Construction started in Sayreville in May, 1888 with rail, with a few trains running by the end of that same year. The line started in Sayreville, NJ with a connection with the Pennsylvania Railroad over Suchs’ Pennsylvania Railroad siding. Suchs was a sand and clay industry that already had a very long siding from the Pennsylvania Railroad’s old C&A line in Sayreville (connected a few miles west of today's Browns Yard). When the line east from Sayreville to South Amboy was completed, a connection was made with the CNJ over the New York & Long Branch, providing the Raritan River Railroad with connections to the two larger railroads. The Raritan was extended westward from Milltown to New Brunswick in 1891 and a new PRR connection was constructed in South Amboy in 1901, permitting abandonment of the original PRR connection at Suchs' siding.
In 1888, the Raritan River Rail Road began operation 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 clay found in the area.
On August 16, 1888, just four months after construction had started, an incident required summoning the local sheriff. One contractor, Charles Van Houghton of Jersey City, was hired to grade the road and lay stone culverts at South Amboy. Although Van Houghton was paid $5000 for the work, he was reported to have absconded without paying his workers their wages. The unpaid workers went on strike as a result, and the sheriff confiscated Van Houghton’s equipment so that the payroll could be met.
A Saturday night clash resulting in a death occurred in Sayreville, New Jersey, on May 5, 1889, which would become known thereafter as the "Sayreville Riot". A local brick manufacturer, Noah Furman, owned land needed by the railroad for extension of its line from Sayreville to South River. As reported by The New York Times, a "frightful riot" ensued when gangs on both sides fought over the railroad's attempt to seize the land by force when negotiations had stalemated and Furman obtained a court injunction restraining the railroad from crossing his property and asserting eminent domain. One of the riot participants was killed in the melee.
Afterwards, two Raritan Rail Road officials were charged with murder in connection with the riot.
Coverage of the Sayreville Riot arrests was sensationalized by the press, with the New York Times falsely reporting on September 16, 1889, that indictments of all officers of the Raritan River Railroad were expected in the case. The following day, the court in New Brunswick announced it was conducting an investigation into who leaked the rumor to the Times. Some reporters were summoned to appear before the court to reveal their sources and explain how they obtained their information. It appears that all charges were eventually dropped.
By July 4, 1891, the RRRR's first train left Milltown, and shortly thereafter the line reached New Brunswick, having laid twelve miles (19 km) of mainline track. The railroad decided not to cross the Raritan River into New Brunswick to reach Bound Brook, due to the expense and lack of potential freight business at the time in the largely undeveloped area.
Between 1888-1898, the line had 3 engines, 34 freight cars, 6 passenger cars, of main line, and two branch lines.
After the line was built, both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey started to buy stock in the Raritan. The Central acquired a 60% ownership share and the PRR 40%. Although wholly owned by the two bigger lines, the RRRR was locally managed from its headquarters on John Street in South Amboy.
In the 1890s, the RRRR continued upgrading its track, building stations, and generally upgrading its infrastructure. It acquired a number of small locomotives, 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 grew so large that an industrial narrow gauge line running in the pits brought the sand and clay to the connection with the RRRR.
Sayreville Junction was created almost at the midpoint of the line for storage and classifications of cars. RRRR trains would run straight from either the NYLB or PRR connection, and drop off the cars at Sayreville Junction, where they would be sorted for the runs either east or west at that point.
Sayreville Branch - location and distance:
The 1900s saw the second branch line extended, the Serviss Branch was increased from one to four miles (6 km). 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 one mile (1.6 km) 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. 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. 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, two miles (3 km) south from the South River station. Engine No. 6 was added to the roster in 1905. By 1905, the Raritan River with its six locomotives had doubled its engine roster compared to the three engines it had in 1898. In around 1907, both engines No. 1 and No. 2 were replaced by more powerful engines, which were assigned the same numbers.
