Saturday, July 19, 2014

The woman on the wall: Captain Eleanor Alexander and New Jersey's Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Of the 1563 fallen service members commemorated on the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel, only one is a woman: Captain Eleanor Grace Alexander. Every name on that wall has a compelling story, but viewing a female name, and learning about her, make a special impact on those who visit the memorial with no expectation of seeing a woman honored for her sacrifice in a war decades ago.

NJ Vietnam Veterans Wall Captain Eleanor Alexander
Captain Alexander's name on the
New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Affectionately described by family members as "a tough broad," the Queens-born Alexander moved to River Vale with her mother after graduating with a nursing degree from D'Youville College. Six years later, she'd achieved a measure of success as a cosmetic surgery operating room supervisor and was engaged to be married, yet felt compelled to enlist in the Army Nurse Corps. Friends suggested that she could offer her services in a safer environment by serving in the Peace Corps instead, but she was resolute in her desire to take the military route. In fact, she approached all of the services to see if they'd send her to Vietnam but only the Army would guarantee it. As her sister in law Suzanne Alexander later told the New York Times, "She told me she was going to do this before she had any obligations. She insisted on going over there for six months. She had to do this."

She enlisted in May 1967, leaving behind her hope chest and wedding dress, and bringing a great deal of enthusiasm for the challenge ahead. Assigned to the 85th Evacuation Hospital at Qui Nhon, Vietnam, she was part of the team responsible for stabilizing seriously wounded patients, whether they be American, allied or enemy. A colleague recalled that "Rocky," as Alexander became known, was "top notch... never got rattled... even managed to look well groomed" in the chaos of field hospital work.

Captain Alexander's D'Youville College yearbook photo, class of 61.
A nursing scholarship was established there in her name.
Five months into her enlistment, Alexander grabbed opportunity from coincidence, a decision that one could say cost her her life. As fighting intensified at the Battle of Dak To 60 miles away, the 85th was to send an emergency medical team to nearby Pleiku to treat the wounded. Another nurse was part of the team but couldn't be located in time, so Alexander took her colleague's gear and ran to join the departing group. She and the team worked grueling 14 hour shifts, an exhausting yet exhilarating regimen for the enthusiastic nurse. "The troops around Pleiku are getting hit quite hard," she wrote to her mother in mid November. "For the past three days, I've been running on about four hours sleep. Funny thing is, I love it."

After six weeks, the team was returning to the 85th when their plane encountered rain and low clouds that would prevent their landing at Qui Nhon. They were diverted to another airstrip with better landing conditions but crashed into a mountainside while attempting to get there. Alexander, the other 21 passengers and four crew members were all killed in the accident. She was 27 years old and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.

Accounts of Captain Alexander from those who served with her say much of her commitment and poise; it seems that many of the enlisted men at the hospital were enthralled by her beauty. Most touching is a letter written to Alexander in 1991 by the Army nurse whose place she seized for the Pleiku assignment. "How did you keep it together? You know, the guys really leaned on you," she wrote. "You and I triaged, organized, drove the men and prayed... I really admired your strength and envied it." The same nurse acknowledges that had events been a little different, she, herself, might have perished in the crash, and Alexander survived. She tells of the complex mix of guilt and sorrow she continued to feel, decades later, and her struggles to make a positive impact on the world in Alexander's memory.

We often think of the sacrifices men made, and the fact that but for a twist of fate, an injury that prevents a deployment, a roll call missed, one soldier survives while the one who took his place dies or is injured. Until very recently, with women being further integrated into combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of us didn't consider that the beneficiaries or victims of fate could be female.

Last September, the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedicated a new monument for Captain Alexander, ensuring that more visitors will learn about her dedication and sacrifice. She's a true example of the power of commitment and the unstoppable desire of some to make a positive impact on those around her.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Flying saucers make history in New Brunswick

In a history-making event that garnered virtually no media attention, flying saucers hovered just feet above the ground on Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus one Monday afternoon in the fall of 1972.

UFO Passaic NJ Hidden New Jersey
No, not this one.
No, the flying saucers weren't of the "take me to your leader" variety, and their appearance on the Banks on November 6 was entirely planned by terrestrial beings. The hovering craft we're referring to are the rimmed plastic platters better known as Frisbees or, more generically, flying discs, and they were making their debut in college competition. Sprinting that day almost literally in the footsteps of their forebears of more than a century before, Rutgers and Princeton students added Ultimate Frisbee to the rivalry between the two old schools.

That's not to say that Frisbees themselves were a rare sight on campus. The link between college students and flying discs was forged in the 1940s, when Yale undergrads discovered that tins from the nearby Frisbie* Pie Company would sail a good distance when thrown a certain way. By the late '60s, Wham-O was selling plastic discs by the millions, and sailing one from person to person had become the perfect low-key campus activity. It took some enterprising New Jersey teenagers to turn the toss of a disc from a casual pastime between friends into a competitive sport.

Ultimate frisbee combines aspects of football, basketball and soccer, with two teams of seven playing on a field about the size of a football gridiron. The World Flying Disc Federation attributes the start of competitive ultimate to a student at Maplewood's Columbia High School, who proposed the game to the student council in 1968. Rules were written, a playing field was determined and two years later Columbia and Millburn High Schools competed in the first interscholastic game.

