Juggernauting, Part 3
Before they began producing their own films, Vitagraph exhibited Edison pictures. The very first they presented publicly was The Black Diamond Express (1896). It’s a simple actuality — nothing more than a train approaching the camera — but it was wildly popular. Difficult to imagine today, but then, trains were the modern marvel. Also difficult to imagine are smashups — a kind of carnival sideshow common at the turn of the 20th century, where antiquated railroad engines were purposefully wrecked for the audience’s entertainment.
Filming a smashup wasn’t a novel idea — witness Edison’s The Railroad Smashup (1904) — but incorporating one into a feature-length narrative film was.
Vitagraph had purchased four decommissioned engines from the Long Island Railroad and several old passenger cars. Each train was destined to be destroyed in some manner. The first two met in a head-on collision, in standard smashup fashion, in The Wreck (1914). The fourth speeds into a forest fire in The Ninety and Nine (1916). The third, retired Long Island Railroad Engine #56, would find itself plunged into the icy depths at the climax of The Juggernaut (1915).
The train wreck was filmed on September 27th, 1914. On the northern edge of the Hercules chemical plant in Sayreville, New Jersey is a large man-made lagoon locally called Duck Nest Pond. Running hard beside it are Raritan River Railroad tracks. Vitagraph constructed a short spur line off these, which made a wide turn onto a trestle that spanned half-way across the pond.
In the story, the railroad has been dangerously neglected. The bridge, we find out only too late, is unsafe to cross. At first, the wobbly piers support the train’s weight, but then — crash!
The passenger cars were filled with dummies. The only live human aboard was the engineer, who jumped off some distance away after wiring the throttle down. The train was meant to cross the trestle at around 15 miles per hour, but between the engineer’s departure and the train reaching the spur, the wire had worked itself loose. Unlike the ersatz dereliction of the bridge, the engine was legitimately in disrepair and the throttle dropped into full open. I’ve heard it said the train topped-out at anywhere from 30 to 60 miles an hour before it reached the trestle. From the footage, I might believe 30. It’s a bit over-cranked, which makes it seem to move slower than it is, but there’s simply no way that train is moving anywhere near 60mph.
The piers were rigged with explosives to ensure that the bridge failed on cue, but the train was moving so fast that, even as the center of the bridge was collapsing, it still managed to cross it and go sailing off the end — narrowly missing one of the camera towers. It was expected that the boiler would explode when it hit the cold water, but it didn’t. Pyrotechnician Herman Rogers assisted it with a couple sticks of dynamite.
Once the dust settled, the dummies were replaced by living extras, to be filmed struggling out of the wreckage and swimming ashore. Easier said than done. There were lifeguards stationed, but it wasn’t always easy to differentiate those who were pretending to drown from those who actually were drowning. There were no major injuries, but several people had to be rescued.
Most attributed their cramps to the chill of the water, but the temperature is the least of Duck Nest Pond’s problems. The Hercules plant was a major producer of nitrocellulose, among other chemicals. Indeed, the film The Juggernaut was shot on may have come from Hercules. But they kept their waste on-site in unlined landfills, which leached into the groundwater. The area surrounding the plant is highly contaminated with tertiary-butyl alcohol, carbon tetrachloride, and chloroform. The place was and is toxic. Today, it’s an EPA Superfund site.
A century later and much of the scene is still there down in Sayreville. Vitagraph just abandoned everything when filming wrapped. The spur is gone, but the main tracks are still there. The pond is still there. Rows of stumps soldier off into the water — the remnants of the piers that made up the trestle — they’re still there. Even the wreck itself was left to rust away for decades — it wasn’t until 1938 that it was pulled out for scrap iron.
Unrelated to this post or The Juggernaut, a new video will be going up soon. Not going to say what it is, but it’s a personal favorite that I’ve written about before. Maybe you can guess.