“You don’t know where you are until you know where you came from.” With these words, Randy Acorcey and Dr. Hank Cutler commenced an engaging lecture. The choice of a travel metaphor to explain history well suited the topic. Mr. Acorcey discussed the development of railroads in South Jersey. Dr. Cutler followed by describing how they affected the local Moorestown business community. The speakers shared plenty of fantastic material for both railroad and local history buffs. The Moorestown Library and the Historical Society of Moorestown hosted this event on January 17, 2018.
The Garden State served as the location for some monumental innovations affecting ante-bellum transportation. Mr. Acorcey explained that in 1832 the Camden and Amboy Railroad became the first line in New Jersey. The C & A introduced the steam powered locomotive. The first one to travel on its rails, the John Bull, came over from England in various pieces. Crews in the US reassembled it without the benefit of instructions.
Before that game changing advancement, horses drew railroad cars. The speaker displayed a photo of one such set-up in Gibbsboro. To answer the obvious questions, Mr. Acorcey explained: “It wasn’t fast.” As to the poor condition of the tracks: “Horses learned to step in between things.”
The C & A selected the perfect president in the form of Hoboken native Robert Stevens. Mr. Acorcey described him as a “prolific inventor.” One of his many innovations included the baggage car. Most important for railroads, Mr. Stevens developed all iron rails. Prior to that, engineers used stone or “sleepers” to set down the tracks. Mr. Acorcey added, with perhaps a bit of understatement, this led to “a few accidents.”
While these innovations certainly improved travel by rails, not to mention safety, modern passengers wouldn’t be impressed. A train trip from Burlington to Mount Holly took 30 minutes each way in the 1860s.
At this point in the lecture, audience members needed scorecards. Just after the Civil War an era of railroad consolidations commenced. The mergers accelerated through the twentieth century. In April of 1969, a passenger train embarked from Moorestown for the last time.
The C & A’s spirit of innovation transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad when the two merged in 1872. In 1895 the new organization built the Delair Bridge connecting Philadelphia and Pennsauken. It allowed train travel directly between those two locales for the first time. The structure still stands and railroad companies use it today.
Dr. Cutler then described how the railroad impacted Moorestown. At one time the town contained three different rail way stations named the East Moorestown, the West Moorestown and the Stanwick. The East Moorestown came first at Chester Avenue and East Third Street. People in the western section of town complained about the location. To accommodate them, the railroad added a second one at North Church and West Central. The Stanwick was built to support the Moorestown fairgrounds.
As an interesting side note on stations, Dr. Cutler added that the Pemberton branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad used the same stations from 1868 until 1968. As remarkable as that may seem, an audience member trenchantly observed, “(Railroad) tracks don’t change (their location) easily.”
The prevalence of railroad ‘sidings’ in Moorestown served as the focus of Dr. Cutler’s comments. These offshoots from the main tracks led into various businesses throughout the community. This facilitated freight transport both to and from these companies. The speaker showed photos of two such Moorestown enterprises that utilized sidings. When Hollingshead Fuel went out of business in the early 1990s, its siding was removed. The JS Collins and Son Hardware store still operates today. While no longer used, those interested can view the original siding in the parking lot.
An audience member asked if either the company or the railroad paid to install a siding. The speakers couldn’t comment on Moorestown, but Mr. Acorcey provided information about the sidings in Camden. He explained that if the business generated enough freight to financially satisfy the railroad, the later would install it. If not, then the business provided the funds to do so.
The speakers presented an impressive amount of information. They both possessed a deep understanding of the topics they covered. However, the speech lacked either a unifying theme or a call to action. The lecture left more questions than it answered. Just how did the topics they covered relate to society on a macro level? For instance: what led to the abundance of railroad mergers? Dr. Cutler mentioned numerous Moorestown companies that no longer exist. Did they decline for similar reasons? The River Line has been in operation since 2004. What conditions led to this resurgence in passenger rail transportation? Do they foresee that trend continuing?
Mr. Acorcey and Dr. Cutler delivered an excellent synopsis of the history of South Jersey railroads. The numerous transportation innovations it facilitated not only changed the industry: they improved society. With that observation, it’s sad to note that the last passenger train left town for good almost five decades ago. The Stanwick station is now a concrete pad. The East Moorestown station moved and converted into a dentist’s office. Upon reflecting on all this, one recalls the words of another creative New Jersey son. In the words of Bruce Springsteen:
Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.