Tom’s Raritan River Railroad Page




History and Current State

Version 3.4



Questions? Comments?




History and Current State of the Raritan River Railroad


The Raritan River Rail Road was built during the end of the peak of the railroad building fever in the late 1880’s.  The goal was to go from South Amboy to Bound Brook, a goal that was never completed.


Construction was started in Sayreville in 1888 with 60lb rail, with a few trains running by the end of that same year.  The line first started out in Sayreville, NJ with a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad over Suchs’ Sand and Clay siding.  It then headed west to Parlin and South River and headed east at the same time towards South Amboy.

Eventually the line was finished east from Sayreville to South Amboy where they were able to connect with the CNJ over the New York & Long Branch.  This allowed them to abandon the first connection with the PRR over Suchs’ siding, where they actually had to pay the land owner for each car load moved!  They eventually built a new PRR connection in South Amboy.  The line eventually made it from Milltown to New Brunswick in 1891, where freight and passenger stations needed to be built. 


In 1888, the Raritan River Rail Road was started with two 4-4-0 Engines (No.1 and No.2) and Twenty 20 Ton Gondola cars.  These small cars were used by Suchs and Crossmans to move the sand and clays of the areas. 


As the line was progressing West towards New Brunswick, the first two branch lines was built.  In 1890 (even before the line was completed to New Brunswick), the 2.1 mile Sayreville Branch was completed to access the Sayre and Fisher Brick Yards near the mouth of the river, and about 1 mile of the Serviss Branch in East Brunswick was started in 1891, to help access some sand and clays that were also needed by Sayre and Fisher.   At this same time, with new branch lines and freight to be moved, new cars and engines were needed.  The third locomotive (No.3) was purchased in 1890 for this purpose, and shortly after, another small set of freight cars were ordered.  These cars were larger than the first set, there were fourteen 30 ton cars ordered this time.  The Raritan River Rail Road was up and running!


By July 4th, 1891 the first train left Milltown, and shortly after the line had reached as far as New Brunswick, and it was decided at this point not to continue across New Brunswick, across the Raritan River, and into Bound Brook.  This was mostly unproductive, undeveloped land anyway, and most likely would have caused them to go to far into debt, then into receivership, then bought out by someone bigger.  As it happened, the 12 miles from South Amboy to New Brunswick would be some of the most profitable trackage at the time in the entire state of NJ, affording the RRRR a long and prosperous little life.  Almost right away, the Meyer Rubber Company in Milltown was ready to get freight from the Raritan River Rail Road.


There wasn’t much change in the first 10 years of the Raritan River’s history.  From 1888 to 1898, the line had its 3 engines, and 34 freight cars, 6 passenger cars, 12 miles of main line, and two branch lines.  Passenger service continued to improve, and new customers were added every once in a while, but no much changed. In 1896, the Meyer Rubber Company in Milltown shut down.  For a while it seemed like the little Raritan would just fold up, or get absorbed by someone bigger.  Things didn’t look so good in the early years.


After the line was built, both the Pennsylvania RR and the Central Railroad of New Jersey started to buy up stock. In the end, the Central owned 60%, and the PRR owned 40%.  Both companies wanted a stake in the profitable little line and fought hard for ownership.  Even though the RRRR was owned by both parents, operations were still local, and for the most part, the RRRR was left to do as it pleased.  The RRRR had an office in South Amboy on John Street.


The 1890’s was spent upgrading tracks, building stations, upgrading infrastructure.  They acquired a number of smaller engines, continually adding to the roster as traffic increased.  The first customers on the line were the brick companies, the clay and sand pits of Crossman’s and Such’s.  In fact, Crossman’s in Sayreville got so big; they had their own narrow gauge lines running in the pits to bring the sands and clays to the connections with the RRRR.


In the next 10 years though, the little Raritan River Railroad would almost double in size!


The 1900’s saw the second branch line extended, the Serviss Branch was increased from 1 to 4 miles.  This line ran from the RRRR main in East Brunswick, headed north, and curved back south towards South River again.  In fact, the terminus of the Serviss Branch was just 1 mile from the RRRR’s South River Station.  This branch was built to service the many sand and clay pits that were opening along the area.  Even a small brick yard was located at the end of this branch at Reid Street.  During this same period, the current Sanford Street terminus in New Brunswick was finished, with elaborate brick passenger and freight stations.  As we had seen before, the addition of a branch line caused the need for more cars and more engines.  Two more engines were purchased to help with the increase in freight.  Engines No.4 and No.5 were added to the roster in 1899 and 1900.  A small batch of larger cars were ordered, five 40 ton cars, possibly just for use on the Serviss Branch!


