The Twentieth Century
 Part 2





Woodbridge Township of the 1900s reflected many of the socioeconomic trends, crises, and transformations of the wider world. The economic life of the Township shifted from agriculture to industry. The excesses of the "Roaring Twenties" were brought down by the Great Depression, followed by a postwar boom later blunted by deindustrialization. Immigrants fled the upheavals of Europe and elsewhere, many settling in Woodbridge in search of work and new lives. The First World War weakened the old European aristocracies and the Second World War fought rising fascism. Capitalism and communism competed during the Cold War and social norms over race and gender would be challenged. To greater or lesser degrees, all these changes would be echoed in the communities comprising Woodbridge Township.

  Wreck of The Broker

On the evening of February 6, 1951, at approximately 5:43 p.m., the Pennsylvania Railroad express passenger train known as "The Broker" derailed in Woodbridge, killing 85 and injuring hundreds more in what remains New Jersey's deadliest railroad accident to date.

The wreck occurred on a temporary trestle over Legion Place, part of a temporary run-around track built to carry trains over the construction site where the new New Jersey Turnpike cut through Fulton Street. The track had been opened at 1:01 p.m. that afternoon and eight other trains passed over it safely. The speed limit had been restricted from 65 to 25 miles-per-hour.

The Broker was pulled by a K4s steam locomotive, which had no speedometer, as the mechanisms were too apt to get out of calibration to be reliable. Enginemen (the preferred term by Penny crews) leaned to gage their speed by timing how long it took to pass two points, though most could do it by feel with experience. There were no "black box" recorders either. However, all evidence suggests The Broker hit the curve onto the temporary track between 40 and 50 miles-per-hour. The tender derailed first, tugging the locomotive onto its right side atop the embankment before pulling the eleven cars down toward Fulton Street.

First responders arrived from throughout Woodbridge and the surrounding communities, along with volunteers who pitched into pull the dead and injured from the mangled rail cars. Welders were called in to help cut through the wreckage and the residents along Fulton Street threw open their homes to give shelter to the injured and keep rescuers going with food and hot coffee. Clergy arrived to give last rights and nuns from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel who were trained in first aid tended to survivors. The injured were taken to area hospitals, particularly neighboring Perth Amboy General Hospital. The dead were set aside under blankets or lengths of brown wrapping paper before being moved to makeshift morgues such as that at the Woodbridge First Aid Squad garage. An information center was set up at the First Methodist Church of Woodbridge to assist people in search of loved ones. Work went on throughout the night and into the next morning. 

The engineer, Joseph H. Fitzsimmons (left, in bed) survived, though his fireman, Albert "Paddy" Dunn was killed. Investigations were launched by the Pennsylvania Railroad, Woodbridge Township Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Interstate Commerce Commission, Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, and NJ Board of Public Utilities Commission. They concluded that the Pennsylvania Railroad had been negligent by not providing yellow warning signals by the speed restriction, as was standard for most comparable railroads. Fitzsimmons had spent most of his career operating in a territory where such warning was required and appears to have been looking for that as he approached Woodbridge.

In Memory

On April 26, 1993, HAWT member Frank LaPenta had organized a forum, where he invited witnesses to tell their stories. Frank had been among the first on the scene as a 19 year-old. He remembered the arrival of the first responders and directing a blood-covered man and woman to them, as well as helping a woman get home.

Frank and Audrey LaPenta spearheaded a project with HAWT, the First Presbyterian Church of Woodbridge, and New Jersey Transit to erect a plaque in honor of the victims and rescuers of that night. This plaque was restored in 2021.

Video from the Woodbridge Train Wreck

This compilation of movie footage shows the aftermath of the wreck of the Pennsylvania Railroad express passenger train known as "The Broker" in Woodbridge, NJ on the evening of February 6, 1951. It remains the deadliest railroad accident in New Jersey history, with 85 killed and hundreds injured. Also included is part of a report recorded live at the scene by WJLK radio of Asbury Park, NJ.

This video is posted on YouTube and has been given an age restriction due to the graphic nature of some of the footage. Viewer discretion is advised.

Assembled from a VHS video copy of film footage supplied by Dolores Gioffre   |   Digitized by Rutgers University's Media Services, New Brunswick, NJ   |   Edited by Gordon Bond
WJLK Audio Courtesy Todd Dubay, Digitized by Spencer Dubay   |   All used with permission.
Music "Heartbreaking," "Pliant," "Virtutes Instrumenti," "Lost Time," by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

Man Failure: The Story of New Jersey's Deadliest Train Wreck

In 2017, HAWT member Gordon Bond published a book about the 1951 Woodbridge train wreck. The title comes from the phrase that was used in the investigations to explain why the wreck happened—what we today would call "human error." The book includes contemporary accounts and interviews with individuals who experienced this event from various perspectives—survivors, rescuers, hospital staff, family of victims, etc. Additionally, it examines the investigations and how the self-proclaimed "Standard Railroad of the World" had failed. A second edition was published in 2021 for the 70th anniversary which includes an appendix of new additional stories and photos, some of which have never been published before.

