It has been nearly 80 years since the Blue Comet last roared through New Jersey’s Pinelands.
The luxurious blue-and-cream-colored train was the jewel of the Central Railroad of New Jersey throughout the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1941. The cars, each with their own name, carried passengers from Jersey City to Atlantic City in style and at a ticket price that was affordable to people in a broad socioeconomic spectrum.
As glorious as the Blue Comet’s short life was, its death has been slow and undignified. Most of the train was scrapped, including its three original locomotives. One of the observation cars was converted into a dining area for the Clinton Station Diner in Hunterdon County — home of a 50-pound burger named “Mt. Olympus.” And two of the passenger cars sit decaying on the tracks at Winslow Junction in the Collings Lakes section of Buena Vista Township, Atlantic County.
But New Jersey filmmaker Robert A. Emmons Jr. recently spent a year and a half crafting a documentary titled “De Luxe: The Tale of the Blue Comet” that chronicles the Blue Comet’s life, in an attempt to preserve the memory of the iconic train.
And tonight, Emmons will present his film and the story behind it at the Tuckerton Junction Railroad Company’s next installment in its Historical Railroad Dinner Seminar series at Sea Oaks Country Club.
Emmons — a professor at Rutgers University-Camden with almost 40 feature-length and short films to his credit — started making documentary movies because had a desire to tell important stories.
“I wanted to tell the stories that dealt with the community that I lived in and was a part of, which was New Jersey,” said Emmons, 35, of Barrington, Camden County.
Two of Emmons’ most recent films include a short film on the true story of hundreds of guns confiscated from the mafia being dumped of the coast of Sandy Hook and a feature-length documentary on Emilio Carranza, the Mexican pilot who famously crashed in what is now the Wharton State Forest in 1928.
After investing more than three years and $16,000 on the film about Carranza, titled “Goodwill: The Flight of Emilio Carranza,” Emmons wanted to steer clear of historical pieces for a while. But it was while promoting that film that he learned the story of the Blue Comet.
“I thought it was interesting, but I was still like ‘It sounds great, but no way. History is too hard to do,’” Emmons admitted.
That was until he watched the penultimate episode of the popular HBO’s series “The Sopranos,” which was aptly titled “The Blue Comet” due to the significant role the train played. (Bobby Baccalieri was in a model train store purchasing a replica of the Blue Comet when he was gunned down).
“In the episode, Bobby and the shop owner were talking about what the Blue Comet represented … as an analogy of ‘then and now,’ both in terms of what the mafia had become and society in general,” he said. “That’s when I realized there were a lot of layers to this story that needed to be explored.”
The Blue Comet only had three regular stops — Lakewood, Lakehurst and Red Bank — which Emmons said enabled it to travel at a higher rate of speed and stay on schedule more than 97 percent of the time. But it also made semi-frequent stops in other southern New Jersey towns, including Egg Harbor City, Hammonton and the Chatsworth section of Woodland Township, Burlington County.
In fact, it crashed in Chatsworth in 1939 after a heavy rain washed out its tracks, injuring a majority of the about 50 passengers on board.
“One of the people in the film was there that day and actually stood in water to help pull people from the wreckage,” Emmons said. “It’s an amazing story.”
But Emmons said the most worthwhile aspect of telling the Blue Comet’s story for him was how it so perfectly represented America in the 1930s.
“America was enjoying many years of prosperity when the Blue Comet was being built. But the first year it was in operation was the first year of the Great Depression,” he said. “And there was also a shift away from passenger trains going on at that time with the development of the highway system and interest in automobiles. This was Central Railroad’s last-ditch effort for survival. But like many other railroad companies of that time, it failed.”
If the train had only lasted another year or so, Emmons said, it could have thrived as a carrier of soldiers on leave to Atlantic City during World War II.
“A little more time is all it needed,” he said. “Just a little more time.”
Emmons premiered “De Luxe: The Tale of the Blue Comet” — which cost about $11,000 to make — in October and has since sold more than 100 copies.
“I’m really the worst self-promoter in the world,” he joked. “I’ve shown the film at a bunch of great places, but I never called any of them — they heard about the film and called me.”
Tom and Lisa Jedic, who own Tuckerton Junction Railroad Co. on Main Street in Tuckerton, also found out about Emmons’ movie through the grapevine and figured it was a perfect subject matter for their monthly Historic Railroad Dinner Seminars.
“The Blue Comet was a train that was uniquely New Jersey, because it started and ended in New Jersey. You would board in Jersey City and in a few hours you’d be at the ‘Jewel of the Seashore’ — Atlantic City. And the tickets were so cheap, that anyone could ride on it,” said Tom Jedic, 49, of Norwood, Bergen County. “Even today, people are passionate about it. And not just in South Jersey — all over the state.”
Emmons’ film also features another aspect of the Blue Comet’s legacy — a holy grail, of sorts, for model train enthusiasts.
“Joshua Lionel Cowen, the founder of the Lionel Corporation, himself was a very big fan of the Blue Comet and rode on it when it first started running in 1929. He was so fond of it that he immediately ordered a model of it be built, which was unheard of at the time because trains were usually around for a while or had some history behind them before models were made of them,” said Jedic, adding the model’s tin plating and low quantity still make them a valuable collector’s item, even though they were not made to scale.
While the shop owner in “The Sopranos” episode charged Bobby Bacala $8,000 for his Blue Comet set, Emmons has seen sets valued at more than $11,000.
As time goes by and the price of these model train sets climb, the remaining pieces of the inspiration for these models get ever closer to being lost forever.
Emmons said there are groups — such as the Cape May Seashore Line — that have rescued some of the few remaining cars, but that rehabilitating them enough for them to be functional again is a pricey endeavor.
“To see the Blue Comet in this condition is sad, because of what it represented to so many people,” Emmons said while looking at one of the passenger cars parked at Winslow Junction, adding that there are plans to scrap the two rusted cars parked there.
“My goal was to save it … if not physically, then emotionally and intellectually. Hopefully, I did that ... or at least helped.”
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