In about 1901, the first number 3 engine was replaced with a second, more powerful number 3.


In 1905 the South River Branch was built, 2 miles south from the South River station.  Once again, a new branch line fostered the purchase of a new engine.  Engine No.6 was added to the roster in 1905, probably just to serve this growing area! 


At this point in 1905, in 7 short years, the little Raritan River with her 6 engines was now double the size from their 1898 infrastructure of just 3 engines.


In around 1907, both engines No.1 and No.2 were traded up for more powerful engines, both new engines numbered the same as the ones they replaced.


Freight traffic was also growing in leaps and bounds requiring even larger gondolas.  The Raritan River ordered forty-four 50 ton cars in 1910 making the total cars owned to be 83 cars! By 1910, it was recorded that they also still owned only 6 passenger cars.  Passenger service was never really that important of a revenue generator, it was the freight business that made them really profitable in the early years.


The 1910’s saw the Milltown area become the site of the Michelin Tire Company, known as the countries largest tire complex.  This company had over 2000 employees in a town that didn’t have many more residents than that.  Many people of the town worked for Michelin, including all the little service industries that supported the company and the people.  Many of the workers were directly from France.  Tons of raw materials and finished products rolled in and out of Milltown.   


For a great little story I wrote about the Milltown Freight Station for the Boro of Milltown, click HERE. History of the Milltown Freight Station


By this point, the locomotive roster was growing out of control.  The 1910’s was spent ramping up for the World War I rush.  Engine number 7 was added to the list in 1912, engine number 8 added in 1914, with numbers 9 and 10 added in 1915! 


Passenger traffic was also growing rapidly so the RRRR purchased 12 passenger cars and 2 combine cars from the Lackawanna RR in 1915.  By 1915, the Raritan River had almost doubled in size since 1905, now having almost 10 locomotives on the roster.  By 1917, there would be a total of 15 engines on the RRRR! 


During 1917, the Gillespie Branch was built into an isolated wooded area, to access the T Gillespie Powder Works.  With Gillespie, DuPont, and Hercules all making munitions for World War 1, it was a very busy time on the RRRR, and operations were strained to the max.  At its peak, DuPont was supplying four 50 ton cars per day of weapons and/or explosives.


World War I saw a huge increase in traffic.  There were ammunition plants all along the line, and the RRRR was busy moving people and raw materials in, and weapons out.  Another 2 Lackawanna passenger cars were also quickly added in 1917.  Passenger traffic reached an all time high, with a total 22 daily passenger with 7 special trains just on Sunday in 1918!  Add this to all the freight traffic, and this was probably the busiest time of the RRRR.  Some of the munitions plants were so isolated; the Raritan River ran dedicated passenger trains right into the complex as there was no practical way to access the property!


By 1917 at the peak of WWI, the Raritan River had 15 Engines and 16 passenger cars, as well as about 83 freight cars.  How they survived with the original shops and small round house at the foot of Catherine Street is beyond me.  A line that was born with 3 engines, doubled by 1910 to be 6, was now running 15 engines per day, moving 9000 passengers per day, with untold amounts of freight and war materials.  It was amazing they could do it as well and efficiently as they did.


After the war, things quickly slowed down, and engine number 8 was retired. 


Right after the war in 1919, a new 12 stall round house and shops were built near Stevens Avenue.  It was quite ambitious for such a small short line, but easy to see where it was needed, with 15 engines all needing resting places.


The 1920’s saw a slow down in freight and passengers, and the Raritan River adjusted as needed.  A post war recession, with increased competition from buses, cars, and trucks started to take its effect.  Customers came and went, and the line was rehabilitated as needed.  In 1924, Moody’s lists the Raritan as only having 50 Freight cars; 44 50Ts and 6 40Ts.  All the 30 and 20 ton cars had been scrapped by now.  By 1925 just 6 of the 14 Lackawanna RR passenger cars still existed. 1927-28 saw a huge wreck on the RRRR involving locomotive #11.  The mid 1920’s had engines No.3, No.4, and No.6 all scrapped.  The Milltown spur was built in 1925 to access a sand and clay pit.  By the late 1920’s, engines No.1 and No.2 were also scrapped.  By the end of 1929, the Raritan River Railroad had just 8 working engines.


