Choo! Choo! Festival will focus on social history of state railroad

The modern American railroading industry – and pretty much everything associated with it – owes its existence to some of Hudson County’s finest citizens.

Most railroad enthusiasts know the steam-powered locomotive was born at Hoboken’s Castle Point when Col. John Stevens, of the prominent Revolutionary War-era and 19th century Stevens family, tested his new invention on a circular track he built with his sons on his property. Founders of Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology, the Stevens men then went on to make even more railroading innovations, paving the way – or, rather, laying down the track – for the emergence of the commuter railways that form such an integral part of life in the New York metropolitan area.

And while the prominent Stevenses and other local historical figures still figure prominently in the birth of the American railroad, it was the everyday railroad workers who ensured its success and made it the single most significant factor in the growth of our nation as an industrial powerhouse.

The Second Annual Jersey Central Railroad Heritage Festival, taking place Sunday at Liberty State Park and hosted by popular News12 New Jersey cable television anchor Mizar Turdiu, will focus on those New Jersey residents who worked with the Central Railroad of New Jersey [CRRNJ] and made it the remarkable economic and cultural institution it was in the 118 years of its existence.

Through demonstrations focusing on both the social and technical aspects of railroading, visitors can learn what life was like for the company’s many passengers and telegraph or signal operators.

“Because they are the heart and soul of the railroads, they want to impart to the public what it was like when they were there,” said festival publicist Michele Dupey. “Their work was so integral to the lives of people because it took them to their jobs. They’re so proud of the fact that the trains ran safely and that they were on time. They have a joy of their lives in railroading because they’re really very sweet-tempered people, generally speaking, and they seem to have a child’s joy, like when kids get toy trains from around the Christmas tree, except they drive the big ones. They really are a joy to be around.”

Train callers and hobos

Leading the various demos at the festival will be veteran employees of CRRNJ who are now in their 70s and 80s, and members of the CRRNJ Veteran Employees’ Association [VEA].

Past VEA president Bob Hoeft, a former trainman for CRRNJ Train 3205 between Red Bank and Jersey City, will be on hand to annotate an instructional display entitled “Interlocking and Automatic Block Signals.” Bill Burke will man the “Use of Telegraph Instruments and Train Order Delivery” exhibit, and Charlie Batcha will outline “Dispatchers’ Duties” while Eddie Isenmann demonstrates “Train Calling” for festival-goers.

Other veterans who will be present, identified by special buttons and name tags, will roam throughout the festival and answer questions. They will include Connie Kreisel, steam locomotive engineer, and Sam Myers, roadman and current VEA president.

The VEA will use the festival finale as an opportunity to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the organization.

Music, hobos

Performing at the ceremony will be soloist Colette Jackson-Belle, a graduate of Jersey City’s Saint Dominic Academy and a current student at Princeton’s Westminster Choir College. New Jersey City University’s Symphony of Winds and Percussion, under the direction of Nicholas Cerrato, will accompany the soloist.

Author and Stevens Institute of Technology history professor Dr. Geoffrey W. Clark will be at the festival’s Waiting Room Stage at 2:30 p.m. dressed as Col. John Stevens to give attendants a real-time image of the father of modern American railroading.

Pennsylvania-based historical re-enactor Wayne Dobson will also be on hand to present his hobo encampment display, regularly featured at Scranton, Penn.’s “Steamtown National Historic Site.” Dobson, who has worked as a re-enactor for several years, focuses on dispelling myths about the transient workers known as “hobos” who frequented freight cars in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“At the end of the Civil War, many veterans had no homes to return to and many took to wandering the countryside looking for possible work,” Dobson said in a release. “Many of these early wanderers sought work as migrant farm workers. They carried work implements, such as hoes, along with them. It is believed the word ‘hobos’ is derived from the term ‘hoe boys.’ ”

Dobson goes on to say that history has inaccurately recorded these “hobos” as careless caricatures of the homeless, sometimes even ascribing the patently malicious quality of laziness to their image. This led to hobos, actually a group of hard-working people, being misclassified with vagrants like “bums” and “tramps.”

“‘Hobo,’ ‘bum’ and ‘tramp’ are three words that seem to go together but don’t,” Dobson added. “It may seem that since hobos do not have permanent addresses, they would fall under the definition of a homeless person. They don’t! Hobos define themselves as guys who are not homeless but rather as guys who choose to leave home and not live in one place. Hobos can be best described as migratory workers who wander, using the railroad as their primary means of transportation. Tramps, on the other hand, are also wanderers. They did not often work and would beg for handouts. They followed a different lifestyle than the hobo. Bums were the lowest class. They were too lazy to roam and would never work.”

Kid stuff

Other reasons to visit the festival include a Kids’ Zone, which organizers say offers fun to kids of all ages. The Kids’ Zone will feature the Brandywine Northern Railroad ride, which can accommodate both children and adults.

Peter Benton’s hand-crafted model railroad replicas of CRRNJ camelback engines are especially made for play by little children. Sand-art and musical performances by Grammy-nominated musician Ray Owen and New Jersey-based “Across the Street” will also be available.

Charles Markey, a librarian with the Jersey City Free Public Library, will give a presentation entitled “The President’s Train is Coming to Jersey City.” Also accessible to festival-goers is Liberty State Park’s Blue Comet Auditorium, which will film excerpts compiled by Mitchell Dakelman on the strong relationship between New York area rail lines and ferries.

For more information, contact the park’s offices at (201) 915-3558.


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