The Lost “U.T.”

More from Henry Charlton Beck’s “More Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey,” this chapter on the former railroad that bisected Upper Freehold, which ran from Pemberton to Hightstown. 


Once upon a time there was a railroad known as the Union Transportation Company. It operated through the last twenty-five years of the last century and kept up its courage through at least as many of the 1900s. Pausing at Lewistown, Wrightstown, Cookstown, New Egypt, Hornerstown, Cream Ridge, Davis, Red Valley, and Imlaystown, it opened up some of the richest farming country in Burlington and Monmouth Counties.


Today there is no “U.T.” In some places even the rails have been removed. In others, stations are sheds, filling stations or nothing at all. The motor truck era changed everything for the farmers and the railroad, which had opened up a whole section of New Jersey, closed much of it down, as effectively as by the closing of a door. From Pemberton to Hightstown, terminals of the line, little is as it used to be.


Lewistown probably would never have had more distinction than that of crossroads if it had not been for the U.T., constructed in 1868. With the laying of the tracks, it was dignified with a station, long ago a ramshackle building on the Wrightstown Road, with windows broken, posters tacked on its walls and, apparently, no use to anybody.


Lewsitown once had its crossroads store, a combination post office, hotel and dance hall. Two houses constituted the remaining real estate even in 1930. The post office-hotel-dance hall have gone altogether. A garage, established in wartime, is vacant now. The hotel’s last-know proprietor was Samuel Stackhouse, minehost for many years that began in 1872. Previously Tom Horner held the job. When the building was deserted, mail was delivered by a rural carrier and has been ever since.


Once Lewistown had a prosperous farm supply business. Later, the Lewistown Poultry Farm was a thriving enterprise. But these are memories now.


Stories of Cookstown and New Egypt have been told already. Hornerstown, although it has many of the aspects of a forgotten town, must not be treated unkindly. In it and around it are those who have seen better days, natives who, in spite of change, still call Hornerstown “up town.” In former days a country store, a post office and a tavern stood at the crossroads. On the elevation near by, graded gracefully down to the creek, was the church, a structure of much ornamentation. On the other side of the dusty road, beyond the “mill-tail,” was the village blacksmith shop, surrounded by its litter of broken wagons, sleighs, and bobsleds awaiting repair.


Across the road, desolated and in despair when we were there, was the mill. No one in the vicinity seemed to know how old it was or just when and why it ceased operation. Beyond the mill, across the dam, its sagging monkey-walk slung across a stream no longer needed, the Hornerstown station is as lonely. Behind it were, until recently, two old passenger cars of the U.T., long out of style. In one, somebody kept chickens. In its shade we found violets in bloom, in strange contrast to the frosty ground and the cold winds that swept the vicinity that day we were first there.


John Harker, formerly of Hornerstown, was a kindly old gentlemen who we ran to earth in Hightstown. When we saw him, his good health was obvious, his eye was keen, and his memories went vividly back to the early days of Hornerstown. He told us he often went back and looked things over. Born in 1844, he said he had lived all his life in the country served by the old U.T.


“I remember the building of the railroad,” he said. “The work was started at Hightstown and Pemberton at the same time. The workers who laid the tracks met in Hornerstown. Everybody was on hand to see the last of the grading, all of it accomplished by horse and cart. Cattle-droving was at its peak in those days. Dealers would come to town with motley herds of cattle, cows, sheep, and hogs which they exchanged for cash or traded for other livestock. Butchers were on hand to make the best deals they could.


“The day of the opening of the old U.T. was a big occasion,” said Mr. Harker, who was  woodworker on arches for the railroad bridges. “There were twenty-two cars of guests and officials with plenty of refreshments. By refreshments—well, nobody had thought of Prohibition then and nobody paid any attention to local option regulations on the train. I remember one fellow named William Moore, who had been a teetotaler until then—he was so overjoyed at the coming of the road that he went up the street in Hornerstown shouting the merits and expectations of the line until, from sheer exhaustion, he fell flat on his face, much to the amusement of the entire company.”


The first engines on the road were wood-burners. As traffic increased, and as the public realized the advantages of the U.T., produce began moving in huge shipments. Nicholas Waln, owning one of the best farms near Hornerstown (now Walnridge Farm), established a large dairy. Hotels, dance halls, and stations were built and put in operation.


Powell Evans and Samuel Giberson were the musicians of the day in that locality. Both played violin and banjo. Giberson was celebrated in the pine area as “the left-handed banjo player.” He could play a fiddle behind his back and dance the hornpipe at the same time. Evans and Giberson were often in demand in Hornerstown.


Stump Tavern wasn’t far away and this, we have been assured, was the real “social center.” At the hotel, travelers found room and board, billiards, quoit-pitching, all-night dancing and other entertainment. On special occasions here was horse-racing, sometimes at Prospertown, sometimes nearer at hand.


“Sometimes the crowds were five hundred strong to witness the races and tests of skill,” Mr. Harker told us. There were all kinds of gambling gadgets, everything from the “sweatcloth” to the roulette wheel. Thousands of dollars changed hands every day. George Clift used to come over from Bordentown to supervise the gambling enterprises. Clift fared well except on one occasion, Mr. Harker said.


