Growing Up Between the Erie and Lackawanna

by Bill McKelvey

As a youngster we moved from an apartment house on Stuyvesant Avenue, Irvington to Bloomfield.  My parents purchased a house ca. 1941 at 98 Waldo Avenue, which had been built in the early “Great Depression” years.  We were on the East Orange border, closest to the Lackawanna Montclair Branch, but only eight mostly short blocks from the Erie Orange Branch, and about four blocks from the Watsessing crossing of the two railroads.  Our neighbors were both commuters on the Lackawanna.  “Uncle” Edward Roome, on our west, typically took the Public Service No. 90 Grove Street bus to the Grove Street Station on the Morris and Essex line of the DL & W and the train and ferry to his NYC office of the Railway Express Agency.  “Uncle” George Pickenback, on our east, walked about a mile to the Ampere station (in East Orange - adjacent to the large Crocker-Wheeler plant which had an 0-4-0 fireless cooker switcher) on the Montclair Branch and took the train, ferry and subway to his office in NYC.  DL&W motorman, Bill Murray, lived three houses away on LaFrance Avenue.  He was a friendly gentleman who worked the evening shift and walked to and from the Watsessing Station, taking a short-cut between Arlington Avenue and the DL&W down the embankment and along the tracks.  Consequently, his wife was always yelling at us when we played by their house because Bill was trying to sleep.  

When I heard the DL&W steamer switching freight cars it was an attraction that enticed a four-year-old to overcome his backyard restraints to get a closer view.  This required crossing LaFrance Avenue and Hoffman Boulevard and a walk on a residential driveway back to the fence along the railroad at the rear.  In those days the local branch freight had as many as a dozen cars each day.  They would spend a couple of hours there, including lunch in the local Frederick’s tavern.  A special treat was listening to the 0-8-0 steamer pushing or pulling a couple of cars up the curving grade to the street level sidings at the south end of the General Electric plant on Lawrence Street and the A.P. Smith factory which fronted on Arlington Avenue.  Sometimes the locomotive would run out of steam and have to back down, build up steam and make a second, usually successful charge.  There were also low level sidetracks for a coal dealer at Watsessing and gondolas were placed under a chute where scrap steel from the GE plant was dumped, noisily, at all hours of the day and night.  Those freight customers and all that connecting track is now long gone from the Montclair Branch.

The Lackawanna was a first class railroad with excellent seven-day-a-week service - they were visited regularly by the Sperry Rail Service defect detection car; annually by the weed spraying train; and weekly by the track inspector, with his long wrench, to tighten loose joint bolts.  We used the line to access the wonderful model train layout of the NY Society of Model Engineers in a large room built on the Hoboken upper ferry concourse as well as various excursion trains.  The DL&W Watsessing Station was also used to get to the first two Jersey Central Lines steam rail excursion trips I went on.  From Hoboken we took the ferry across the Hudson to Barclay Street and walked a couple of blocks south to Liberty Street and got the Jersey Central ferry back to Jersey City.  My first trip was a NRHS North Jersey Chapter excursion from Jersey City to Green Pond Jct. on 17 May, 1953 and the second was on the Jersey Central and Reading to West Milton, PA on 20 June, 1953.  On the latter trip our return was very late at night and when my mother unlocked the door she screamed.  Apparently my face was darkened from steam locomotive soot except for two circles which had been covered by my goggles.  Late one summer afternoon a thunder storm knocked out power on the Montclair branch and the electric MU cars were towed by steam switchers.  Freight customers are now all gone but passenger service is booming since the Montclair Connection was completed and direct to NY Penn Station service is available.

An interesting coincidence was discovered recently by long-time Bloomfield resident, John Drennan.  John and several others drive up to Scranton, usually weekly, where they work in the Steamtown National Historic Park Library and Archives as volunteers.  In the DL&W engineering records, John discovered a diagram showing a temporary construction sidetrack built east from the Montclair Branch ca. 1912 when the excavation for the “cut” through Watsessing was being dug.  This sidetrack was shown on the diagram as a right-of-way between Abington and Beardsley Avenues, and that right-of-way became Waldo Avenue!  The excavated fill from Watsessing cut was spread out on the low level flat land where our house was built on the future Waldo Avenue.  There is a good possibility that the DL&W owned the land upon which the fill was dumped.  In my youth, I built a “mine” shaft which I got down to 5 feet with no rock encountered - surely this was fill from the DL&W.

