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Holiday tree decorates PATH tunnel 

12/20/01 By David Danzig  Jersey Journal staff writer 

PATH employees say the tunnels that trains use to travel between New Jersey and New York can be pretty spooky places sometimes. When it's quiet down there, legend has it you can still hear the cries of dozens of donkeys who were killed in an 1898 accident during construction of "the tubes," as they are often called.

They're not a place with many amenities. There is, for example, no place to get coffee or a drink of water. Not even a place to go to the bathroom. "Working in the tunnel is like working in a mine," said Pat Healy, the chief supervisor of maintenance at PATH. "There is nothing there but you and the tracks."

Well, almost nothing. In one of the deepest tunnels there now stands a fairly large Christmas tree, all lit up with green and red lights. 

The tree, in the tunnel used by trains running from 33rd Street and Hoboken into the Pavonia/Newport station, has gone up every year, for almost a half-century, around Thanksgiving time thanks to PATH employees.

The tradition began in the mid 1950s - nobody is sure exactly what year - when Joe Wojtowicz, a signal operator who died in 1988, hung a string of Christmas lights by the switching station where he used to work. The switching station where Wojtowicz worked smooths the transition from the Hoboken and 33rd Street tracks into the main Pavonia/Newport tunnel.

Even though PATH officials were initially concerned about setting up decorations in the tunnel, everyone was soon caught up in the spirit. By the 1960s, Wojtowicz was dragging a tree down to the switching station and lighting it up on the day before Thanksgiving. The tradition has remained even after Wojtowicz's retirement in the mid-1970s.

No other major subway system in the region - and perhaps the world - has a display like it. Officials with subways in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston all said they put up decorations for the holidays, but as one spokesman said, they tend to be "in more traditional places."

PATH passengers seem to love the oddly placed tree. "People always ask me to stop the train so that they can take pictures," conductor Ken Reese said during a recent ride through the tunnels. "Of course we aren't allowed to do that. "Sometimes I say something like 'eyes left' to alert them that it is coming up, though," he added.

It's also a plus for the employees, who say it's actually not as dark down in the tunnels now as it was when Wojtowicz worked there because of a recently installed lighting system. "Still, the tree is like an oasis in the desert," said Healy, the maintenance supervisor. 

This year, the tree does not stand alone. Right next to it is a back-lit U.S. flag, which serves as a memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. While the tree is expected to come down in January, the flag - erected by Shop Signal Supervisor Ira Ross - will stand indefinitely, PATH officials say.

Also this year, the tree is a little larger than in the past, and a string of holiday white lights has been hung at another switching station in a tunnel used by trains running from Pavonia/Newport into Manhattan and Hoboken.

"We felt that this year we needed to do what we could to say something a little bit more given the events of Sept. 11," said Fred Childs, the superintendent of power signals and communication with PATH.

So what happens to the tree when it's ready to come down? "We throw it out," said Jim Reilly, the chief supervisor of signal construction. " It's filled with steel dust kicked up from hundreds of trains going by it. Even though it looks nice now, the thing is disgusting by January."

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