The High Bridge Branch of the Central Jersey Railroad of New Jersey
— Taylor Steelworkers Historical Greenway —
Columbia Trail - A 7-mile Hunterdon County Greenway, from the Borough of High Bridge, north to the Morris County line.
Opened in July of 1876, the High Bridge Branch was a busy railroad owned by the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey. It was built to bring iron ore from the mines in Chester, Hacklebarney, Mine Hill, Port Oram (Wharton) and Hibernia to the Taylor Iron Works (later Taylor-Wharton Iron & Steel Company) in High Bridge and to the foundries and steel mills along the main line to the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania region.
Other important commodities handled by trains on the High Bridge Branch were milk, lumber, ice blocks (from Lake Hopatcong), U.W. Mail, quarry stone, coal, agricultural products (especially peaches), blasting supplies, sand and general merchandise. It also transported passengers to and from towns along the railroad and children to schools in High Bridge and Dover.
Passenger trains ran from the beginning of service in 1876 through March 31, 1932. Two round trips were made by passenger trains each day and ruing its peak approximately 89,000 people rode these trains each year.
The coming of a railroad to any town was a cause for celebration. It meant that the residents of the towns and villages were now connected to the outside world as they had never been before. Goods and services could arrive and be shipped great distances in hours or a few days, versus weeks or months. Before the advent of railroads, the average individual did not travel more than 20 miles from home.
The age of railroading in New Jersey began in 1834 with the completion of the state's first railroad, the Camden and Amboy Rail Road and Transportation Company which rand between South Amboy and Camden. Two years later, the Elizabethtown & Somerville Rail Road began train service on a modest scale. When that railroad was purchase by the Somerville & Easton Rail Road in 1849, the two merged and became known as the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey.
As this railroad pushed its way across the state, it encountered a serious obstacle when it came to High Bridge; crossing the South Branch of the Raritan River and its sweeping valley. The problem was solved in 1852 by building an enormous bridge that was 1,300' long and 100' high. From the valley floor to the top of the bridge were eight immense stone piers upon which a massive wooden trestle was built. It was considered an engineering marvel and gave the town its name?High Bridge.
At the time almost all of the railroad bridges were wooden. The trains were powered by steam locomotives which would drop burning ashes onto a bridge, causing a fire which would close the railroad for several days.
To keep this from happening to the trestle in High Bridge, the railroad undertook an expensive engineering project to replace all of its major wooden bridges with stone arch earthen-filled structures, beginning with this one in 1859 and completing it six years later at a cost of $72, 252.50. Part of the valley was filled in and the balance was traversed with the two track stone arch bridge that exists today. One arch passes over Arch Street and the other over the river.
Shipments of iron ore, pig iron, coal, and other hard minerals made the High Bridge Branch extremely profitable with over half of the iron ore produced in the state using it. By 1881, more than 25,000 tons of iron ore were transported each month. Some days it took several trains to handle almost 120 cars loaded with freight.
With the discovery of less expensive iron ore in other parts of the country during the late 1800's, the amount of iron hauled on this railroad declined each year as mines close. The last train to travel on the line was on March 31, 1976, forty four years to the day that the last passenger train ran. The tracks were removed four years later. The railroad from Bartley to Wharton remains active and continues to serve local businesses.
After most of the railroad was abandoned, the Elizabethtown and the Columbia Gas companies purchased the railroad right-of-way, installed pipelines and transferred the surface rights to Hunterdon and Morris Counties for the management of a recreational trail. This trail is now known as the Columbia Trail.