1:10 p.m. -- Water, fishermen and rusty steel are part of his daily life
Published in the Home News Tribune
KEITH MUCCILLI photo
12:48 p.m. John Ptak, an employee of Conrail, closes the railroad bridge linking South River and
Railroad bridge operator leads solitary life
By J.P. WHITE
John Ptak, 55, the "trestle man" of
South River Borough officials, police and members of the town's historic society know little about the swing-bridge operator, and have seen even less of him.
there as far back as I can remember," says pizza man John Koch, taking a
cigarette break outside Coffaro's
Koch says he doesn't see Ptak much either.
in town may view the trestle man as an enduring figure, there actually have
been many persons behind the persona. For the past three years it has been
55-year-old Ptak, a resident of
It's Ptak's job to swing open the bridge to provide boats safe
passage along the
bridge is about 150 feet of rusty red steel topped with railroad ties and
stained with graffiti. The bridge provides a link to the branch lines running
Ptak's expecting that train any time now, so he dons a hard hat and reflective vest, takes a long metal bar called a key and fits it into a gear in the center of the bridge. And with a little muscle he turns greased wheels below him which, in turn, rotate the bridge until it's closed.
Ptak walks in a clockwise motion, turning the key to line
up the two sides of the bridge that connects South River and
"You gotta be careful, cautious," he says. "The main thing is to be safe. You're by yourself here.
"You gotta go with it. The main thing is to have the momentum going and walk with it. Otherwise you put your back into it like a donkey."
The bridge is
the last of its kind in
"I might not retire until I'm 70 if all I have to do is push a button," jokes Ptak, who says he plans to retire in five years.
Ptak says he doesn't get lonely being out on the tracks eight hours a day by himself, with only the occasional fisherman for conversation.
"I don't mind it. I enjoy it," he says. "My objective is to get that train across, no matter what.
"That's why I'm here. That's my job."
Ptak, who has been in the railroad business since 1977,
works the bridge from April to November and does track work in
Between the openings and closings of the bridge, Ptak says, "I just wait here. That's my job.
"I like being around water. The kids come around sometimes. They're not supposed to, but they do. I don't want anybody falling in the river."
He says visitors call him "Captain John."
the bridge and rail line had more human traffic than the cargo containers that
now frequent the line. According to town documents, more people used to come to
the river for a scenic ride into
The line was
originally part of the Raritan River Railroad, controlled and owned by the
Pennsylvania Railroad. The trestle was built over the
provided a 12.6-mile ride between South Amboy and
By 1945 it was
co-owned by the Central Railroad of New Jersey,
It's 2:15 p.m., and a train whistle sounds off in the distance, just as an osprey soars across the river.
By 2:20 p.m. the locomotive reaches the bridge and crosses slowly, towing five box cars. Ptak and the conductor exchange waves.
"I feel like I belong here," Ptak says with a smile. "Like it's a home here."
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