Thursday, January 8, 2015

Keeping track: railroad vestiges lead to a storied past

It's not all that unusual to run across railroad tracks while wandering around New Jersey. With a few thousand miles of track laid over the past 185 years or so, any trip within the state is bound to have you hearing the "clunk-a-clunk-a" of tires over tracks, or traveling beneath a railroad overpass.

However, when you see tracks that look like this:

you stop and take a look. And when you run into them at two different locations over the course of a couple of weeks, you get curious. The first occurrence was in Hightstown, where the stones and rails were placed near North Main Street downtown. The second was within a 15 minute drive, at historic Dey Farm in Monroe Township. Connecting rails were pulled away years ago, leaving these two segments as utter curiosities. The stone is virtually the same as the sleepers we've seen on old Morris Canal planes, though with gaps in between rather than in abutting blocks, making us wonder when the now-common wooden railroad ties came into vogue. And where did this railroad go?

We'd stumbled on vestiges of the Camden and Amboy, the first railroad built in New Jersey, incorporated in 1830 and chartered on February 15, 1831. How old is it? It's so old that the first train that rode the tracks was pulled by horses.

The Monroe stretch is pretty short
and offers new homeowners
the frustrating reality that while they live
near the railroad, it'll get them nowhere.
The Camden and Amboy was the realization of the ambition of John Stevens, who we know from his earlier forays into steamboats, namely the establishment of the first regular steam ferry service between Hoboken and Manhattan. While he successfully laid a small bit of track on his own property to run a British-built engine, it was left to his sons Robert and Edwin to take the concept to a larger scale.

The first stretch of the railroad linked Bordentown through Jamesburg to South Amboy via horse-drawn cars. Rails were spiked down onto granite sleeper stones reportedly produced by inmates at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Only when shipments were late did Robert Stevens consider laying the rails on squared-off wooden crossbeams, creating a more reliable bed that prompted him to replace all of the granite with wood. Stevens was also responsible for the development of the "T" shaped track and railroad spikes we're accustomed to; used together, they provided a smoother ride overall.

As workers continued laying track, the Stevens brothers purchased their first locomotive, the John Bull, from a Newcastle, England manufacturer. In a situation that's familiar to anyone who's bought Ikea furniture, the engine arrived in several pieces and without instructions for assembly, leaving railroad mechanic Isaac Dripps to reason it out though he'd never seen a locomotive before.

It would be another two years before the engine would serve the line, but Robert Stevens cannily made a test run in November 1831 to give select New Jersey legislators and other dignitaries a chance to enjoy the new technology. This, perhaps, was an early taste of the outsize influence the company would have over government officials in its most powerful years; at one point years later, pundits would jokingly refer to New Jersey as the "State of Camden and Amboy."

In fact, the C&A secured a monopoly on transportation across the state's waist, merging with the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company by a 1831 act of the Legislature that created "the Joint Companies." Passengers would travel by rail, while the canal would handle freight shipments from Bordentown to New Brunswick. The new company agreed to pay the state a $30,000 annual franchise fee that effectively financed government operations. By 1834, the railroad finally reached the breadth of the state between its namesake cities, later buying out rivals to extend its chokehold.

The history of New Jersey's railroad industry is long, complex and loaded with intrigue that would confound J.R. Ewing (consider, for example, Hopewell's frog war). Ultimately, the C&A was bought out by the larger, more powerful Pennsylvania Railroad in its quest to control New Jersey's transportation system, but it had already made its mark as a true pioneer.

Have you seen other portions of the C&A?

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