DISAPPOINTMENT ON MY FIRST FANTRIP
By autumn of 1965, I was definitely a railfan. Since the age of 5 I was aware of trains, but in the spring of 1965, just as I turned 12, I decided to get serious. I started walking to the interlocking tower at Rutherford Junction ("BJ") after school, got timetables from the station agent at Rutherford, and bought Trains magazine at the stationary store up the block from the depot. At first, it was rather frustrating; I knew there was a lot more to the railroad world than the Erie Lackawanna in suburban New Jersey. Why, there were railroads clear to the Pacific Ocean! But it was a little tough for a twelve year old from a non-railroading family in East Rutherford to see anything railroad-wise beyond the Passaic River.
That autumn, a stack of flyers appeared in the Rutherford station waiting room, announcing a Railroad Enthusiast's special from Hoboken to Newburg, NY over some EL branch lines and also a part of the New York Central's West Shore Line. The train would even stop for passengers at Rutherford. It looked good to me, good enough to ask Dad and Mom if we could take a trip together by rail. A railfan excursion was probably not their idea of a pleasant family outing, but I would soon be a teenager and they wanted to start off the impossible years on an amicable basis. So, they agreed. I biked down to the station with cash in hand, and soon had the excursion ducats.
On a cool, sunny Sunday morning in late October, my mother, father, brother and I stood on the Rutherford station platform, looking east down the EL's four-track main. I was excited, expecting the EL to roll out their long-distance coaches and give us the royal treatment. I was sure that they would send an operator to BJ Tower, by then closed on weekends, so as to allow the special to run up the westbound platform track (track 1) and then cross over to the Bergen County Line. After reading David P. Morgan's stories about the great days on the PRR and B&O, how could I expect anything less than red-carpet service?
I was in for a dose of reality. The excursion train appeared on the freight track, with 2 E8s pulling a string of Stillwell commuter coaches, the same old coaches we saw every weekday on the Suffern locals. The only touch of class in the train was a heavyweight ex-Erie dining car and a snack bar coach. There was also a baggage car with wooden railings across its open doors, an "al fresco" viewing area popular on fan trips in the days before lawyers and insurance executives spoiled the fun. The train stopped with two coaches over the adjacent grade crossing, requiring boarders to hike to an open vestibule. The EL, to my youthful disappointment, did not station an operator at the Junction that day merely for the convenience of a few excursion patrons.
Still, we found seats and got rolling, making good time up through Ridgewood and Suffern. We passed an eastbound freight, and the EL seemed like a big-time outfit once more. Soon we arrived on the double track in Goshen, NY, where we would switch to the Pine Island Branch for a run to Montgomery, transferring there to the NYC's Walkill Valley Line for Kingston. But not right away. The branchline switch was trailing point, and the big E's had to run around the train. The next set of crossovers were in Middletown, about eight miles to the west. Once more, I was disappointed. What kind of operation is this? Why isn't there a connecting track, or at least a yard engine to help us with the move? This is more what I would expect from the Rock Island out in some Iowan prairie, not the EL.
The Pine Island line was mostly trees, but the brief glimpse of the MQ crossing with the Graham Freight Line was heartening. MQ had a tower, tall signals, a small yard, a section house, and overall seemed pretty brawny. But then, the train dived back into the woods. I don't remember seeing the depot at Montgomery where the rails became NYC property, but I do remember arriving at the West Shore line in Kingston.
Our train stopped for almost an hour before pulling into the yard there, awaiting a southbound NYC freight out of Selkirk. It finally drummed past with three black F-7s. We then went into the yard, which I recall being a sparse, barren place. No depot, no tower, no signal bridges, no roundhouse... but this merely confirmed what I had read about the "new" New York Central, the "Road to the Future", a road seemingly committed to a soulless Orwellian future. While in the yard, another southbound freight rolled by with three black, sparsely decorated U25Bs pulling look-alike Flexi-Van cars and a jade green caboose. These impressions only amplified my belief that the NYC was a powerful alien machine trying to crush the good old "Friendly Service Route" (only years later would I learn that the NYC was in just as deep a financial crisis as the EL was).
By now, I wasn't feeling very good; I had been running around in the cold while awaiting the first freight, and hadn't had much to eat other than a Coke and a candy bar. I just wanted the train to start for home, and get out of this strange place. The afternoon was getting late and the weather was getting cloudy. We started south on the single track along the grey Hudson River, and again I wasn't impressed. We made a photo stop somewhere north of Newburg, and my father asked me if I wanted to get out for it. I had a headache and just wanted to sit. After the train got going again, we heard that a railfan had slipped on a rock and got soaked in the river. Better him than me, I thought. My sense of humor was on hold.
Before long we were in Newburgh, switching over to the EL branch back to Greycourt. We were scheduled to stop on the branch under the Moodna Creek Viaduct, where the Graham Line passed over the Newburgh Branch, but our late start out of Kingston precluded it. As we passed under the bridge in the final moments of dusk, some riders in our coach pointed it out. My father saw it, but I didn't.
It was night when we reached Greycourt, junction with the Main Line. We stopped and sat for about 15 minutes. Instead of getting more upset about things, I was starting to feel better, and decided to get up and see what was happening. The baggage car was where the "diehard" railfans were, and there I found out that an EL road freight was switching at Greycourt and blocking our entrance. I asked an official looking character carrying a railroad lantern what this was about. Turned out that the train was an eastbound "ordinary" road job from Port Jervis to Croxton Yard, setting cars out for Monday local delivery by the branch line train and for the L&HR interchange. Well, it still seemed a bit odd to me, in my youthful naivete; I expected road trains to keep moving, and switch engines to do that sort of work (and stay out of the way of passenger trains, as they did in Rutherford!). But then again, it was interesting.
We finally got rolling east, and I stayed for a while with the true brothers in the baggage car (now on the rear of the train). I overheard some interesting conversations as we slipped down through Suffern and Ridgewood interlockings; I especially recall one fan comparing the amount of brakeshoe sparks from our train with what he recently observed while riding in the vestibule of the last car of train 5, the Lake Cities. Well, I thought, perhaps adventuring on the EL isn't so bad after all.
It was around 10PM when we arrived back in Rutherford, about 2 hours late. I got to see the EL beyond my hometown horizon, and it turned out not to be the first-class operation that I had imagined. Still, we saw some interesting things, and we also saw what a spartan, modern super-railroad looked like (the NYC West Shore). So, the EL was still loveable, if a bit rinky-dink in places. I would definitely be back.