The Milltown Station was a very busy place at train time. It had a Railway Express agent and priority packages were shipped on special rail cars attached to RRRR passenger trains for connections to other railroads, providing express rail shipment capability nationwide. Passenger traffic was also growing rapidly, so the RRRR purchased 12 passenger cars and 2 combine cars from the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad in 1915. Engine number 7 was added to the roster in 1912, engine number 8 was added in 1914, and engines 9 and 10 were added in 1915, bringing the total number of locomotives on the Raritan River to ten. By 1917, this would further increase to 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 I, it was a very busy time on the RRRR. At its peak, DuPont was supplying four 50 ton cars per day of weapons and/or munitions.
In addition to munition plant shipments along the line, World War I also resulted in a substantial increase in passenger traffic. In 1917, two more Lackawanna passenger cars were added. In 1918, passenger traffic reached an all time high, with 22 daily passenger trains and 7 extra trains on Sundays. The Raritan River had 15 Engines and 16 passenger cars, as well as about 83 freight cars, moving 9,000 passengers per day and 1.5 million tons of freight and war materials in 1918.
After the war ended, traffic subsided and engine number 8 was retired. In 1919, a new 12-stall roundhouse and shops were built near Stevens Avenue. .
As of April 27, 1936, the Raritan River had only one scheduled round-trip passenger train, operating daily except Sundays between Parlin and New Brunswick. It left New Brunswick as Train #2 at 6:35 am, making stops at Milltown and South River, and arrived at Parlin 6:55 am. Return train #7 departed Parlin at 3:50 pm, arriving at 4:44 pm. On weekdays, the Raritan River also operated a through single tripper from Stevens Avenue in South Amboy as #1, at 5:45 am, making stops at Bergen Hill, Parlin, South River, and Milltown, arriving at New Brunswick 6:24 am.
By 1937, the multitude of sand, clay, and brick industries that contributed greatly to the Raritan River's success in the early years were virtually all gone. 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. The last Combination Passenger car, No. 22, was also scrapped in 1937, ending baggage service on the Raritan River Railroad and leaving the line with just one passenger car, No. 27.
The first two Lackawanna Cabooses appeared on the line in 1937, numbers 5 and 6.
In 1938, the end of an era was reached on the Raritan River Railroad as passenger service was discontinued altogether after a half century of service. The last passenger train pulled out from the New Brunswick station on April 17, 1938. This closure allowed the Raritan to eventually tear down the Bergen Hill station and consolidate all business to the Parlin Station. The former Milltown and New Brunswick passenger stations were converted to freight stations.
The North Jersey Chapter of the NRHS sponsored a special excursion train on May 28, 1938, over the Raritan to mark the passing of regular scheduled passenger service. The special train left New Brunswick at 2:40 pm, stopped at the Lawrence Brook Trestle for photos, then proceeded up the Serviss Branch where it parked at Hendersons Siding just away from the Route 18 crossing. Many motorists stopped and gazed at the strange passenger train, as the Serviss Branch never had regularly scheduled passenger service. The special then proceeded back down the main and headed to South River, where participants observed the only manually hand-cranked swing bridge in New Jersey. They then proceeded to Sayreville Junction, where they witnessed the passing of a freight train, and the switching of freight cars. Eventually the group made it to South Amboy where they were given a tour of the RRRR shops and roundhouse area. The special then "high-balled" back to New Brunswick, with special permission granted to reach !
In 1938, a new engine appeared on the line, the first time in almost 23 years since the prior engine purchases in 1916 during World War I. The economic recovery by the late 1930s resulted in an increase in freight, necessitating the purchase of another engine, numbered 8 after the one that had been scrapped in 1919.
Sayreville Branch - location and distance:
Serviss Branch - location and distance:
South River (Reid Street) -
South River Branch - location and distance:
The 1940s brought World War II, and its associated increase in freight traffic. Another engine was added to the line in 1941, numbered 7 after the one scrapped in 1937. After the war's end, the RRRR purchased six surplus USRA engines for only $100,000, allowing the retirement of the line's elderly locomotives. In 1947, locomotive No. 15 was involved in a wreck at the PRR connection, and scrapped on the spot.
