It’s been several years since Cape May Seashore Lines offered train rides in Cape May, but on Saturday Joanne Dignazio took her granddaughters on the next best thing.
They’re called “speeders.” They’re the vehicles railroad workers used to use to access the track for maintenance.
“It looked like fun. We were looking for something to do, and we heard about it and said, ‘Okay, we’ll try it,’” said Dignazio, of Havertown, Pa.
Her granddaughters, Juliet Schmidt, 9, and Jessica Schmidt, 7, liked the idea, so on Saturday afternoon the three of them took a trip down the track from the Cape May Transportation Center on Lafayette Street to the Cape May Canal and back.
As Dave Gairo operated the controls during the tour, Paul Mulligan gave a railroad history lesson, stopping to point out osprey nests and scenic views.
“We have 27 miles of track, and only two or three locations have genuine scenery. The first mile just outside of Cape May is one of them. It’s really a view of the island most don’t get to see,” Mulligan said.
That mile includes the Cape Island Creek crossing, with a broad vista of the salt marsh that represents what Cape May used to look like pre-development.
The speeders go as fast as 40 miles per hour, but Gairo keeps the speed at about 10 miles per hour so passengers can enjoy the scenery and Mulligan has time to recount the city’s train history, which began in 1863 with steam locomotives. The marshes sport two separate sets of track, one dating to the Reading Railroad and the other to the Pennsylvania Railroad, two companies that merged in 1933.
“The Pennsylvania Railroad reached Cape May in 1863 and the Reading in 1895. They competed fiercely for the passenger trade into Cape May to the 1930s. It was common for them to race each other to see who could get passengers to their respective terminals first,” Mulligan said.
Mulligan also pointed out several spurs in the marshes, including one to take vacationing anglers to Schellenger’s Landing for a day of fishing.
“That was before Styrofoam coolers and ice. It must have been one fun ride home,” Mulligan joked.
The track served to haul fish from the Lobster House docks to market and was active until 1950, Mulligan said. Other spurs still evident by high ground and trees in the marshes took coal to the city’s gasification plant and to an Atlantic Electric Co. facility used to generate electricity. Mulligan also pointed out the switch that sent trains to a sand plant on the Delaware Bay in the 1920s and later, circa World War II, to the Harbison-Walker Magnesite Plant at Sunset Beach that helped produce the firebrick used to line the steel furnaces that helped win the war.
The speeders also run across a large Y in the marshes. Any high ground leads to trees that stand out in the low-lying cord grasses.
“This was a Reading Railroad Y used to turn steam locomotives around,” Mulligan said.
Another spot in the trees, Mulligan said, was a blacksmith shop in the marshes that catered to the steam engines.
“Steam locomotives were like living things. All the parts were unique,” Mulligan said.
Cape May Seashore Lines has been unable to run real trains this summer after metal thieves tore apart the track in Dennisville.
“They stole 4,400 railroad tie plates and 8,800 spikes,” Mulligan said.
The speeders have been used to fill some of the slack. They were a hit at Historic Cold Spring Village when they were used earlier this summer for the Railroad Days celebration.
The speeders themselves, which are on loan to Cape May Seashore Lines from the Volunteer Railroaders of America, based in Hawthorne, Passaic County, are somewhat historic. Track workers used to use something similar without an engine. They had to pump a handle to get around for maintenance.
“Remember Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck,” said Mulligan, referring to old cartoons in which characters did such things.
Gas-powered engines were installed around 1925 but were outmoded by the 1960s, when trucks with combined rail and rubber wheels were invented. Cape May Seashore Lines uses one four-cylinder speeder from 1930. A second single-cylinder speeder is from the Canadian Pacific Railroad and dates to 1990.
“The Canadians still use this equipment. They have so many locations that are remote with no parallel road to get a truck here,” Mulligan said.
One speeder is used to get the two cars, which each hold 10 people, to the canal, and the second speeder brings them back to the station.
“It’s a whole different approach to recreational railroading,” said Seashore Lines President Tony Macrie. “In lieu of the trains not being there, this is what we came up with. In the meantime, we’re working on getting trains for next year.”
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