27 April 2017

The Mountain School

In the spring of 1929, with work nearing completion on the new four-room Bloomingdale School, the Hillsborough Township Board of Education decided to dispose at auction of three one-room schoolhouses - Blackwell's Mills, Hillsborough (Crossroads), and Montgomery (Montgomery Rd.). Notably absent from the list was one of the oldest schools in Hillsborough, the Mountain School.

The Mountain School on Longhill Road, circa 1932

Built in 1825 deep in the woods of the Sourland Mountain along Longhill Road, the century-old school - also known as the Boozer School because of its proximity to the old Boozer earthenware factory -  had just ten pupils in 1929. Edgar Durling was the master that year, as he had been for more than twenty years, in a schoolhouse that seemed frozen in the 19th century - no electricity, no running water, no school buses lined up at dismissal.

A portion of the 1850 Somerset County map
showing the location of the Mountain School

With the four-room Flagtown School, and now the new Bloomingdale School, Hillsborough was moving away from the era of the one and two-room rural schoolhouse. The Mountain School survived in 1929 because of poor road conditions and no good way to transport the students to other schools "down the valley".

Courier News 29 June 1932

Circumstances were vastly different three years later when the board voted to close the Mountain School and transport the remaining students in new school buses over improved roads to Clover Hill and Neshanic. The kindergarten through eighth-grade students had a party on the last day, June 17, 1932, ringing the bell one last time and taking the flag down from the pole outside. Local historian Samuel Harden Stille was witness to the scene and wrote about it for the Courier News:

The boys and girls had a hilarious time. The teacher was busy gathering up some of the old papers and books and things, holding a personal interest to him. There was not a note of sadness to be found on the mountain that day. The writer watched them eat their candies and oranges, and last of all, haul in Old Glory from the flagpole in front of the clapboarded school.
Fifty people attended the auction on July 2, 1932, where the school sold for $77.

The last class at the Mountain School, circa 1932

22 April 2017

Hillsborough’s Belle Mead GSA Depot

Hillsborough’s Belle Mead GSA Depot

The Nation’s Largest World War II Era Military Supply Depot

Early History

On January 29, 1941, The Hopewell Herald reported that residents and farmers in the vicinity of Belle Mead, NJ had been approached by two real estate agents looking to potentially buy thousands of acres of land adjacent to the Sourland Mountain in Hillsborough Township. Although the agents did not disclose where they were from, the implication was that the land was being sought by the federal government. With war raging in Europe, it was the consensus of the property owners that they would have no problem at all selling their land for the purpose of “National Defense”.

The land having been acquired, construction began on 28 April 1942, with newspapers reporting hundreds of workers erecting warehouse buildings and constructing miles of railroad sidings on the 1,000 acre site.


One of the people that answered the call for “Immediate War Work for Laborers” was future writer and social activist James Baldwin. In June 1942, not yet eighteen, he moved from Harlem and roomed with a friend who had also taken at a job in Belle Mead and was living with friends in Rocky Hill. They made very good money for the time - $80 per week plus overtime. Baldwin started out in railroad construction, but the heavy labor proved too much, and he was transferred to warehouse duty.

In his book “Notes of a Native Son”, he writes powerfully about the subtle and not so subtle racism he experienced during the one year he worked at the Depot, culminating in a scene that played out on his last night in New Jersey. Baldwin and some friends went to see a movie in Trenton, but were refused service at a local diner. An infuriated Baldwin walked to the fanciest restaurant in the vicinity, demanded service, and, when refused, threw a glass water pitcher shattering the mirror behind the bar. This was the signature moment that set Baldwin on a four decade crusade for social justice.

West Point graduate Colonel R. Potter Campbell was assigned as the first Commanding Officer on 18 July 1942. During this period the Depot went through many name changes: Bound Brook Defense Aid Depot, Bound Brook Holding and Reconsignment Point, Bound Brook War Aid Depot, Belle Mead Quartermaster Depot, and finally, on 27 May 1943, Belle Mead Army Service Forces Depot – by which name it was known throughout the war and up until the time it was acquired by the General Services Administration.

The Belle Mead ASF Depot was officially activated on 10 August 1942. Between the first inbound rail shipment in September 1942, and 30 June 1943, the Depot had handled more than 580,000 tons and had a civilian work force of more than 2,500 people.

