Ruins of South Jersey is a regular column featuring places that are now remnants of their former selves along with their stories, both historical and personal. If you know of a place that you would like to see featured here, and you have a good yarn to tell about it, email your idea to Dean P. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Dean P. Johnson
MAYS LANDING, N.J. – We crossed it on foot mostly, walking our bikes when we had them with us, but sometimes we’d ride our them across. This was when the railroad ties and rails were still in place. The bikes bumped and jostled as we rode and looked down at the water below, adding a sense of danger and adventure to a kid’s Saturday morning.
The trestle, which crossed the Great Egg Harbor River in Mays Landing just west of the routes 40 and 50 bridge, was about a two block walk from the house in which I grew up. Down the street, before the firehouse and homes were built, there was a railroad that led down, over the trestle, toward Atlantic City and up from Mays Landing through Richland and Buena, through Gloucester County, ending in Camden. The line was called the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad, a line that had seen its last run in the mid-twentieth century.
To us kids, in the early to mid-1970s, the trestle was the route we took from our uptown neighborhood to downtown Mays Landing. It was the route we took when we decided to skip the bus ride and walk to school, often lingering a little too long and getting reprimanded for being late. The trestle was a meeting place where friends from one side of town met friends from the other side to make monumental decisions such as to which corner store to go to for candy cigarettes and jaw breakers before heading off in any direction for the day’s exploits.
Back then we knew little, and couldn’t care any less, of the nefarious history of that railroad bridge. According to the Hamilton Township Historical Society’s website, two trains chartered by St. Anne’s Literary Society and other Philadelphia churches set off on August 11,1880 for a late summer’s day at the beach. The trains followed on another traveling only minutes apart. On the return trip home, the lead train, just as the engine crossed the trestle, tried to pull over onto a siding track to let another train pass. Before it could get all its cars off the main track, the second train collided with the back of the first causing the second train’s boiler to explode. A mass of people leaped into the river below to escape the wreck while others were scaled with the boiling hot water for the steam engine. There were many injuries and fatalities. News of the train wreck spread throughout the country; however, local New Jersey papers quashed the story because,it is speculated, that any bad press could affect ridership.
To local historians and train enthusiasts, the story of that train wreck on the trestle is a mystery still being unraveled.
To us kids, the trestle was just a place to go and a means to get there.
To our parents, however, the trestle was a place to be wary of, and they warned us often to “Stay off that trestle!” because we might fall between the railroad ties. Seedy people, our parents also told us, often used the trestle and surrounding woods as a place to sip out of bottles in plain brown paper bags. Undeterred, we kids always kept an eye out for them, often, much to the chagrin of our parents (had they ever found out), stopping to say hello.
At some point during the mid to late 70s, the steel rails disappeared as did the railroad ties leaving two parallel and quite narrow walkways across, but we were getting older, spending more time with school activities, car rides from older brothers and sisters, and less time playing and walking through the woods.
According to reports, Hurricane Sandy took out most of what was left of the surface of the trestle leaving what is there today, the broken pillions of history and the stumps of mystery, of memory, and of childhood.