Cour­tesy of the Atlantic City Free Pub­lic Library’s archives

My nov­el opened at a train sta­tion, or at least it did, before my edi­tor asked me to rewrite the beginning.

The sto­ry, which is set in Atlantic City in the sum­mer of 1934, fol­lows a Jew­ish fam­i­ly — not unlike my own — as they mourn the loss of a beloved daugh­ter who drowned train­ing to swim the Eng­lish Channel.

Have you ever con­sid­ered open­ing the nov­el in a dif­fer­ent set­ting?” My edi­tor asked on a phone call the week the book went to auc­tion. Not at the train sta­tion. Maybe the beach?”

She was ref­er­enc­ing Atlantic City’s Union Sta­tion, an eleven-track ter­mi­nal that opened at the cor­ner of Arc­tic and Arkansas avenues, in late June of 1934. The orig­i­nal ter­mi­nal was built in 1854, when the island was just a spit of soft sand, at the cor­ner of what would become Atlantic and South Car­oli­na avenues.

I had con­sid­ered sev­er­al dif­fer­ent open­ing scenes. Like so many first-time nov­el­ists, I’d writ­ten and rewrit­ten those ear­ly pages. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end of a draft, if you’re doing it right.

But nev­er, in all those drafts, did I intro­duce my title char­ac­ter, Flo­rence Adler, to read­ers in any loca­tion oth­er than the train sta­tion. I was dying to work with this bril­liant edi­tor, but for some rea­son, the idea of cut­ting that scene from the man­u­script left me heartbroken.

I argued, diplo­mat­i­cal­ly, that I need­ed the train sta­tion for any num­ber of rea­sons — to con­vey tone, to pro­vide his­tor­i­cal con­text, to book­end the sto­ry — but noth­ing I said to my edi­tor on that first phone call got at how I real­ly felt. To be hon­est, I’m not sure I even knew how I real­ly felt.

A month lat­er, when I received my edi­to­r­i­al notes, I breathed out a sigh of relief. I know we dis­cussed over the phone the pos­si­bil­i­ty of start­ing with a dif­fer­ent open­ing,” wrote my edi­tor, but I’ve changed my mind.” The train sta­tion would get to stay.

Over the next sev­er­al months, we made our way through three rounds of revi­sions. With each revi­sion, the man­u­script got bet­ter and the edits more gran­u­lar, until I began to relax into them. No longer were we chop­ping scenes, or even sen­tences. In the mar­gins of the doc­u­ment, we typed notes back and forth to each oth­er about lob­ster sal­ad and my bla­tant overuse of the word things.

In the mar­gins of the doc­u­ment, we typed notes back and forth to each oth­er about lob­ster sal­ad and my bla­tant overuse of the word things.

When the man­u­script was near­ly let­ter-per­fect, and I was cer­tain that the train sta­tion would stay put, my agent called. They’ve decid­ed they want you to cut the first chap­ter,” he said. To pick up the pace.”

All I could do was groan.

It can be hard to let go of good writ­ing. There’s this expres­sion, Kill your dar­lings,” which was coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1916 book, On the Art of Writ­ing, but that has since been adapt­ed by every writer from William Faulkn­er to Stephen King. Some­times, we use it to ref­er­ence indi­vid­ual words or sen­tences that are so florid they stand out, oth­er times we talk about cut­ting entire scenes that, while beau­ti­ful to read, don’t advance the plot.

As a writer, I prid­ed myself on being able to make mer­ci­less cuts. So, when, I won­dered, had the train sta­tion become a dar­ling I couldn’t kill? And why?

Part­ly, I blamed my own research, which was exhaus­tive and hard to let go of. On my com­put­er, there was a file labeled train” in which I’d amassed scores of pho­tographs and timeta­bles, maps and news­pa­per clip­pings. To go along with all that source mate­r­i­al, I’d cre­at­ed a long doc­u­ment that care­ful­ly chart­ed the con­sol­i­da­tion of the Cam­den & Atlantic Rail­road with the Philadel­phia and Atlantic City Rail­way, the Philadel­phia and Read­ing Rail­way and the Penn­syl­va­nia-Read­ing Seashore Lines. I’d vis­it­ed the Atlantic City Free Pub­lic Library, where an archivist had helped me search for pho­tographs of both sta­tions, as well as oth­er train-relat­ed ephemera. When I was in the throes of the project, I could have told you the cost of a tick­et to Cam­den or where you need­ed to change trains to get to Salem — details that, if I’m hon­est with myself, nev­er ran the risk of mak­ing it into the book.

The his­to­ry of New Jersey’s rail net­work is a com­pli­cat­ed one but, with­out it, I found it impos­si­ble to under­stand Atlantic City’s mete­oric rise to promi­nence in the late eigh­teenth and ear­ly nine­teenth cen­turies — or my family’s place in it.

The his­to­ry of New Jersey’s rail net­work is a com­pli­cat­ed one.

As late as 1852, Absec­on Island was a qui­et bar­ri­er island, acces­si­ble only by boat. Just sev­en hous­es dot­ted its shore­line. A group of spec­u­la­tors saw the island’s poten­tial — the chance to sell salt water and sea air as a health ton­ic to city dwellers — and bought up the land, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly lob­by­ing the New Jer­sey Leg­is­la­ture for a rail­road char­ter to access it more readily.

The train went in quick­ly, span­ning the Thorofare’s marsh­es as if it were a wide-winged shore­bird. Spec­u­la­tors built a two-sto­ry excur­sion house to receive the train’s ear­li­est pas­sen­gers and got to work sur­vey­ing the sur­round­ing area, which they opti­misti­cal­ly named Atlantic City.” By 1860, the island boast­ed 700 res­i­dents and could accom­mo­date 4,000 tourists a day. The first board­walk — a skin­ny strip of wood — was built in 1870.

