Somerset & Mercer Railway Marker 7: Retrieving a piece of Hopewell’s history

Bob Warznak near the site where the mile marker was recovered

A 150-year-old stone post found by members of the Hopewell Township Historic Preservation Commission (HTHPC), and retrieved by a Hopewell Township public works crew from a Stony Brook creek bed last month, offers a peek into the role that railroads played in the history of the Township.

The post, with the number seven carved at the top, is a mile marker from the short-lived Mercer and Somerset Railway. The line began where Jacobs Creek joins the Delaware River and Jacobs Creek and ran 22 miles to West Millstone. The rail line helped put the Township on the map in the late 1800s and led to the chartering of Hopewell and Pennington boroughs.

“We are trying to preserve artifacts related to the history of the Township and railroads, which played a pretty important part in our history,” HTHPC Commissioner Robert Warznak said. “Ideally we will be able to preserve it, and display it and tell the story.”

The post stood close to the crossing of the rail line over the Stony Brook Branch near Pennytown. The railroad, chartered in 1870 and disbanded in 1879, was built specifically to thwart the National Railway from building its line across the Delaware River and opening a route from Washington D.C. to New York City. The result was the Hopewell Frog War — an armed confrontation — at Marshall’s Corner.

The marker had been standing in an embankment near the Stony Brook Branch until it was dislodged by a fallen tree and erosion of the bank. Warznak and local railroad historian John Kilbride saw that the pillar had fallen into the stream and along with Commission chair Max Hayden, approached Public Works in February with a request to recover the marker.

When the creek level fell and the marshy area around it dried during the summer, the Public Works crew were able retrieve the post, which is 41 inches tall, nine inches square and weighs about 275 pounds. Public works asked the owner of an adjoining property for permission to access the site with a miniature bucket front loader to retried the artifact.

The marker is currently being stored at the Public Works yard while the HTHPC decides how to best display it for public viewing,

“One of the things about this community is the rich tapestry of history and how much we care about it,” said Township Committee Member David Chait, liaison to Public Works. “This is absolutely part of our function; our role as stewards and to represent what community and residents care about.”

The Mercer & Somerset Railway served as a proxy for the Pennsylvania Rail Road to obstruct the upstart National Railway, which created the Delaware & Bound Brook Railway to build a pathway from Philadelphia through New Jersey, connecting to New York City.

The story of the short-lived railroad — as told by railroad historian John Kilbride and news reports, from the time — was part of the soaring growth of rail transportation in the US during the late 19th Century. In 1870, when the M&S Railway was chartered, 45,000 miles of track had been built. Over the next 30 years, another 170,000 miles was laid, connecting small towns to cities all over the nation.

The M&S made ten stops, including Pennington, Hopewell, Hillsboro, West Millstone, and, perhaps most significantly, Marshall’s Corner, where the Delaware & Bound Brook line attempted to cross its path. The M&S kept a locomotive parked on the site to block the laying of a rail “frog,” a diamond shaped section of rail that allowed an intersection of the rails. When the M&S trains came through, the locomotive was briefly moved to a side rail.

On January 5, 1876, as the locomotive moved to the side rail to allow the M&S train to pass, 200 or more armed men from the D&BB sprang out of the bushes and chained the locomotive to the side rail, barricading it with rail ties to provide time to install the frog. 

Within hours, the Pennsylvania Rail Road sent another locomotive barreling down the track to ram the barricade at full steam, causing a massive collision. While no was seriously injured, the confrontation drew attention from near and far, including headlines in New York City newspapers. The chaotic scene drew as many as 1,000 people, including State militia sent to restore order by Governor Joseph Beadle.

The stand-off was ultimately resolved two days later when a court ruled that the D&BB be allowed to cross the M&S line.

Four months later, the D&BB began full operations on its line. By 1879, the unprofitable M&S had been sold into bankruptcy. It was abandoned 1880. The D&BB line still exits as the CSX freight line.

Remnants of the M&S line are still evident. The abandoned rail bed at the head of the line was converted to Jacobs Creek Road and the Pennington station depot still stands on Delaware Street across from the Mercer County library.  Even the mascot for Hopewell Elementary School, Freddy the Frog, is a call-back to the Frog War and the Mercer & Somerset Railway.

To read more about the Frog Wars – see the Hopewell Valley History Project website.

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