On Saturday, Feb. 22, history buffs and railfans from around New Jersey gathered in a repurposed and still-beautiful former railroad terminal to celebrate a train that, during its short life, was an iconic and luxurious one that the Garden State could call its own. That train was the Blue Comet on the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ). It was New Jersey’s all-time premier train, which set the standard for décor and service at reasonable prices during an era when not many people could afford even a coach ticket. Few of the people who actually rode that train are alive today, and probably fewer still have vivid memories of the trips they took, but the fast and luxurious train that whisked riders through the countryside and the Pine Barrens of South Jersey to Atlantic City lives on in the DNA of New Jerseyans who remain tired of living in the shadows of New York and Pennsylvania, and who cling to memories of experiences of the past that their state could claim as its own.
The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) had its four-track main line to Pittsburgh, home of its namesake train, the Broadway Limited and the state’s namesake train, the Pennsylvania Limited. New York had the Empire State Express and the 20th Century Limited on the New York Central. New Jersey is small in size but, for 12½ years through the depths of the Great Depression, it had a train that provided an experience available nowhere else.
Blue Comet Day was first celebrated last year, to commemorate the 90th Anniversary of the train’s first run, which took place on Feb. 21, 1929. The venue was the historic CNJ Jersey City Terminal, also known as Communipaw Terminal, on the Hudson River waterfront in Jersey City. Ferries took passengers from Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan to the terminal, which was built in 1889 and expanded in 1914, itself replacing the original head house from 1864. It has been almost 53 years since the last train left that station, a commuter train that ended the service day on April 30, 1967. After that, CNJ trains were diverted onto the Lehigh Valley Railroad at Aldene and then onto the PRR (now Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor) at Hunter Interlocking, about one mile south of Newark Penn Station. The New Jersey Department of Transportation implemented the change, known as the Aldene Plan. Trains on the line, now known as the Raritan Valley Line and operated by NJ Transit, still use that route.
The old CNJ Communipaw Terminal had fallen into disrepair, but the building and train shed have been restored as part of Liberty State Park. Today, the terminal building serves as a quasi-museum and hosts special events, but the tracks are gone, and it takes almost 30 minutes to walk there from the Liberty State Park stop on NJT’s Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line, the nearest rail access.
Until the 1950s, there were five waterfront railroad terminals in New Jersey, served by ferries from Manhattan. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s terminal at Exchange Place in Jersey City, the Erie Terminal at Pavonia, also in Jersey City, and the West Shore Terminal in Weehawken all ended their operations during that decade. Only the former Delaware, Lackawanna & Western (DL&W) Terminal in Hoboken (Erie-Lackawanna following the 1960 Erie-DL&W merger) is still in use, and today serves NJT regional/commuter lines and Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, as well as PATH trains and ferries to Manhattan and several local bus routes.
Atlantic City was the place to visit in the 1920s. It was known as the “World’s Playground” (think of Boardwalk Empire), and the CNJ transported people there on its Atlantic City Express and Playground Special trains. The railroad lost money on those trains, except during the summer, because of a lease with the Pullman Company for parlor cars that required the railroad to guarantee revenue to Pullman.
In 1928, CNJ President Roy B. White proposed an alternative: a luxurious coach train that would avoid the expensive Pullman lease. From the new Baldwin-built G3s Pacific-type (4-6-2) steam locomotive, three of which (831, 832 and 833) were built, to the open-platform observation car, the entire train would sport a paint scheme that evoked the Jersey Shore: Ultramarine and Packard Blue to represent the sea and sky, and cream at window level to represent the sand. Everything else associated with the train would be blue, from the upholstery on the seats to the interior appointments to the napkins in the dining car to the tickets themselves. The locomotives’ marker lights, headlights, handrails, coupler lifting rods, cylinder head covers and back valve chambers were nickel-plated. Side rods were polished. The Blue Comet name was painted in gold all-caps lettering on a blue name board mounted to the front of the smokebox, just below the Elesco feedwater heater.
