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Stories From the Past - Hopewell Valley
The Saga of the Mercer & Somerset
Hopewell Valley's Lost Railroad

Detail - Combination Atlas Map of Mercer County, 1875 
Red line shows the route of the Mercer & Somerset 
Railroad across Hopewell Valley in the 1870's.
The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday, January 10, 1876  courtesy New York Public Library
The first railroad charter in the United States was issued on February 6, 1815 to the New Jersey Railroad Company. But no rail line was ever built by this company due to a lack of investors. One of the earliest railroads to actually be built in America, and the first in New Jersey, was the Camden and Amboy Rail Road (C&A RR), chartered on February 4, 1830. This charter enabled the C&A RR to hold a monopoly on building railroads across New Jersey. That monopoly connected the lucrative trade centers of New York and Philadelphia until January 1, 1869.

When plans for a second railroad were announced a court battle ensued to block construction. In an effort to maintain its claim, and to physically block construction, the Camden & Amboy (now operating as the United Companies Pennsylvania Railroad) received a charter in New Jersey to build the Mercer and Somerset Railway on March 17, 1870. Construction on the Mercer & Somerset Branch of its Belvedere Line began across Hopewell Township in 1871. It was completed by 1873, and in full operation by 1874. The company's annual report stated that "The road extends from Somerset Junction, on the line of the Belvidere Delaware Railroad, to East Millstone, the terminus of the Millstone and New Brunswick Railroad, and is 22 1/2 miles in length."

A study of the 1875 map (detail above) published in Everts & Stewart's Combination Atlas Map of Mercer County shows quite a bit of activity around the Mercer & Somerset's operation just west of Pennington. A siding is shown leading to a hay press, and another to an engine house. Nearby a coal and lumberyard can be seen and a large area marked stock penns (sic) is indicated. The year 1875 saw the railroad's only recorded profit of $637.16.

Meanwhile the battle to stop construction of a second rail line across the state was finally lost in court on April 2, 1873. The Delaware and Bound Brook Railroad was incorporated on May 12, 1874 in New Jersey to build a railroad from the Delaware River to the Central Railroad of New Jersey in Bound Brook. Shortly after construction commenced trouble began brewing over a planned frog crossing near the village of Hopewell. In railroad parlance a frog is a section of track where two railroads intersect. In a plan to make the laying of the frog impossible a Mercer & Somerset locomotive was kept at the spot with its "boilers fired twenty-four hours a day". With the approach of their scheduled train the standing locomotive would pull back onto a siding a short distance away to let the passing train by. Then it would roll back onto the spot at the earliest possible moment.

Then, one cold and blustery January night in 1876 as the blocking locomotive pulled away to let its own company's train pass a large gang of men, two-hundred strong, suddenly rushed from the woods and began building barricades across the Mercer's tracks. Another group of men chained the blocking locomotive now poised on its siding to the rails. It could no longer protect the spot where the frog was to be built. News of this dramatic event was flashed via telegraph to the superintendent of the line in Jersey City. He instantly directed the Mercer & Somerset's largest engine, #336, waiting at Millstone, to race to the scene. With the boiler fires stoked the engineer thundered through the night racing toward Hopewell at full steam. By now a crowd of over five-hundred locals had gathered at the site and the roar of the approaching train could be heard as it barreled down the valley. The long blasts of the mighty locomotive's whistle echoed off the Sourland mountainside.

The enormous engine bore down on the meager wooden barricade placed in its path at full speed. With his whistles blowing and smoke blasting from the locomotive's immense stack, the massive engine crashed through the hastily built wall sending wood and debris flying in all directions. The huge engine immediately derailed violently landing in the soft earth just beyond. But before the blocking engine could be released from its bonds, an army of Delaware & Bound Brook workmen, who had been quietly hiding in the woods nearby, raced to the spot and quickly built the offending frog thus allowing one railroad company to cross the track of another. With tempers at the breaking point and angry men on both sides gathering on that dark and foreboding January night, the local sheriff called on the Governor to quell the situation. The National Guard was soon called out. But reason took the upper hand, and the men decided to return to their homes. The deed was now done. And so ended the "Frog War" of Hopewell Valley.

The moment the frog was in place the Mercer & Somerset Railroad became useless. It had been built by the Pennsylvania Railroad for the sole purpose of blocking completion of the Delaware & Bound Brook Railroad's route across new Jersey. The installation of the frog meant the battle was finally lost. With debts mounting and income non-existent, the line quickly went bankrupt and by 1879 it was no longer operating. The Mercer & Somerset Railroad was sold at a foreclosure sale in Trenton for $50,000 on November 28, 1880. The purchaser was the Pennsylvania Railroad who also held the defaulted mortgage. The rails were removed in 1880.

The battle over the monopoly that had begun with the very first railroad in New Jersey ended right here in Hopewell Valley. While many heated debates and much political wrangling took place in distant board rooms and courthouses the battle really ended on that cold dark January night in 1876. The so called "Frog War" would be remembered by locals for many years to come. And what a story it was!

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The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday January 10, 1876              courtesy New York Public Library
The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday January 10, 1876              courtesy New York Public Library
The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday January 10, 1876              courtesy New York Public Library
The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday January 10, 1876              courtesy New York Public Library
The Daily Graphic, New York, Monday January 10, 1876              courtesy New York Public Library
Some remnants of the old railroad remain today. Telltale narrow mounds of raised earth and old stone trestles hidden in fields and along roadways are still scattered across the landscape of Hopewell Valley (if you know where to look). A few standing structures also remain evocative reminders of the Valley's rich past and its part in railroad history.

Jack Koeppel

Published in HVHS Newsletter Vol 26, No 2, Fall of 2007
Old stone bridge from the Mercer & Somerset Railroad now part of Jacobs Creek Road.
Detail from 1875 atlas map showing the layout of operations for the Mercer & Somerset Railroad near Pennington.