For Walt Whitman, a train trip to the Jersey Shore was an adventure he relished. In 1878, the Camden bard wrote about it as part of a newspaper travelogue.
"As I went to bed, it entered my head all of a sudden, decidedly yet quietly, that if the coming morn was fine, I would take a trip across Jersey by the Camden and Atlantic Railroad through to the sea," Whitman wrote in the Camden Daily Post on Jan. 20, 1879.
The poet described rustic towns he saw from the open window of his railcar while musing about the railroad's impact on "modern democratic civilization. Now indirectly, but surely, and beyond all other influences to-day in America, it thaws, ploughs up, prepares and even fructifies the fallows of unnumbered counties and towns!"
The description was the perfect theme for glass artist J. Kenneth Leap as he mulled a project at NJ Transit's Lindenwold station, one of the stops along Whitman's journey, where present-day travelers can now get a history lesson.
The poet's words - and the town-by-town rail route - are digitally printed within a series of laminated glass panels lining the station's waiting area. They are accompanied by reproduced historic documents, postcards, posters, and photos that celebrate the rail line's history.
"This is first time I've seen this," said Saadiq Robinson, 25, of Camden, who was heading to Atlantic City with a friend for the day. "I've learned something today."
Leap immersed himself in the subject, studying its background and consulting with Paul W. Schopp, an expert in New Jersey history, about tiny details.
He also drove through the area and got an aerial view from Google maps that showed the line, adjacent to the PATCO station, running the same route as the Camden and Atlantic, described by Whitman more than 130 years earlier. "All the pieces that I do come from an understanding of the community," said Leap, who is also working on an even larger glass art project - to be installed in the spring - at NJ Transit's new Atlantic City Line station in Pennsauken.
He has also completed other high-profile works, including a stained-glass ceiling in the Statehouse Annex and projects at NJ Transit stations in Edison, Bayonne, and Red Bank, where the themes on the glass always remind travelers of the community's roots.
The Lindenwold glass panels were installed in November. Other colorful panels, depicting leading citizens, will later be added to a platform windbreak. The image of a linden tree will adorn a bus shelter at the front of the station.
"I spend a lot of time in the library and look at photos to learn everything I can," said Leap, 48, of Runnemede. "My goal is to present the history" of the people who live there.
The glass projects are part of NJ Transit's Transit Arts Program, which incorporates artwork into the architectural design of the agency's public facilities. More than 150 pieces of art have been installed throughout the system.
"It's really a good vandalism deterrent," said Leap, a 1986 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. "If you put up art, you're less likely to get attacked by graffiti.
"You get a certain amount of respect from the street artists," he said. "The same reasoning is behind the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.
"If you have a blank wall, that's an invitation for graffiti, but art tends to be left alone."
After decades of working in glass, Leap finds each project unique. At Lindenwold and Pennsauken, the images were digitally printed onto transparent film and sandwiched between pieces of glass. In Trenton, he used cut stained glass in an artificially lighted ceiling. "What has been interesting is the diversity of the forms glass can take," said Leap, president of the American Glass Guild, a nonprofit organization that promotes the history and conservation of stained glass. "You never do the same thing twice.
"Each project is site-specific and reacts to the architecture of where it's going, as well as the light," he said.
The Lindenwold panels change their aspects with the seasons, depending on the position and intensity of the sunlight as well as the leaves that can reduce the light.
The same will be true in Pennsauken, where NJ Transit is building the Pennsauken Transit Center on Derousse Avenue as a connection point between the Atlantic City Line, from the Shore to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, and the River Line from Camden to Trenton.
The artwork on the facade of the station weaves Pennsauken history together with an appreciation of the community's important women, who are depicted on the glass and celebrated on one of the panels by a 1884 poem by J. Dunbar Hylton called "My Jersey Girl":
My Jersey girl, my Jersey girl.
All bright and beautiful was she,
With ruby lips and teeth of pearl
And cheeks more fair than roses be.
I met her 'neath a willow tree,
Where the Pen(n)sauken waters flow;
I smiled at her, she blushed at me,
In ways that bashful lovers know.
"I enjoy telling a good story," said Leap, son of the late Bill Leap, an author, historian, and past president of the Camden County Historical Society. "My goal when designing artwork, especially for a waiting area, is to spin a visual narrative for the viewer to get lost in, one that is at once beautiful, entertaining, and educational."