From the air, I imagine it slithers like a giant green snake through the towns of South Jersey.
You can’t see it behind the Holy Maternity Church (now called the Betel Casa De Dios) or behind the condominiums on Nicholson Road, just off the Black Horse Pike.
It was never a thing actually — just a void. A gulch. A gully. A small ravine. Negative space. And boy, oh boy, did we fill it.
It was under the gully canopy where we spent our youth. We were tribal, territorial, pissing on trees to claim our land. We would fight with kids from other towns, fight with each other, and, once, a girl shot me in the belly with a pellet gun, but a friend reminded me recently that I asked her to do it. We built forts by the stream that ran through the center of the gully. We kissed girls brave enough to come down with us. We hoarded beer, cigarettes and joints laughing like madmen in the licking glow of the campfire. We would walk for hundreds of yards beneath the town through the giant, man-sized runoff pipes — subterranean ghouls haunting the guts of Audubon, NJ.
We unearthed foundations of old houses and odd, seemingly ancient trinkets.
Our specter voices echoed off more than seventeen years ago, but the place still amazes me. What birthed that strange gully or gulch or ravine, which in turn birthed us?
“The Gully” as the local New Jersians refer to it, stretched initially from Westville, NJ through Mt. Ephraim, Audubon Park, Audubon and Haddonfield. Now, the gully exist mainly in Audubon Park, Audubon, and into Haddon Township. I’ve come to learn that this was not a natural land formation but the remnants of a 1906 construction project and failed railroad.
The railroad was to stretch just under five miles from Westville to Haddonfield. It was designed below grade, meaning that much of the railroad would be essentially underground — not in a tunnel, but in a gully.
I wondered why a railroad company, like the Delaware River Railroad and Bridge Company in conjunction with the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad, would take the time to dig out the gully? I wondered this because much of the area in 1906 was private tracts of farmland. Even my hometown of Audubon still had no paved roads and was nicknamed “Mudabon.”
After checking some long forgotten discussion boards and some fact checking on www.sjrail.com/wiki , I discovered that the Westville Cutoff — as the project was called — was originally designed to traffic “hazardous and perishable materials.”
An old post on an AudubonUncensored message board on the topic of the gully discussed that the Dupont empire owned the world’s largest dynamite factory in Gibbstown, Gloucester County, which is southwest down the Delaware River from Westville. Perhaps dynamite was the mystery cargo of the failed railroad?
I pictured myself, age 12, running next to the dynamite packed freight cars deep in the gully and lighting a match. A sinister smile flashed on my face as I typed this.
No matter the cargo, the only thing I knew the gully to carry was the lofty imaginations of children — it was a few acres of woods we could call our own, free of pavement and parents and private property laws (well, the laws were there, just ignored).
I still wanted to know what happened to the project on which so many men work hard. I remember being able to see stretches of abandoned track beneath the copper colored stream that runs through the center of the gully. I remember gnarled rails twisting up from the earth reaching toward the canopy.
The Westville Cut was close to 80 percent finished by the fall of 1908, when the construction project ceased (I want to say “Dead in its Tracks,” but that would be too easy). Bridges were built and track was pounded into ties, but it would never be used. At least not by any rail cars. In 1907, the stock market crashed. Wikipedia gives the event three names — The Panic of 1907; 1907 Bankers’ Panic; or the Knickerbocker Crisis. Take your pick, but either way the stock market ended up falling 50 percent and, obviously, panic ensued.
The panic reached from the New York Stock Exchange all the way to a tiny railroad project in a little farm town named Audubon.
I remember my grandmother telling me about a swinging bridge that stretched across the gully where Haviland Avenue meets the gully. After some research I found that the swinging bridge, along with most of the rails that were completed were used as scrap metal to support the war effort during World War II.
I remember in the Northwest corner of the Public Service and Gas Company yard (the subsequent modern owners of the gully tract) was where I discovered what appeared to be the old foundation of a home, or an early dump and trash burning sight. One afternoon I dug and dug, uncovering countless milk bottles, cobalt blue glass jars of different sizes with Noxzema etched in the bottom and a small ceramic church.
On a recent visit, I saw the pipes we would wander through in our youth and wondered how badly my back would hurt if I tried to do it now. I pictured the men pounding in spikes to hold the rails to the ties with the tools available to them when they began the project in the spring of 1906. I visited the site of our old fort — The Bay Beach House we called it. I saw the fence a cop threw himself over as he ordered us to put out our campfire. I wondered how we did not get arrested. I remember the cop laughing as he found our toilet paper and asked, “You fucking shit down here? Jesus Christ!” I searched hard for the old site where I dug up those artifacts that still adorn a shelf in my office, but couldn’t find it. I often look at them and try to find the wonder that used to fill me when I questioned, who owned these items? Who drank out of this old glass flask of Fleishman’s Whiskey? What excitement surrounded the breakfast table when milk was poured from these bottles?
I mingled with the ghosts of my childhood and the workmen of the railroad, both long gone and existing in some land of potentials, like the unactualized railroad that brought my town a gully. As I type this, I stare at the bottles on my shelf and wonder fills me. The visit to the gully just depressed me. I know this is just musing, there is no grand punchline, and at the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney or a victim of Golden Era thinking, I’ll just say this: I encountered a void. Our trails were now overgrown. Our fires long extinguished. I imagined some kid digging up the old beer bottles and whiskey flasks we drank out of, but the gully was empty except for a man on the ridge walking his dog. Where were the kids? Probably having digital adventures in digital worlds with no true history, with no real past. I would have to accept that memory was as close as I could get to that old wonder, that those bottles I still have were my only links, but to avoid melodrama, I must concede to the fact that to anyone entering my office, they would just be old bottles — recycling. Melt them down. Make new bottles. Let it go, kiddo!
I waded through the weedy undergrowth to the roadway above grade and wondered if I would be arrested for trespassing — something I never worried about as a child without borders.
Like the rails, our youth was dug up and smelted down for future efforts. We re-purpose memory, our childhoods, to our own useful ends. But what is my point? To tie myself to broader local history, I suppose. To make myself a part of a landscape.
Perhaps there’s more. While researching a word —”abracadabra” — for a piece of fiction I am working on, I encountered hazy Hebrew and Aramaic origins, but they all seem to point to one similar definition: “I create what I speak,” or “It will pass as I speak.” In the Talmud, there is a phrase used by the rabbis, Avra K’davra —this has evolved into abracadabra in modern usage. Rabbis, in the Talmud, created a calf from the ground by speaking it into being. So maybe that is it. It will cease to be if I don’t speak it, write it, retell the retellings, etc.
If one looks too deeply into why they tell any story, they run the risk of being swallowed up in the existential rabbit hole — why tell anything, why do anything, why get out of bed in the morning? I create what I speak. I speak about the bottles on my bookcase, and a whole world unfurls back to the 1907 stock market crash (see Marcel Proust for a more elegant example with his petite madeleines in In Search of Lost Time for the ultimate literary representation of involuntary memory). Nostalgia, it seems, is a blessing but also a detriment to mindfulness. Like the character in the piece of fiction I’m working on, speaking things into being might be a blissful stroll down memory lane, but it could begin to push out the characters from your present.
The sort of nostalgia I’m taking part in seems pretty harmless. I wont recycle the bottles just yet. But then again, I’m supposed to be working on an article for a client and it is due first thing in the AM. If I spend another minute on this, I’m going to smash those goddamn bottles on the floor. Abracadabra!