costliness of autogiros pretty much sealed their fate in the commercial market. Improved versions of the technology are still available today and are occasionally used for surveillance

As for Eckel, he died in 1978, having lived an interesting and varied life. Today, his former 七乐彩彩票app下载 and gyro port are the basis of the Pleasant Valley Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only a small wooden sign and the bright side of the one remaining hangar indicate anything remarkable about the placid little area where once an adventurous mind took flight.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Discovering more of the Morris Canal at Montville

Since we visited the Jim and Mary Lee Museum of the Morris Canal in Stewartsville back in April, I've been wondering where other, more hidden remnants of the canal's unique technology might be hiding. We may have found at least a little of it.

If you're not a frequent Hidden New Jersey reader or a canal enthusiast, the prospect of finding indications of century-old transportation infrastructure might not seem all that exciting, but bear with me, or take a quick read of the original story. We're talking about an important part of a system that helped drive northern New Jersey's economy in the late 19th century, left to rot until the curiosity of one man revealed it decades later.

In a nutshell, the canal's 23 inclined planes were ingenious machinery that used the power of the canal's own water to lift boats onto cable carts that drew them up or down sizeable hills where ordinary canal locks wouldn't have been practical or maybe even possible. This technology allowed planners to build the canal across some of the hilliest parts of the state, rising and falling more than 1600 feet over a 102 mile route. Coal and other products could then be shipped economically along the canal from Phillipsburg to Jersey City and the New York markets beyond.

Little of the Morris Canal is visible today, but for the occasional brown historic signs that mark its path through Warren, Morris and Passaic Counties. Once the canal went bust in 1924, the State of New Jersey filled in much of the waterway that wasn't appropriated for other purposes like the Newark City Subway. The flumes and towers built to power the plane mechanisms were demolished, their remains tossed into the shafts and tunnels (tailrace and penstock) that once directed water through turbines. Decades later, Lee excavated the plane near Stewartsville, eventually building a fascinating museum and allowing visitors an up-close look at the tunnels where the power was generated.

After learning about the plane technology from Jim Lee's descendents, we've taken note of a few of the locations where brown roadside markers note the former presence of the planes. One of the locations is now marked by a welcome sign to the Morris Canal Greenway in Montville. The site hasn't been excavated, nor is there a canal museum nearby. However, it's a heck of a lot more accessible to the average person, just a short drive from Route 287 on U.S. 202.

Ivan recently drove past and noticed that the sign had been put up at the start of a narrow road that juts off of 202 near a couple of curves in the meandering highway. In that part of the state, 202 winds quite a bit, and at that particular juncture, enough older buildings are clustered to lead you to believe that it had been a town center of sorts many years ago. We parked in a lot next to a small office building and walked up the street to view the plane.

Our lessons from the Stewartsville visit served us well: we quickly recognized the boundaries of the inclined plane, well marked with broad and thick paving stones at the edges. Though sturdy trees now grow where cradle carts once drew canal boats up the hill, we could easily envision how the whole thing worked. I was tempted to kick up some topsoil to see if any of the thick wire cables remained around the property, but there appeared to be no metal remains of the machinery left around. As I learned once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters, members of the Montville Historical Society, the town's Department of Public Works and the Canal Society of New Jersey had worked for two years to clear the area of trash and illegal dumping before the park was dedicated last year. Eagle Scout candidates followed up by constructing a welcome sign and mulching the path to allow visitors to enjoy the park.

For visitors less familiar with the canal and its workings, informative historic markers at the bottom and top of the plane, explain the technology and the impact on the Montville community. Photos on one of them show a built-up commercial area where the undulating terrain forced the canal to cross the path of 202 not once but twice in about a tenth of a mile. The plane we'd discovered, it turns out, was one of two that were built in town to accommodate the canal's hilly path there. This one alone elevated canal boats more than 70 feet in altitude in just a matter of yards.

The Montville Canal Park doesn't have obvious borders or parking, and several houses are nearby, so if you stop by to visit, be sure not to wander too far afield. That said, I couldn't help but wonder whether any of the neighbors have considered taking Jim Lee's lead. To my knowledge, nobody's tried to excavate the powerhouse shaft or the tailrace tunnel that once let water back out to the lower canal. What an adventure that would be!