Forgotten History

of the

Raritan River Railroad


South River, New Jersey





1:10 p.m. -- Water, fishermen and rusty steel are part of his daily life

Published in the Home News Tribune 10/19/00



12:48 p.m. John Ptak, an employee of Conrail, closes the railroad bridge linking South River and Sayreville.

Railroad bridge operator leads solitary life





John Ptak, 55, the "trestle man" of South River, could also be called the invisible man.

South River Borough officials, police and members of the town's historic society know little about the swing-bridge operator, and have seen even less of him.

"He's been there as far back as I can remember," says pizza man John Koch, taking a cigarette break outside Coffaro's Pizzeria on Obert Street. "We always called him the train man, or trestle man."

Koch says he doesn't see Ptak much either.

But down Whitehead Avenue, just across the tracks, is an old dirt road that runs along the Conrail line before winding its way to the South River Boat Club. Follow it as it shadows the tracks, all the way to the water's edge, and you find the trestle man.

Though people in town may view the trestle man as an enduring figure, there actually have been many persons behind the persona. For the past three years it has been 55-year-old Ptak, a resident of Linden.

It's Ptak's job to swing open the bridge to provide boats safe passage along the South River and to close the bridge to allow freight trains to travel across the river.

The swing bridge is about 150 feet of rusty red steel topped with railroad ties and stained with graffiti. The bridge provides a link to the branch lines running in Central New Jersey.

Ptak's expecting that train any time now, so he dons a hard hat and reflective vest, takes a long metal bar called a key and fits it into a gear in the center of the bridge. And with a little muscle he turns greased wheels below him which, in turn, rotate the bridge until it's closed.

Ptak walks in a clockwise motion, turning the key to line up the two sides of the bridge that connects South River and Sayreville.

"You gotta be careful, cautious," he says. "The main thing is to be safe. You're by yourself here.

"You gotta go with it. The main thing is to have the momentum going and walk with it. Otherwise you put your back into it like a donkey."

The bridge is the last of its kind in New Jersey and will be converted into a motorized bridge next year, Ptak says.

"I might not retire until I'm 70 if all I have to do is push a button," jokes Ptak, who says he plans to retire in five years.

Ptak says he doesn't get lonely being out on the tracks eight hours a day by himself, with only the occasional fisherman for conversation.

"I don't mind it. I enjoy it," he says. "My objective is to get that train across, no matter what.

"That's why I'm here. That's my job."

Ptak, who has been in the railroad business since 1977, works the bridge from April to November and does track work in Elizabeth in the off months. The bridge is kept closed in the winter.

Between the openings and closings of the bridge, Ptak says, "I just wait here. That's my job.

"I like being around water. The kids come around sometimes. They're not supposed to, but they do. I don't want anybody falling in the river."

He says visitors call him "Captain John."

Historically, the bridge and rail line had more human traffic than the cargo containers that now frequent the line. According to town documents, more people used to come to the river for a scenic ride into Sayreville.

The line was originally part of the Raritan River Railroad, controlled and owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The trestle was built over the South River in 1888.

The line provided a 12.6-mile ride between South Amboy and New Brunswick and, in the 1890s, it was nicknamed the "rick-rack," providing passenger service until 1939.

By 1945 it was co-owned by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, Baltimore and Ohio. It became part of the Conrail system in 1976 and is considered part of the Sayreville Running Track.

It's 2:15 p.m., and a train whistle sounds off in the distance, just as an osprey soars across the river.

By 2:20 p.m. the locomotive reaches the bridge and crosses slowly, towing five box cars. Ptak and the conductor exchange waves.

"I feel like I belong here," Ptak says with a smile. "Like it's a home here."

J.P. White: (732) 246-5500, Ext. 7219.

from the Home News Tribune
Published: October 19, 2000






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