A shiny metal history lesson
By Rusty Tagliareni
When you think of history, the old West, Manhattan before electricity, or what your hometown may have looked like ‘back when,’ there is one thing that runs constant through every scene: the railway. We as a nation were crafted by the rails, and through them flowed the lifeblood that allowed us to stretch from coast to coast, to found new cities and shape world history.
Plus, “the kids love them,” said Larry Gross, president of the United Railroad Historical Society of New Jersey, gesturing to the restored railcars and engines surrounding us. “They can run up to them and touch them... They understand the history that way.” He’s right, I thought, my own hand laying on the steel siding of the engine looming over me. Maybe it’s simply human instinct to reach out and touch something you wish to learn more about. Feeling the coolness of metal on my skin made the history of these cars much more real, gave it a presence.
The Railroad Society formed in 1987. “NJ Transit wanted a place for any and all historic cars to be housed, rather than reaching out to all these different groups,” said Gross. “One hub, one voice.” The group leases its large property in Boonton, NJ from the NJ Transit. The rails here access the active line so that their cars and engines can easily be moved to and from their hub. And a hub it is, not just for trail cars but also for the 13 different groups that call these grounds their headquarters (hence the word “united” in their title).
Gross walked me through a car that had just returned from an out-of-state tour. “This one will be used for Toys for Tots soon, a program that distributes toys to kids whose parents can’t afford Christmas gifts. “We have a freight car too which gets filled with toys.”
Further down the line in the yard we came upon what would be considered their flagship car, the Hickory Creek. The top-to-bottom restoration job is almost unimaginable seeing it in its currents state. “After this car left service, Ringling Brothers bought it up,” said Gross. “When Ringling Brothers was done with it the car was totally butchered.” An old saying comes to mind, “elbow grease is the best polish.” You can tell from your first step inside that the people responsible are proud of the work before you, of this car returning from ruin, and of what it’s come to represent.
The same could be said for the whole yard really: a field of historic railway cars and engines, some badly rusted and worn, all having outlived their intended use. Here they are not seen as obsolete. This is where they will be returned to life, so that they may share their stories with future generations.