17 March 2021

The Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad

The Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad - later a division of the Philadelphia and Reading and known in Central New Jersey today as the West Trenton Line - is one of the most important railroads in New Jersey history. It is also important to Hillsborough history - not only because 7 of its 27 miles of track were laid in Hillsborough but because of the connection to Hillsborough of two men intimately associated with the story.


Henry Martyn Hamilton and Peter Dumont Vroom

Governor Peter Dumont Vroom was born in the village of South Branch in 1791. He attended grade school at the "Old Red Schoolhouse" (it was brand new then!) on River Road near Beekman Lane, and "high school" at the Somerville Academy. After graduating from Columbia and reading law in Somerville, he practiced in Sussex and Hunterdon Counties before moving back to Somerville in 1826 and being elected to the state legislature and then as governor in 1829.

1870s Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad ticket,
(collection of Gillette on Hillsborough)

One of Vroom's most important acts as governor was to nurture the nascent railroad and canal business in New Jersey. He promoted granting charters to the Camden and Amboy Railroad and the Delaware and Raritan Canal which gave those companies exclusive rights to build interstate (i.e. New York to Philadelphia) transportation lines across the state - and then he endorsed the merger of the two companies as The United Companies, thus creating a virtual railroad monopoly enshrined in state law.

1884 railroad map showing the stations of the
Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad.
Missing from the map is Weston Station
 which was just north of Hamilton.

Henry Martyn Hamilton was born in Ohio in 1831. He attended college first in Ohio but a case of typhoid fever prevented him from graduating. After recovering he continued at Hamilton College in New York State where he also received his law degree. The enterprising young man then returned to the midwest and became one of the four founders of the town of Grinnell, Iowa. It was in this enterprise that he first became involved in the railroad business, trying to lure railroads to build lines through Grinnell and other midwest cities. He soon came to the New York area, making money as a financier and settling in Bloomfield.

Belle Mead Station circa 1905
(collection of Gillette on Hillsborough)

By the mid-1860s Hamilton started to think that he could build a railroad from Philadelphia to New York and, against the advice of experts, began brainstorming ways to break the United Companies monopoly. He knew that some provisions of the charter would expire in 1869, so he began purchasing "paper" railroads - lines that had been incorporated but never built - in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Delaware and Bound Brook Yardleyville Centemmial Bridge

The United Companies lobby was enormous, as would be expected. After all, they controlled all of the traffic - passengers and freight - in the lucrative New York to Philadelphia corridor. The machinations and litigation which followed Hamilton's venture could easily fill a book. In 1867, against great odds, he got the New Jersey legislature to pass an act incorporating the Hamilton Land Improvement Company. The act allowed the company to build a railroad from the Delaware River north of Trenton to a point near the village of Millstone in Hillsborough Township. It also allowed the company to build another 6 miles of railroad anywhere in the state.

The 1929 west Trenton Station,
photographed circa 1961

That six miles would prove to be the key, and three years later when the United Companies realized what was happening, all hell broke loose. They desperately lobbied legislators to repeal the 1867 legislation, while at the same time courting the Pennsylvania Railroad as a partner. Meanwhile, Hamilton renamed his company The National Railway and in early 1871 attempted to get a federal law passed through congress that would officially allow a rival railroad through New Jersey. 

Pennington Station

On June 30, 1871, the Pennsylvania Railroad signed a 999-year lease with the United Companies allowing them to run trains over their tracks, but basically nothing else. This lease cost them - in the first year alone - $1,948,500 paid in dividends to United Companies stockholders! You can imagine how motivated they were now to keep any rival railroad from building.

Hopewell Station

Over the next few years each side pulled out of every trick they could think of. Hamilton's National Railway introduced several bills in the New Jersey Legislature with hidden "Trojan Horse" provisions allowing them to proceed - all defeated. The Pennsylvania Railroad  - who now controlled the "monopoly" - began building their own railroad from "north of Trenton to Millstone" which resulted in the famous Frog War covered here.

Stoutsburg, Skillman, and Harlingen Stations -
top to bottom

In the midst of all of this, Hamilton took a meeting with a "former State Governor" and a representative of the United Companies. An offer of a half million dollars up front and a $5,000 no-show job was made to entice Hamilton to walk away, but as he told confidantes, "I can afford to be defeated, but I can't afford to sell out my friends."

Remarkably - notwithstanding the Frog War three years later -  the rivals set aside their differences in 1873 and compromised to support a general railroad law allowing for competition.

Royal Blue Line postcard
(collection of Gillette on Hillsborough)

Hamilton began building immediatley in an effort to have the railroad open in time for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. The line had been surveyed through Mercer and Somerset Counties to "a point near the village of Millstone". That spot was in the vicinity of today's Hamilton and North Willow Roads - which is where Hamilton moved with his family and built a station. 

Ad for the Royal Blue Line -
an upscale passenger service between New York and Washington

You may have guessed the the essential "six miles anywhere in the state" was exactly what was needed to finish the route to Bound Brook. The original concept was for the National Railway to cross over the Central Railroad of New Jersey line and continue northeast and east to Jersey City, but in the end the National Railway simply acquired trackage rights of the Central past Bound Brook.

Hamilton Station on North Willow Road
in Hillsborough

The Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad was incorporated on May 12, 1874. Hamilton gave the Pennsylvania portion of the project to the North Pennsylvania Railroad. 

Hillsborough's Weston Station circa 1905 

The new Jersey portion of the line crossed the Delaware at the Yardleyville Centennial Bridge (replaced in 1912) and had station stops at Ewing, Pennington, Moore's, Hopewell, and Stoutsburg in Mercer County. The twin stations at Pennington and Hopwell are still standing.

The Reading "Crusader" - a stremlined speedster -
near Weston Station

In Somerset County the stations were at Skillman, Harlingen, Belle Mead (originally called Van Aken), Hamilton, Weston, and Bound Brook. The new stations built at Belle Mead in 1919 and Bound Brook in 1913 are the only ones that survive. 

The 1875 Philadelphia and Reading railroad bridge
crossing the Raritan River
(collection of Gillette on Hillsborough)

The Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad opened on May 1, 1876 - about three years after the death of Governor Vroom. In 1879 it was leased to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Hamilton attempted to build a namesake city at the location of Hamilton Station in Hillsborough. He laid out streets and tried to get investment, to no avail. 

The 1913 Philadelphia and Reading Bound Brook Station

He lived out his later years rather quietly at home with his wife Cornelia and unmarried daughter Mary. Hamilton died in 1907, Cornelia in 1920, and Mary in 1941. Hamilton station was abandoned by the Philadelphia and Reading in 1956.

After the railroad bankruptcies and mergers of the 1960s, New Jersey Transit operated pasenger trains on the line until service was ended in 1982. Today, CSX operates the 27 mile freight line as part of their Trenton Subdivision.

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