In its earliest stage, the Railroad YMCA, a late 19th century alliance between the Young Men’s Christian Association and railroad companies, offered overnight lodging, prayer meetings and wholesome activities for railroad workers. On the eve of the 20th century, it arrived in Camden, New Jersey.
The Pennsylvania Railroad YMCA was established in 1895, opening the door for a Camden branch four years later. According to the 1917 book on the history of the city, The Story of Camden, New Jersey, “the organization was formed in a car in the Camden yards, where a number of men would congregate for Bible study, prayer and social intercourse, and the interest grew and numbers increased from a ‘noonhour’ group to a real live organization and became a part of the North American Young Men’s Christian Association.”
The Story of Camden, New Jersey explains that “the Pennsylvania Railroad Company gave the new ‘child’ some consideration, and what was then known as ‘Old Third Street Church’ building, formerly Camden’s mother M.E. Church, was given to the work of the Association.”
Don Wentzel, in a 1990 South Jersey Magazine article about the Railroad YMCA, sheds more light on the building that became the Association’s Camden center. The city’s Methodists originally held services in 1809 in a building on Sixth and Market streets until the neighbors “drove them out.” They next built a church at Fourth and Federal streets, but a growing congregation forced them to build yet another building at Third and Taylor, which was eventually destroyed in a conflagration.
The third Methodist church built in Camden was located on Mickle Street near the railroad station, which began running trains on Sundays during the 1880s. “By 1893,” Wentzel explains, “the noise from the ever increasing rail traffic made preaching very difficult and this prompted a decision to move the church again.” The First Methodist Church of Camden relocated to Sixth and Stevens streets, “selling their Mickle Street building to the Pennsylvania Railroad,” which “gave the Camden railroad YMCA the use of the building.”
From its inception until 1917, the Camden Railroad YMCA increased its membership from less than 300 to over 1500. The facility boasted attendants and a fully equipped barbershop with two barbers in addition to “adequate offices, reading rooms and library, reception room, mechanical instruction plant, washroom, tub baths and a bank of five showers, game room containing…billiard tables, shuffle boards, a gymnasium, basketball cage, two rifle ranges, and every convenience for the railroad man.”
There were, in fact, two gymnasiums, one larger than the other, as well as 950 lockers. The Story of Camden, New Jersey reveals that “seven classrooms are used for educational purposes, large and small social rooms are located on the second floor, as are also the rooms occupied by the boys for game rooms.”
The office, reading rooms, ladies’ parlor, an 880-seat auditorium and several meeting rooms were contained on the first floor. The cafeteria and men’s game rooms, which included six bowling alleys and nine billiard tables, were located in the basement. There was also a band, an orchestra and a glee club organized within the framework of the Association.
The Railroad YMCAs throughout the country, including Camden’s, attempted to weather the changes the 20th century brought with it but, as Wentzel notes, by 1988, “only 16 were left, half of these serving both the city and the railroad.” He explains that, of the other eight, five were planning to close in 1990 due, in part, to the reduction of railroad jobs and revised tax laws that “eliminated the non-profit status of the railroad Y.”
Today, Camden no longer houses a Railroad Y where once, as Wentzel recalls, “a hot shower and a towel, a clean bed and a wake-up call were guaranteed.”