The Cape May Seashore Lines’ train is totally cute… and you should ride it.
You should take the train in the rain.
You should take train if you have kids.
You should take the train if you live here.
You should take the train if you live over there somewhere.
Oh? You want to know more? Who am I, you say? Why should you take my word? All right, if you insist, I’ll tell you more.
For one thing, the train ride is a nice way to go back in time. On the Saturday I took the train, I rode Number 304 – The Mermaid – departing from Cape May City Rail Terminal, located at Lafayette and Elmira Street – one block west from the Washington Street Mall. The rail terminal shares space with New Jersey Transit, Cape May’s Welcome Center and the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May.
The Mermaid was manufactured by the Budd Co. back in the 1950s. Most of the cars currently available do date back to the 50s, although restoration work has just begun on the the “Blue Comet” observation car built in 1927 to make runs from Jersey City to Atlantic City for the Central Railroad of New Jersey. For those not in the know, an observation car has a platform on the back with leather straps for passengers to hold on to when the train is in motion. Politicians used these cars for “whistle stop tours” passing through towns throughout the United States stumping for votes.
But back to The Mermaid. I caught the train on a Saturday in July as a way to get to the annual 4-H Fair being held at the Cape May County Park fairgrounds (the Cape May County Zoo is also located here).
I fell in love the second I saw the engine. It’s so cute and red with neat character lines distinguishing it from other train cars. As an aside, I should tell you that I’m an old-hand at train riding – as a means of transportation that is. I grew up riding Amtrak’s “The Pennsylvanian” from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to New York to Washington D.C. so, I’m used to Amtrak’s sleek silvery “not-so-cute” engine and cramped, often “not-so-clean,” train cars.
While waiting on the platform of the Cape May City Rail Terminal, I peeked inside the passenger car. The seats are blue leather and spacious. There is leg room – lots of leg room – and wide aisles. The train car itself is much smaller than the Amtrak cars. Seats face each other, so a maximum of four people (or six if they’re little) share seating arrangements.
I notice people are beginning to line up, so I join them.
The door opens and the ticket taker and conductor come out. They’re even cuter than the engine. The conductor has a little hat (which the company pays for) and uniform (which the company does not pay for). The ticket taker has a neat vest and both men are all smiles.
I take my seat and immediately start snapping pictures. The train pulls out at precisely 2 p.m. The conductor, who turns out to be one David Diano, welcomes us aboard The Mermaid. Diano is the senior conductor for Seashore Lines. He is in charge of training other conductors. What’s involved in the training?
“Well,” he says, “there’s the paperwork. Then the I let the conductor work with me to see what I do. And there’s the paperwork.”
Our ticket taker is Bill Heller. A round-trip ticket to Historic Cold Spring Village he says is $5 for adults, $4 for children 12 and under. For an $8 adult fare, $5 for children, the train goes all the way to the 4-H Fairgrounds Rail Station, 1 mile north of Cape May Court House, adjacent to the west entrance of the County Park and Zoo and the last stop.
Once the train pulls out of the station, I am struck by how pretty the scenery is. Even Home Depot looks good on this train. Again, I can’t help comparing it to the train rides I’ve taken before and I can assure you the urban blight that I’m accustomed to is for the most part absent on this journey. There are a few sore spots around Rio Grande, but otherwise, the rider is treated to vineyards,
trees, and the backyards of people’s homes.
The best view is crossing the Cape May Canal Moveable Bridge. The info tape, which plays sporadically throughout the trip informs the rider that the bridge was built in 1943 to protect the canal from Japanese submarines prowling the east coast during WWII. The train comes to a stop just short of the canal so that the bridge can be moved into place and then we’re off again.
To make an afternoon of it, you can catch the train in Cape May, get off at Historic Cold Spring Village, tour the village, have lunch at the Grange Restaurant and catch the train back. Or, you can catch it and ride further to the Cape May County Park and Zoo. Just one word of caution, mind your timing because on this particular Saturday, as it turns out, the afternoon train departing Cape May and arriving at the 4-H Fairgrounds at 3 p.m., ended up being the last train leaving the fairgrounds that was Cape May bound. So, I never did get to the 4-H Fair, but truth be told, I knew that before I started.
The one thing that disappointed me was the dining car had gone AWOL. I really wanted to have tea on the train. Just my luck, the Cafe was down for repairs. Conductor Diano said it needed a new compressor. Still, spending the afternoon with the “little red engine that could” is time well-spent.
For more information and schedules, contact Cape May Seashore Lines at 609-884-CMSL or visit their website (which has very cool pictures of the various engines) at www.capemayseashorelines.org