Each Blue Comet trainset consisted of a baggage car, combine-smoker, coaches and an observation car. The CNJ designed a logo for the train: a comet with its tail, and all cars were named after comets (or, more accurately, after the astronomers who discovered them):
- Diner: Giacobini 81.
- Combines: Halley 300, Encke 302.
- Baggage cars: Olbers 391, Barnard 392.
- Coaches: Tuttle 1170, Holmes 1171, Westphal 1172, D’Arrest 1173, Faye 1174, Spitaler 1175, Winnecke 1176, Brorsen 1177.
- Observation cars: DeVico 1178, Biela 1179, Tempel 1169.
The observation car featured an open platform at the rear and wicker chairs inside, running the length of the car. It was not an “extra fare” car; all passengers were allowed to use it. The dining car served lunches and dinners for $1.25 to $1.50, with such selections as broiled fish, a lamb chop or a small steak. The train’s signature dessert was apple pie with cheddar cheese.
The Blue Comet was also meant to compete with the PRR’s Atlantic City Limited, New York Limited and Nellie Bly for Atlantic City passengers. The PRR charged extra fees for parlor cars on its trains.
Joshua Lionel Cowen was so impressed with the train’s design that he had his Lionel company manufacture and sell a model of it, in 1930, as its top-of-the-line collectible electric train set. The entire consist sold for about $70.00, roughly a month’s pay for the average worker in the 1930s. Cowen was also a frequent passenger. Today the Lionel Blue Comet set is as legendary as a model train as the actual Blue Comet is as a historic train from the past. Over the years, many other models were produced. MTH produced several versions in O scale. One is a faithful replica of the 1930s Lionel model. Another, under the Rail King line, is highly prototypical. Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono owns one.
The Blue Comet, billed by the CNJ as “The Seashore’s Finest Train,” ran on a fast schedule: Liberty Street dock in Lower Manhattan by ferry to Communipaw Terminal, and on to Atlantic City, in three hours flat. It left Jersey City at 10:13 a.m., connecting with the 10:00 a.m. New York ferry, and arrived at 1:00 p.m. It stopped only at Elizabethport, Red Bank (on the New York & Long Branch, which the CNJ and PRR shared, and today’s NJT North Jersey Coast Line), Eatontown, Farmingdale, Lakewood, Lakehurst and Hammonton on the way to Atlantic City. The return trip left Atlantic City at 3:35 p.m. (4:30 p.m. on Sundays). At first, there were two daily round trips; the other leaving Atlantic City at 8:15 a.m. and returning from New York on a ferry at 2:30 p.m. and from Jersey City at 2:43 p.m., but that trip was eliminated in 1933.
Historian Anthony Puzzilla compiled a history of the train: New Jersey Central’s Blue Comet (Arcadia Publishing, 2017; part of the Images of Rail series). At the Jersey City event, Puzzilla described how the train lost its distinctiveness as the 1930s wore on. The special cars were scattered to other trains, and the specially ordered locomotives were painted black. Late in its run, CNJ-standard 4-4-2 “camelback” locomotives, including 592, which is preserved at the B&O Museum in Baltimore, pulled the train.
The Blue Comet has been the subject of several other books. Retired NJT employee and New Jersey railroad historian Tom Gallo and fellow historian Joel Rosenbaum published, in 1985, The Seashore’s Finest Train, the first definitive history of the train. And it was even featured in a popular HBO television series. A sixth-season episode of HBO’s The Sopranos is titled “The Blue Comet.” In the episode, toy train buff and mobster Bobby Baccalieri (played by Steven R. Schirripa) is gunned down in a hobby shop by rival mobsters as he bargains for an antique Lionel Blue Comet set.