The 1930’s opened with disastrous results.  The Great Depression technically started in 1929, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the damage was felt.  The Michelin Tire Company closed up in early 1930, devastating the small town of Milltown.  Most of the sand and Clay pits also shut down during these times, and service on the Serviss Branch was almost non-existant.  Revenue traffic fell quickly to 50% of what it was on the RRRR.  Passenger trains were getting smaller and smaller.  By 1930, there were only 4 daily trains, down from 22 in 1917.  By the mid 30’s the RRRR had only two ex-Lackawanna RR passenger coach left out of 14.  By the mid 1930’s the last 2 original 4 wheeled cabooses were scrapped.  The engines were getting older, times were tough, but the RRRR held on, down sized, and ran the tightest ship they could.  Engine No.7 was scrapped in 1933; engine No.12 was scrapped in 1937.


By 1937 though, things were changing for the Raritan River railroad, if not turning around.  In a lot of ways it was the end of an era, as well as the beginning of some new things for the line.  The multitude of Sand, Clay, and Brick industries that literally helped make the Raritan River a success were all virtually gone at this point  But Crossman’s and Whitheads’ did survive, and were starting to grow again.  About half of the 50 ton gondola freight cars purchased in 1910 and used to service these industries were scrapped by 1937.


In 1937 the shops and were getting a much needed overhaul as new Electric engines were being purchased to replace the failing steam generators.  The last Combination Passenger car, No.22, was also scrapped in 1937.   This would leave the Raritan River Railroad with just one passenger car, No.27. The last car, number 27, had its last run in 1938 when all passenger service was abandoned.  This also allowed the RRRR to close down passenger stations, and consolidate the freight stations. 


The Raritan was also planning to re-align the ROW near Crossmans to eliminate a dangerous curve and give the Crossmans company access to the clays underneath the ROW.  The first two Lackawanna Cabooses appeared on the line in 1937 and were numbered No.5 and No.6.


For more interesting facts regarding the year 1937, please read this fascinating analysis A Moment in Time:  1937 on the Raritan River Railroad


In 1938, a new engine appeared on the line, the first time in almost 23 years!  The last engine purchases were in 1916 during WWI, almost 22 years earlier.  By now, increases in freight necessitated the purchase of another engine.  The engine was called number 8, after the one that was scrapped in 1919.


The 1940’s brought World War II, and its associated increase in fright traffic. Another Engine was added to the line in 1941, named No.7 after the one that was scrapped in 1937.  The rest of the engines were getting very old by now, but this worked out really well, for just after WWII, the RRRR was in a position to purchase 6 surplus USRA Engines for the cheap price of $100,000.  It was a bargain, even in those days.  This allowed them to retire the older engines and plan for the future.  In 1947, locomotive No.15 was involved in a wreck at the PRR connection, and scrapped on the spot.


The 1950’s brought some new color to the RRRR, as the remaining ex-USRA engines were replaced with six EMD SW900 engines.  The retirement of steam also meant that the round house could be closed, saving tons of money.  1956 saw the abandonment of the Serviss Branch after being unused for almost a decade, and that branch was ripped up that year.  The New Jersey Turnpike needed hundreds of tons of dirt to be moved, and the RRRR was there to do it.  With Crossmanns’ help, they built a small loop track in Crossmans pits and moved hundreds of cars of sand.   The fresh ponds spur in Milltown was also ripped up.  Traffic was good, new industries replaced the older ones, large companies like National Lead, DuPont, Hercules, Personal Products (Johnson & Johnson) kept the RRRR on their toes.


The 1960’s saw the line getting older and smaller.  The industrial base of the East Coast was moving away, and this affected the RRRR like all the other railroads.  By 1964, all Less-Car-Load (LCL) freight was abandoned, and agents in the freight stations closed.  By now most coal traffic was gone, and that also hurt tonnage a lot.   The Raritan River had acquired a burnt out N&W Boxcar after the insurance company wrote it off, and rebuilt it for local non-interchange service.  Boxcar 100 would be used by online customers to move freight back and forth between on-line companies. 


For more information on this special car, click here:


For most, the late 60’s and early 70’s was pretty much the end for Railroading on the East Coast.  With both parents of the RRRR being bankrupted, the CNJ, and the PC (PRR&NYC), the Raritan River was on their own.  But the Raritan River was not bankrupt, in fact they continued to add customers and make money!  A major industrial complex named Highview was built in East Brunswick with many spurs and industries now being connected.  The old Serviss Branch was re-laid for 2 miles and re-named the East Brunswick branch now with a few customers, including Continental Bakery which received many cars of flower.  Sunshine Biscuit opened at the end of the Gillespie Branch, and they too needed flower!  The South River Branch was upgraded, as well as the trackage in New Brunswick, as a new customer now wanted to have a rail-to-truck transfer there.  The old Michelin Tire complex was rented and a few cars were needed every now and then.  The Raritan River seeing a source of revenue with per diem rates as high as they were, leased 100 fifty foot box cars in 1975.