Second Edition published by Garden State Legacy, 2021 ISBN 978-0-578-65209-2

$30.00 each plus $8.00 shipping and handling (1-2 books) and 6.625% NJ state sales tax

Visit https://gardenstatelegacy.com/Man_Failure.html for more information and ordering.

Captain Carlsen

Over the course of thirteen days and nights in January 1952, the world followed the fraught drama of Captain Kurt Carlsen (1914-1989) as he gamely remained onboard his stricken ship. The freighter, Flying Enterprise, left Hamburg, German, for the United States under Carlesen's command on December 21, 1951 with a varied cargo of pig iron, coffee, rags, peat moss, a dozen Volkswagen cars, antiques and antique musical instruments, typewriters, naphthalene, and ten passengers with 40 crew. Also onboard were five tons of zirconium, intended for use on the USS Nautilus I, the first nuclear-powered submarine. Four days later, on Christmas night, a storm in the Western Approaches to the English Channel produced one or possibly two rogue waves that caused serious structural damage. An SOS was issued on December 28, by which time the ship was listing 45 degrees to port. 

The British vessel MV Sherborne and USS General A. W. Greely responded to the distress call, remaining on station until the condition of the Flying Enterprise worsened enough that they dispatched lifeboats to evacuate the passengers and crew to the American ship. One of the male passengers was lost during the evacuation. Capt. Carlsen, however, chose to remain with his ship in the hope it could still be saved. The Naval destroyer USS John W. Weeks arrived January 2, 1952, followed the next day by the tug Turmoil who tried but failed to bring the wounded ship, now listing some 60 degrees, in tow. The tug's mate, Kenneth Dancy, was then transferred to the Flying Enterprise to assist Carlsen. They finally succeeded getting a tow line on Flying Enterprise on the 6th, and headed for Falmouth, Cornwall, England. USS Willard Keith relieved the John W. Weeks and the French tug Abeille 25 also joined the rescue effort. In the end, however, the damage was too great and further storms just 40 miles from shore doomed the vessel. Carlsen and Dancy abandoned ship at 3:22 p.m. local time, January 10, 1952. By 4:10 p.m., Flying Enterprise slipped beneath the waves.

Residents of Woodbridge followed the news with especially keen interest. Kurt Carlsen was born in Denmark, where he started his life on the sea at age 14. He came to the United States in 1938, however, settling first in Staten Island, New York, before making his home on Alwat Street in the Township, where he would live the rest of his life. His dedication to his ship until the bitter end made him a celebrity around the world. He was honored in Falmouth, then with a tickertape parade in Manhattan before a warm welcome back home in Woodbridge. He received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Award, authorized by a special act of Congress, and a park in Sewaren is named for him. When he died in 1989, he was buried at sea at the spot where the Flying Enterprise had sunk.

Left: Capt. Carlsen receives the key to the city from Woodbridge Mayor Hugh B. Quigley (far left).

Newsreel footage of the sinking of the Flying Enterprise and Capt. Carlsen's celebrated return to his Woodbridge Township home.

Mid-Century Growth

Woodbridge Township continued its postwar growth throughout the 1950s. The year 1958 was particularly busy. In January, the Valentine Fire Brick Company opened a new $1.5-million plant to replace one destroyed by fire in 1956. It was also a reflection of how the economic life of the Township had changed, since it was the last surviving major brick manufacturer in an area once driven by the industry. While it retained the venerable Valentine name, the the business was owned as a division of A. P. Green Fire Brick Company of Missouri. Elizabeth town Gas Company purchased 42.3 acres in Iselin for a new distribution center. By September, Ronson Corporation opened international offices and warehouse on Route 1. In 1959, S. Klein opened a department store, also Route 1.

On March 5, 1958, the School Board approved construction of five new elementary schools—Lafayette Estates, Fords; Cozy Corner, Avenel; Kennedy Park, Iselin; New Dover Road and Oak Ridge, Colonia—and three new junior high schools—Lafayette Estates, Fords; Cozy Corner, Avenel, and Kennedy Park, Iselin. Three more schools were dedicated on June 7, 1958—Woodbridge High School, Woodbridge; School #18, Iselin; and School #19 (Menlo Park Terrace School). School #21 (Oak Ridge School) and School #22 (New Dover Road) in Colonia opened in 1959.

In February of 1859, Congressman Peter Frelinghuysen announced the Department of Defense released $338,000 to construct a new Army National Guard Armory on Upper Main Street near the New Jersey Turnpike.

