Part one in the series, The Route Not Taken

This article by Egbert T. Bush caught my attention because it is reminiscent of PennEast’s attempt to dig a pipeline across Delaware Township and other parts of Hunterdon and Mercer Counties. The big difference here is that many landowners along the proposed route of this railroad supported it because they expected real benefits, whereas PennEast’s pipeline is likely to do more harm than good.

Happily for those earlier landowners, and Mr. Bush himself, the rail line was never built.

The Delaware & Flemington Rail Road Company

The Story of a Line That Fortunately Was Never Built
Survey Stakes Disappeared

Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published in the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, October 9, 1930

While we are talking much and thinking more about an old established railroad to Flemington, we cannot afford to forget that 57 years ago [1873] a number of Hunterdon County men bound themselves together as a company bearing this heading as its official name. A few of our readers may have faint recollections of that enterprising Company and its strenuous efforts, still fewer may clearly remember. But most readers probably never even heard of a projected railroad from Prallsville, now a part of Stockton, to run by way of Sergeantsville and Sand Brook to Flemington, there to connect with the South Branch Railroad for Somerville and New York.

That “old established railroad” that Mr. Bush mentioned was the one built in 1854 from Lambertville to Flemington, now known as the Black River & Western Railroad.1

According to an ambitious-looking map dated 1874, this was to be a link in an elaborate scheme of connecting roads. One link was to bridge the Delaware at Prallsville and run to Centerville [in Pennsylvania]. From there one branch went to Doylestown, where connection would be made with the Doylestown R.R. for Lansdale; the other branch went by way of Hartsville and Hatboro and struck the North Penn R.R. about ten miles from Philadelphia. It would be necessary to build these several connecting links in Pennsylvania, but our Hunterdon County Company was directly interested only in the line between its terminals with considerable indirect interest in the prospects beyond.

The 1876 “Railroad Map of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania” gives us an idea of the route. The proposed rail line is shown as a dotted line in this detail:

Detail, Map of the Railroads of New Jersey, 1876

It shows the line ending at Prallsville where it connects with the Bel-Del, but the map does not show any bridge, or any rail line on the Pennsylvania side. It does show a branch line ending at Doylestown. Presumably a connecting line from there to Centre Bridge would be built later.

Previous Proposals

Railroads running from the Delaware River to Flemington were not a new idea. In 1831 Nathaniel Saxton proposed a rail line similar to this, although it would have had a different course, since it was meant to run from Somerville through Flemington and on to Lambertville. The idea was offered at “a meeting of the inhabitants of Flemington and its vicinity at the courthouse in Flemington,” as reported in the Hunterdon Gazette on October 12, 1831. Saxton and the committee formed to consider a railroad for Flemington presented ten resolutions which were adopted by those attending the meeting including item 7:

Resolved, That the middle and upper part of the county of Hunterdon, which may be considered among the most populous and fertile districts in the state, labours under peculiar disadvantages, from its distance from market, and the want of communications to encourage the improvement of its natural advantages; that it would be greatly benefited by the construction of a rail road from Somerville to the neighborhood of Flemington, and thence to Lambertsville, or any point on the Delaware below the head of the Delaware and Raritan Canal feeder, so as to intersect that improvement, and secure to this section of country a communication to the markets of both Philadelphia and New York.

Interesting that Saxton considered middle and northern Hunterdon as “among the most populous” areas in the state. But that was 1831.

The tenth resolution stated that an application should be made to the state legislature to authorize construction of the proposed line. Twenty nine men were named to circulate petitions, and four were named to a committee of correspondence in charge of “forwarding the application to the legislature.” They were John Mann, Isaac G. Farlee, John W. Bray and Philip Marshall, Esq. However, their efforts were for naught. A rail line following their proposal was not built until 1854.

In 1848, the State Legislature of NJ was considering a bill to authorize construction of what became the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad, running north from Trenton along the Delaware River to Belvidere, NJ opposite Easton, PA. The bill went through, but an additional bill to extend the line from Lambertville to Flemington was voted down. No doubt there is a story behind that. But local supporters managed to create the Flemington Railroad and Transportation Company and get their line built by 1854.

