By DON STINE
A long-forgotten artifact celebrating the 200th anniversary of our nation has been retrieved from near the NJ Transit railroad tracks in the Bradley Beach/Neptune area and will eventually be taken to Riley Park in Bradley Beach for public display.
A large boulder with a commemorative bronze plaque was placed near the railroad tracks in 1976 to mark the site where the American Freedom Train was stationed on a side track in September 1976.
“The boulder marks an important part of our country’s history and the local histories of both Neptune and Bradley Beach,” Bradley Beach historian Don Lewis said.
Lewis said the commemorative boulder has been forgotten over the years but he recently tracked it down and found it still located on the western side of the tracks between Bradley Beach and Neptune.
“It was still by the tracks but overgrown and difficult to get to- it was practically inaccessible and neglected for 40 years,” he said.
Lewis said he spoke with some NJ Transit workers who were near the site and, after much negotiation with NJ Transit, the company agreed to move the boulder, which now sits in the Bradley Beach public works yard, off Main Street.
“So it is at its halfway point and will now be moved to Riley Park in the near future where its 40th anniversary will be celebrated,” he said.
The plaque, which is believed to have placed by the Neptune Historical Society, reads: “The American Freedom Train was located on this site Sept. 2-6th in celebration of our nation’s Bicentennial. Over 60,000 people boarded the train.”
The steam-powered American Freedom Train was the only nationwide celebration of the 1976 Bicentennial. It was pulled by steam locomotives and featured 12 display cars- 10 that visitors would go aboard and pass through and two to hold large objects that would be viewed from the ground through huge showcase windows.
The display cars were filled with more than 500 precious treasures of Americana, including George Washington’s copy of the Constitution, the original Louisiana Purchase, Judy Garland’s dress from The Wizard of OZ, Joe Frazier’s boxing trunks, Martin Luther King’s pulpit and robes, and even a rock from the moon.
Over a 21-month period, from April 1, 1975 to December 31, 1976, more than seven million Americans visited the train during its tour of all 48 contiguous states. Tens of millions more stood trackside to see it go by. It was by far the greatest event on rails since the end of the steam era and the uniquely magnificent vehicle that brought America’s Bicentennial celebration to the people.
Bradley Beach was the furthest point south that the train could run on the railroad tracks at the time.
“I am glad the commemorative boulder is now going to a location where it will be more visible and where people can enjoy it. Many people never even knew it existed and it’s an important part of our Jersey Shore history,” Lewis said.