23 September 2020

Five Iron Bridges of Hillsborough

Hillsborough Township, NJ might not be an island, but you wouldn't be able to tell that from the abundance of bridges required for autoists to escape the city limits. Bridges in Somerset County were mostly made of timber and stone until the first iron bridge was installed at Weston in 1872. Hillsborough's four - technically five - remaining iron road bridges were built between 1886 and 1902.


Nevius Street Bridge

On November 17, 1886, the Somerset County Freeholders accepted the Nevius Street Bridge as complete from the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio.   According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, Somerset County's oldest remaining iron bridge is a "two-span, 10-panel, double-intersection Pratt. pin-connected, through-truss bridge of either steel or iron approximately 300 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 23 feet high."

The Nevius Street Bridge circa 1912.
Note the 6-ton weight limit sign.

The iron bridge replaced an earlier wooden bridge spanning the Raritan River between Raritan Boro and Hillsborough that dated from 1846. Motorists who remember faring for the safety of their side-view mirrors before the bridge was designated as one lane can blame local residents who petitioned for a last-minute change to the design increasing the width from 16 to 18 feet! A width of 16 feet would have pretty much eliminated any possibility of two-direction travel in the modern era.

Nevius Street Bridge circa 1989


The Higginsville Road Bridges

Bridges two and three of our survey carry Higginsville Road across the South Branch of the Raritan River - both the main channel and a smaller channel that served as a mill race - in the Hillsborough Township village of Higginsville. The two bridges are similar in that each is of a Pratt metal through-truss design and they are each 100 feet long, 16 feet wide - but they are from different manufacturers and constructed on different dates.


Higginsville Road Bridges circa 1999

The bridge over the main channel, constructed in 1890, is a rare surviving example of a bridge by Milliken Brothers of Brooklyn, New York. Somerset County originally contended that because the river had two channels in this location, the bridge over the main channel was wholly the responsibility of Hunterdon County. It took a judge to decide that both channels of the South Branch - because they never were more than 500 feet apart - constituted one waterway and that both counties were responsible for both bridges.



In 1893 the Freeholders of both counties met to discuss what to do about the deteriorating 88-foot wooden bridge spanning the minor channel. After some resistance from the Somerset delegation, it was agreed to construct another 100-foot long, 16-foot wide Pratt through-truss bridge as a replacement. The contract was awarded to the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton, Ohio - a company that had already built several other bridges in Somerset County including in North Plainfield, Somerville, Rocky Hill, and Raritan Boro. The only one of these bridges which survive today, besides the Higginsville Bridge,  is the Nevius Street Bridge described above.


Elm Street Bridge


One of the most recognizable bridges in Hillsborough is one of the six structures that constitute the Neshanic Mills Historic District - the Elm Street Bridge. Unlike Hillsborough's other iron bridges, the Elm Street Bridge is not a Pratt through-truss bridge but rather a lenticular truss bridge. 

The Elm Street Bridge circa 1980

After a devastating 1896 flood destroyed nearly every bridge on the South Branch and the main stem of the Raritan River between Neshanic and Bound Brook in 1896, Somerset County Freeholders had their hands full. The contract for the Elm Street Bridge was awarded to the Berlin Iron Bridge Company of East Berlin, Connecticut. Each of the two spans of the bridge is 140 feet long, and the roadway is seventeen and a half feet in width.

The Elm Street Bridge circa 1989


Woodfern Road Bridge

Our final bridge carries Woodfern Road over the South Branch of the Raritan River from Hillsborough to Branchburg. Like most of the others, it is a two-span Pratt through-truss bridge with an earth-filled stone pier in the middle.

Woodfern Road Bridge circa 1989

The bridge was constructing by J.W. Scott of Flemington in 1902 and is 187 feet long with a roadway width of 15.4 feet. This early 20th-century bridge was rehabilitated most recently in the 21st century and looks great today.

Woodfern Road Bridge builder's plaque

16 September 2020

The Great Train Hold-Up (1910)

On Saturday afternoon, April 30, 1910, excited passengers tumbled out of the cars of the Lehigh Valley Railroad's Buffalo express train as it made its scheduled 3:45 p.m. stop in South Plainfield. They hurried to the station agent eager to share what they had just witnessed as the train passed Flagtown - the greatest and most daring train hold-up in Hillsborough, and possibly New Jersey, history!





The South Branch Railroad - a division of the Central Railroad of New Jersey also called the Flemington Branch - runs parallel to the Lehigh Valley Railroad's mainline in the vicinity of Flagtown affording the Lehigh Valley travelers a view of the stopped locomotive and the South Branch passengers lined up outside the coaches as armed bandits, some on horses, held them at gunpoint and went through their belongings.




The daring caper had been planned long in advance, you might even say it was well-scripted. The bandits arrived at the scene early, riding through the Hillsborough woods before dismounting at a small clearing. Their leader described the plan. Disguised as a railroad flagman, he would go out onto the tracks with a red flag and stop the train between Flagtown and Neshanic. Once the train was stopped he would approach the engineer's cab with revolver drawn.




Another of the gang held the conductor at gunpoint while three bandits headed for the coaches. The panicked passengers dove under their seats and screamed for help, but to no avail. One passenger, E.J. Sanborn, was shot through the arm as he leaped at a robber in a desperate attempt to disarm him. Things seemed to be going well for the gang until they made their way to the first passenger car. 


2 May 1910 Courier News


It was here that the outlaws ran into two visitors from Virginia - F.J. Halley and R.J. Wilson - who were packing pistols of their own and returned fire. It was just then that the Buffalo express was passing on the Lehigh tracks in time to see some of the passengers from the second and third coaches of the South Branch train - who had been lined up alongside the tracks - realize they had their own firearms tucked into their belts. A general melee ensued. Mr. Wiley who had been guarding the safe in the express car jumped from the car and was met with a shower of bullets, but managed to get off a couple of good shot s dropping one of the desperados, then another.