Another example of a rail line being contemplated but never built occurred in 1866, when a bill was introduced in the State Senate by the South Branch Railroad Company to extend their line from Flemington to the Delaware River, there to connect with the Pennsylvania line. They also wanted permission to build a bridge over the river to accommodate the railroad.2 Apparently nothing came of that either. It is surprising that the South Branch Railroad Company would even consider this, given that the Flemington company already had a line over that route.

And finally, from the pages of the Hunterdon Republican, Jan. 13, 1870:

Railroad Meeting held on 3 Jan. 1870. A meeting of the inhabitants of Delaware Township was held at Sergeantsville, to secure the charter for a railroad from Flemington to the Delaware River. Abraham V. Van Fleet, Esq. and John T. Bird spoke to the group about the advantages of railroads to the community and what actions are necessary.3

A committee was appointed to circulate petitions for signatures in support of the railroad: Henry P. Cullen, William R. Allen, William L. Hoppock, John Finney, Ely Kitchen, Hiram Moore, Alexander Higgins, Isaac S. Cramer, R. Van Dycke, Cyrus Risler, Henry F. Bodine, Charles W. Godown, John S. Bush, Henry R. Manners and Joseph Smith made up the committee.

Rev. Joshua Primmer, Isaac S. Cramer and John Finney were appointed to wait on the Legislature and ask for the charter. At a meeting held 8 Jan. 1870, the petition committee had obtained 516 signatures [my emphasis]. John S. Emery of Flemington and John Finney of Stockton, addressed the meeting and gave a pep talk!

On Jan. 27, 1870 the Hunterdon Republican reported that

The bill to charter the Flemington and Delaware Railroad is now before the Legislature. It will authorize construction from Flemington to some point on the Delaware River between Brookville and Bull’s Island. These men were named incorporators: Calvin Corle; John T. Bird; John C. Cramer; Rev. Joshua Primmer; John Finney; Enoch Abel; David Van Fleet, and others.

This is an interesting precursor to the eventual proposal of 1873. Like other Hunterdon railroad bills, this one did not pass. Note that none of the men named as ‘incorporators’ were involved in the Delaware-Flemington Railroad of 1873 except for David Van Fleet.

At the same time as the 1870 Delaware Flemington proposal was being floated, another line was contemplated to run from Flemington to Frenchtown, as the Republican reported on the same day:

A bill to charter the West Hunterdon Railroad has also been applied for. John L. Jones; Robeson Hyde; Amplius B. Chamberlain; Ambrose Barcroft; Wesley Bellis; Updyke Arnwine; Peter F. Opdyke; Isaac Cramer and Andrew B. Rittenhouse, are named incorporators. This line will run from Flemington to the Delaware River somewhere near Frenchtown.

Clearly, there was a hunger in Hunterdon County to connect Flemington with other locations along the canal beside the one at Lambertville. Returning to Mr. Bush’s article:

Officers of the Company

S. C. Slaymaker of Lancaster, Pa. was engaged as engineer and immediately entered upon his duties. The Company was formally, though not yet legally, organized at a meeting held September 12, 1873 at the hotel of J. K. Wilson in Sergeantsville. Lemuel O. Kessler, who owned and operated the quarry at Prallsville, was made Chairman and O. H. Sproul, Secretary. The name of the Company was adopted as had been previously suggested. The amount of Capital Stock was fixed at $250,000, the number of shares at 5,000 and the tenure or holding term at 999 years.

Samuel Cochran Slaymaker (1828-1894) was a life-long resident of Lancaster County. How he came to the attention of Kessler and company is hard to say. Jacob K. Wilson stood to benefit by a rail line passing near his hotel. Lemuel O. Kessler certainly would have benefitted by this far more convenient way of transporting the stone from his quarry. Obadiah H. Sproul was a physician who lived in Stockton. The benefit of the railroad to him is not obvious. Perhaps it was simply an interest of his. I will have more to say about the officers, investors and landowners in coming articles.

The tenure [999 years] now appears to have been ample, covering almost 500 times the period of any activities on the part of the Company. But those enterprising gentlemen were looking far and hopefully into the future, unable to see what can now be so readily seen and so easily accounted for by looking only a little way into the past. A very common occurrence in human affairs.

