When Death Rode the Rails: Sept. 15, 1958 (Part Four)

by John Delach

I published a stand-alone version of Part Four entitled: “No. 932: Sent from the gods” in January of 2014.

When the third coach, Car 932, temporarily came to rest on that 80-degree angle, it became the iconic newspaper photograph of record carried on the front pages of Tuesday’s Metropolitan newspapers. All the morning papers from the Daily News and Daily Mirror the Star Ledger and The Asbury Press carried the image of this half-submerged coach conspicuously identified as 932. It became a message from the gods.

And so, workingmen and women who played the numbers flocked to this heavenly gift and played 932 in droves. Back then, a big bet was one dollar, but you could bet as little as a quarter with a local runner, a part-time collector who worked for a bookie. When you bet a three-number combination, the payoff was 600 to 1.

Harry Barnhardt worked as a hostler for the Erie Railroad in their Hoboken Yard shuttling locomotives within a terminal. Harry would transfer steamers and diesels from shops and lay-up tracks, hook them up to coaches and move the consist into the station for the evening rush hour trains.

Harry was my friend, Mike Scott’s, grandfather. Aside from his Erie job, he was also a runner for a bookmaker in Jersey City. He collected daily bets from fellow Erie workers in the afternoon and, each morning, made the rounds of 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 gin mills, pick up the day’s bets and pay off yesterday’s winners. Mike was eight in 1958 and recalls, “On days off from school and during the summer, my brothers, Jimmy and Kevin my sister, Kathy and I took turns visiting Harry and 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.”

The Wednesday night after the wreck, Harry dropped Grandma Rose off at the Scott’s house for her traditional spaghetti night. But this night 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. “Unheard of!” Mike reported. “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 was, Harry blew for dinner, something he never did.”

Mike continued, “Years later, when I went into the insurance business, Harry clued me into what happened that day. He said, ‘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 a number, it’s played like wildfire. That morning, 932 came in 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?”

Mike explained: “When the bookmakers discover that a number is 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 figuratively headed west. Their search began in Pittsburgh, then to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, 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 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, it hit me when I walked out to make my rounds that day, ‘My God, this is the most amount of money I will ever have on me in my entire life.”