Thin Blue Lines

Text and Photos by JJ Mish

Aerial photos are courtesy of flight grant for NWNL from

Joe Mish has always lived in sight of New Jersey’s Raritan River. His early years were spent roaming clay banks, streams, tidal creeks and swamps of the Lower Raritan near Crab Island. Now living upstream on the Raritan’s South Branch, he photographs New Jersey’s natural treasures hidden in plain view, sharing them in his column “Along the South Branch” in The Branchburg News, blog, the Lower Raritan River Partnership blog. Many of his photos (along with NWNL photos) appear in Judy Auer Shaw’s The Raritan River: Our Landscape, Our Legacy. Joe also has images published in Northeast Sporting Journal, Maine Outdoors and History of Willowood. A graduate of Rutgers Cook College, Joe has also been a regular on Super Aging Today radio program as a nature photojournalist. Retired from Johnson and Johnson where he worked in Clinical Research and Pharmacology, Joe paddles local rivers throughout the year to see what surprises nature has to offer when no one else is looking.

The nameless stream today, just before it empties into the South Branch of the Raritan.

If all the water that ever flowed from the Raritan River drainage could be measured, its contribution to the depth of the ocean would be impressive. Think of this watershed as a collection agency for the world’s oceans.

An aerial view of the Raritan River clearly shows its two main branches, the South Branch and the North Branch. These branches get their names from the perspective of the confluence, despite both arising north of this meeting place.

The South Branch, flowing in from the right meets the North Branch flowing in from the left. They combine to form the Raritan River, aka “Tucca-Ramma-Hacking.

The confluence marks the beginning of the Raritan River. Its natural formation was an important landmark to the Lenape Tribe, which referred to this place as Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, “the meeting place of waters.”  A closer look at a map reveals the larger tributaries which feed the main branches: Rockaway Creek, Black River/Lamington River and the Neshanic River. All of these are clearly noted and named on maps.

No less important are the numerous smaller brooks and creeks whose contributions are significant and whose names may only appear on old maps or engraved on marble plaques set in structures that bridge their banks. Peter’s Brook, Chambers Brook, Pleasant Run, Prescott Brook, Assicong Creek, Minneakoning Creek, Holland Brook and the First, Second and Third Neshanic Rivers are identified on some maps; yet only Holland Brook has a sign along its nine-mile winding course. Hoopstick and Bushkill are lesser-known streams, within plain view. However, they bear no identifying signage and are often represented as nameless blue lines.

There are dozens more minor streams whose names appear nowhere except in obscure archives. Each one eventually feeds the Raritan or its two main North and South Branches above the confluence.

Knowing someone’s name is a sign of respect. The lack of signs for our rivers is a lack of respect, just as calling someone by the wrong name is embarrassing. Unfortunately, today’s signs that misidentify the North Branch of the Raritan River as the Raritan River proper have failed to embarrass those responsible for posting such erroneous signs.

Many smaller seeps and springs whose names have been lost to the ages add to the Raritan Basin’s accumulated flow. Driving along the Lamington River for instance, there are endless watery traces arising from springs within the woods that empty into larger tributaries. Many are just moist creases worn through the soil over time, which collect rainwater and snowmelt that supplement the downstream daily flow. Most become ephemeral during warm, dry periods and droughts.

Maps show endless springs, which appear on the cartographers’ final draft as thin blue lines. Often a network of converging shorter lines, each with a defined beginning, join to form larger streams like Pleasant Run and Holland Brook.

Obscure water sources fascinate me because their anonymity and remote locations arouse my curiosity about the natural communities that might exist in such rarely visited places. Their presence represents a convergence of habitat types that attract birds and wildlife. Though they bear no labels to honor their faithful contribution to the next blue line and ultimate confluence, their importance must not be overlooked.

Many springs which appeared on old maps, no longer exist, eliminated by construction of sewer lines or otherwise diverted or filled in. As maps are revised and generations fade, their streams exist only in a cartographer’s archive.

My appreciation for these disappearing thin blue lines was heightened when recently I discovered that when a kid, I walked over Slingtail Brook every day on the way to school. At some point this little stream, which did bear a name, was diverted through a sewer line under the pavement. More amazingly, even older residents had no memory of that stream, its presence or its name, lost today. I did find a reference to Slingtail Brook in the 1939 Woodbridge NJ newspaper  archives. The property through which a portion of the stream flowed was for sale. A clause by the seller stipulated the brook not be diverted or covered over.

“Conveyance will be made subject to the following condition: That the course of Slingtail Brook as now existent, be not changed or diverted from its course or that said stream and flow of water therein be not blockaded, dammed or otherwise restricted. Take further notice that the Township ….”     Fords Beacon, May 12, 1939

Somewhere in time, the requirement that Slingtail Brook remain unmolested was lost to progress and legal wrangling. Such is the fate of so many smaller streams, especially when their names only exist in oral history and no signage marks their presence. 

Just a small trickle, Cat Tail Brook has miraculously retained its nature and name. “1825 Cat Tail Brook bridge built by B Cray directed by Esq R Styker and Maj. G..user. John Rowland Jr, Thomas Stout, Masons”

Cat Tail Brook arises from the convergence of a network of bubbling springs, supplemented by rain runoff and snowfall. It begins as hardly more than a trickle, directed by gravity from the south-facing ridge of the heavily wooded Sourland Mountains, near East Amwell NJ. In just a very short flow from its springs (1½ mi.), Cat Tail Brook gives birth to Rock Brook, which becomes a tumultuous and moody stream that joins the more sedate Bedens Brook on its way to the Millstone River. The Millstone joins with the Raritan River to make Cat Tail Brook’s contribution to the earth’s deep blue oceans.

Cat Tail Brook runs about 1½ miles before joining Rock Brook. This confluence (N40 26.521 W74 44.504) is less than ¼ mile below Rock Brook’s source. As Rock Brook tumbles down the mountain, it becomes the larger, longer stream. (Map from DeLorme Topo North America 9.0 mapping software acquired by Garmin in 2016. Page no longer supported.)

Interestingly, a case can be made either that Cat Tail Brook is a tributary of Rock Brook, or that Cat Tail Brook is the main source for Rock Brook’s beginning at the point where the name Cat Tail changes to Rock Brook.  It is odd that the flow gets a name change where it does.  Most blue lines do not get named until they cross a road.  Typically, if the source is somewhat obscure. names are not assigned until a blue line crosses a road.

This winter [2018], local residents near Rock Brook experienced an extended winter freeze, preserving snow from a previous storm beyond its expected stay, that was interrupted by a thaw and heavy rain. That melting snow joined the torrential downpour, flowing over frozen ground and collecting in every shallow crease leading to Rock River. During this rain-on-snow event, the water’s velocity was enhanced by the decreasing gradient of deep well-worn pathways etched into the earth.

The banks of these successively larger streams barely contain the accumulation of water delivered from such networks of anonymous thin blue lines. Acting as a single entity, these collection agencies (if you will) of the Raritan River drainage faithfully deliver the contribution of un-named sources of sweet water to the world’s salty oceans.

With a poetic flourish, the Lower Raritan River and its saltwater estuary, the Raritan Bay, are stained blue, saturated with the blue ink used to represent thousands of nameless pale blue lines drawn on maps of the extensive Raritan River watershed.

Downstream of New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway Bridge, the Raritan River becomes the Raritan Bay.

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