A committee was appointed to secure from the Secretary of State “copies of Articles of Associations and to prepare the same for signing at the next meeting.” At a meeting held Sept. 29, 1873, 20 names were affixed to the “Article of Associations to Incorporate The Delaware and Flemington Rail Road.” Thirteen Directors were elected as follows: L. O. Kessler, Wm. V. Case, Hiram Moore, Isaac S. Cramer, David Van Fleet, John I. Jones, William L. Hoppock, O. H. Sproul, Wm. A. Baillie, Wm. P. Corney, Alex Higgins, George N. Holcombe and Peter Best.

Here alone do we find the word “incorporated” or any of its derivatives. But the Article of Association duly filed in the Office of the Secretary of State evidently conferred corporate powers and responsibilities upon the Company.4

The Hunterdon Republican published an article about the incorporation on November 6, 1873. The papers submitted to the Secretary of State were signed by Samuel [sic] O. Kessler, William V. Case, William Hoppock, Jr., Obadiah H. Sproul and Peter Best from Stockton; Isaac S. Cramer from Sergeantsville; David Van Fleet and John L. Jones from Flemington; and “two gentlemen from Philadelphia—William A. Bailey and William P. Cornely.”

The reporter did not do a good job of getting the names right. Cornley was actually ‘Corney,’ and Samuel O. Kessler was actually Lemuel O. Kessler, owner of the Prallsville Quarry. In some records, including the one above, his name was given as Samuel O. Kessler, but there never was such a person. Samuel O. and Lemuel O. were the same.

Survey Stakes Disappeared

The committee appointed to secure the right of way appears to have been generally well received, but there was some opposition. On one farm near Sergeantsville, even the soil seemed to be in opposition. Anyhow, stakes set by the engineers on any day were either absorbed or thrown away before the next morning. No matter how often the experiment was tried, the result was always the same. A serious question naturally arose—what if the ties when laid should go the same way?

A very strange property of that soil indeed! Yet the scientists in their elaborate “Soil Surveys” seem never to have found it even here. Possibly the experiments, though many, were not properly reported or else were not considered sufficient for basing any scientific facts or theories upon the results. Or it may be that those incidents were passed over by all, merely as another illustration of a well-known fact—that engineers, like lawyers and doctors and many others, find strange things along the lines of their respective vocations.

Unfortunately, the soil along the PennEast route has proven incapable of absorbing survey markers. It is regrettable that Mr. Bush did not name any of those opposed to the railroad, probably because they did not trouble to sign petitions. One would imagine at least some of the landowners would object since the line would cut across their fields, making farming operations more difficult. Horses were still relied on at this time to pull wagons and other farm equipment. A large noisy smoking train going by would surely upset them.

In the 1870s, trains were powered by steam locomotives, which were very impressive as they came through a neighborhood, with billowing smoke issuing from their stacks. These were the locomotives with the famous “cow-catchers” in front. By this time, trains were powered with coal rather than wood, which was used for the earliest steam locomotives in the 1830s. England was definitely the leader in the early years of this industry.5

On the other hand, farmers had to get their produce to market somehow. Trains extended their markets to the hungry cities of New York and Philadelphia, and parts west and south. So there were strong supporters for the rail line by some owners along the route, more than willing to put up with the disruption. Back to Mr. Bush’s article:

At a meeting held Oct. 8, 1873, the Directors formally elected the following officers for the ensuing year: President, Lemuel O. Kessler; Treasurer, David Van Fleet; Secretary, O. H. Sproul. For some reason the election of a Vice-President was delayed until Nov. 11th of that year when “Capt. Wm. A. Baillie was unanimously elected.”

At a meeting held Oct. 30, 1873, Hon. W. L. Hoppock reported that he had filed the Article of Association, Survey, etc. of the Delaware and Flemington R.R. in the office of the Secretary of State, and presented a certificate for the same. The President was directed to procure Books, Seal, and all other matters necessary, &c.6

66 Certificates Issued

According to the Stock Book, a large volume containing probably 500, only 66 certificates were ever issued. They run from one share to forty, and aggregate 378. Many of them are left in the Book, having never been delivered, though every one of them receipts $5 per share as paid, leaving $45 to be paid when required. This would give as total income from that source $1,890. We find a later statement of a much greater number of shares sold, but the Book does not show additional issues. The later sales were probably based on conditions never complied with.

