New Jersey's First Railroad Charter
Railway World—February 18, 1899

NOT by reason of any brilliant military achievement within the limits of the State, but rather by reason of the material furtherance of ideas concerning transportation, did the War of 1812 make a permanent impress upon New Jersey. The narrow strip of land separating the head of tidewater in the Delaware from the practical head of tide in the Raritan had long been a hindrance to travel across the State. Until the second war with England the colonial routes between Philadelphia and New York City were still used, being by boat to Burlington or Bordentown, or by stage to New Brunswick or Amboy, and thence by water or stage, via Paulus Hook, to New York City, using the road across Hackensack Meadows as early as 1765 and the turnpike and bridges about 1795. It was not until 1804 that the Trenton-Morrisville bridge was constructed across the Delaware, so insignificant had been the volume of travel by the land route on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

The movement of Jersey troops to the defense of the harbors of New York City and Philadelphia, the more or less effectual blockading of the seacoast by the enemy's ships of war, the needs of inland communication between Washington and New England, the establishment of a base of military supplies at Trenton and Newark, all necessitated speedy communication across the State of New Jersey. The turnpike between Trenton and New Brunswick, chartered in 1804, was used for this purpose, but to the minds of men who saw the possibilities of railroad communication there was yet a new and untried method of transporting freight and passengers. This end would be served by the construction of a railroad over the "waist" of New Jersey.

To New Jersey the treaty of peace brought relief. The signatures placed upon the document at Ghent on the 24th of December, 1814, meant a renewal of industrial activity, for England tacitly abandoned forever her policy of impressment and commercial interference. For the first time since the Revolution the commercial freedom of the United States had been secured. It was indeed a day of hope for a State whose navigable waters were ever whitened with the sails of her ships, and whose highways were crowded with travellers and freight.

Two days before the ratification of the treaty of peace by a federal Senate, voting unanimously, the Legislature of New Jersey, upon the 6th day of February, 1815, passed an act creating a company "to erect a Rail-Road from the river Delaware, near Trenton, to the river Raritan, at or near New Brunswick," and gave to the world what was probably the first railroad charter ever granted within the limits of the United States.

The personal influence that lay behind the measure was that of John Stevens, whose experiments with steam navigation on the Hudson gave him not only technical skill, but a wide and comprehensive grasp of the possibilities of any form of rapid transit.

The charter itself, as the basis of subsequent railroad legislation of a special character, possesses a permanent interest. In form the charter is evolutionary, bearing many of the characteristics of contemporaneous acts, similar in form, and from which turnpike companies derived their powers. Thus at the very outset a commission was created authorized to receive subscriptions. For the construction of the railroad, "not more than four rods wide," the three commissioners, James Ewing, Pearson Hunt, and Abner Reeder, were required to give security to the governor to insure to the treasurer of the company the payment of all subscriptions received by them.

The subscriptions were limited to five thousand shares at one hundred dollars per share, five dollars to be paid in at time of subscribing. As soon as two thousand shares were subscribed the commissioners or a majority of them were directed to call a meeting of the subscribers to choose a president and eight directors, "five of whom shall constitute a board and a treasurer." This temporary organization was to give place on the first Wednesday in November then next ensuing to a stockholders' election, which should afterward be held each and every year. "The said president and directors so to be chosen shall be called the New Jersey Railroad Company," says the act, with all corporate powers to be in full force and effect for fifty years.

In case the corporation did not carry into effect the objects of its charter within ten years, or allowed its works to go to decay for two years, then the charter became null and void.

All elections were required to be by ballot, in person or by proxy, at the rate of one vote for every share not exceeding twenty, and one vote for every five shares between twenty and fifty, and one vote for every ten shares above fifty. Temporary vacancies in the board of directors were to be filled by the remainder of the board. The president and directors were empowered to fix the time and place of meeting, appoint necessary agents and servants, make by-laws and ordinances and fill vacancies of an official nature.