In 1979 the Raritan River had about 30 active customers.


1979 Revenue Received/Forwarded from top Customers


National Lead – Phoenix Branch           30%

Hercules – Parlin                                  16%

Sunshine Biscuit - Gillespie Branch        8%

Continental Baking – EB Branch           7%

C&E – New Brunswick                        8%

Cel Fibe (Personal Products)                7%

Personal Products – Milltown               6%

H&F - Milltown                                   5%

NJ Steel – Phoenix Branch                   3%

Squibb – New Brunswick                     3%

Premium Plastics – Milltown                 2%

Dupont – Parlin                                    2%


The Raritan River had their most profitable year in 1979, with operating revenues amounting to $1,968,671.  That’s almost 2 million dollars!


The Raritan knew that customer service was key to their success.  They bent over backwards and did everything they could for a customer. They would move cars when ever asked. They even kept low traffic and poor revenue branch lines open (South River Branch) for the sporadic shipper.  They were also fortunate in 1979 to still have such long time customers like Dupont and Hercules (Formally Smokeless Powder Company) which go back to the early days of the 1910s.  The Personal Products and related Cel Fibe companies occupy the parent company’s Johnson and Johnson plant from the 1930s.  Sunshine Biscuit keeps the Gillespie branch alive, just as Continental Baking kept the East Brunswick branch active.  This allowed a number of small and infrequent shippers to hang onto these branches when normally the railroad would be forced to abandon the line.  C&E rents the former New Brunswick Passenger Station, making the run to New Brunswick worth all the effort.


When the government first created Conrail in April 1976 to take over the failing Railroads on the East Coast, the Raritan River was supposed to be included.  They were profitable indeed, but not independent, as they were owned by bankrupt parents!  Now they were owned by Conrail!  The RRRR went to court, and they fought hard. 


To read a fascinating story about the Raritan’s fight to stay out of Conrail click HERE:


Needless to say, the fight gave the little Raritan River 4 more years, almost to the day.  On April 24th, 1980 the Raritan River Railroad merged into the Conrail system.  Not because they were bankrupt, but because Conrail needed the profitable traffic on the 12 miles they had.


Immediately, the wooden and outdated steel cabooses were sold, and replaced with steel Conrail Cabooses.  The remaining 97 leased fifty foot box cars were re-numbered for Conrail and sent away.  The single forty foot box car was numbered for Conrail and lost. The six EMD SW900s were re-numbered for Conrail and did switch the line for a few years, but were all very poorly maintained, and by 1984, eventually all were scrapped.  Most union employees were assimilated into the Conrail System.  The clerical and managerial staff were all let go.  Of the 56 employees on the payroll, 30 would be offered jobs with Conrail, 26 would not.


Conrail quickly closed the shops in South Amboy, with the engines now left idling in Parlin, to the discomfort of the neighbors.  The interchange in South Amboy for the PRR was immediately closed in 1976.  Now in 1980 Conrail wanted to close the connection with the NY&LB.  So a few years later, Conrail extended the Gillespie Branch to cross Bordentown Avenue and connect directly with Browns Yard.  This allowed them to then abandon the South Amboy connection with the ex-CNJ NY&LB connection. The line was then cut back to the Phoenix Spur, which still receives freight today in the form of steel scraps.  The South River Branch, which was still being sporadically used, was quickly severed and abandoned in the early 80’s.  The abandoned engine shop eventually burned down to the ground in 1983.


The late 80’s or early 90’s saw the New Brunswick station demolished, as well as the Parlin Station a few years earlier.  The Milltown spur to the old Michelin Tire Complex has been severed from the Mainline, but still remains crossing Main Street (and has been re-laid after repaving)  In fact, the entire Milltown spur, as well as the Michelin Complex is on the NJ Register of Historic Places.  The RRRR Mainline currently terminates just past Milltown, past the Lawrence brook trestle, at Silverline Windows in North Brunswick. 