January 29, 1874, Lemuel O. Kessler entered into an agreement with the Company, whereby he was to convey the land taken from him to the Company by deed of General Warranty, “for such sum as may be agreed upon or assessed in the manner provided by Law.” No deed was ever given.7

On the minutes of April 16, 1874, we find this encouraging entry: “On Motion, Mr. Best was authorized to commence work on such part of the line as has been released, with a force of four men, and was instructed to select the place for commencing.”

That looks like “meaning business.” But at this day, “a force of four men” does not seem adequate for pushing a work of such magnitude. They may have been fast workers, but it seems more likely that there was no great hurry about increasing expenses. Here is all we know about what was done on the line. April 30, 1874: “Peter Best reported bills for Breaking Ground as follows. A. J. Rounsavill $5.20; John Gordon $4.87; Philip Abbott $4.87; William Warman $4.87.” We see by this that Mr. Best did actually break ground at a total expense of less than $20.

According to the 1870 census, all these men, except Philip Abbott, lived in Delaware Township. Peter Best, 45, was a railroad foreman. Andrew Jackson Rounsaville, 39, was a lumber and coal dealer. Mr. Bush forgot to mention that in 1874, A. J. Rounsaville was listed as one of the Directors of the Company.8 John Gordon, 34, was a stone mason.

Philip Abbott is a question. In 1870 he was living in Bedminster, age 20, in the household of Robert L. Abbott, 74. However, by 1880 he resided in Delaware township, employed as a drover. William Warman, 42, was the only farmer in the group, and the only landowner along the route. Mr. Bush continues:

Here is a puzzling “Statement from the Directors of the Delaware and Flemington Rail Road: Statement of Stock subscribed $71,850; number of shares 1,437.” It would seem that the great bulk of the stock subscribed was on conditional subscription and that the conditions were never met. Then estimates of the cost are given as follows: “Grading and Dredging $100,000; 902 tons track Iron @ $50 per ton, $45,100; 27,000 ties @ 50 cts, $13,500; cost of laying track and switches $4,612.50; cost of land $16,000. Total $186,857.50.” Deducting the amount of stock subscribed leaves about $115,000 to be otherwise financed.

The Treasurer’s Report, Oct. 15, 1874, has the following: “Dr. to amount received on subscriptions $1890.” And credits of various bills paid, amounting to $1,564.12; balance $325.88.

The Land Owners

On the 22nd of January, 1874, Engineer Slaymaker submitted the following “List of Land Owners along the line through and amount in acres taken from each property.” The amounts are here omitted to save space and the names of present or recent owners occasionally put in parenthesis for convenience in locating the proposed route. The list is as follows: S. O. Kessler (Twining), Joseph Hunt, William Warman, Benjamin Larison, Amos Fisher, William Rake (Arthur Opdyke), Elias S. Johnson (J. Walter Allen), Henry R. McManners, Charles Johnson, Jacob Lawshe, Charles Green (Lewis Case), Isaiah H. Moore (Isaac Smith), John H. Gordon, Henry H. Fisher, Dilts and Fulper, Eli Hoppock Estate, Ozias Parks, Michael V. Cole, James Carrell, Cornelius Williamson, O. Fauss, Enoch Hoffman, William Aller (Charles Stevens), Ann Elizabeth Sergeant, John T. Sergeant Estate, Hiram Moore, Alex Higgins, John Fauss, G. N. Holcombe, Jonas Sutton, Susan Chamberlin and Charlotte Moore and Susan Hampton, William Swallow, Jacob Thatcher, Aaron C. Hoagland, John Sergeant, John S. Higgins, Charles Watson, George Hastings, Thomas Edmonds, John C. Hopewell, John N. Voorhees, Samuel Hill’s Estate.9

Some of these names appear twice and some three times, showing that lands owned by them were touched at different points on the route, a separate amount being calculated for each time the name was given. The amounts taken ran from one-hundredth of an acre taken from Alex Higgins to 8.97 acres taken from Aaron C. Hoagland, through whose farm the route extended for more than a mile.

Alexander Higgins lived at Sandbrook. Aaron Carman Hoagland (1805-1883) lived in Raritan Township, about a mile from Copper Hill.