The civilian workers were the heroes of the Belle Mead Depot. Not only did they build the facility, they were employed in the near entirety of its operation, with military personnel providing supervision. As most able-bodied men began to be drafted or enlist in the service following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Depot employed more women in all areas of operations, including guard duty, as shown below.


On December 6, 1942, The New York Times reported that because of a severe labor shortage due to men being sent overseas as many as 350 Princeton University students – and their professors – were now working at the Depot warehouses on Sundays.

First Anniversary, 10 August 1943

On August 10, 1943, the Depot held its first anniversary celebration with distinguished military officers from around the country traveling to Belle Mead for the occasion. The festivities included a parade by the military personnel, the civilian guards and their dogs, and the guard band.

New Jersey Governor Charles Edison addressed the assembled and commended them on their exemplary work and vital contribution to the war effort.

Within a month of the anniversary celebration, Colonel Potter was again faced with a shortage of civilian employees. With men constantly being taken away for military service, he pleaded with his superiors in the Quartermaster Corps for relief. They sent him a provisional battalion of 800 African American soldiers – raw recruits, some with only 2 weeks of military service. While civilian employees lived off-base, these soldiers needed to be housed and fed at the Depot. This necessitated the construction of an enormous tent city on the base as seen in the image below.


At a time when segregation was the norm in many parts of the country, Colonel Potter not only had to deal with integration of the African American troops into the mostly white labor force, but also ease the natural friction between the huge influx of military personnel and the 1,700 remaining civilian employees. He did this by having everyone, civilian and military, black and white, work side by side in all of the labor-intensive functions of the Depot, and by encouraging the provisional battalion to participate in all of the recreational activities, including the renowned glee club, led by Irving Washington of East Orange, NJ.

May 1944 – The Press gets a peek inside

At the end of May 1944, on Colonel Potter’s last day as Commanding Officer – and just a week before D-Day – the press was allowed access to the Depot for the first time.

Reporters were wowed by the $1.2 billion (over $16 billion today) in war supplies, the 45 miles of railroad track, 5 locomotives, 550 freight cars, 14 giant warehouses, and 7 million square feet of indoor and outdoor storage space. Cranes, heavy trucks, bridges, portable buildings, complete manufacturing plants, spare parts, tools, rifles and ordinance, petroleum products – 5,000 tons of equipment were moved in and out of the Depot on a daily basis.

Captain Staniar, in charge of the outside storage areas, showed off “the largest concentration of cable in the world, 53,000,000 feet of it”!

The timing of the press tour could not have been coincidental. Like a prize fighter at the pre-bout weigh-in, our adversaries overseas must have been seriously intimidated and demoralized by this amazing show of material strength.

 Italian Service Units and German POWs

On June 21, 1944, The Hopewell Herald reported that Italian Service Units had replaced the QM Provisional Battalion. The newspaper correctly reported that these men were former prisoners of war who had been captured in North Africa and Sicily, and had volunteered to work for the U.S. They were allowed visits by family members living in America, and other privileges such as “spaghetti, cheese, and other foods” to supplement their military rations.

Italian Service Units worked at the Depot in skilled and unskilled positions until October 29, 1945 when they were replaced by German prisoners of war. Unlike the Italians, these POWs were not afforded any luxuries, and were kept under strict guard. A reward of $15 was offered for apprehension of an escaped prisoner, who could be recognized by the letters PW emblazoned on the back and sleeves of shirts, and on the seat and legs of the trousers.

After the war

By the end of 1946, the army was using the Depot to dispose of military surplus. Veterans were given the first shot at buying items such as farm equipment, office equipment, household items, hardware, and clothing – even jeeps.

The Belle Mead ASF Depot saw renewed operations during the Korean War, but nothing like the intense activity from 1942 through 1945.

In 1958, 800 acres of the property was acquired by the General Services Administration, who operated the Depot until 1991. Subsequently the property was sold in two portions, with the Somerset County Improvement Authority purchasing the acreage that is now being developed as a county park.

 The Future

In October of 2014, the Somerset County Park Commission, together with local officials, held a ground-breaking ceremony for Mountain View Park.

Although there are very few, if any, physical structures remaining at the Belle Mead Depot, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities for Somerset County and Hillsborough Township to commemorate the role the Depot and it’s civilian workforce played in defeating fascism by winning World War II.

18 April 2017

Captain John Hoagland

If not for the many obituaries published upon his death in September 1912, we could know almost nothing about the life of Hillsborough Township native Captain John Hoagland, who nearly captured Lincoln's assassin in 1865!

