The Blue Comet - Documentary of Famed, Doomed Train Makes Stops Along Shore
August 2nd, 2010
by Erik Weber
OCEAN COUNTY – For the first time in nearly 70 years, the Blue Comet is again riding up and down the Jersey shore, except this time as part of a documentary making stops at shore venues to take passengers back in time.
Filmmaker and professor with Rutgers University-Camden, Robert A. Emmons Jr. recently screened his new documentary, De Luxe: Tale of the Blue Comet, to a train loving crowd at Mancini Hall in the Toms River Library. Mr. Emmons teaches new media and film, practicing what he preaches; he has made over 30 films of various style and length. His latest historical work features the train that was the pride of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, or CNJ, from 1929 to 1941.
In his introduction to the movie Emmons explained his passion for historical documentaries and his home state: “I make documentary films about New Jersey, New Jersey history, New Jersey culture, and I guess it’s my goal to tell stories that haven’t been told enough. So what I do is I look for these sort of obscure stories.”
The Blue Comet recently had a resurgence in popularity and interest when it was featured on an episode of HBO's original series, the Soprano’s, titled “The Blue Comet.” It first aired in the summer of 2007 and caught the attention of train enthusiasts and the unfamiliar alike; Mr. Emmons himself said he was inspired by the episode to learn more about the legendary train. The result of his curiosity is his 90-minute film explaining what the Blue Comet was, and where it can still be found today.
The train, he said, represented the end of an era, having begun operating just three months before the onset of the Great Depression. It would struggle in its short history with an ailing economy and sharp competition from other rail companies, but it was the automobile and new highway systems built in New Jersey during the 1930s and 40s that would ultimately end the line.
But motion pictures, unlike the Blue Comet and most other man-made things, can last an extremely long amount of time, carrying contemporary viewers back to eras long seemingly lost in all but namesake alone.
Atlantic City in the 1920s was a summer draw for people trying to escape those pre-air conditioned summers, and the Blue Comet offered a luxury line at coach prices. Passengers from New York would have to take a ferry across the Hudson to Jersey City, where the train boarded for its three hour ride down to the shore, making stops at Elizabeth Port, Red Bank, Lakewood, Hammonton, and then finally Atlantic City.
What was truly unique were the train’s colors: a bright blue, cream, and gold, when most train cars of the day were either dark green or red. Said by onlookers to look like a comet speeding down the line with its special whistle, sounding similar to a fog horn. The interior of the Blue Comet was also brightly and luxuriously decorated, while the design of the train offers a glimpse into a world or era where quality in a skill or trade work took precedence over quantity.
The Blue Comet could be even more obscure today, if not for a passenger who took the line down to Atlantic City in 1929. That passenger was reknown toy train maker Joshua Lionel Cowen, and his subsequent Blue Comet model was a best seller at even $70 a set, a month’s wages at the time. Lionel made the model for eight years, and today the train set found in mint condition could sell for over $10,000 in the robust toy and model train collector's market.
Just five years into its lifespan, the toll of the Great Depression was visible when the CNJ cut back on the luxury train's passenger service, ordering the engine pull more freight, and over time the train lost its uniformity in color as cars were sold, replaced, and repainted. The fate of the Blue Comet was sealed when it derailed in heavy rain near Pine Crest, on August 19th, 1939. No one lost their life in the accident, and the line was shut down just over two years later, on September 27th, 1941.
Following the film, Mr. Emmons conducted a question and answer session where he hypothesized that if the Blue Comet was still active during World War II, the line could possibly have flourished by moving freight and American soldiers during the war.
After the completion of the library event, Mr. Emmons sat down with the Riverside Signal for an interview.
Riverside Signal: How does it feel to watch an audience watch your work?
Robert A. Emmons Jr.: It feels good because one thing I'm interested in as a documentary filmmaker is with what audiences come away with. With something like De Luxe – The Tale of the Blue Comet, it's about coming away with a piece of history, and with another sort of film it could be an awareness or a new perspective on something that you didn’t have before. That's the best part of documentaries.
RS: Before the movie were you a train enthusiast?
RE: I liked trains like every boy did, but I didn’t own a lot of toy trains. I wasn’t a train watcher or anything like that. I had an interest in them just because they are a great part of American history, but my involvement in the movie has made me a bigger train fan. More than anything I am a fan of local history, folk history.
RS: The train in the very beginning of the movie [the film shows a contemporary look at an aging Blue Comet passenger car] - where was that located?
RE: That is at Winslow Junction [located in Collings Lakes, Atlantic County]. If you drive out there you can still see two of the passenger cars from the Blue Comet.
RS: Where did you find the classic footage of Atlantic City from the 1920s and 30s?
RE: That came from a few different places. Some I got from the Getty Archives, and there are a couple websites for archival filmmakers. One is called www.criticalpast.com, the other is called www.archive.org. Also, I worked with a really great guy who was the film archivist for the United Railroad Historical Society. His name is Mitch Dakelman. We were able to purchase a lot of the films from him.
RS: How did you come across the railroad historians in the film?
RE: Preproduction and research is big on a documentary film. I spent quite a few months researching the film, trying to gather every piece of historical evidence that other people have compiled and other primary historical stuff I could find. So a great thing to do as a historian is you get a book that might be great about something, but then you look in the bibliography and find out what all of their sources were. The thing about train society is that all these guys really know each other, so I would meet with one guy and he would say, you know you really have to talk to this other guy, and the research would spiderweb in that sense.
RS: Is there a place people can go to learn more about the Blue Comet?
RE: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum has the only surviving locomotive that pulled the Blue Comet, but it's not one of the original Pacific engines; it’s a Camelback engine. The observation cars are nice to see, one is down in Cape May [at the South Jersey Railroad Museum]. Another is at the Clinton Station Diner [in Hunterdon County]. The diner is great; you get to eat inside the car.
RS: Did you go eat at the Clifton diner?
RE: Yes I did; it was good. I requested if I could eat in the car and they just take you right back, it was kind of like being transported to a different time.
RS: Where can someone get a copy of De Luxe – The Tale of the Blue Comet?
RE: You can get it right on my site, which is http://robertemmons.com/
RS: The Blue Comet model in the film, where did you shoot that at?
RE: I shot that at The National Toy Train Museum, which is out in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. They pulled the model down out of the glass case and set it up on the track so I could film it.
RS: Do you have any projects you are working on now, or planning to in the future?
RE: The project I’ve been working on for the past four months is I’ve been making two short documentary films a week at http://robertemmons.blogspot.com/. The last one was about Sandy Hook, how gangsters used to dump guns there. They are two to four minute films and they premiere every Wednesday and Sunday. My project after that, I haven’t really solidified it up yet, I might be doing another film about a comic book creator, which I did a film early on about comic book artists and comic book culture.