Eric Conklin - Use this One

My love for trains and model railroading, especially in Cape May County, was as bright as a cloudless day at the beach. It was so bright, that members of my family, particularly my mother and uncles, would hope that my days of loving trains would be made dreary by one cloud if not many.

Cape May County was the most convenient place to find historic trains and model railroading, without having to drive hours away. Besides the occasional trip into town on the Cape May Railroad, every trip to the county would include a trip to Flyertown Toy Train Museum, an American Flyer train layout on Route 9 housed behind a two-story yellow house. My mother was thankful that the wicker store was less than a mile south, so she could avoid her train-geek son and husband for two hours.

Inside, the layout drenched most of the room with a creative mind’s artistry, with cities, mountains, trees, bridges, and dozens of toy trains captivating my eyes. From the sound of the train whistle to the smell of the synthetic smoke made by the toys, Flyertown was the perfect replacement for the playground, beach, or pool on weekends.

I always hoped that I could construct a layout like Flyertown when I bought my own home.

I wanted my layout to coincide with a career as a train engineer, particularly at Strasburg Railroad in Pennsylvania. Like many children, I dreamed of being the man - now, thankfully, women have taken the job - at the throttle and whistle of a steam locomotive thundering towards Paradise, Pa. When I think of it, I would have had more land in the countryside to myself, with cheaper taxes possibly, too.

My love for trains continued throughout my childhood.

I remember taking trips to the Hamilton Mall, in Mays Landing, and we’d have to cross the Atlantic City-Philadelphia line to get there. Many times, the trip received an additional thrill when trains traveling the line would pass by. The crossing gates would lower, and while repeatedly slapping my hand down on the side of my seat, I would exclaim, “Turn the radio down, so I can hear the horn.”

I struggled to make friends in elementary school and my friends who adored trains and model railroading would fill the seemingly endless gap left out of my social life.

Unfortunately, the world of railroading appears to have been in a downward spiral. Flyertown and the Cape May Railroad can still be seen from a trip down Route 9, but no longer do their doors open to guests.

That career of driving trains never happened, as I’m now helping document history in Southern New Jersey with words. I’m around $40,000 deep in student-loan debt, and I’m overweight. Though I never learned how to drive a train, I learned how to drive a car, which, unfortunately, has to be financed.

I have to transport myself, without help from my parents. Sometimes, transportation includes the enjoyable train ride, but they’ve become merely such, without the thrill.

The engine’s horn and bell have transformed from a pleasure center to an occasional annoyance. The joy from a greeting by the conductor for a ticket has also become a less favorable experience while riding. Altogether, the absence of train service, regarding NJ Transit’s Atlantic City Line shutdown in 2018, has become displeasing for the wrong reasons.

The worst has been trips to the mall. When the train comes by, and the gates are lowered, the excitement has become that of anger, with swear words and frustration.

Who would have thought that, knowing my former self, the day of enjoying a train ride would head down the line towards extinction, along with Flyertown and the Cape May Railroad?

ED. NOTE: The author is the editorial assistant at the Cape May County Herald. To contact Conklin, email econklin@cmcherald.com.