23 April 2020

Take a Ride on The South Branch Railroad (1864 - 1953)

In 1860 the map of Hillsborough Township, New Jersey was a patchwork of farms and country lanes. A few inns on the Old Amwell Road serviced the century-old stagecoach route from New Brunswick to Flemington. It was there at Neshanic and Flaggtown and Millstone that commerce was conducted. In just a few years, everything would change.

1872 South Branch Railroad Letterhead

Of the four railroad lines, past and present, that bisected Hillsborough over the last century-and-a-half, only one could really be called Hillsborough's railroad: the South Branch.

The route of the South Branch Railroad, from the Cram Atlas (undated)
It was chartered on March 14, 1861, as The South Branch Railroad Company. While not one of the founders of the railroad, NJ assemblyman (1861-63) John G. Schenck played a major role in getting the 15.5-mile railroad built, and especially in its route between Somerville and Flemington.

John G. Schenck's house, Shadow Lawn, in Neshanic Station.
(photo courtesy of Carlene Kuhl)
Schenck inherited a large farm in Branchburg Township just across the South Branch River from Hillsborough, nearby the ancient village of Neshanic. Not really a farmer, he endeavored to create a town on his and adjoining properties. He was not only able to use his influence to have the railroad cross the river at the location of his property but to also secure a stop in the new town which came to be known as Neshanic Station.

The Somerville Station complex, 1882
Surveying for the new railroad began in 1862. It was designed to have a connection with the main line of the Central Railroad of New Jersey at Somerville, and potentially with other railroads at Flemington.

1956 aerial
The 1956 aerial photo above shows the interchange with the CNJ main line and the later configuration of the stations. Construction began in 1863, and the railroad opened for passenger and freight business on July 1, 1864.

Postcard circa 1905
Heading south from Somerville the line crossed the Raritan River into Hillsborough. Today this section of the railroad is memorialized at Duke Farms as "Railroad Lane", but for the first thirty years of its existence, before tobacco mogul James B. Duke came to town in 1893 and began buying the land for his estate, this part of Hillsborough was known as Woodville. 

1932 map of the Duke Estate
Indeed, long before Duke acquired the property on both sides of the railroad right-of-way and built a new stone bridge for the railroad across Duke's Brook there was a designated stop at Woodville, and possibly a siding already in place.

South Branch Railroad bridge built by James B. Duke.
Postcard circa 1905
In any case, Duke used the siding for his private railroad car - and on at least one occasion allowed a railroad executive to "hide out" there - and to receive deliveries of coal and especially building materials and hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs used to create Duke's Park. And it was from here in 1915 that guests alighted from the train for the lavish wedding of Duke's favorite niece Mary to Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle.

7 December 1865 Monmouth Democrat
After crossing Woodville Road - today's Duke's Parkway West - the line bends to the west and crosses Roycefield Road and comes to Roycefield Station. The station is significant for being the first railway post office in Hillsborough. Unfortunately, no photograph of the station - which burned down in 1909 - has yet been discovered but we can imagine it looked very much like the next station on the line - Flagtown.

Possibly New Center, from the May 1911 issue of The Suburbanite
Before Flagtown, the line passed through the area of Hillsborough known as New Center (or New Centre). There is a possibility that the train could also be flagged down there as it passed between farms before crossing Beekman Lane.

Flagtown Station
Like Roycefield, Flagtown was a combination station handling passengers as well as freight. Farm goods, especially peaches from Hillsborough, Branchburg, and Hunterdon County, were a major source of traffic on the railroad over its first 50 years. Before the turn of the century, it would not be unusual to see a locomotive steaming towards Somerville with dozens of railroad cars full of fruit.

May 1911 issue of The Suburbanite
It was often remarked that the South Branch Railroad had the prettiest scenery of any railroad in New Jersey. The Suburbanite, a monthly publication of the Central Railroad of New Jersey which promoted the benefits of moving to the suburbs (and commuting to New York on their trains!) labeled the area west of Somerville "The Foothills" and several times in the decade it was published between 1903 and 1912 featured scenery that could be observed from the window of a South Branch Train.

May 1911 issue of The Suburbanite
The Central Railroad of New Jersey - also known as the Jersey Central or CNJ - leased the South Branch Railroad from its inception, and bought the line outright in 1888. Later in the 20th century, the name South Branch was used less frequently and the line came to be known as the Flemington Branch.

South Branch track in 1976 approaching the LVRR underpass.
In order to cross the bridge at Neshanic, the railroad needed to lose fifty feet of elevation after leaving Flagtown. This necessitated the line passing through a "cut" - particularly treacherous in times of heavy snow. The blizzard of 1888 stalled all traffic on the line for days while crews dug out locomotives with shovels. Several were killed - including an engineer who froze to death when his train was completely buried in a snowdrift at Flagtown.

