Advertised as 'The Seashore’s Finest Train' by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Blue Comet lived up to its celestial billing as it zipped across the Garden State landscape from Jersey City to Atlantic City.
The crowd was bigger than normal at the Red Bank train station in Central New Jersey. The wintry chill of a late February morning couldn’t diminish the level of the passengers’ anticipation as they waited to climb aboard the newest offering in rail transportation and head south. Moving effortlessly over the tracks, the train was heard before it was seen as the vision in blue pulled into the station.
Advertised as “The Seashore’s Finest Train” by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Blue Comet lived up to its celestial billing as it zipped across the Garden State landscape from Jersey City to Atlantic City.
Thousands turned out to get a glimpse of the train along its route for its official inaugural run on Feb. 21, 1929. With its maximum speed reaching close to 90 mph, the Blue Comet put the roar in the Roaring ’20s, symbolizing a time of prosperity when anything seemed possible.
The concept behind the creation of the Blue Comet was simple: to compete with the larger Pennsylvania Railroad for the lucrative passenger business between New York and Atlantic City. The Blue Comet was designed to provide first-class service at regular coach fares. The implied goal was to make the journey as enjoyable as the destination.
Designers made the train visually appealing to both riders and passers-by, serving as an effective public relations tool that stood out from the competition. From the locomotive to the observation platform, the train was finished in Packard blue, Jersey cream and royal blue. A cream-colored stripe ran the length of both sides of the train. The overall visual effect was to suggest the sun, sky and beach along the Jersey Shore.
The color pattern did not stop there. Each ticket was printed in blue and carried a number and letter to indicate the coach and seat the passenger had been assigned, a personal touch of service. No seats were sold for the observation and smoking cars to allow full access to everyone aboard.
In keeping with its name, all the cars and locomotives were named for comets. The dining car was named Giacobini, while others carried such names as Halley, Holmes, Olbers and Tuttle.
One of the Blue Comet’s selling points was its dining car. A full-course dinner, featuring such main courses as roast beef and baked fresh sea trout, cost just $1.25. The Blue Comet Special Plate Dinner was a bargain at 75 cents.
From New York, the Blue Comet journey began by boat as passengers took a ferry across the Hudson River to the Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City. The Blue Comet made stops at Newark, Elizabeth, Red Bank, Lakewood, Winslow Junction and Winslow before its final stop at Arkansas and Arctic avenues in Atlantic City. The cost of a round-trip ticket was $8.40.
Initially, the Blue Comet was an unqualified success. In its first year of operation, the train carried 62,105 passengers and reached its destination on time 97 percent of the time, an enviable figure in the railroad industry. In 1930, the Lionel Corporation began production of a line of toy trains based on the Blue Comet.
South Jerseyans along the Blue Comet’s route developed a special relationship with the train. People often would line up along the track to see the cars whizzing by. Members of the train’s crew would toss daily newspapers to people who lived in remote areas of the Pine Barrens. In reciprocation, local residents would deliver to the Lakewood stop buckets of wild blueberries or raspberries they had picked for the crew.
The Blue Comet ultimately would become a victim of Great Depression that was triggered by the stock market crash of Oct. 29, 1929. Train travel became a luxury many people could not afford as unemployment reached 25 percent. By 1933, ridership on the train had fallen to 17,351, a loss of nearly 45,000 riders in four years. The growing popularity of automobiles in the 1930s also put a dent in ridership. The Central Railroad of New Jersey pulled the plug on the Blue Comet after its final ride on Sept. 27, 1941.
Nearly 70 years later, the Blue Comet lives on in popular culture. The next-to-last episode of The Sopranos was named “The Blue Comet” and featured the legendary train in the plot line when the episode aired on June 3, 2007. Barrington-based filmmaker Robert Emmons Jr. told the train’s story in De Luxe: The Tale of The Blue Comet, a 2009 documentary. The Blue Comet may be gone, but it’s not forgotten.
Waltz Through Time is a bi-weekly column focussing on the history of the Atlantic City region. Both Jim Waltzer and Tom Wilk, co-authors of Tales of South Jersey, contribute to this column.
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