“That was when a swanky gambler came to town with the declared intention of cleaning up,” he told us. “The arrival of Clift behind his flashy team of horses made no impression on him. He dared George with heavy stakes and bet time and again at long odds. After the stranger had gone, it was discovered that he used notes on a Pennsylvania bank that were worthless. Needless to say, he never came back.”


Nucky” Bills was another hanger-on at the [Stump] tavern, well recalled by many but he, with the tavern, passed out of existence long ago. The hotel site is marked by a refreshment stand today.


Mr. Harker remembered many trips he made to the swamps in quest of white cedar. On those rides through Brown’s Mills, he recalled seeing Indian Ann, Indian Peter, and their children, generally conceded to have been the last Indians in Southern New Jersey.


Shreve was another station of the old U.T. Its importance is forgotten with the heydays of such places as Burnt House, Smalley’s, Day’s, Sharp’s, Pine Lane, Allen’s, Wood Lane and Deacon’s, many of them named for proprietors of near-by taverns. If these crossings are all that remain of a railroad company’s struggle to obtain rights of way through farms it aimed to serve, progress must bring its own decadence.


In 1886, it is recorded, the Shreve Station School cost $400 to operate. Miss Mattie Antrim, the teacher, had long since retired, when we were there, although we talked with her later in Pemberton. Teachers in those days were paid $35 a month and taught all the children who cared to be educated—there was nothing compulsory about it. Books were purchased by pupils themselves. By a previous law, students contributed two cents a day for their schooling and the only big expense was for wood—about $25 a year.


Miss Florence Deacon, who is now Mrs. Thomas Shreeve [sic], told us she succeeded Miss Antrim as the teacher at Shreve. She kept the fire going and the room swept out. It was she who supplied the bucket for the “drinking fountain” with the occasional addition of a wash basin. Under such operation, the schools of Pemberton Township, of which there were six, cost $2200 a year. It was in 1930 that some officials expressed surprise as to why education should demand $30,000 in the school budget when the population of the township had shown no marked increase over the old days. Today the Shreve school is a tenant house and the station is a discarded and unlovely shed.


Imlaystown is one of the discarded station stops of the U. T. A journey to Upper Freehold Township, Monmouth County, in which it is located, is interesting at any time of the year. Near Imlaystown is a quaint, plain building known as Ye Old Yellow Meeting-House. Although frequent repairs give it an up-to-date appearance, it is an historic place. Tradition says that the Reverend John Coward joined the carpenters in building it and then preached its first sermon in 1720.


Tucked away and almost forgotten up a winding clay road, the meeting-house is to be found under sheltering oaks, close by a farmhouse and surrounded by tall grass which almost hides the burial ground. Here is one of the few places in the area adjacent to Southern New Jersey where tombstones may be found with those most ungodly-looking angels carved at their crest.


One of these stones is that of John Saltar, of whom more is told in the story of Abraham Lincoln’s forebears who lived not far away. Saltar gave the land for the meeting house and died in 1723. The meeting-house stands on the site of the first Baptist Church which was a tiny affair erected some years before. Services are held here on the last Sunday of each July [a tradition that continues today]. In addition to the one annual service, there is a reunion of members and descendants of members in May or June [since combined with the former]. The proceeds from the service and a dinner served at the reunion go for the upkeep of the shrine.


Cream Ridge is further down the road. Once its prosperity knew no bounds and its name was chosen to show that here, in rich dairying country, farmers could attain the cream of everything. Warner Hargrove used to say that he remembered Cream Ridge in the late 1800s and that in those days it was alive with commerce, farming, and all sorts of activity. There was a general store, operated by the genial Bob Woodward, who was postmaster and an authority on agriculture. There was always something doing at the hay and straw press and livestock was sold here by the carload. Cars of produce and milk went swinging along the old U. T. every night.


Cream Ridge served as the hub of a cluster of hamlets, most of which are seldom if ever referred to now. There was Fillmore, which we never found [since it was Cream Ridge’s former name]. There was Walnford, Ellisdale, Extonville, and Prospertown [two of the four still exist]. Rural mail and daily papers became everyday commodities for the first time.


The blacksmith shop was the first to go. As trucks appeared to take out the farm products, milk, and cattle, the U. T., still operated by a stock company of farmers ignoring the subsidy offers of railroad corporations, cut its schedule. With the curtailment of trains, Cream Ridge and the other stations quickly lost their individuality and importance.


Bob Woodward is still in the neighborhood—or was, when we were there. He rents out the store. His five sons and daughters have married and have their own homes near by. Bob says he doesn’t feel much different but he admits that the former glories of this sorry-looking railroad line can never come back. “Not even with soldiers to haul from Camp Dix and Wrightstown,” he said.


Barclay Marlsbury, who still operates the store in Imlaystown, is one of Bob Woodward’s closest friends. He was also postmaster when we were there. “Who started Imlaystown?” he repeated our question. “Why, the Imlays, of course, and that’s more than a hundred years ago—for the name’s on old, old, maps. This was and is cider country—a man named Dawes made Red Valley a real apple center. Davis? Well, it had a threshing and bailing plant, a big creamery and lots more houses. Look at it now!” [Yes, look at it now!]


By this time even the last rotting timbers have been taken down. Even today the old U. T. means little except to oldtimers in the immediate vicinity. [Read more about this former railroad in “Pemberton and Hightstown: A Chronicle of Railroading through the Farm Belt of New Jersey” by John Brinckmann, personally published by the author in 1987.]