07 April 2016

The Great Flood of 1896

Conductor Kline of the Central Railroad of New Jersey's South Branch division stepped out of the cab of his idle locomotive and walked with trepidation towards the Neshanic bridge. He had left Flemington at 5:40 pm and had already run through 15 inches of water between Woodfern and Riverview, but this was a different situation entirely.

New Central Railroad of NJ bridge and Elm Street Bridge circa 1909
The South Branch of the Raritan River had been rising since 9:00 am that morning of February 6, 1896. By the afternoon, Bound Brook was under six feet of water, and Somerville wasn't much better. All of the bridges across the Delaware and Raritan Canal were not just washed out, but were actually swept away in the floods. Residents in the towns and villages were huddled on the second floors of their residences as floodwaters raged through the streets.  Debris of every kind, including drowned livestock, could be seen floating down the Raritan from Somerville to Bound Brook.

Headline from the New York Sun 7 February 1896

All of the area railroads had already halted traffic as the Millstone, Raritan - North and South Branches as well as the main stem - and the Neshanic overflowed their banks. At the Black Point bridge near the mouth of the Neshanic River the water was already fifteen feet above normal. The situation at the Neshanic bridge was not good. Rising waters were above the level of the railbed, and raging. Kline called the engineer out to take a look. The bridge abutments had been partially washed away, but the bridge seemed secure.

Like a scene from a movie, the conductor and engineer walked back to the locomotive, climbed aboard, and decided to go for it. The engineer built up a head of steam, and sent the train speeding over the river into Hillsborough. Once across, they looked back and saw one of the two sections of the steel bridge collapse into the river and be carried downstream in the torrent.

They brought the train safely into Somerville - and just in time. By 10:00 pm the Raritan at Somerville had risen twenty-five feet. 

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