However, my favorite was always the readily accessible, grade level, Erie Orange Branch.  I spent endless hours talking with Pete Stevenson, the Grove Street crossing guard.  There were no gates - Pete walked to the middle of the street with his dark clothing and only a white circular black on white “STOP” sign on a 6 foot pole to halt traffic.  It was there, as well as at the nearby Bloomfield Avenue grade crossing of the No. 29 BLOOMFIELD trolley that I took my first photos with a Kodak Brownie box camera borrowed from my mother.  They did not come out well, but fortunately I have located  much better photos taken by others in that and earlier eras.

Much was learned about railroading from Stevenson.  He had a small coal stove in his shanty and got his fuel supply from the local steam switcher which would briefly stop while the friendly fireman off loaded many shovel-fulls of  soft coal.  The same kerosene which fueled his red crossing lantern also served as a “starter” for the poor quality coal.  Pete worked a split shift - about four hours each in am and pm for both commuter and freight trains.  Each afternoon in cold weather Pete opened up the Bloomfield Station and built a fire in the coal stove inside.  This benefitted a sole woman passenger who took a pm eastbound train.  He walked to and from his home off Bloomfield Avenue in Newark twice a day.  His many hours of waiting were spent smoking - hand rolling his cigarettes which created noticeable brown stains on the fingers which held his habit. 

Here, on the Erie I received observation experience when the local track crew from Forest Hill performed preventive maintenance on joints just west of Bloomfield Avenue.  They welded up the ends of rails to make the joints smooth and jacked and tamped the ties under the joints.  I was the water boy and also the “runner” for DeNoblia stogies for the Italian crew.  My reward was a ride on the motor track car with them west to Wigwam Brook which ran under the branch immediately west of Glenwood Avenue crossing.  Here, the track workers washed up at the end of the day before heading home.  Interestingly, this was the only track maintenance I ever witnessed in the early years I spent time on the Orange Branch.  The only other time was on very deteriorated track between Forest Hill and Franklin Street when tie replacements were mandated about a year before the Newark City Subway extension was built. 

My father was a store manager for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company.  After the 1929 stock market decline A&P apparently decided to get rid of some of their small, two man, grocery stores.  Dad acquired one of these stores - located at the corner of Dodd Street and Glenwood Avenue in East Orange about the time he married.  That store was the source of our family income and in exchange myself and later my brother Tom worked after school and on Saturdays.  It was open six and sometimes seven days per week.  When I delivered orders to customers up Glenwood Avenue it provided the opportunity to stop and chat with Fred Becker, Erie crossing gateman at the Glenwood tower.  The local freight regularly stopped behind the Multiplex Concrete Block plant and the crew walked back to Prospect Street for refreshment and lunch at a local joint.  During the Korean War, the old trolley track on Dodd Street was pulled up for scrap.  In those years Public Service CROSSTOWN route used Yellow Coach diesel-electric buses similar to the All-Service Vehicles, but without the trolley poles.

From 98 Waldo Avenue, especially during summer when windows were open, railroad sounds could be clearly heard: The early morning Erie doodlebug commuter train could be heard making its westbound stops at Silver Lake and Bloomfield.  When the big gasoline engines came to an idle at stops, they “missed” and backfired loudly.  When the local switcher delivered or picked up cars from the MGM record plant the squeel of wheels on the tight curve could be distinctly heard all over the neighborhood.  The loud crashing of cars being switched at Silver Lake yard could be rather annoying after midnight.  Apparently this timing coincided with the close of taverns where the railroad crews drank and sometimes ate.  The very late evening long distance eastbound Lackawanna train made a stop at Brick Church station and the engineer then blew its Nathan Airchime horn and fully opened the throttle of the EMD E-8 diesel locomotives - a total of 4 V-12 engines - lovely!  In the earlier years the DL&W 4-8-4 “Pocono” locomotives could be clearly heard climbing the westbound grade up from Newark. 

