South Branch Railroad.

The South Branch Railroad (SBRR) from Somerville to Flemington opened July 1,1864, and merged with the Jersey Central Railroad (CNJ) in 1888. The line served agriculteral interests along it's route, and supported a large peach industry that existed until about 1900, when a blight appeared.

As will be seen, the line is paralleled for much of it's length by what is now a Norfolk Southern track. Also originally part of the CNJ, it is not clear at all why a second track was constructed, rather than, for example having the track split off at Flag Town, and head into Somerville, while the other track continued on to Boundbrook, as it does today. At the west end, a spur line on the Norfolk Southern line, which splits off at Flemington Junction, could have connected with a PRR track in the same way the SBRR track did. However, it is not clear as of this writing which track was built first. The construction of the SBRR might well have had much to do with the personal fortunes of John G. Schenck, who was once a railroad commissioner, as well as holding many positions in NJ State government in the 1850s. More than today, it was common for such politically well connected people to fare very well from directing public funds in the service of their own welfare. So perhaps the SBRR was constructed to help foster Schenck's land development or farming intersts. Around 1865 he owned all of the land in the area now called Neshaic Station. Whatever the explanation, two parallel tracks seems like a strange use of resources and land.

The last passenger train ran on April 24, 1953. As will be seen during a photo trip along the track bed of the SBRR, the freight situation was more convoluted. Like many railroads in the East, much of the track of the SBRR, owned by CNJ, was acquired in by Conrail in the mid 1970s, when the US rail system almost collapsed under the weight of misguided government regulation. The portion of the system in Somerville and west to something like Three Bridges, was probably abandoned around this time. Most of the passengers stations were already long gone, although the bridge over the Raritan River, just west of Route 206, where the track enters the land that is part of the Duke Estate, was not dismantled until the late 1990s.

But some of the track west of Three Bridges was still active as of April 16, 1995. The status of the track as of 2003 has not been investigated. A track connects, or connected, a stretch of Norfolk Southern track, and perhaps serviced some industries that had located along the SBRR track.

The entire system is shown in a

contemporary map

of the entire 16 miles, also shown in an

1895 map,
which also indicates the stops, which are. A stop is shown at what appears to be Centerville, between Neshanic and Three Bridges, on the boundary between Hunterdon and Somerset countires, but no such town seems to exist today ( 2003 ), and the stop does not show up on a 1910 map of the CNJ system.

The connection of the track with the Central Railroad of NJ ( Currently Norfolk Southern ) track in Somerville is shown in a

contemporary map.

Bear in mind that although it is shown on the map, the South Branch Railroad track no longer exists, and hasn't in parts since perhaps the mid 1970s. The Somerville infrastructure is shown in the following segments of an 1882 "panoramic view" map of Somerville:

Somerville terminal building.

Train on South Branch Railroad track approaching Somerville.

None of the infrastructure shown in the above images exists today. The bridge over the Raritan river, just west of Route 206, was dismantled in about 1997.

The steam engines used on the South Branch Railroad were predominantly camelbacks, a design particularly popular with the Central Railroad of NJ. A somewhat odd design, they had a large fire grate area, which was necessary for burning anthracite coal, which burns clean, but slowly. Here is an undated photograph of a

typical camelback.

A CNJ train is shown in the following 1920 photograph of a

commuter train with a camelback engine.

The location of this photograph is unknown, but a typical train on the South Branch Railroad would probably have been similar to this train. The last passenger train, on April 24, 1953, consisted of the engine and two passenger cars.

The creation of the South Branch railroad seems to have had much to do with John G. Schenck, who was a railroad commissioner, NJ state assemblyman, NJ state senatory, and a land owner in the Neshanic area, which itself has a history dating back to the 1750s. He built a mansion, starting in 1858. A storm blew down the orignal frame. The house was completed in about 1860. The house exists today, and is in very good condition, as shown in the following photographs.

Front of the John G. Schenck house.
Photograph taken November 20, 2002.

Back of the John G. Schenck house.
Photograph taken November 20, 2002.

A major industry in the Neshanic Station area in the decades before about 1900 was peach growing. Like many shortline railroads, the South Branch served to move agricultural products. Many carloads of peaches would be taken off John G. Schenck's farm each year. Some time around 1900 a peach blight struck the area, and the industry collapsed.

For a look around the Neshanic Station area, centered almost exactly at the 8/8 mile marker, see Neshanic Station.

Present day track and infrastructure.

A large amount of current information about the current (2003) state of the SBRR infrastruction is contained in a sequence of satellite photographs, taken on April 16, 1995. Starting at Somerville, NJ, each photograph spans about one mile of track length, of which about one half is overlap between a previous image and the subsequent one, for convenience. Thus approximately 28 photographs span the 16 miles of the SBRR system. Where available, some of the images contain links to supporting and peripheral information - akin to an information spur track. Although the SBRR has mostly been out of action for close to 30 years, as of 2003, some stretches of track were still active when the satellite images were made.

References are made to local and state roads to give a sense of where the track is located. Some areas probably look much like they did 140 years ago, when the line was built. Other areas have been largely "developed," and one can see stretches where the track bed no longer exists.

South Branch Railroad, 1995 and after.