A temporary boost in tonnage on the Raritan occurred because of construction of the New Jersey Turnpike, which generated fill material and sand movements. With Crossmanns’ help, the RRRR built a small loop track in Crossmans pits and moved hundreds of cars of sand. Major online shippers included National Lead, DuPont, Hercules, and Johnson & Johnson.
In 1979, the Raritan River had about 30 active customers (locations and percentage of total revenue):
The Raritan River had its best revenue year in 1979, with operating revenues amounting to $1,968,671. The Raritan put an emphasis on customer service and benefitted from having longtime online customers such as Dupont and Hercules (Formally Smokeless Powder Company) going back to the 1910s. Sunshine Biscuit kept the Gillespie branch alive, just as Continental Baking kept the East Brunswick branch active. This allowed continued rail service to a number of small and infrequent shippers, which would otherwise have been ended.
With the creation of Conrail in April 1976 to take over the failing eastern railroads, the then-profitable Raritan River was supposed to be included along with their bankrupt parent railroads. The RRRR resisted inclusion in Conrail and took court action to forestall it. Four years later, on April 24, 1980, the Raritan River Railroad merged into the Conrail system.
The old wooden and outdated steel cabooses were sold, and replaced with steel Conrail cabooses. The remaining 97 leased fifty-foot box cars were re-numbered and absorbed into the Conrail system. The six EMD SW900s were re-numbered for Conrail and did switch the RRRR line for a few years, but were eventually scrapped in 1984. Most union employees were assimilated into the Conrail System. The clerical and managerial staff were all terminated. Of the 56 employees on the payroll in 1980, 30 would be offered jobs with Conrail, 26 would not.
Conrail closed the shops in South Amboy, with the engines now left idling in Parlin, to the discomfort of neighbors. The interchange in South Amboy for the PRR was closed in 1976. Later, Conrail extended the Gillespie Branch to cross Bordentown Avenue and connect directly with Browns Yard, enabling abandonment of the South Amboy connection with the ex-CNJ NY&LB. The line was then cut back to the Phoenix Spur, which still receives freight today in the form of scrap steel. The South River Branch was abandoned in the early 1980s. The abandoned engine shop eventually burned down in 1983.
The New Brunswick and Parlin stations were demolished by the early 1990s. 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) The Milltown spur as well as the Michelin Complex are listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. The RRRR Mainline currently terminates at Silverline Windows in North Brunswick, just under the Route 1 Bridge.
In the 1980s and the 1990s, some of the largest customers finally stopped shipping by rail: Dupont no longer receives freight and their siding is now disconnected from the main; and National Lead, at one time the Raritan River's largest customer, is today closed and listed as a superfund site. Hercules is still connected, but only receives an occasional box car, not the significant tonnage it once shipped. Both the Sunshine Biscuit and Continental Baking plants have 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 currently. In the Highview Industial Complex in East Brunswick, only one customer still receives freight. The South River Branch was abandoned in the early 1980s.
Plans to expand the Rail-to-Truck transfer facility in the Raritan River's New Brunswick facilities were dropped by Conrail, despite support for the project by the New Jersey Department of Transportation and New Brunswick. As a result, the entire complex was eventually demolished and the wye area in New Brunswick was sold and redeveloped with townhouses.
By the late 1990s, the last customer in New Brunswick, Squibb, stopped getting tank cars. The former Johnson and Johnson plant in Milltown is now used by Silverline Windows, which receives many covered hoppers of plastic pellets.
As of summer, 2006, current customers were:
Geradu Steel is on the eastern end of the old Phoenix Spur and still receiving steel. Bricks, one of the commodities moved in significant quantities in the Raritan's beginning, are still shipped on the line to Riverside Supply.
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. Of almost a dozen spurs once 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 Raritan River Railroad cars are known to exist: RRRR Caboose #8 is in Ivyland, Pennsylvania; Caboose #10 is in Port Murray, New Jersey, awaiting restoration by the NRHS; Caboose #7 sits at Alaire State Park and is used as the office for the Pine Creek Railroad; and Boxcar 100 is now found at Quakertown, Pennsylvania, on the East Penn Railway.
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.