If ever there was a Princeton landmark, it's the Dinky. Sure, there may be more noticeable or memorable sights to put on postcards or University stationery, but when it comes to personal experiences, few things beat that single N.J. Transit car. Even the station seems to encapsulate something peculiarly Princetonian — perhaps it's that familiar collegiate gothic stone façade or the mathematical notation scribbled in chalk on one of the wooden pillars (I kid you not).
The fact that we're all now hardened Princeton students lessens the effect that seemingly incongruous word had on us when we first encountered it. But the development in our personal experiences from curiously raised eyebrows at first hearing the mention of the Dinky to our current level of comfortable intimacy, perhaps, suggests something overly romanticized about this particular locomotive.
If the Dinky were that important to Princeton students, it would carry an air of functional utility rather than Ross Perot campaign stickers from the 1992 Presidential race (Again, I kid you not). As it stands, many students use the train a handful of times a year to get to Newark Liberty Airport, and that's about it. Princeton University historian, John Miller '70, seems to agree that it no longer has the status it had in the past.
The Dinky dates back to 1865 when "After there was a big hue and cry over Princeton being taken off the mainline when the track was straightened, it was felt necessary to build a spur line connecting the campus with the new station at Princeton Junction," Miller said.
But the Dinky station of 1865 is not the station we know and love today. To place it, you'll have to perform a mental act of what economists call "creative destruction," for the station was then in what is now the courtyard immediately to the south of Blair Hall. There were no junior slums or Spelman to inhibit progress. This wooden station was replaced by a stone building in the 1870s that would stand until 1917, when the move to its current location took place.
To understand the importance placed on the Dinky at that point in Princeton's history by the administration requires some context. Back in those days, "Students would pay for accommodation in proportion to how nice they were," Miller said. Witherspoon was the centerpiece dorm, and it was conveniently visible right as one stepped off the Dinky. "[President] McCosh was smart enough to realize that people's impression of Princeton would be greatly colored by that first experience, the thought that 'I'm gonna live there!' would have obviously gone through their minds," Miller added.
The Dinky played a major role in McCosh's battle to bring money and prestige to the then relatively provincial College of New Jersey in order to create the institution we know today. After its relocation down campus, there ceased to be quite the same effect upon immediately disembarking the train, but the Dinky continued to play an important role in Princeton lore.
Miller emphasized the role of the Dinky in bringing women to campus prior to their admission in 1969. Miller said, "These weren't small dates; you had to entertain the girl from Friday afternoon until Sunday, which involved putting them up at one of the boarding houses in town." The dinky quite literally bridged the coeducational divide, bringing in girls from schools such as Smith, Vassar and Bryn Mawr for dates.
But if this all sounds too quaint for our post-ironic modern ears, Miller added a few more details, "There were those who had been set up on blind dates who would wait in the bushes by McCarter and wait to see how their date looked." He sees this cruel vetting procedure as being at odds with the traditional Princetonian code of gentlemanly honor that ensured all girls who came to campus would be treated well.
Old-fashioned chivalry reigned supreme, however, in perhaps the most famous Dinky story of them all — the Great Dinky Robbery. Hugh O'Bleary recounted the story in one of his Princeton Alumni Weekly columns in 2000. In the fall of 1960, four students, on horseback, robbed the Dinky of its most precious cargo — girls. O'Bleary quotes George R. Bunn Jr. '63, one of the perpetrators of this legendary deed, as saying, "It was houseparties weekend . . . We had hats and bandannas and everything, and I had a .38 pistol loaded with blanks."
Bunn went on to tell O'Bleary the rest of the tale, "When the train came along, we galloped down to the tracks and I rode straight at the train, and the conductor screeched it to a stop, and we all climbed on and I fired off a couple of shots — it was very loud — and everybody was yelling and had their hands up and all the businessmen were throwing their wallets at us."
"We didn't have dates on the train. We just picked the four girls we thought were most likely to play along and took them off the train and told them what was going on, and they got on the horses and we all took off through the woods to Prospect," Bunn said.
Maybe it's just the curse of the present, but stories always seem to have been better in the past, and to some extent, the Dinky itself feels that way now. Now, the most interesting thing about the station is whether any of the bikes down there belong to people who are still enrolled.
I did try to get to the bottom of one mystery with Mr. Miller though; I asked him what the buildings down by the station are currently used for? He didn't know, but he did mention that when he was an undergraduate, the northernmost building was still a functioning waiting room. "There was talk of converting it into a welcome center," Miller said, "but that was sometime ago." It seems that building is totally abandoned for now, but the southernmost building is still open — if only to N.J. Transit employees.
The Dinky has been a mainstay of Princeton's campus, but its future is somewhat uncertain. A mere three years ago the State Assembly considered extending the line to both West Windsor and Nassau Street. But now contraction seems to be the watchword, as N.J. Transit is considering replacing our beloved Dinky with a bus route. Princeton owns the station but NJ Transit operates the train, so the University would have no final say over the future of the train.
The Dinky's 2.7 miles make it the shortest regularly scheduled railroad trip in the United States, but it has never been short on history or significance. Perhaps the best way to make the Dinky's survival certain is to ride it more often; that means forsaking rides in the Dinky's archenemy— the automobile. If we each ride the Dinky once a week, we'll boost its coffers. Maybe I, too, am guilty of overly romanticizing the Dinky, but I am convinced of one thing — this is one train you don't want to miss.
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