On September 15, 1958, a Central of New Jersey commuter train bound for the railroad’s terminal in Jersey City inexplicably ran three stop lights, broke through an automatic derailer and plunged over an open lift bridge into Newark Bay killing 48 passengers and crew. The two diesel engines pulling the train and the first two cars sank into the bay. The third coach, Car No. 932, first came to rest at an 80 degree angle balanced precariously between the lip of the span and an underwater abutment. The coach clung to this perch for two hours before slipping into the bay becoming the iconic image of the wreck, the photograph of record that documented the crash on the front pages of the next day’s Metropolitan newspapers. All of the morning newspapers from the NY Times and the Herald Tribune down to local New Jersey papers like the Newark Star Ledger, Bergen Record and Asbury Park Press carried the image of this car, half-submerged, hanging off of the bridge support. But the two morning City tabloids, the Daily News and the Daily Mirror splashed it across their front pages making the number, 932 stand out like a message from the gods.
Daily state lotteries didn’t exist in 1958 and most ordinary Joes and Janes played “the numbers.” A dollar was considered a big bet but you could bet as little as a quarter with a local runner, a part-time collector who worked for a bookie. The payoff for the three-number combination was 600 to 1.
Harry Barnhardt worked as a hostler for the Erie Railroad in their Hoboken Yard. A hostler was a railroad man who operated engines within a terminal. Harry shuttled diesels from shops, round houses and lay-up tracks, hooked ‘em up to coaches and pushed them into the station so they could haul the evening rush hour trains.
Harry was my friend, Mike Scott’s grandfather. Aside from his Erie job, Harry was also a runner for a bookmaker in Jersey City. He collected daily bets from fellow Erie workers and each morning made his rounds tothe bars along Hudson Boulevard and Summit Avenue in north Jersey City. Harry’s railroad workday began at 3 pm making his mornings clear to troll these local bar and grills, pick up the day’s bets and pay off yesterday’s winners. Mike was eight in 1958 and recalled, “On days off from school and during the summer, my brothers, Jimmy, Kevin and my sister, Kathy and I took turns visiting Harry and our grandmother, Rose. Harry would take us out with him on his morning rounds. We’d get a free Coke and Harry would sip a beer while conducting business. Then, it was on to the next gin mill.”
On Wednesday afternoon, two days after the wreck, Harry dropped Grandma Rose off at the Scott’s house for her traditional night with their family. But this time it was different! Instead of distributing her normal allowance of twenty-five cents to Mike and his older brother, Jimmy, grandma handed them each a five dollar bill. “That was simply unheard of!” Mike explained to me. “Not only that, she took all of us out to the Chinese joint, a rare thing indeed.
“Then, even crazier, the next weekend, on Harry’s day off, he took everybody to Mario’s, a bar in Clifton that served up those 1950s’ vintage pizzas with enormous air pockets. Were they any good? Who knew, they were the only and best pizza we ever had. But, what made this special: Harry blew for dinner, something he never did.”
Mike explained, “Years later, when I went into the insurance business, Harry clued me into what happened that day. He explained, ‘People play the same number all the time, birthdays, anniversaries, and so on. But they are also superstitious and when a crash happens and they find the number, it’s played like wild fire. That morning, 932 was played everywhere I went. It was crazy. When I took my sheets in, I said to the guys, ‘This is nuts!’
‘Did you play it Harry?’ they asked me? ‘Hell, yes, I replied. But how can the bookies cover if it hits?”
The answer, according to Mike was an insurance term: reinsurance. When insurance companies find they have accumulated too much of a particular exposure, they lay it off to other insurance companies. “The same thing with a bookmaker,” Mike explained. “When they find a number or a horse being heavily played they find other bookmakers who don’t have this action. The 1958 CNJ wreck was an East Coast event so the bookies went west. Their search began in Pittsburgh, then it continues on to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, etc, etc. until they managed to layoff enough to survive. In return, they took the western books hot numbers then or later.
“Harry not only hit the number, he was a hero in all those gin mills. Grandma took his $600 payout, but Harry kept all of the tips from his bettors and the action she didn’t know about.
“When Harry told me this story, he stopped, thought about it and said, ‘I went down to Jersey City early the next morning scared that there wouldn’t be a payout. Already, the word was bookies had reneged. As it turned out, those were mostly locals, kids or jerks, without a clue trying to get a piece of the action. The people I worked for were solid and paid off in full.’
‘You know, Mike,’ he told me, ‘Something hit me when I walked out to make my rounds that day.”
“Was it the enormity of it all, the crash?” I asked.
‘No Mike, it wasn’t that the payout came because of a wrecked train. No, I thought to myself, Oh my God, this is the most amount of money I will ever have on me in my entire life.”