Looking back at its history, it appears that the magnificent train to the Playground at the Shore never really had a chance. Only eight months after its life began, the stock market crashed. That ushered in the Great Depression, which placed even a coach ticket beyond the means of many New Jerseyans. The Reading Railroad effectively absorbed the CNJ in 1933. The same year, the PRR and the Reading merged their lines to Atlantic City and Shore points further south to Cape May, to form PRSL, the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. The PRR was running the Nellie Bly and other trains to Atlantic City and encouraged potential riders to use their trains, while discouraging them from taking the Blue Comet. The PRR also served New York City, Newark and Elizabeth directly by rail, while the CNJ route required a connecting ferry or a change of trains, a factor that added to the Blue Comet’s woes. From a total of 65,102 during its first year of operation, the train’s ridership plummeted to 17,351 in 1933 and to only 13,668 in 1939. It barely crept above 14,000 in 1940. Because the train never left the State of New Jersey, it was the state Public Utilities Commission that allowed the railroad to discontinue it.
New Jersey’s most famous train made its last run on Sept. 27, 1941, pulled for the last time by 831, and offering a specially printed souvenir ticket to all riders.
The CNJ never went to Atlantic City again, although there were passenger trains on the New Jersey Southern Division to Lakehurst (and on a branch line to Barnegat) as recently as 1954. The PRR’s Nellie Bly from New York continued until 1961, running through Trenton and Burlington. Commuter trains from Philadelphia, and later from Lindenwold (connecting with the PATCO High Speed Line from Philadelphia) continued until 1983. The Atlantic City Rail Line came back in 1989, with Amtrak running trains between that city and other places on the NEC until 1995. NJT restored local service in 1990, and runs a skeletal, but full-service, schedule on the line today.
From 2009 until 2012, there was a revival of rail service between New York and Atlantic City called the Atlantic City Express Service (ACES). It was sponsored by three Atlantic City casinos (Borgata, Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah’s Entertainment), and operated by NJT, while Amtrak handled the ticketing. The experiment did not succeed, and the only way to travel between New York and Atlantic City by rail today requires a change of trains at Philadelphia 30th Street Station.
Two segments of the original Blue Comet route still host passenger trains. The portion between Perth Amboy and Red Bank is part of NJ Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line, and NJT’s Atlantic City Rail Line uses the segment between that city and Winslow Junction, just west of Hammonton. A few cars from the original Blue Comet consists have been preserved, as well. Some coaches have run on tourist excursions operated by the Whippany Railroad Museum and the Black River & Western Railroad in New Jersey, and the Santa Fe Southern Railway in New Mexico.
The observation cars fared better. The DeVico, No. 1178, ran in revenue service to Phillipsburg until the early 1980s; it was the last open-platform observation car in the country to run in scheduled service. NJT later made it into an inspection car, naming it NJT-1. It is now part of the URHS (United Railway Historical Society) of New Jersey collection of vintage rail equipment. Long-time Railway Age publisher, the late Robert G. Lewis, used to sponsor an annual inspection train on the NJT Port Jervis Line from Hoboken for industry colleagues; NJT-1 would be attached to the rear of a regular evening commuter train and return the next morning.
The Biela, No. 1179, has been outfitted with dining tables as part of a restaurant in Clinton, New Jersey. Motorists on Route 78 can catch a glimpse of it as they pass by.
The Jersey City event was billed as a celebration of the famous train, but the forum held by the CNJ Veteran Employees Association concentrated more on events within living memory of the seniors who were in attendance. Tom Gallo, that organization’s Chair, who began his 40-year career with the CNJ, said, “The Blue Comet has kept its allure” and analogized it to stars of the past like Babe Ruth who have passed into legend, even though people today do not remember them personally.
The CNJ was known as “The Big Little Railroad,” and its former employees remember it fondly. Retiree William F. Strassner recounted that “the railroad did everything it could to keep the trains running” and especially praised them for constructing home-made cab cars from their 1920s-vintage fleet of conventional coaches, which provided the first push-pull operation in the Northeast. Others, like lawyer Ken Brown, remembered riding the last train from Jersey City in 1967, as the Aldene Plan was implemented. “The train was packed,” he told Railway Age, adding that the crew was not prepared for such a large crowd on a midnight train.