To lay out the road the Legislature fell back upon the expedient of a further commission consisting of John Rutherfurd, Mahlon Dickerson, and Richard Allison, who in the discharge of their duty were to have "due regard to the situation and nature of the ground and the buildings thereon, the public convenience and the interest of the stockholders and so as to do the least damage to private property." The road could not be laid out through any burying ground, place of public worship, dwelling house nor outbuilding of the value of three hundred dollars without the owner's consent. The commissioners were required to file their report, survey map and plot in the office of the secretary of state of New Jersey. The commissioners and corporation were granted the right to enter upon land necessary for laying out the road and also for the purpose of searching for "stone, sand, or gravel for the use of the said road," but no stone, sand, or gravel was to be taken away without compensation made to the owner.

As to the character of motive power to be used upon the railroad the statute is silent, the only allusion being collateral, where it is enacted that the wagons or carriages employed on the road shall be constructed and run thereon in conformity to such rules as the company shall make from time to time.

That animals, either horses or mules, were to be employed is suggested by the provision of the act empowering the corporation to "make, erect, and establish a railroad, passing and repassing, and which road is to be composed of either iron or wood for the running of the wheels, and which running part is to be fixed on a solid foundation, impervious to frost, not liable easily to be removed." It was further provided that the middle path of said road was to be composed of some hard substance, of either stone, gravel or wood, so as to be good at all seasons of the year. The plan of a "middle path," and the further proviso that in no part of its progress should the road rise above an angle of two degrees above the plane of the horizon, would not directly indicate the employment of steam as an agency of transportation.

Further in the matter of construction the act provided that the company should not obstruct the free use and passage of any public road. Causeways were directed to be constructed by the railroad over all public roads, under a penalty of ten dollars for every day of neglect. The company was also required to furnish private causeways for the use of owners of land. Any injury to company property rendered the tortfeasor liable to forfeit to the company three times the actual damage sustained.

In the exercise of the right of domain the company was authorized to "erect, make, and establish all works, edifices, and devices" as might be necessary, as well as purchase lands and tenements. In case of non-agreement between the corporation and an owner as to the valuation of private land necessary for the corporation's purposes, the statute provided that each should choose a disinterested freeholder. The two were empowered to determine compensation, but in case they failed they could choose an umpire. In case this method was not employed, a struck jury, after survey and estimation, made inquisition and returned the same to a justice of the Supreme Court.

In the statute is to be found the germ of the present State railroad commissions. It was enacted that whenever the railroad company completed not less than ten miles of its road the governor of the State should appoint three disinterested persons who "shall have power to fix, ascertain and determine the rates and charges which the said company may demand and receive for the transportation of merchandise and for every article of country produce, lumber, and fire wood transported on the said railroad, and also to fix, ascertain and determine on such tolls and rates as the said company shall and may demand and receive from all persons using or traveling said road." The rates of toll were directed to be placed on file as evidence in any court. If within ten years after the completion of the railroad the corporation should consider a revision necessary the governor was directed to appoint a new commission for that purpose.

Ten years after the completion of the road, and at the end of every ten years thereafter, the company was directed to lay before the Legislature a statement as to its financial condition. At such time the governor was to appoint a new commission of three to revise the freight and passenger rates, but it was provided that the commissioners should not reduce the tolls to a less sum than would insure to the company twelve per cent. per annum on its capital stock.

This first effort to construct a railroad across the State of New Jersey reached no further development than the passage of the act. The time was not yet ripe for so chimerical a project; more than another decade must elapse ere the public mind was ready to fully appreciate the benefits that lay within so great a plan of improvement. But the charter remains as the crystallization of the best thought upon the subject of what was proper legislative control over a railroad, what rights the corporation should have, and, in brief, what constituted so novel a scheme for transporting men and their goods between two centers of population.

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This page originally appeared on Thomas Ehrenreich's Railroad Extra Website


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