Monday, January 9, 2012

History: Matawan Creek Trestle Fire (1946)

The 12 Dec 1946 edition of The Matawan Journal (Page 1 , Page 2, col 4) featured an article (Rail Service Is Disrupted By Fire; Matawan Trestle Blaze Razes Crossing Over Creek, Meadows;  Rush Repair Project) which reported a major fire had caused the utter destruction of the 60 year old all-timber Matawan Creek railroad trestle a little past 7 a.m. the previous Friday (6 Dec 1946).

"[T]he flames from the creosoted timbers lit up the morning sky and dense clouds of smoke drifted southeast over Matawan," according to the Journal, which described the 1004 foot trestle as having stood 75 feet above the creek.

Railroad workers suspected arson, this being the third trestle fire in the region in 6 days.

It was first thought that the fire was the work of an arsonist. Police Chief Edwin C. Sloat and many firemen held to this belief in the early stages of the investigation. Investigators called attention to the fact that the Matawan fire was the third railroad trestle fire in the metropolitan district within six days. They seemed to think, too, that it might be more than mere coincidence that each of the fires began in the darkest morning period just before dawn.
 
The first of the series destroyed the Pennsylvania Railroad's wooden trestle at Seaside Park. The second broke out on a span of the Long Island Railroad—subsidiary of the Pennsylvania—between Hammels and Broad Channel on Jamaica Bay.

Sparks, or live coals, from steam engines might conceivably have started the Matawan and. Seaside fires, it was said, but engineers have strict orders against dumping fires at either place. The theory that sparks struck from the third rail might have started the Long Island blaze has been advanced but it was pointed out that no trains are scheduled over that span between 2:30 a.m. and 6:25 a.m.
 
Firemen holding to the arson theory pointed out that the Matawan fire appeared to have broken out in three different parts of the trestle and spread rapidly along the oil and-creosote-soaked timbers, despite the fact the wind was blowing from the north rather than from the east or west, the direction in which the bridge runs.

The flagman said he first noticed the flames at three different places at the trestle's base. When the engines arrived the blaze had made terrific headway and firemen fought a losing fight to save the structure.


The fire caused caused immediate confusion for 10,000+ commuters on two railroad lines, but the NY & LBRR responded quickly. Passengers were soon being re-routed via bus service provided between Matawan and South Amboy. And trains from the Freehold line were being rerouted to Jamesburg and joining service at South Amboy. Others found alternate means. "Many commuters have put wartime car pool systems into operation, driving into South Amboy where the normal train service is not affected."

The railroad contracted the J Rich Steers Construction Co of New York to replace the span. More than 150 workers were soon laboring 24 hours a day to erect a temporary trestle with one track. Tidal flooding was causing some delays, but NY & LBRR expected service to be restored on its trestle in two weeks.

Current map showing relative locations of Aberdeen-Matawan RR station (green), Main Street crossing (yellow), and Matawan Creek trestle (red). The map is oriented north. Garden State Parkway Exit 117 can be seen on right.
John Fritz, the flagman at the Main Street crossing (railroad crossings had people to tend them at this time in history), discovered the fire not long after the 5:40 am train passed through. The blaze was several hundred feet northwest of that crossing. Note that the fire was said to be east of Main Street, but that is in regional railroad terms. Trains heading from Matawan to New York are said to be eastbound because that is the direction they are going when they cross the Hudson River into New York. The trestle was actually northwest of the Main Street crossing. (see map above)

A few administrative notes:

1) A photo of the blaze was taken by a professional photographer at dawn, just before the trestle collapsed. It appeared on the front page of the newspaper. The quality of the online version of the photograph is terrible. Someone should make sure the Borough, Library, and/or Historical Society have a version of that John Mershon photograph for posterity.

2) The online image of this edition of the newspaper goes Page 1, Page 10, Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, etc.  Since this story continues on Page 2, you will want to be aware of this error if you plan to view it online.

3) New Jersey History's Mysteries has an image of a postcard labeled Matawan Creek, Matawan, NJ showing what appears to be a bridge over Matawan Creek, presumably Aberdeen Road, with the trestle looming in the background. The caption suggests that this is where the body of Lester Stillwell was recovered.

4) Railroad Picture Archives has an album called Abandoned Railroads of NJ with a 2009 image labeled Matawan Creek Trestle. The overhead catenary lines suggest the North Jersey Coast Line tracks between Long Branch and South Amboy, but the wooden trestle looks to be only a single track. I'm rather perplexed by the image.

5) I found the article below on the Matawan Creek trestle while researching this piece. It is unrelated to the above but might come in handy in your researching the span.

The NY & LBRR are storing heavy timber at Matawan, preparatory to the usual winter repair of the trestle over Matawan Creek. (17 Oct 1930 edition of The Matawan Journal, pg 5)

4 comments:

  1. The 2009 image labeled "Matawan Creek Trestle", is the abandoned train trestle that goes over Gravelly Brook near where it empties into Lake Matawan. If in good repair and made suitable, the Matawan/Freehold Henry-Hudson trail would be able to connect with the Keyport/Atlantic Highlands trail via this trestle. Such is not the case. The trestle can be seen when you look to the left while going towards downtown Matawan on the Little Street bridge. There are no catenary lines above. What you see is the high power electric line that electrifies the North Jersey Coast line. The high power line originates from a Jersey Central Power And Light sub-station off of Wilson Avenue, runs along the Henry-Hudson trail and connects to the North Jersey Coast line near the Matawan rail station.

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  2. Pat - your point # 4 above, the photo from 2009, I believe that is a photo of the RR bridge over Matawan Lake, or at least the creek leading into Matawan Lake, back behind the area across Atlantic Ave from the High School. If you go back there you can see this bridge.

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  3. Thanks for the replies. I've seen the power station and high power lines along the Hudson Trail and agree with your assessment. I remember an old trestle across Lake Matawan, but I thought it was considerably taller - sort of even with Park Avenue maybe - and I thought it was gone because it was easily visible from the Little St bridge. I'll take another look this weekend. I assume that is the trestle mentioned by Roy Veary in his book Embers, which I discussed in this blog on 16 July 2011. Thanks again for the responses. The photo is clearly misidentified.

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  4. The 2009 Matawan Trestle overhead pic is of the trestle that is in the dead end of Center St. This is not the same trestle that was burned in the fire.

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