Wednesday, March 4, 1998

Railroads in Burlington

Constructed in 1834, New Jersey's first railroad, the Camden & Amboy, passed through Burlington on its route between Perth Amboy and Camden. The original track consisted of wooden ties supporting wooden rails topped with a strip of iron, but these rails were prone to damage, and were replaced with all-metal rails in the 1840's.
The Camden & Amboy operated one of the first few steam locomotives in America, now known as the John Bull. Imported from England, the engine featured the most advanced technology available at the time, and its owners were amazed when a local mechanic assembled the pieces into a working machine without any plans. The engine's inaugural run featured such notable passengers as a niece of the Bonapartes, and several identical locomotives were built to complete the railroad's equipment roster.

As more advanced locomotives became available, they were gradually limited to branch line service. After the Pennsylvania Railroad absorbed the Camden & Amboy, the John Bull was designated a relic. It is now preserved in the National Museum of American History, in Washington DC.

Passenger service began in early 1835, with a room in the Blue Anchor Tavern serving as a waiting room. At first, passengers detrained at Bordentown in all but the coldest weather and took steamboats down the Delaware River to Philadelphia. When the river froze in the winter, trains continued through Burlington to Camden, where passengers could take ferryboats to Philadelphia. In the 1840's, year-round rail service became available. In the 1860's, a station was constructed across from the Blue Anchor. This station was demolished in 1951, but another station on the west end of town, built to a plan by legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy, is still in use.

The Camden & Amboy was a rather progressive railroad initially and was the first to implement containerized handling of luggage and baggage, but the management's interest in maintaining a monopoly led them to purchase other rail lines, rather than upgrading their equipment roster or improving safety. In 1855, a southbound train failed to wait at a passing siding north of town for a northbound train to pass, and the two trains nearly collided on the single track through town. Fortunately, the engineer of the southbound train realized his error and began backing his train toward the siding. Unfortunately, a deaf local doctor had seen the train pass, and began driving his buggy across the tracks just as the train reversed direction. The ensuing collision and pileup left 24 dead and more than 100 injured. Although the railroad management tried to shift the blame, local writer Henry C. Carey exposed poor operating procedures as the true cause of the tragedy.

A second railroad, the Burlington & Mount Holly Railroad and Transportation Company, was incorporated in 1836, but construction was delayed by the financial panic of 1837, and the line was not completed until the late 1840's. The two railroads crossed in East Burlington. In the 1890's, the Pennsylvania Railroad used the Burlington & Mount Holly tracks to experiment with electric operation, but this service was discontinued after the electrical powerhouse in Mount Holly burned. The Burlington & Mount Holly line was abandoned in 1927, but the Camden & Amboy line remains in use, though only by Conrail freight trains.

The burning of the powerhouse in Mount Holly provided an impetus for the construction of a trolley line between Mount Holly and Burlington. The local Mount Holly Street Railway Company was acquired by the Camden & Suburban and reorganized as the Burlington County Traction Company. By 1904, tracks were in place from Camden to Burlington by way of Mount Holly. The Traction Company suffered several years of economic deficits and equipment problems, and agreed to sell its equipment and franchises to the Public Service Transportation Corporation.

The Monmouth Traction Company had also begun construction of a line between Camden and Atlantic Highlands by way of Trenton in 1898, but a year later eliminated tracks beyond Trenton and became the Camden and Trenton railway. In 1900, tracks were laid through Burlington, although negotiations to establish a crossing between the trolley and the railroad tracks on Broad Street delayed construction for several months. Four years later, the line was finally opened for service, and an interchange with the Burlington County Traction Company was established. Unfortunately, travel from Camden to Trenton took three hours - longer than the railroad - and the company went into receivership in 1908. Reorganized as the Riverside Traction Company in 1910, the line met with more trouble in December of 1911, when the East Pearl Street bridge collapsed under a trolley en route from Trenton to Camden. Only the motorman and one passenger were injured, but the car was completely wrecked, and service was interrupted for two days. Four months later, the Riverside line was also leased to the Public Service Transit Corporation.

Public Service operated both lines for several years, but by the 1930's new bridges spanned the Delaware River between Camden and Philadelphia, and trolley service was discontinued. Bus service was substituted, and continues to this day, now operated under the auspices of NJ Transit. Though the trolley tracks have now been removed, either during World War II scrap drives or subsequent highway reconstruction projects, the buses still follow parts of the original trolley lines.

In the late 1990's, NJ Transit announced plans to reinstate passenger rail service from Trenton to Camden through Burlington, using light rail cars on the same route taken by the Camden & Amboy. Service on the line, now called the "RiverLINE," began in March of 2004.

Special thanks to Paul W. Schopp for railroad histories.

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