25 August 2018

Duke's Brook from Roycefield Road Bridge, Then and Now

One of the most remarked upon features of Duke Farms - the early 20th century Hillsborough, New Jersey estate of tobacco millionaire James B. Duke - is the low stone wall that surrounds most of the historic core of the enormous property.

Duke's Brook at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1915
Often overlooked are the extensive stone retaining walls built by Duke's army of laborers along the course of Duke's Brook and the Raritan River.

The Raritan River looking East from the Nevius Street Bridge, circa 1906
Today the walls continue to hold back the banks of the brook just as they did more than a century ago.

Duke's Brook at Duke Farms, 2017

18 August 2018

The Hay Barn, Then and Now

At 7 p.m. on the evening of January 21, 1915, one hundred and twenty-five area firemen had just sat down to their annual dinner at Forrester's Hall on the corner of Main and Bridge Streets in Somerville. No sooner had the toasting begun than word came of a big fire at the J.B. Duke estate across the river in Hillsborough. As soon as they got out to the street they could see the smoke and glow of the fire. The fire burned so brightly that night that it could easily be seen from Plainfield. In fact, those living east of the Queen City assumed the fire was there - that's how vivid it was.

The Hay Barn at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1905
When the Somerville Chemical Engine and Hook and Ladder Companies, joined by the Raritan Relief Hose Company arrived at the fire they recognized the building as Duke's grand hay barn. Unfortunately, the most they could do was prevent the fire from spreading to the nearest house, the home of Duke's superintendent David Smith just across Duke's Parkway. The barn burned down to the stone and brick walls, as you see it today.

The Hay Barn at Duke Farms, 2017
Duke was appreciative of the work of the firefighters - all of whom managed to return to the banquet within a couple of hours of the alarm - and awarded each of the companies $75 in gratitude.

In later years, Doris Duke moved some of the once-magnificent Duke's Park statuary into the barn to form a sculpture garden. In 2015, restoration was done to prevent water from getting into the exposed tops of the stone walls.

11 August 2018

The South Gate, Then and Now

Today, pedestrians and bicyclists enter the park area of Duke Farms - the Hillsborough, NJ estate of tobacco tycoon James B. Duke - by way of the South Gate across Duke's Parkway from the Farm Barn Orientation Center.

The South Gate at Duke's Park, postcard circa 1905

Before 1915 automobiles were permitted also, and access was liberally granted at all of the private roads through the property. In 1910 Duke decided to limit access to Tuesdays and Fridays, and he installed iron gates across all of the entrances.

31 May 1910 Home News

After a large group of autoists from Pennsylvania drove over the lawns and tore up the grounds in 1915, access was further limited to just one day per month.

The South Gate at Duke Farms, 2017
When Duke Farms reopened general access to the grounds in 2012 they went to a six-day a week schedule, Thursday through Tuesday. Today [2021] the grounds are open Monday through Friday.

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.