The event was pleasant and nostalgic, but the question remains of why the Blue Comet remains a legend in the history of railroading generally, and the Garden State in particular. Filmmaker Robert A. Emmons, Jr. attempted to answer that question in his 96-minute documentary: DeLuxe: The Tale of the Blue Comet, produced in 2009 and screened at the event. Emmons mentioned “a radical concept of democracy”: that all riders on a train could enjoy such a luxurious trip for a coach fare.
Emmons’ argument makes sense. There are probably other factors, too. New Jersey continues to live in the giant shadows cast by New York City and Philadelphia. The Blue Comet was New Jersey’s train, and it never left the state. Through the ensuing years, Atlantic City also fell on hard times, and has yet to recover its former glory. The great hope was that casino gambling would bring the city back, but the casinos themselves have not done well. Five, including two owned by Donald Trump, went out of business during the past few years. The casino situation has stabilized, but now the great hope is sports betting. That might put more dollars into the casinos’ coffers, but is unlikely to bring the hoped-for resurgence of the former “World’s Playground” or the return of a train anything like the Blue Comet.
Many legends died young. They include sports figures like Kobe Bryant, and musicians ranging from Bix Beiderbecke to Charlie Parker to Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The Blue Comet died at a young age, too. It lasted for only 12½ short years, mostly during some of the hardest times the nation ever experienced. Those hard times began less than one year after the train was born. Ironically, it died only ten weeks before the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, propelling the United States into World War II and ushering in the gasoline rationing that would give many trains and rail transit lines reprieves of several years’ duration. Would this country’s entry into the war have secured such a reprieve for the Blue Comet if it were still running at that time? We can never know, and that is also the stuff of legend. It was the best train offered by a railroad that fought valiantly to serve its riders and make its mark on railroad history. While it succeeded in making its mark, the train never seemed to get the break it needed to last long enough to serve more generations of riders.
Perhaps the same can be said of the magnificent former terminal in Jersey City that has been turned into a quasi-museum. Inside, it still looks much like it did in 1914. Outside, it sits isolated, with no more tracks or ferry docks; a half-hour walk from the nearest rail transit. It retains its Richardsonian Romanesque elegance, and still sports the largest train shed ever designed by A. Lincoln Bush, with twelve platforms supporting 20 tracks. Many of those locations are still heralded by roll signs for the trains of the past, still displayed in front of their original Hutchinson cabinets. They promise a journey to St. Louis on the B&O’s National Limited, a trip to Philadelphia on the Reading’s Crusader with a dining car, a home-bound trip for a commuter to places in South and West Jersey far beyond today’s Raritan Valley and North Jersey Coast Lines, and even an overnight trip to Williamsport, Pa., in a sleeping car on the Williamsporter. Today, those signs stand as lonely sentinels awaiting the call to return to duty, a call that will never come.
One of those destination signs, a reproduction (above), announces the departure of the Comet for Atlantic City at 10:13 a.m., and with a notice that “A dining car is attached to this train.” Nobody expects the Communipaw Terminal to host trains again, nor do they expect the Blue Comet to run again, but New Jersey once had a great and luxurious train that was available to anyone who could afford a coach fare. Today, a trip on Amtrak that takes as long as 30 hours does not even offer a freshly-cooked meal to sleeping car passengers. Maybe it is because times have changed so much for the worse on our passenger trains that the trains of the past like the Blue Comet will be remembered and honored for a long time to come.
David Peter Alan is Chair of the Lackawanna Coalition, an independent non-profit organization that advocates for better service on the Morris & Essex (M&E) and Montclair-Boonton rail lines operated by New Jersey Transit, and on connecting transportation. In New Jersey, Alan is a long-time member and/or board member of the NJ Transit Senior Citizens and Disabled Residents Transportation Advisory Committee and Essex County Transportation Advisory Board. Nationally, he belongs to the Rail Users’ Network (RUN). Admitted to the New Jersey and New York Bars in 1981, he is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar and a Registered Patent Attorney specializing in intellectual property and business law. Alan holds a B.S. in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1970); M.S. in Management Science (M.B.A.) from M.I.T. Sloan School of Management (1971); M.Phil. from Columbia University (1976); and a J.D. from Rutgers Law School (1981).