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The RVRR's Daily Dalliances with the New Jersey Motorist

The RVRR's Daily Dalliances with the New Jersey Motorist
By Richard J. King (c) 2013

The Corson Brothers challenged good ol' #15 and lost. 1/30/1951.
Collection of Jeff Jargosch.

When the Rahway Valley Railroad was constructed the territory it traversed was still a rural countryside, cars and trucks were only slowly coming into vogue. The RVRR encountered several grade crossings but they were little more than dirt and gravel affairs with the occasional macadam paved thoroughfare.

In the years after World War I many people, and their families, flocked to the New Jersey countryside to build homes. These people had previously lived in the confines of New York City and still being bound to work in the city the New Jersey countryside was just the ticket. This area was close enough to New York City that people could commute to work and come home to New Jersey in the evening.

The Rahway Valley's territory slowly became more and more "built up." The years between the two great wars showed some residential development but it wasn't until the wild home building craze in the years after World War II did the Rahway Valley Railroad become "boxed in."

These housing developments were constructed for returning GI's and their families. With the returning GI's and the City Folk moving out to the New Jersey suburbs came more and more vehicles in the Rahway Valley's territory.

The RVRR never had the funds to construct flashers and gates for their many
An RVRR flagman stands on the front lines of the battle between the railroad and the motorist as #17 eases a train over the Boulevard in Kenilworth. Collection of Frank Reilly.
Having so many grade crossings to traverse an RVRR flagman would often ride on the pilot to quick jump off and flag a crossing. Collection of Paul Carpenito.

After the 1960 incident, #17 must have crossed Route 22 in fear.
Collection of Frank Reilly.

grade crossings. The only crossings protected by flashers were the Meisel Avenue crossing and the infamous Route 22 (previously Route 29) crossing, the latter of which were installed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation in an effort to reduce accidents occurring here. Neither of these crossings had gates and Route 22's flashers were little more than traffic lights activated with a key.

All of the RVRR's crossings, even those that had flashers, had to be protected by a flagman. As traffic became evermore congested in the New Jersey suburbs the management of the RVRR stressed the importance of protecting its crossings with the proper warnings, the customary two long - one short - one long on the horn and a flagman halting all traffic.

In the early days "Froat Methods" were implemented by the RVRR's longtime Engineer Frank Froat. Often times Froat would lay on the horn for just a couple of toots and blare through a grade crossing without the protection of a flagman. As time went on near misses became more and more frequent. The railroad's President and General Manager, George A. Clark, stressed the importance of protecting their crossings in blunt letters to his employees, "Effective at once all crossings over Colfax Avenue . . . must be protected by a flagman. Be governed accordingly with absolutely no exceptions" (Letter from George Clark to Frank Froat, Robert Davis, and George Davis, January 31, 1956 ).

Clark's worry became evermore apparent as the years went on and things became more hairy in the relationship between the RVRR and the New Jersey motorist, as evidenced in a letter regarding a complaint the railroad received, "This is a rather serious complaint and I want you to inform me, without undue delay, why our Westfield Avenue Grade Crossing in Roselle Park, NJ, was not properly protected on Tuesday evening, December 21, 1965. Am I to understand that you operate over this crossing without the benefit of any flag and/or lantern protection?!" (Letter from George Clark to Frank Froat and Harry H. White, January 3, 1966 ).

Clark had every right to worry about brush-ups between his railroad and the New Jersey motorist, because they did happen. In 1960 a tractor-trailer clobbered the pilot of #17 at the Route 22 grade crossing, derailing the locomotive, "A tractor - trailer truck crashed into a diesel locomotive of the Rahway Valley Railroad at a grade crossing on Route 22 here today, derailing the locomotive and snarling traffic for more than an hour" ("Truck Derails Locomotive ," New York Times, July 19, 1960).

That incident only resulted in some minor bumps, bruises, and some startled souls but things took a more serious turn in October of 1970. "John Lennon . . . was killed Monday when his car collided with a freight train of the Rahway Valley Railroad at a grade crossing" ("Killed in Crash ," Cranford Chronicle, October 24, 1970).

Let it not be misconstrued that the Rahway Valley Railroad was some wild railroad that recklessly bashed its locomotives into innocent New Jersey motorists, it was quite the opposite. The Rahway Valley Railroad was aware of the congestion of the New Jersey suburbs and did everything within its power to keep its trains and their crews, as well as the New Jersey motorist, safe. It was the New Jersey motorists in their infinite wisdom and driving skill that would try to outrun the train at grade crossings and often cause brush ups between the two factions. The noble flagmen of the RVRR put their lives at risk on a daily basis to keep car fenders from meeting the knuckles of locomotive couplers.

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