Neshanic Station Bridge
The bridge spanning the South Branch of the Raritan at Neshanic Station - which can be seen today - is the second at that location, the first being carried away in the great flood of 1896.  In fact, the bridge between the Duke estate and Somerville was also lost at the same time, as were most of the railroad and wagon bridges on the Raritan and both of its stems.

Neshanic Station circa 1913, three years after the fire.

A devastating fire in September 1910 destroyed most of the station complex at Neshanic but spared the station building itself. The area was soon rebuilt as can be seen in the postcard image above.

Neshanic Station circa 1915
The undated image below of Number 770 at the station was printed in 1990 in The Courier-News.

Undated photo published 3 May 1990, Courier News
In the early part of the 20th century, the railroad you lived near in Hillsborough might dictate which high school you attended. Those students on the eastern side of town or near Belle Mead could take the Philadelphia & Reading train to Bound Brook High School, while those living along the South Branch found it easier to attend Somerville.

September 1927 "Monthly Scholar's Ticket"
At the time the student pass above was used to travel between Neshanic Station and Somerville, the railroad still had five daily passenger trains in each direction between Somerville and Flemington. New York commuters shared the passenger coaches with students and shoppers.

1925 CNJ Timetable
The timetable above from 1925 shows that at certain times of the day the train would only stop at Roycefield and Flagtown to board or discharge passengers - if no one was getting off, or if the flag was not raised indicating a passenger waiting, the train would speed right by.

Woodfern Station
The next two stops after Neshanic Station were always designated as flag stations: Woodfern and Higginsville (sometimes called Riverside).

Higginsville Station

These two stations - essentially large sheds - were places for commuters to get out of the rain or a spot to meet family arriving for a summer holiday in the country.

Photograph courtesy of Dean Vliet

The route between Neshanic Station and Three Bridges was said to be some of the prettiest country in "The Foothills" and the scenery was featured several times in The Suburbanite.

April 1907 issue of The Suburbanite

July 1908 issue of The Suburbanite

After leaving Higginsville it's just a one-mile ride to Three Bridges. Not as big a center of commerce as Neshanic Station, Three Bridges nonetheless boasted a station comparable to its big brother up the line.

Three Bridges station
Beginning before the turn of the last century right up to its final days locomotive power on the South Branch was provided by camelback steam engines. Numbers 375, 770, and 788 would all have been familiar to regular commuters.

When passenger and freight traffic on the line began to drop off in the 1920s due to the widespread use of automobiles and trucks, the CNJ asked the transportation authorities for permission to reduce the schedule, even going so far as to subsidize a bus company to run a parallel route. 

The bridge spanning the South Branch Raritan River near Flemington

By the 1930s there was just one passenger train running each day in each direction. And the locomotive that pulled into Flemington after World War II was likely pulling just two cars - one passenger and one combination passenger/baggage.

Flemington station.

Passenger service came to an end on the South Branch on April 24, 1953. Instead of the usual half dozen commuters, 125 people boarded in Somerville that day for the final trip to Flemington.

Station stop at Neshanic Station on the final passenger run of the South Branch Railroad.
Freight service continued on the railroad line - Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays - for another couple of decades until the bridge at Neshanic Station became unsafe for railroad traffic. 

Doris Duke, who was contemptuous of the railroad route through her property - especially after passenger and then freight traffic had ceased and the rails were removed in 1981 - erected barriers of barbed wire and 10-foot high earthen mounds across the right-of-way preventing Central Jersey Industries, the owners of the railroad assets after the CNJ's bankruptcy and reorganization, from maintaining their property. When the former railroad's assets were up for auction a few years later, she was able to purchase the property outright.

The Black River & Western Railroad operates over the last remaining part of the railroad between Three Bridges and Flemington, taking advantage of an interchange with the Norfolk Southern Railroad (formerly Lehigh Valley) at Three Bridges to service industries between there and Flemington. 


  1. This is so interesting. Now I can better understand the great rivalry between Bound Brook and Somerville H.S. Thank you for sharing.

  2. My grandfather was the longtime station master of the Neshanic Station depot. My Father was born in 1909 in the family's living quarters above the depot. Later they moved to their own home on Maple Ave. and my father attended the local Fairview Ave. school and graduated from Somerville High. Interestingly, he was the last station master of the depot at where he was born. I have the 1953 newspaper article of this event which my mother saved among other items.

  3. I live in Neshanic and I am fascinated about the CNJ’s former presence in town. Can you tell me more?

  4. One of the footings of the bridge over the Raritan River, between Somerville and Duke Farms, can be seen from Rt. 206 when crossing the Raritan River.