04 August 2018

South Branch Railroad Bridge, Then and Now

When writing about the abandoned railroad line that runs from the northeast to the southwest through Duke Farms, it might be useful to note that James B. Duke - the tobacco magnate who bought the first property in Hillsborough Township of what would eventually become a 2,500-acre estate in 1893 - had almost nothing to do with it.

South Branch Railroad Bridge at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1905
A common misconception is that Duke either built or caused to be built a private railroad through Duke's Park. On the contrary, the South Branch Railroad - an independent railroad company - opened their line from Somerville to Flemington on July 1, 1864. The young James Duke was just seven years old.

1954 USGS Map.
The blue arrow indicates the location of the railroad bridge.
The red arrow indicates the location of Duke's siding.

As Duke accumulated land and the roads that passed through them, he set about improving the rights-of-way and especially the many bridges over brooks and streams. To that end, he impressively rebuilt the railroad bridge over Duke's Brook which is the feature of this post.

South Branch Railroad Bridge at Duke Farms, 2015
The Central Railroad of New Jersey had already purchased the South Branch Railroad in 1888 and integrated it into their operations. Duke built a small siding off of the line where he was able to receive deliveries and keep a private railroad car. On at least one occasion in 1906 George F. Baer, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, had his own private railroad car run onto the siding hidden in the woods of the estate and slept there overnight.

Passenger service on the South Branch was discontinued in 1953, and freight service declined steadily over the next couple of decades. By 1981 the rails were removed from the portion of the line through Duke Farms, but the right-of-way was still owned by Central Jersey Industries - the company that was created after the railroad's bankruptcy. Somerset County tried unsuccessfully to purchase the right-of-way for a bike trail in the 1970s.  

Heiress Doris Duke was accused of illegally removing gravel from the roadbed in 1983, as well as placing large boulders to block vehicle access. In the end, she was able to purchase the property when it was auctioned in 1985.

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