1874 was probably a make or break year for the proposed railroad, but Mr. Bush had little to say about it. In October, a new board of directors was elected, as reported on October 22, 1874 by the Hunterdon Republican:

A meeting of the Stockholders of the Flemington and Delaware Railroad was held to elect Directors for the ensuing year: William V. Case, John L. Jones, David Van Fleet, Hiram Moore, Isaac S. Cramer, Miller Kline, Edward P. Conkling, George N. Holcombe, Obadiah H. Sproul, Peter Best, William L. Hoppock, Andrew J. Rounsaville and Gideon Moore. The Board of Directors met and elected: President –William V. Case, Vice President – John L. Jones, Treasurer – David Van Fleet, and Secretary – Obadiah H. Sproul.

Directors from 1873 who were not reelected were Lemuel O. Kessler, William A. Baillie, William P. Corney and Alexander Higgins. Back again to Mr. Bush’s article:

Commission House Not Interested

Feb. 3, 1875, John S. Hockenbury, then keeper of Stockton Hotel, submitted a letter from “Jelliffe, Wright, Hoag & Co.,” commission merchants of New York saying: “Mr. Jelliffe is familiar with the proposed road of which you were talking and thinks the Millstone road on which they are now working will obviate necessity for the other road and prevent its being a success if built. Therefore he would not wish to invest anything in the enterprise.”

John Sutton Hockenbury (1821-1914) was living in Raritan Township in 1870, working as a “commercial traveler,” i.e., a salesman. In 1874, Robert Sharp sold the Stockton hotel property to Hockenbury’s wife Sarah Rittenhouse Hockenbury.10 Hockenbury retained ownership of the hotel for the rest of his life. (See “When Stockton Was Not So Dry.”)

Somebody may remember that old firm of commission merchants. [Not anymore!] They had evidently been asked to take stock in the road, on the ground that it would open up a new “peach country.” Old people all remember how ardently such merchants were soliciting peaches in those days; but few ever found them either investing in local enterprises or sending returns quite equal to their glowing pictures of what their market could do for the shipper.

Mr. Taylor Jelliffe died in 1907, age 76. His obituary tells us something about his “firm of commission merchants.”11 He was described as “one of the prominent figures in the produce commission trade of New York.”

Upward of forty years ago the firm of Jelliffe & Co. began handling butter, eggs, poultry, live and dressed calves, hogs, etc., having stands in the old West Washington Market. A few years later the business was combined with W. H. Hoag & Co. under the name of Jelliffe, Wright, Hoag & Co. This arrangement was not altogether satisfactory and subsequently a division occurred, Mr. Jelliffe and Mr. Wright forming the new concern of Jelliffe, Wright & Co., two sons of Mr. Jelliffe—Fred L. and Maltbie—entering the business and they are now the only survivors. Mr. Jelliffe was a plain spoken, frank, successful business man, and he has left an impress upon the circle in which he moved.

Mr. Bush continues:

The building of the “Millstone road,” officially the “Delaware & Bound Brook Railroad,” is well remembered, perhaps chiefly because of the famous “Frog War,” or “War of the Frog,” with its bloodless battle near Hopewell. That line was completed and was operated for some years. Now it is as dead as the road which it was thought to make unnecessary. A pier of the bridge over the Millstone River is almost the only monument remaining to its memory.12

Subscriptions Cease

Discouragements are looming. Feb. 4, 1875, at a meeting held in Sergeantsville, “Judge Van Fleet made a statement for information to the effect that we are now at a standstill for want of subscriptions to the Stock of the Co. sufficient to guarantee completion of the road.” And thus the prospective railroad died soon after.

Mr. Bush said nothing about the formal closing of the books. One would expect some mopping up was necessary after the company folded, but if there are records of that, I have not yet seen them.

There was some disappointment about the company’s failure to get enough subscribers, including the editor of the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, Robert J. Killgore. He had a colorful way of expressing himself. This is what he wrote in March 1875:

March 9, 1875. “LAND VALUES — The first swing of the pick for the proposed extension of the railroad line from Flemington to the Delaware River will raise the value of every acre of land in Delaware Township 25 percent at least. Why are those farmers so backward about taking stock in the road?”

