The Last Passenger Train From Freehold

short stories

Doug Alt



In the summers, starting with the one just before I was to start kindergarten, I would often wake up quite early  (around 5:30) and head out to our pasture out by the railroad tracks. The  pasture had some bog areas and some wooded areas at the edges. I remember one year building a little road across one of the wet areas, complete with  “bridges” made out of boards placed across cinder blocks, so I could pull a little red wagon all the way to the railroad tracks.

The railroad  tracks that ran along the back edge of our property were 8 or 10 feet higher than our low, wet land. The tracks were up on a man-made berm which had quite steep sides.

I was really impressed by the steam engines, but our low viewing point left much to be desired. However, just a few hundred feet north of our property the track entered a cut into a small hill. I would walk up along the top of this cut to a point where I would be about eye-to-eye level with the engineers, then find a comfortable patch of grass to sit on and wait so I could wave to them.

There were normally two commuter trains each morning, one around 5:30 and another one an hour or so later. It was usually the 5:30 one that I could wave to since the later one came through right around breakfast time. (A growing kid is NOT going to miss breakfast just to wave at some train!)
Last  passenger train

Some years later, in 1953, I read in the  paper that passenger train service from Freehold to Matawan was to be terminated. (That’s our track!)

The news article mentioned the date and time when the last run was to occur. I made a mental note to definitely be out there for this end-of-an-era  event.

On the specified date and time I had gotten to my usual sitting spot at the top of the cut in plenty of time. As the train finally came down the tracks, I noticed that it seemed to be going a little slower that usual. In fact, the closer it got, the slower and slower it went.  I was wondering if it was having a break-down on its very last day - maybe that steam engine didn’t want to go all the way to Matawan? Then, I noticed that there were several men at the window with the engineer and there were two more men in the space between the steam engine and the coal car. It seemed that the  entire train crew had come to the front of the train.

They all waved to me, and then one of the crew tossed a paper bag out the window toward me. It landed half way down the side of the cut, between me and the railroad  tracks.

When I scrambled down to see what was in the bag, there were CANDY, several small toys and a few other things that would appeal to a little boy. The one item I remember most was a noise-maker that had a sturdy wooden handle and a tuna fish can-shaped resonator at the end and with a rachet device of some kind inside it that made a VERY loud noise when you twirled it around!

I was, of course, thrilled – a whole train had actually slowed down just to thank a little one-boy sending-off committee.

More than a half-century later, and from the viewpoint of an adult, only now do I realize what a poignant moment it must have been for those men. They had to have conferred in advance of that last run about “doing something”. They had purchased the goodies, and then, they must have been apprehensive about whether the “little kid on the hill” would even be aware of the “final run” at  all.

I would imagine that, once one of them spotted me and said something like, “Yep, the little kid is up there all right…” more than one pair of eyes might have misted up a bit.

The impact on them of this last train run was a lot greater than it was on a small boy who wouldn’t have any more trains to wave to.

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