Once upon a time there was a character named Homer Bedloe who appeared in a couple different sitcoms in the 1960s, primarily Petticoat Junction.
Bedloe was the uncompromising vice president of the CF&W railroad that ran through Hooterville. Incidentally, Homer Bedloe was played by actor Charles Lane, whose real life stretched like a long train — he lived to the ripe old age of 102, until his death in 2007. Our railroads sometimes remind me of Homer Bedloe — uncompromising, stubbornly sitting without movement on the tracks.
The freight train moving rapidly at a good pace allows one to be full of optimism, “Aaah, this train will pass soon, and I’ll be on my way,” then suddenly it decelerates and continues to slow down to a stop; if you didn’t know better, you would think the engineer of the train was teasing us.
Former Trenton Police Officer Don McCall didn’t like writing traffic tickets, with one exception; he loved giving the railroad citations. Don would say, “Those trains just sitting there not moving make me so angry.”
However, Don was resigned to the fact writing tickets against the railroad had little impact with the powers that be, and those at the railroad accounting department just let them pile up on their desk and they just paid them like no big deal. Years later the courts ruled that trains had the right of way and the rest of the world must wait or go around, and thus with this ruling hundreds of thousands of dollars paid by the railroads is virtually zero today. It was nice revenue for the cities in our district.
Don’t misunderstand me — we couldn’t have many of our conveniences if it weren’t for railroads; we depend on them transporting everything from automobiles to the smallest necessities. The thing that’s on everybody’s mind watching the graffiti-laden box cars pass is when the train is going to end as they crane their necks, looking in desperation for the last car. Prior to the 1980s we panned the moving train in search of the caboose, a uniquely shaped final car. Today the train ends without ceremony with a red lamp signaling the end of the train.
Whenever a train is moving at a snail’s pace or at a dead stop, the driver must decide, like the Clash’s song, “Should I stay or should I go?” To avoid this situation and take an alternate route is uncertain; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. To drive a mile or two out of your way only to see that the train miraculously moved along and you got burnt or when you go around and that train hasn’t budged from its original position, you feel justified with your decision.
The mother of all train crossings is at Allen and Van Horn roads, where it is not uncommon for motorists to wait 45 minutes. Nicknamed “the Train of Doom,” just mentioning that train will cause people to roll their eyes and shake their heads in disapproval.
The past years have seen much activism concerning the wait on Allen and Van Horn — thousands of petition signatures, elected officials presenting legislation, but still we wait in our cars. My adopted saying is: you can’t fight “Railroad Hall.”
The Train of Doom tracks extend east of Allen past Fort Street; often both Allen’s and Fort Street’s crossing are occupied by trains at the same time. The tracks at Fort Street are a public safety problem, with police and fire and other emergency vehicles forced to take different routes, thus the need for two fire stations in a city divided by railroad tracks.
There have been lengthy debates of a possible overpass at the Fort street crossing near Van Horn, but that’s been quiet lately. It would be my hope that that sizable endeavor will be realized someday.
Nevertheless we will continue to use strategy daily with what route we will take to get to our destinations; being caught by a train will make us late to a doctor appointment, or work, or if the train’s long enough — our own wedding. There was a time in Trenton when we had more options to avoid a slow moving or a stopped train, but three crossings were closed in the past decade. I miss all three dearly.
When you were stuck at Vreeland or Van Horn roads and were familiar with the area you could go to Dix-Toledo Road and take your chances of escape. Likewise if you were detained at Harrison, and the train was stopped or traveling north you could drive south three blocks to Elm Street and bounce over those tracks to freedom.
The third crossing was not well known by most Trentonites — Buffalo street, just south of Sibley, surrounded by tall grass and high weeds, a modern wilderness. The Buffalo street crossing had no gate or operating signals — this is precisely why railroads close crossings, as a cost cutting measure, they don’t have to pay for the maintenance or be responsible for the public safety.
In the end I like to look at the bright side of trains — you turn off your bedroom light, lay your head on your pillow, and close your eyes, and if you are within hearing distance of the tracks, you can relax to the rolling melodic tones of the train as it rumbles down the rails. You will fall asleep and your day will be complete.
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he frequently shares recollections about some of the interesting people and businesses in Trenton’s past.