In the 80’s and the 90’s some of the largest customers finally stopped shipping.  From my estimates, 83% of their 1979 total revenue has been lost.  Dupont no longer receives freight, their track now disconnected from the main.  National Lead, at one time the Raritan Rivers largest customer, is today demolished and listed a super fund site.  Hercules is still connected, but only receives the occasional box car.  Both Sunshine Biscuit and Continental Baking are shut down.  The Gillespie Branch now only survives since it connects the main to Conrail’s Browns Yard.  The East Brunswick branch is still connected, and a few customers are still connected, but none are receiving freight.


C&E just got screwed by Conrail, period.  As you recall, C&E was leasing the old New Brunswick Passenger Station and brining in 8% of the Raritan revenue.  They were investing and preparing for a larger Rail-to-Truck transfer facility in the Raritan River New Brunswick facilities.  NJ Department of Transportation and New Brunswick were all on board and supportive of the measure which would have required upgrades to the 80lb rails that still lined the main from Milltown and all around the New Brunswick depot.  The Raritan was just about to start the upgrade when Conrail took over and said no.  No they won’t upgrade the tracks, no they won’t upgrade the infrastructure, no they won’t honor the agreements made before them, and yes, they plan to abandon most of New Brunswick.  The entire complex was eventually demolished and the wye area in New Brunswick was abandoned, sold, and has currently been redeveloped with townhouses



By the late 90’s Squibb was the last customer in New Brunswick, but they too stopped getting tank cars.  Eventually Personal Products (Johnson and Johnson) pulled out of their Milltown plant, which they shipped and received freight successfully for almost half a century.  Although a few years later a new shipper, Silverline Windows, now occupies the plant and receives many covered hoppers of plastic pellets.


Today, under CSX and Norfolk Southern, not much has changed since the Conrail cut backs.  The old RRRR line still has 6 or so customers keeping the line active.  Steel, bricks, and plastic, and the occasional box car can be spotted.  A new customer has been added recently in Sayreville, AmeriSteel.  Trains might still run daily from Browns Yard.


Here is the current customer list as of Summer 2005:


MP 1.0 Geradu Steel- load scrap inbounds/ Load re-bar outbounds.
MP 4.6 Hercules Chemical Co.
MP 5.5 AmeriSteel- Rebar (unrelated to Geradu)
MP 5.7 Riverside Supply- Brick
MP 9.4 Mauser- Plastic
MP 11.2 Silverline Windows- plastic


Following East to West along the Mainline:


Geradu Steel is on the eastern end of the old Phoenix Spur and still receiving steel.  This plant is probably one of the older Steel companies that used to be there.


Hercules Chemical Co is one of the original shippers from the 1910s!  The original name was Smokeless Powder Company, which was also related to DuPont.  It is a shame that DuPont no longer needs freight by rail, as they were also once a huge shipper and too, are still located in the same area along the ROW, right next to Hercules.


Ameri-Steel is a new customer, hooked up in Sayreville sometime in the last 2 years, now receiving steel.


In the 2005, it is interesting to note that bricks are still shipped on the line to Riverside Supply, as that was one of the earliest commodities moved in the railroads’ early years.  Sayre&Fisher had a huge complex at the end of the Sayreville Branch, and in 1913 was producing 178 million bricks per year!


The South River Swing Bridge is here and very old.  Built in 1910, it is one of the few manual swing bridges still in use in NJ today.  Conrail made no secret that the maintenance on the bridge was costly.  I expect one big storm, and enough damage to the bridge, and CSX and NS will follow and not repair the bridge for just the two customers beyond it.


Mauser is the only company left in the East Brunswick Highview complex still receiving freight.  The East Brunswick spur is still connected to the main, but receives no freight.  It is sad to note that out of almost a dozen spurs in East Brunswick, only one still receives freight.


On the western end, Silverline Windows still receives 5-10 cars of plastic pellets per week.  Trains usually run twice a week to Silverline.


Four cars are known to exist!  In 2004 I found the long lost RRRR Caboose #8 in Ivyland, PA.  Caboose #10 sits in Port Murray, NJ awaiting restoration, while Caboose #7 sits at Alaire State Park and is used as the office for the Pine Creek RR.  And the long lost Boxcar 100; is now found at Quakertown, PA at the East Penn RY. 


The only remaining station is in Milltown; still proudly displaying its original sign: “Raritan River Railroad – Freight Station”.   The RRRR logo can still be seen through the rust on the Manual Swing Bridge in South River.


Long Live the Raritan River Railroad.









Back to Main Page



Questions? Comments?




Other Fine Sites Dedicated to the Raritan River Railroad



Here is an entire forum dedicated to discussions of the RRRR!