The Conductor and the Puddlejumper
“We’ll give them a good ride,” the man in the black conductor’s suit would always say as he helped us up the big steps of the funny looking railcar. It was an annual ritual, catching the Puddlejumper at Spring Lake station, going to Trenton to visit Grandma. Dad would drive us to the station, buy the tickets from the agent, and cross us over to the southbound side. Then, entrusting our young souls to the Pennsylvania Railroad, he’d tell the conductor: “The boys are going to Trenton. Keep an eye on them?”
The conductor, who we came to recognize, was a white-haired, impressive man who did justice to his uniform and to his trust. He’d see that we found a seat and had our luggage safely stowed, would give us a wink when he walked by, and made sure we were handed off at Trenton to waiting relatives.
Pulling into the station without any engine in front, Pennsylvania Railroad doodlebug # 4666 (seen above, from Trains Magazine, September 1986) always presented an odd appearance. To add to the scene, it always pulled a second car — an empty passenger car, baggage car, or sometimes even a caboose — because of some obscure government regulation, we had heard. It had the strength of resolve, however, as it showed its detractors one night when it opened up the blocked New York and Long Branch line by pushing onto a siding a full Jersey Central train whose newfangled diesel had broken down!
Upon reaching Sea Girt on its morning run to Trenton, it would leave the New York and Long Branch tracks and turn west onto what we later learned was the Freehold and Jamesburg Agricultural railway, owned by the Pennsy. Passing through central Jersey’s fields and small towns, the branches swiping at the windows, we looked out on an America that is no more. The people sometimes looked back at us, especially when the car went down the middle of main street in Jamesburg at that seemingly loose car that appeared twice each day, Mondays to Fridays only, mind you, once in each direction. Quite a picture it was!
(Seen above in 1961 leaving Manasquan Station — Jack Raymus photo.)
Life inside the car was an unchanging ritual, yet never dull. A few regulars would get on or off at the small town stops and head for their usual seat. The engine would roar as it mustered strength to move forward. A friendly exchange between conductor and passenger as the ticket was punched, and then just the gentle rock of the car as it burbled along. As it got closer to Trenton, it seemed to shrink in size, and often had to wait before entering the main line for the bigger trains to pass by.
A bunch of high school girls always got on in the morning at Freehold, heading for a parochial school in Trenton. They were the reason the Red Bank to Trenton service still ran. Efforts by the Pennsy to replace the doodlebug with bus service were fought off for years. The girls would giggle, do homework, share a snack or a confidence with the conductor. Freehold was a stop where the Puddlejumper would wait — other than an occasional freight train there was no other traffic on the line — while the conductor or trainman slipped into the station to return with coffee or food for any interested passengers. At Christmas the car was decorated by the girls. It was family. This perhaps was what doodlebugs were all about.
We never knew the conductor’s name until one day the Asbury Park Press announced that that very evening he was making his last run before his retirement. Seeing the article just in time, Dad grabbed us up and we headed for the station, to be among the many nameless friends who shook his hand and wished him well. Somewhat embarrassed, as he had been at stops all along the line that night, the conductor consulted his watch and saw that the Puddlejumper was now running late. Shaking yet one more hand, he gave a friendly wave, and with two tugs on the cord rode out of our life, a picture of the dependability and civility that had marked the finest era of railroad passenger service.
According to the paper, he had spent his career on the Pennsy and by virtue of seniority had claimed this run. Because it left Red Bank at 6:28 AM, and did not return until 7:10 PM, with a long layover in Trenton (as seen at right in 1963), it called for additional pay. The man was worth it. On that little car he brought dignity to the meaning of the phrase “Standard Railroad of the World,” even in the Pennsy’s declining years. Later we found out his name was Howard Reynolds, and others who had ridden with him confirmed his friendly but dignified character.
Only a few years later, on May 29, 1962, the Puddlejumper itself retired from that run, ending regular use of the branch line that had once carried the famous and wealthy from Philadelphia to the north Jersey shore. Its last trip was not unlike the conductor’s. Leaving Trenton amid whistle salutes from the bigger trains it had shared the busy tracks with, the diminutive vehicle moved for the last time past Monmouth Junction and through the small towns, beginning to run late as people came out to greet it at every stop.
It turned out to be one of life’s little dramas — a band appeared at one station. A wreath was placed on the front of the car. A crossing guard, after protecting the crossing for the last time, threw aside his sign to climb aboard for the last ride, joining other dignitaries and a growing crowd of the everyday people the car had served so well. Along the way, policemen saluted. People waved and some reportedly bowed their heads.
Arriving only twelve minutes late at Red Bank, riders now vied to be the last one off the now full car. Shortly, a relief crew appeared. As one observer remembered, amid the flashing of bulbs and the clicking of shutters, Pennsylvania Railroad No. 4666 once again responded to the highball and left Red Bank to disappear into the evening haze. A year later, it was retired from service on the Pennsy, the last of its kind in regular use.
Now, learning that it had survived these nearly thirty years, and seeing its reality emerge from the haze of memory, one could only wonder what memories the old car itself held. Poised with foot on that high step to climb aboard once again, I heard the sound come forth: “Keep an eye on the boys….”
“We’ll give them a good ride!”
Note: A version of this article appeared in Railpace Magazine in September 1991; the author wrote about several surviving doodlebugs in the July 1991 issue of Milepost, the journal of the Friends of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.
Doodlebugs, as they were called, combined the engine and passenger and baggage accommodations in one rail car, and were typically used on lines where passenger service had dropped off, as they were more economical to operate and required a smaller crew. Some were called by nicknames such as the Galloping Goose, or in this case, “the Puddlejumper.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad Car. No. 4666, built by the Brill Company in Philadelphia in 1930, had enjoyed several additional decades after its life on the Pennsy, first in storage, then operating in tourist service on the New Hope and Ivyland RR in New Hope, PA, followed by service on the Black River and Western RR in Ringoes, NJ. During a period of private ownership while stored at Ringoes where we came upon it, a drawn-out process of extensive repairs seemed to have stalled. Sadly worn from its years, its spirit seemed unbowed in the quiet, dignified way that reflected its long period of service.
In 2016, it was purchased by and moved to the Allentown and Auburn Railroad in Pennsylvania, where after some repairs, it is now operating. Pictures above from March 2012 at Ringoes, when the author and the Puddlejumper were reunited.