It was from the Erie Bloomfield Station that I took my first solo rail trip.  My grandparents (Theodore & Emma Brown) lived in Kearny and it was only five station stops east on the evening eastbound trip off the Orange Branch.  From the Arlington Depot it was a short uphill walk to 99 Beech Street, behind Lincoln High School.  There was much of interest to do in Kearny.  Many interesting hours could be spent at the depot, with the frequent passenger and some freight trains.  A special thrill was to witness the typical 100-car freight trains with double headed steam power each morning.  They departed Croxton Yard, crossed the meadows and then pounded up grade and through Arlington Cut, en-route to the Orange Branch.  A short walk around to the front of Lincoln school on Kearny Avenue was rewarded by the action of the twice-hourly Public Service Yellow Coach All-Service Vehicle (gasoline-electric-electric powered buses) which traveled up Midland Avenue from the Erie Depot on gasoline power.  Then, in front of Lincoln School, the depot buses would line up to steel “disks” spiked to the pavement and the operator would then push a dash button to raise the two trolley poles.  They sprang up to a pan which, when the bus was moved forward on gasoline power, would aline the shoes on the trolley poles with each wire.  The motor was shut off and the bus sped off silently on 600 volt DC electric power.   

Mom took us on an annual pre-Christmas shopping trip to Bamberger’s in Newark.  I looked forward to this excursion for two reasons: 1. We would walk out LaFrance Avenue to board the No. 29 BLOOMFIELD trolley via the Newark City Subway, and 2. We would visit the hobby department on an upper floor of Bamberger’s where we could visit their model train layout.  There was only one occasion when I rode the entire length of the BLOOMFIELD line.  It was during a Boy Scout day trip to practice our skills in the woods near Caldwell Loop when a couple of us chose to ride the trolley back. 

Our home on Waldo Avenue had access to excellent Public Service bus service.  One block west was the No. 82 Watsessing bus to Bloomfield Center.  We took this bus to Bloomfield Senior High School.  Our regular winter driver purposely refused to allow the engine to shift into second gear.  This allowed the engine to operate at maximum revolutions and consequently provided more heat for driver and passengers...  At the end of the block to the east was the No. 90 Grove Street Crosstown bus.  I took this line on my first date to a movie theater in East Orange with neighbor, Kathy Riccardi.  Sometimes Yellow Coach Model 733 buses were operated on this route.  They were unique in that they had a seat above the front wheel, forward of the front door - perfect for youngsters to see out front as well as to observe the skills of the bus driver.  And, I distinctly remember riding in that seat!   

Many years later the author secured one of this 1937 Model 733 bus from Lancaster, Ohio.  It was brought to the back yard of 98 Waldo Avenue for restoration work and cosmetic painting into the Public Service two-tone yellow scheme.  When the work was completed it was driven from there to one of the NJ Transit Hoboken Festivals for display.  It was also driven from Waldo to a Whippany Railway Museum festival and back.  The little “Mickey Mouse” bus was finally driven from Bloomfield to the dormant Lake Street bus garage for storage.  After it departed, Mom admitted that she missed it...  But, when part of the Lake Street garage roof collapsed, the bus was trucked to Phillipsburg where it  resided for many years.  Also at Phillipsburg is the oldest surviving bus on this planet with a Public Service pedigree.  It is a 1936 model 733 which was acquired at Watertown, NY and trucked south.  This bus, unlike the one from Lancaster, Ohio, had the extra seat up front by the driver and the manual door operating lever on the left side of the driver.  It is owned by the Friends of the NJ Transportation Heritage Center, is stored outside, has been severely vandalized, and is considered a “basket case”.

Late in 2017, the Friends 1937 Yellow Coach model 733 bus  No. 5496 (one number higher than PS buses of that model because this bus came from Lancaster OH) was moved from Phillipsburg to East Coast Bus Repair at South Amboy  for restoration and repainting.  It has been fitted with the front “jump” seat with original PS black seat covering from the 1936 model 733  that is beyond any hope of restoration.  It also has the original front bumper from the 1936 model.  The restoration work is being funded by Liberty Historic Railway, of which McKelvey is chairman and founder.  When completed it will become part of the Friends historic bus and coach collection at Lakewood.