There's more to the story - including how the bandits were eventually captured with the help of the two small children of the Flagtown station agent. But it is unlikely any of those scenes took place in Hillsborough. What those passengers on the Lehigh Valley Buffalo express actually witnessed that April day in 1910 was the filming of the train scenes for one of the first American features produced by the Pathe Freres film company - The Great Train Hold-Up.

23 May 1910 Daily Gate City

Pathe Freres actually opened a large film processing facility in Bound Brook, NJ in 1907, but it wasn't until 1910 that they entered the American market with narrative films of their own. Scenes filmed around the Flagtown train station were shown in some theaters independently of the full movie in May 1910, with the entire film - all 950 feet of it - being released later on June 25.

18 June 1910, The Film Journal

Although the film was a sensation upon release and was well-received by critics, it appears to have never been re-released and may exist now only in the hands of collectors. The first two images in this story are from the film, the third is possibly from the film. Other than those few images and the descriptions of the action from industry trade journals nothing seems to be left from The Great Train Hold-Up of Hillsborough!

11 September 2020

Anna Case Is Made, Part 2

On May 4, 1909, Giulio Gatti-Casazza and Andreas Dippel - the co-managers of the New York Metropolitan Opera - sailed for Europe on their annual talent search. Before they left, the pair announced the singers they had already signed for the new season beginning in November, including the only singer up to that time who had not trained in Europe - a twenty-one-year-old soprano from South Branch, New Jersey named Anna Case.

25 May 1909, Butte Miner

Although she had been singing professionally full-time for just over two years - and had been making a reputation as a unique talent at least since her July 4, 1908 appearance at the famous Ocean Grove Auditorium - this was the first time the national public had heard the name Anna Case.

12 May 1909 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Aside from being the first Metropolitan Opera singer with no European training, other now-familiar elements of Anna Case's story were promulgated by the press in those first weeks and months after Herr Dippel's announcement. Much was made of the fact that her father Peter Case was the village blacksmith at South Branch and that his daughter helped him in his shop, even shoeing horses on occasion.

The blacksmith shop of Peter Case from a circa 1907 postcard.
The house Anna Case grew up in is on the right.

Before long, syndicated feature stories began to appear in the pages of newspapers across the country. Although most got the circumstances of the chance meeting between Director Dippel and the budding singer wrong - they met at her performance at Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, not at a church in Plainfield - other parts of her story came to light. Readers were fascinated by the story of the early life of Anna Case - how she scrubbed floors and worked in the kitchens of her neighbors, sold soap door-to-door, drove a hansom cab for fares to and from the local train stations, and gave piano lessons for children in the evenings - a revolver tucked into her belt for protection on the country roads.

30 May 1909, St. Louis Post Dispatch

In the first few years of her career with the opera, more aspects of the beginnings of Anna Case were revealed - how she borrowed seventy-five cents a week from the South Branch grocer so that she could take singing lessons from a Somerville music teacher, how she got a job playing the organ and leading the choir at the Neshanic Reformed Church, and then a job singing in the quartet at the First Presbyterian Church in Plainfield.

5 December 1909, San Francisco Examiner

By the time she agreed to meet a photographer on the roof of one of the big newspaper buildings in New York to have her photo taken holding a blacksmith's hammer, the story of Anna Case was already well known. It's not unusual or surprising that the press - and the Metropolitan Opera - would engage in myth-building - in later years they managed to shave first one, then two years from her age in order to promote an ever-youthful prima donna. What is surprising is that in the case of Miss Case the stories were essentially true. 

22 December 1912, Buffalo Sunday Morning News

Unlike other New Jersey celebrities, past and present, whose connection to our state became more tenuous the more famous they became, Anna Case belongs to that group which includes Frankie Valli and Bruce Springsteen - singers for whom the New Jersey of their youth became an essential element of their larger-than-life stories. 

25 August 1931, Brooklyn Standard-Union

But it wasn't only Anna Case's story which remained inextricably linked to New Jersey throughout her lifetime, but also Anna Case herself. After the death of her father in the 1920s, she repurchased her childhood home in South Branch and remodeled it as a home for her mother. After her mother's passing, Anna Case kept the home as a country retreat before gifting it to the South Branch Reformed Church in 1974 at the age of 86.

22 August 1957, Courier News


05 September 2020

Burlington Zephyr Breaks Speed Record, April 17, 1934

In 1933, as cheap intercity bus routes chipped away at railroad revenues, the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad commissioned a new kind of train to compete against the bus companies. The Zephyr was the first streamlined stainless steel diesel-electric train and ushered in a new era of high-speed railway travel.



The three-car 72-passenger train made its debut speed run on April 17, 1934, in central New Jersey, clocking in at 104 mph on a straight stretch of road between Hopewell and Skillman. Passengers commented that the ride was so smooth - even in 90 mph curves - that they couldn't tell the difference between 70 and 100.



How did they do it? A 600 horsepower diesel-electric plant, reduced weight, and fewer than half of the wheels of a similar-sized locomotive all contributed to the increased speed. The train was so light that it could be easily pulled by ten men!



The newspaper photo above appeared in the April 20, 1934 edition of the Paducah Sun Democrat and pictures the Zephyr at Weston Station on April 17, 1934, after its record-breaking run. The train toured up and down the east coast before heading out west where it proceeded to break the Denver to Chicago speed record.

The video below includes scenes from the week of the Zephyr's debut, including fascinating footage of the record-breaking run through Somerset County - officially clocked at 104mph. Unfortunately, these scenes are outtakes, the original newsreel footage apparently being lost.