Tom’s Raritan River Railroad Page




Lucius Beebe Published “HighBall – A Pageant of Trains” in 1945.

The first chapter is almost entirely dedicated to the Raritan River Railroad.


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THE year 1888, in the world and the United States in general, and in and around New York City in particular, was freighted with nervous excitements. The eastern seaboard had at length dug itself out of the drifts occasioned by the great blizzard which will forever be known by the year of its occurrence, and Chester Conklin had suc­cumbed to pneumonia occasioned by falling in a snowdrift during the record fall. The i\’Ietropolitan Opera Company of New York, in an era when boiled shirts and diamond tiaras were the outward and visible symbols not alone of respectability but also of social achievement, was vastly concerned over whether or not to include German opera in its season’s repertoire. The German Kaiser was annoyed with France and was shaking a noisy saber in its scabbard.


The columns of the New York Daily Tribune were occupied by ad­vertisements for Jaeckel the furrier’s latest importation, a “seal Parisian walking jacket,” and a patent nostrum against pneumonia called Deni­son’s Plaster whose typeset read ominously: “Paraded Saturday, Died Monday!” The West still maintained a profound hold upon the public imagination and Century Magazine’s frontier article for November was entitled “Looking for Camp.” Classified advertisements of coachmen and grooms seeking employment occupied half a column of agate type in the New York Herald.


In the world of railroading, too, brave doings were toward. A newly financed and organized road, the Ridgefleld and New York Railroad Company, was laying track from Danbury, Connecticut, to New York City with an eye, doubtless, to making the celebrated Danbury Fair as well as the hat building resources of that city more immediately accessi­ble to Manhattan. Throughout New York state the car stove had been forbidden by law in all passenger equipment, and railroad executives were shaking dubious heads over the expense of installing steam pipes in the wooden, open-platform rolling stock of their properties. The Penn­sylvania announced a five per cent dividend on its common stock, a half  of one per cent less than in 1887, but the market bore up bravely under the intelligence. In Chicago, the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Company was having sharp words with the Chicago and Western In­diana and filed a bill to restrain the latter road from interfering with the business of laying Lake Shore iron across the tracks of the C. & W. I. to join the main line of the Rock Island at Chic~go Heights.


And across the New Jersey meadows, from New Brunswick to South Amboy, Irish graders and track gangs were laying the fills and light iron for what promised to be much more than a mere connecting railroad if ever the tracks of what was then as now known as the Raritan River Railroad should extend far enough across the main line of the Pennsyl­vania to join at Bound Brook with the far-reaching systems of the Lehigh Valley, the Baltimore and Ohio, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the Reading Company. Had this ambitious plan been realized it is possible that the vast quantity of industrial freight now syphoned out of South Amboy by the Pennsylvania might have been diverted to other roads through the agency of the Raritan River and the ambitious little project have ended as a through-haul carrier in its own right. Legal and financial difficulties, however, limited the Raritan River essentially to the trackage, completed in 1890, between South Amboy and New Brunswick, with spurs to Sayreville, Amclay, and the lead mines and docks that lie adjacent to the Raritan River itself just around the bend to Perth Amboy and the glistening reaches of Raritan Bay.


Time, however, has dealt more gently with the Raritan than it has with many another short connecting line and today this little pike, about twelve miles in length, operating without signals on telephonic dispatch­ing and with a motive power roster of only eight steam locomotives, is very much a going concern and the last example of-big-time railroading and the grand manner of the high iron in minuscule within easy distance of New York City. It is standard-gage; its engines are more modern than many and many a valitudinarian kettle still in service along the mthn lines of the Wabash, C. & E. I., and Monon, and the sight of No. 5, a flange-stacked Baldwin 2-8-2 built in 1910, double-heading with No. i at the head end of forty high cars and No. 7 pushing from behind as they breast the grade of Bergen Hill is a picture to quicken the pulses and lift the railroading heart. The morning mists of Raritan Bay are shivered with their advance, the high stacks thunder with their exhaust, the coupled locomotives roll and shudder perilously over the light iron, the heavy consist glides by, the caboose and rear helper vanish again into the absorbent fog, and there has come and gone a vision of railroading as true and authentic as any sight of the Union Pacific’s ponderous Mallets fighting for life on Sherman Hill a few miles~ west of Cheyenne.


The destinies of the Raritan are minor and homely destinies involved with. brick kilns, coalyards and pie factories. A momentary touch of terror and grandeur, perhaps, derives from the traffic stemming from the vast du Pont-Hercules explosive manufactury at Parlin and another du Pont subsidiary which manufactures cinema films hard by, and for these perilous chores No. ii has had its stack fitted with an eye-filling spark arrester. But mostly the road’s business is with lumberyards, pig­mented clays, and the delivery of tank cars to the Texas Company at Milltown. The Raritan’s last passenger revenue, in the sum of $92, was earned in 1938. It once carried some 9,000 commuters weekly in its pas­senger and mixed~ trains, and handsome stone and brick stations at Parlin and New Brunswick testify to its prosperity as a passenger road only a few years ago. Today the station at Parlin houses an orderly and well-staffed freight bureau and business office. The sightly little depot at the New Brunswick terminal has closed its waiting room and boarded up its open fireplace, but its freight house is in good repair, and in the station agent’s office a battery of telephones, filing cases, and calendars, torn to the current month, from the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad show it to be a going concern.


