22 October 2018

Somerville High School

For most of the 19th century, a New Jersey high school education was primarily for academically-minded students who were continuing on to college - and before 1871 high schools were nearly all private institutions, further discouraging attendance.  It was in that year that the New Jersey Legislature passed an act that made all public schools, including public high schools, free.

The 1856 Somerville Public School, pictured in 1891.

At that time there were very few public high schools in the vicinity of Hillsborough - the ones in New Brunswick and Plainfield were about the closest. Somerville began adding classes for high school students in the mid-1880s, perhaps some being held in the 1856 Public School on West High Street pictured above. A high school building - pictured below - was also opened in 1894. The left side of the building shown here was later connected with the 1912 school which also fronted on West High Street.

The 1894 high school pictured in a 1909 photo.

There were twelve students in the first graduating class of Somerville High School in 1888. The most notable among them - because he later became a teacher at the high school and then served as the Somerville tax collector for 25 years - was Hillsborough Township lad Charles Hamilton. 

1888 Somerville High School graduating class.
Charles Hamilton is standing at the rear, center.
Photo courtesy of Mary Margaret Hamilton Tripp

Charles was the first member of the first alumni association for the high school when it was formed in the 1920s and was again the first member of the re-formed alumni association in 1959!

1888 Somerville High School graduate Charles Hamilton,
 13 November 1959 Courier News

It is possible that Charles Hamilton attended the building shown below in a postcard from 1905. This iteration of Somerville High School was directly behind and attached to the rear of the 1856 Public school. This building still stands today, connected to the current middle school by an enclosed walkway.

Somerville High School circa 1905.
Note the public school in the rear.

While the three buildings shown above are certainly fine examples of 19th-century public school architecture, they are not what could be called modern buildings. The first truly modern Somerville school building was the aforementioned 1912 school shown in a circa 1915 postcard view below. This building was to the west of the 1856 Public School and connected to the 1894 high school just behind it.

The building on the left was completed in 1912.
The high school was on the second floor.

I include the 1912 school in this survey because in the early 1920s the second floor was used for the high school. As a testament to its modernity and functionality, the school was still being used for elementary school students through 1998, and then for another decade as a public preschool before being demolished in 2009.

The "new" 1924 high school facing Cliff Street,
 now the Somerville Middle School

On November 4, 1922, approximately 1,200 Somerville school children took part in the ceremony to lay the cornerstone of a brand new high school - on the same block as the other schools, but this time facing Cliff Street. Students sang "America" and "The Star-Spangled Banner", and helped bury a time-capsule. The school was dedicated on February 22, 1924, with 1888 grad Charles Hamilton acting as emcee. Two weeks earlier the Somerville Girls' Basketball team won the first-ever game played in the new gym.

Student Train Pass, September 1927

As one of only two area high schools - the other being Bound Brook - Somerville had already been accepting students on a tuition basis from nearby municipalities for decades. Hillsborough, Millstone, Branchburg, Bridgewater, and even Readington Township in Hunterdon County sent students to Somerville. Students such as Margaret Quick took the train each morning at 5:55 a.m. from Neshanic Station to Somerville, returning to Neshanic Station at 5:25 p.m. Now that's a long school day!

The state of the regional, consolidated, and tuition high schools in 1960.

In the 1960s overcrowding at the high school became an issue. Bridgwater built its own high school around 1960, relieving the pressure somewhat. But by the mid-60s Somerville was no longer accepting Hillsborough's ninth-graders and eventually decided not to accept any new students from Hillsborough - although those already attending would be permitted to remain and graduate. After Hillsborough opened its own high school in 1969, Branchburg was left as the only town still sending students on a tuition basis to Somerville - and that continues to this day.

Plan for a new high school, 11 March 1969 Courier News

In 1968, after 44 years on Cliff Street, the Somerville school board began talking about building a new high school in a new location. Contracts for a $3.1 million school to be located at Davenport and Orchard Streets were awarded in March. This school - designed for 1,300 students - opened in October 1970. Apart from a small addition constructed on the south side of the building about 20 years ago, the footprint of the high school remains essentially unchanged.

12 October 1970 Home News

Today Somerville is one of the top 50 high schools in New Jersey as ranked by US News and World Report, serving just under 1,200 Somerville and Branchburg students.