John Hoagland, Captain,
Compnay K, Thirteenth Regiment, New York Volunteers

He was born in April 1833 in Flaggtown (the original Flaggtown located at the crossroads of South Branch Road and East Mountain Road). He was of one of the Dutch families that settled New Amsterdam about 1650, and came to New Jersey three generations later in the mid 1700s. 

As a young man he left the Flaggtown farm to make his way in the New York import/export business. He married Louisa Singee in 1856, At the start of the Civil War he recruited a company of cavalry volunteers which was mustered in as Company C, Thirteenth Regiment, New York Volunteers and held the rank of First Lieutenant. He was later promoted to captain in Company K.

On April 14, 1965 the Thirteenth Regiment was camped on Capitol Hill charged with guarding Washington, D.C.  Hoagland's Company was the first to pick up the trail of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination. He followed Booth through St. Mary's County, Maryland and almost had him at the home of Dr. Mudd where Booth was having his broken leg set.

Booth was able to avoid capture by hiding in the woods for several days, and the chase was taken up by others after the assassin crossed the Potomac into Virginia on April 23. Nevertheless, Hoagland's party were able to capture a co-conspirator and as many as thirty suspected accomplices.

After the war, Hoagland - mustered out with the rank of major - returned to New York and was engaged in the import produce business. He retired with his wife to a farm near South Branch, NJ in 1902 where his daughter Louise Dalley had settled. He also had two sons, Ira and Elmo. After the death of his wife in 1910, he went to live with his son Elmo in Brooklyn, where he passed away on August 31, 1912.

13 April 2017

The New Belle Mead Station, 1919

A few years ago, the New Jersey Department of Transportation completed the Route 206 Over CSX Project - a realignment of the highway to eliminate the sharp curve as it passes over the railroad near the Montgomery/Hillsborough border. This replaced the first overpass at that location built during 1918. That project also included a brand new state-of-the-art railroad station which opened on December 8, 1919.

New Belle Mead Station circa 1920

The new station replaced the three-story station built in the 1870s which was located just to the southwest. Newspapers reported that the new station was better in every way. Here are some of the touted improvements

  • An electrical pump brought fresh water from a 150-foot well in the basement, providing for a water fountain and a lavatory.
  • A large office for clerical work - which was occupied by the station agent Louis Van Cleef, a longtime employee of the company.
  • Access for automobiles at track level with no need to climb stairs down to the platform as in the old station.

The original Belle Mead Station circa 1910

The building is 50 by 28 feet and was built of red brick with chestnut trim. Across the tracks is a waiting room for northbound passengers. There was also a 30 by 30-foot freight house.

Construction of the Route 31 (now Route 206) bridge over the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad at Belle Mead, circa 1919. The top photo is looking south, the bottom photo is looking north, Photos courtesy of Raymond Funkhouser.

After the passenger railroad upheavals of the 1960s and early 70s, NJ Transit operated this line as the West Trenton Line until 1982. Currently, the line is owned by CSX Transportation and is in use for freight service.

A steam train passes during a railfan event on 21 September 1963

The possibility of reopening this line for passenger service from West Trenton to Bound Brook has been studied for more than 10 years. A report issued by NJ Transit in November 2007 seems to indicate re-opening of the line would be just about economically feasible, but not a "no-brainer". One of the concerns is that rail commuters who currently use other lines would merely shift to the West Trenton Line, thereby bringing in no additional revenue.
Circa 1964 - a little worn but still solid.

Of more interest to readers of this blog is the opinion of the State Historic Preservation Office, which concluded that the 1919 Belle Mead Station was individually eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and that in order for the re-activation of the West Trenton Line to have no adverse effect the Belle Mead Station must be preserved. The Belle Mead Railroad Station Complex received an opinion of eligibility from SHPO on October 31, 2005.

11 April 2017

Anna Case Draws a Crowd, Part 2

In the early part of her career, while she was still regularly singing roles with the Metropolitan Opera, the concert and recital career of soprano Anna Case was managed by Fred O. Renard, the husband of her vocal teacher, Mme. Augusta Ohrstrom-Renard. By the middle of 1917, with her opera career winding down, Anna Case signed with the Metropolitan Musical Bureau, an agency with close ties to the opera company. They kept up the practice of placing full and half-page ads in the various music trade journals, trumpeting the success of one of their biggest attractions. I have collected several here.

1920 Publicity Photo