The Sixties 



The 1960s were a contentious era where a postwar generation challenged the previous over race, gender, drugs, sexuality, etc.—and particularly clashed over the war in Vietnam. Woodbridge was not immune to these broader trends and the divisions they caused. When she wrote her book "The History of Woodbridge, New Jersey" for the 300th anniversary of the founding charter in 1969, local history aficionado Ruth Wolk was dismissive of this new generation, referring to the Township having experienced "its share of the 'Make Love, Not War' hippie craze which swept the nation." Others were more sympathetic. Wolk also mentions how one of the leaders of the antiwar movement was "a former local minister" who created a stir by debating through letters to the editor of the Leader-Press. Evidently the congregation was divided enough that their membership dropped as was, by then, rebuilding under a new minister. 

Walter P. Kaczmarek

On January 30, 1968, Woodbridge resident Walter P. Kaczmarek (far left) and his fellow U. S. Marines were under enemy attack at Hue City in Vietnam. This was part of the Tet Offensive, where Communist troops launched multiple simultaneous assaults at the provincial capitals throughout the country. Kaczmarek and two other Marines managed to capture the Viet Cong flag despite heavy enemy fire, replacing it with the U.S. flag.

The Village of Port Warren

Challenges to the status quo were not only over social norms. In 1961, a movement gained momentum in Sewaren and Port Reading to break away from Woodbridge Township and incorporate into the Village of Port Warren. The last time a community wanted to break away had been 1906, when Carteret was established as its own borough. The so-called "separatists" intended on using a village incorporation law from 1891. However, the County and Municipal Law Revision Committee recommended that act be repealed the previous January since it had become obsolete with no village using it. Without that, they would need an enabling act by the state legislature. Once repealed, the separatists filed a mandamus suit "to compel the mayor to call an election" on the question of whether they should be allowed to incorporate a new village. Special Township counsel, John E. Toolan, argued for a summary judgement dismissing the suit, which Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Samuel Convery sustained, bringing about an appeal. This was argued up to the State Supreme Court, which, in May of 1962, upheld the lower courts' decisions against the separatists, ending their ambitions for a Village of Port Warren.

End of an Education Era

In May of 1962, the Board of Education announced School No. 1, which had served students since 1876, would no longer be used for classrooms and be converted to offices for the Board. A new School No. 1 was built on land that had been used for temporary housing for veterans returning from the Second World War. On September 9, 1964, three new schools opened, the John F. Kennedy Memorial High School in Iselin, Avenel Junior High School and School No. 27 in Colonia. 

Assassination of John F. Kennedy

Like the rest of the nation, Woodbridge Township was shocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. The Township's Mayor, Walter Zirpolo, issued a proclamation urging residents to observe a period of mourning until December 22nd. Flags were flown at half mast and the Municipal Building was draped in mourning bunting. Police officers wore a black band across their badges and a banner reading "In Memoriam" was hung over the entrance to police headquarters. Houses of worship held special memorial services.

The Board of Education announced that the new high school then being constructed in Iselin would be named the John F. Kennedy Memorial High School.

A New Library System

Prior to 1963, Woodbridge Township had been served by nine small privately owned libraries. In January of that year, Edwin P. Beckerman, who had been Assistant Director of the Public Library at Yonkers, NY, was named Director of the Township's new Municipal Library System. Within five years, the system included a main library in Woodbridge proper (left) and branch libraries in its constituent communities.

An All American City

In March of 1964, Woodbridge Township was named an "All American City" by the co-sponsors of the contest, the National Municipal League and Look magazine. It had been nominated by the Woodbridge Jaycees and Woodbridge Township Business and Professional Women's Club. Two special events were held, one being the raising of the "All American City" flag at the Municipal Building. The other was a banquet held at the National Guard Armory on April 18th. The image at right shows, left to right: Dr. George Gallup of Gallup Poll fame, who headed the selection jury; State Senator Norman Tanzman (1918-2004); Ruth Wolk, who represented the Township before the contest jury; unnamed representative of co-sponsor Look magazine.

Tercentenary

The year 1964 marked the 300th birthday of the State of New Jersey. At 12:30 p.m. sharp on New Years Day, men from the 53rd Armor Division, 1st Medium Tank Battalion, Army National Guard at Woodbridge, raised the American and official state Tercentenary flags in front of Town Hall. Municipal Council members were sworn in under the recently-adopted new form of government, and the first order of business was a report from Ruth Wolk, Tercentenary Chairman for Woodbridge Township, for a commemorative program. She reminded the audience that while the region became "New Jersey" when the English took over in 1664, the state's roots went back even further, to Dutch and Swedish settlements in the early 1600s. Flags of the Netherlands, Sweden, and Great Britain were presented, followed by a 13-star American flag, the Tercentenary flag, and the Township flag. following a chorus of "America the Beautiful" and Pledge of Allegiance, a huge four-tier birthday cake was wheeled out, cut by Mayor Zirpolo as the crowd sang "Happy Birthday." The entire year was dedicated to various events marking the occasion.

As the state's oldest township, Woodbridge could claim being the site of among the first European settlers. Indeed, when it held a parade that September 27th in honor of the State, they added this to the reason for celebration. However, since its charter as a township dated to 1669, Woodbridge would have to wait for 1969 to mark an anniversary all its own.