Very much as is the scheme of things on the West Shore branch of the New York Central, where all westbound traffic is dispatched by day and trains headed for New York run by night, the local freights of the Raritan set out from South Amboy, where they have been made up during the night in the classification yards of the New York and Long Branch and the Pennsylvania, and roll westward during the morning hours. In the late afternoon the train crews pick up eastbound cars from New Brunswick, Milltown, South River, Vandeventer; Gillespie, and Parlin, from Sayreville Junction and Phoenix, and rest for the night in the home roundhouse at South Amboy. No. 5 is the oldest engine in continuous service on the Raritan and was the second No. 5 on its roster. The first No. 5, however, is merely a legend, shrouded in mystery. All that anyone remembers is that it was a 4-4-0 American type locomotive— quite the lady, but her origins and her end are obscure. Just how a full-size steam locomotive could disappear or be scrapped without a trace and leave behind it no record of its going on the company books baffles H. Filskov, chief operations officer, but that’s all anybody knows nowadays. Its most modern motive power is No. 7, an o-6-o switcher built by Bald­win in 1919 and purchased by the Raritan from the Chattahoochee Valley a few years later. Altogether the Raritan has stabled twenty-one steamers in its roundhouse since 1890 and nowadays it makes a practice of keeping seven engines in daily operation and one in the back shops at all times.


The right-of-way of the little road, for the most part, is over New Jersey meadows and fresh ponds and inlets from the tidal reaches of the Raritan River. There is a stiff grade through a lonely woodland cut, in fall thickly populated by hunters, just east of Milltown. Deserted spurs and moldering factory premises testify that once this stretch was alive with small industrial projects, gravel pits, manufactories, and agricul­tural undertakings. At South River the single iron passes over desolate marshes and spans a curving arm of water within sight of the domed spires of the town’s Orthodox Russian Church. At Parlin there are com­paratively spacious switching yards, a water tower of ancient brick and wooden design, and a protected grade crossing, while a few miles farther on, the line crosses the tremendous sand pits and narrow-gage railroad system of a cement and gravel works. At no time, save perhaps in the deep woods of Milltown, are the train crews of the Raritan out of sight of the tall smokestacks and factory sites of industry, but even so, the illusion persists that it is primarily a country railroad, a rural enterprise serving the necessities of suburban existence.


The Raritan is, of course, the result of many and varied antecedent circumstances in the history of New Jersey railroading. The region it serves is an old one, industrially speaking, and a century and more ago the cargo boats and passenger packets from Philadelphia went up the Delaware River to Trenton and so inland by way of the Delaware and Raritan Canal to reach tidewater again at New Brunswick. This pattern was broken by the construction of the storied Camden and Amboy Rail­road, now a part of the Pennsylvania system. A clue to the ownership and management of the Raritan River Railroad may be found in the person of its chief officer and vice-president who is George LeBoutillier, executive of the Pennsylvania Railroad, but the Raritan is still proud in its own motive power, its own herald on its shiny red, double-truck cabooses, and the legend of its own separate and individual entity let­tered in gold on the tenders of its locomotives which buck and heave valiantly ahead of thirty- and forty-car trains over its twelve miles of main-line iron. Any inquiry into the internal economy of the Raritan River will disclose that it is financially profitable, both as an individual enterprise and as an agency for the collection and distribution of revenue freight for the Pennsylvania, whose South Amboy extension meets the mighty mainline at that crossroads of the railroad world, Monmouth Junction. But more than this it is a homely and familiar factor in the daily lives of the communities it serves and one which no other agency of transport is likely to supplant in the immediate future. Buses and private motor cars have absorbed its passenger traffic, but it is improba­ble that trucks can, with economy and profit, handle its not inconsid­erable bulk of lumber, sand, coal, and other non-perishable merchandise.


The Raritan River is the archetypal connecting railroad, the dream railroad out of only yesterday. Its disintegrating ties, sometimes laid in eccentric patterns, its archaically light rails and original fluted fishplates laid down more than half a century ago, its hand operated switches and homely informality of dispatching are redolent of wistful railroading years, and it would surprise almost nobody if some morning No. 11 should come muttering down the grade from Phoenix with a bearded engineer in a curly derby hat leaning out of the driver’s side. Its rolling stock (except its brightly lacquered cabooses) bears the car heralds of other railroads; the platforms of its passenger stations are peopled with commuting ghosts; enthusiastic huntsmen have riddled the warning signs at its grade crossings. But there is fire, metaphorically and factually, in its boilers; the main and connecting rods clatter and are instinct with life; on the high (and only) iron of the Raritan River there is traffic still. The Raritan River with its almost irreducibly short mileage and well shopped stable of little locomotives is, to be sure, only one of a multitude of short-haul railroads, each an individual entity, a personality to the sentimental, a microcosm of the vast industry of railroading to the more precise-minded.



















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