In 1876, the pres­i­dent of the Cam­den & Atlantic Rail­road stepped down to estab­lish the com­pet­ing Philadel­phia and Atlantic City Rail­way, and in a bid to under­cut the com­pe­ti­tion, dropped fares from Philadel­phia to Atlantic City from three dol­lars to a dol­lar and twen­ty-five cents. Sud­den­ly, a trip to the shore became an afford­able out­ing for the work­ing class­es. By 1888, more than 500 hotels and board­ing hous­es had sprung up; on a busy week­end in the sum­mer, crowds could eat the local estab­lish­ments out of meat, milk, and bread.

The train was a mon­ey­mak­er for spec­u­la­tors and a source of delight for tourists, but as I researched my nov­el, I became inter­est­ed in what the train did for Jew­ish immi­grants. My great, great-grand­fa­ther, Hyman Lowen­thal, immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States from Gali­cia and tried work­ing as a ped­dler in Chat­tanooga before he caught a train to Atlantic City and nev­er left. He opened a jew­el­ry and pawn shop on the cor­ner of Vir­ginia and Atlantic avenues, was a found­ing mem­ber of Com­mu­ni­ty Syn­a­gogue, raised six chil­dren in a house on States Avenue, and died in 1928, at the age of six­ty, the year before his youngest daugh­ter drowned.

My great, great-grand­fa­ther, Hyman Lowen­thal, immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States from Gali­cia and tried work­ing as a ped­dler in Chat­tanooga before he caught a train to Atlantic City and nev­er left.

Cour­tesy of the Atlantic City Free Pub­lic Library’s archives

My grand­moth­er always called Atlantic City a Jew­ish town, and as I researched the city’s his­to­ry, I came to under­stand what she meant. Atlantic City’s birth coin­cid­ed, quite pre­cise­ly, with the crush of Jew­ish immi­grants, who had escaped pover­ty and per­se­cu­tion in Prus­sia, and lat­er, East­ern Europe. Atlantic City was a new fron­tier, in need of a work­ing class, and America’s Jew­ish immi­grants were a work­ing class, in need of a new fron­tier. For the price of a train tick­et, they could start their lives anew.

Every­one we knew was Jew­ish,” my grand­moth­er once told me. When I scan old city direc­to­ries, they tell the same sto­ry. Dannenbaum’s Bak­ery. Mayer’s Jew­el­ry Store. Casel’s Del­i­catessen.

A 1918 sur­vey of the Unit­ed States’ Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, con­duct­ed five years before my grand­moth­er was born, found that, among small cities with a pop­u­la­tion of between 50,000 and 60,000 res­i­dents, Atlantic City’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of 4,000 peo­ple was the largest. By the time my grand­moth­er mar­ried, that num­ber was clos­er to 10,000. My grand­moth­er was eleven years old when the new” train sta­tion opened. The Atlantic City Press described Union Station’s wait­ing room as large enough to facil­i­tate the han­dling of large crowds vis­it­ing the resort, par­tic­u­lar­ly dur­ing the sum­mer season.”

And for thir­ty or so years it did.

But by 1965, train rid­er­ship had begun to dip. Amer­i­ca had fall­en in love with the auto­mo­bile and, dur­ing his pres­i­den­cy, Dwight Eisen­how­er had giv­en the go-ahead on the con­struc­tion of a sys­tem of inter­state high­ways that would dras­ti­cal­ly reduce the time it took to dri­ve from one place to anoth­er. Then there was air trav­el, which had become more afford­able. Peo­ple who once sum­mered on the Jer­sey Shore could fly to Flori­da, the Caribbean, or even Europe with com­pa­ra­ble ease.

In Atlantic City, a small­er pas­sen­ger rail ter­mi­nal was built on Bacharach Boule­vard, and Union Sta­tion was con­vert­ed into a bus depot. By 1997, the build­ing was demol­ished to make room for the Atlantic City Expressway’s off ramps.

In recent years, pas­sen­ger rail has expe­ri­enced a renais­sance. In fact, before COVID-19 cur­tailed Amer­i­cans’ trav­el plans, the Amer­i­can Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion Asso­ci­a­tion had fore­cast that, in 2020, rail would account for more than fifty per­cent of all pas­sen­ger trips on pub­lic trans­porta­tion — sur­pass­ing trav­el by car and bus for the first time in decades.

But take a train to Atlantic City and you won’t find the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that once thrived there. Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Israel moved to North­field, and Com­mu­ni­ty Syn­a­gogue even­tu­al­ly shut­tered as fam­i­lies moved down the beach to the com­mu­ni­ties of Mar­gate, Vent­nor, and Long­port. My grand­par­ents met and mar­ried in Atlantic City but they left for bet­ter employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties and nev­er returned to the island to live.

But take a train to Atlantic City and you won’t find the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty that once thrived there.

After I nixed the train sta­tion and rewrote the open­ing of my nov­el, I emailed the pages to my edi­tor. In the email, I told her that I was almost pre­pared to admit that I liked the new open­ing bet­ter than the orig­i­nal one. The nov­el opens at the beach, and I’ll admit that the pac­ing is con­sid­er­ably improved.

Was I still a lit­tle sad to lose the train station?

Def­i­nite­ly.

With­out the train, my sto­ry could nev­er have begun.

Rachel Bean­land is the author of the debut nov­el, Flo­rence Adler Swims For­ev­er, which was released in July of this year by Simon & Schus­ter. The book was select­ed as the Barnes & Noble Book Club pick for July, and was named a Fea­tured Debut by Ama­zon and an Indie Next pick by the Amer­i­can Book­sellers Asso­ci­a­tion. Rachel has an MFA from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia with her family.