March 23, 1875. “TRAINS WANTED — We are getting tired of shooting paper bullets at those Delaware Township misers who are too thick-panted to come down with the few dollars needed to make up the purse for the railroad extension from Flemington to Delaware.”

“Thick-panted”? What could that have meant, other than pockets that were too tight to allow their owners to reach for “a few dollars.” An odd comment, inasmuch as it would take more than a few dollars to fund a railroad company. As Mr. Bush related, the company needed an extra $115,000 just to construct the line. It would take more than the residents of Delaware Township to raise those funds. Not only was there the expense of building the line, the company also had to acquire or lease the trains to run on that line, extra equipment and buildings, and the people to manage it all.

It is not surprising that the railroad failed. The timing could not have been worse. The proposal was offered just one week before the beginning of the Panic of 1873, which caused credit to dry up and investors to become scarce. And wouldn’t you know, one of the major causes of the Panic was “rampant speculation” by railroad corporations during the railroad boom that began when the Civil War ended. The directors of the Delaware Flemington Railroad Co. were just a little too late.

Mr. Bush continues:

The engineer’s map shows the total length of the road to be 9.75 miles with a half mile additional for switches. The greatest elevation is 350 feet at “Sergeantsville Summit,” 3.75 miles from Prallsville. The greatest fill is 23 feet, 2.27 miles from Prallsville. The greatest cut is 40 feet, six-tenths of a mile westward from Sand Brook.

The “summit” was at Sandy Ridge. Mr. Bush concluded:

The data for this article are derived chiefly from the minutes and other papers of the Company. These were carefully preserved by the late Dr. Sproul, its Secretary. After his death they were placed in the efficient hands of Mr. H. E. Deats for indefinite preservation. By him they were loaned to the writer for this feeble effort to revive memories of the Railroad that was to be but as appears in the light of later developments, fortunately never was.

I am happy to write that for once, most of the papers referred to by Mr. Bush have been saved at the Hunterdon County Historical Society (Collection 67, Box 1), including an amazing map of the route, dated 1873, as well as a survey by Isaac S. Cramer of people likely to use the new railroad. I will examine both Cramer’s survey and the route planned for the railroad in future articles.

The next article in this series is “Kessler & Company.


Thanks to Shane Blische for helpful information regarding this planned railroad as well as the Flemington Railroad and Transportation Company, now known as the Black River & Western Railroad.

  1. I was surprised to see that Hubert Schmidt, author of Rural Hunterdon, made no mention of the Delaware Flemington Railroad Company in his chapter on transportation.
  2. Hunterdon Gazette, March 7, 1866.
  3. Surprisingly, Abraham Van Fleet was not related to the David Van Fleet who became a Director of the proposed RR company.
  4. Of those 13 Directors, only four of them owned land along the route: Kessler, plus Hiram Moore, Alexander Higgins and George N. Holcombe, all of Sandbrook.
  5. An excellent source for information on the steam locomotives in use during this period can be found in Warren E. Lee’s Down Along the Old Bel-Del, pp. 64-65. A couple other interesting books are Warren E. and Catherine T. Lee, A chronology of the Belvidere Delaware Railroad Company (a Pennsylvania Railroad Company) & the region through which it operated, 1989, and Jerry J. Jagger, Black River & Western Railroad, 2016. All these books are available at the Hunterdon Co. Historical Society.
  6. Wm. L. Hoppock was the son of the man who sold the village of Prallsville to Lemuel O. Kessler in 1872-73.
  7. I checked the Hunterdon Co. Deed Index and found that the Delaware-Flemington Railroad Company never recorded any deeds at all.
  8. Hunterdon Republican, Oct. 22, 1874.
  9. I will deal with these landowners in more detail in a future article.
  10. I have not yet been able to link Sarah Rittenhouse to the rest of the Rittenhouse family, but she was living in Kingwood in 1843 when she married Hockenbury.
  11. The American Produce Review, 1907, vol. 24 p. 809, from Google Books.
  12. For information on the Frog War, see “Lost Railroad.” The website includes a couple maps showing the route of the rail line that ran from the Delaware River south of Titusville through Hopewell Township and ending at Millstone in Somerset County. The reference to ‘Frog’ had nothing to do with amphibians. It was a railroad term for a point where the tracks of two rail lines crossed.