That brings us to the fateful day on the parking lot behind Rutgers' College Avenue Gym in New Brunswick, not coincidentally the birthplace of college football. By November 6, 1972, the historic field had been paved over but still retained enough favorable qualities to host the first intercollegiate ultimate disc game. Echoing the outcome of the schools' first history-making meeting in 1869, Rutgers won by two goals, though the 29-27 score was significantly higher than the original 6-4 football game. The Scarlet Knights continued their dominance as competitive ultimate spread to other colleges, winning the first National Collegiate Championships in 1975 and the successor National Ultimate Frisbee Championship in 1976.

Both universities continue to field both men's and women's ultimate teams, as do several other colleges around the state. Consistent with the laid-back nature of the ultimate culture, Rutgers fields a competitive men's A team while welcoming students of any skill to play on a B team without having to try out. There's no expectation or pressure on team members to develop (or want to develop) the skills that would enable them to play on the A level. It's all cool.

*That's not a typo. The bakery name was really spelled "Frisbie." Wham-O changed the spelling to avoid copyright infringement.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Bullets, bluster and arrogance: the ambitious Hugh Judson Kilpatrick

The 210th anniversary of the Alexander Hamilton/Aaron Burr duel on July 11 got me thinking about other controversial and politically ambitious figures in New Jersey history, which led me to Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.

You might remember him. A few years ago we stumbled on a sign marking his old Sussex County farm, the site of the first Civil War reenactment. Well, he didn’t see it quite that way. For him, it was the big party he held pretty much to burnish his reputation.

In the time since we ran a brief story on the reenactment, I’ve done more reading on Kilpatrick and the event, and what I’ve learned only makes him more interesting. He didn't shoot the Secretary of the Treasury as Burr did, or allegedly plot to take over the western territory of the U.S. (yup, Burr again), but he was a, well, interesting guy.

The Deckertown-native Kilpatrick seems to have been born with political motivations already intact. After successfully lobbying his district’s Congressional representative for an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, he entered West Point as the first step on a planned path to the presidency, with interim stops at the governorship of New Jersey and both houses of Congress. But rather than channeling his energy toward achievements that would benefit his future constituents, he chose to maneuver his way up via the proverbial smoke-filled room.

Hugh Judson Kilpatrick Hidden New Jersey
The ever ambitious Hugh Judson Kilpatrick.
His timing couldn’t have been better. Graduating from West Point just after the start of the Civil War, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant but was quickly promoted to captain in the 5th New York Infantry. He somehow managed to become the first United States Army officer to be wounded in the war, getting hit in the leg during the Battle of Big Bethel. As the war continued, he continued to maneuver up the ranks, becoming lieutenant colonel of the 2nd New York Cavalry and eventually rising to major general.

He might have had friends in the right places looking out for him, but he neglected to earn much respect from his colleagues or subordinates. In fact, many historians note that his ambition severely outweighed his skill and good sense. He was widely reviled for his role in a botched raid on Confederate prisons in which Union prisoners of war were being held; as a result General Ulysses Grant relieved him of a portion of his command duties, leading to a long-term grudge. His men called him “Kill Cavalry” for the recklessness in which he led them into near-suicidal battle maneuvers, leading to unnecessarily high casualty counts.

Strategy and tactical deployment were one thing. Personal conduct was another, and Kilpatrick distinguished himself there, too. He was actually tossed into jail a couple of times during the war for soliciting bribes and illegally selling confiscated property. And his poorly-run camps attracted prostitutes whom Kilpatrick himself was reported to have visited with some regularity. He’s described by Civil War historians as egocentric, arrogant, untruthful, unreliable, disloyal to presumed friends – all in the service of ambition. Shakespeare couldn’t have written a better villain.

Required military service in hand, Kilpatrick returned to New Jersey after the war, unsuccessfully ran for governor and maneuvered the loss into an ambassadorship to Chile under President Andrew Johnson. He was recalled five years later under President Grant and, on his return to the U.S. took to the lecture circuit to defame Grant as an alcoholic and worse. Rumors to that effect had long been swirling around Grant, but you have to wonder if anyone but the most ardent supporter of the president gave much credence to Kilpatrick’s gripes, given his own rather sullied reputation.

Political ambitions still burning, Kilpatrick dreamed up a grand scheme to raise a groundswell of support while surrounding himself with adoring luminaries. What better way than with patriotic fervor? In June 1878 he announced that he’d invited 40 New Jersey posts of the Grand Army of the Republic to his Sussex County farm for a three day celebration of veterans’ service to the nation. The GAR was the American Legion of its day for Union veterans of the Civil War and a powerful force in national politics.

The announcement in the New York Times said the event would include an encampment with strict military discipline and sham battles, with visits from luminaries including President Rutherford B. Hayes, New Jersey Governor (and former Union General) George McClellan, and Generals William T. Sherman and Phil Sheridan. Veterans’ family members would be entertained with games of chance, fireworks and a play written by Kilpatrick himself. He strongly emphasized that he was charging no admission fee and that he was building an aqueduct system to provide an ample supply of water to a camp area where visitors could pitch their own tents at no charge.

And to quell the fears of anyone who might be concerned about crime, Kilpatrick promised that sheriff’s deputies and detectives would patrol the camp to ensure that pickpockets and ‘base women’ would be discouraged from plying their respective trades.

While some sources state that Kilpatrick “treated” his guests to a grand event, the opposite is true. Despite being one of the wealthiest men in the area, he sought and got the support of his neighbors in running the event, even soliciting donations as he arranged for New York vendors to sell food (negotiating a cut of the profits for himself).

From an attendance perspective, the event was a great success from the moment it began on August 25, 1878. Five trains a day brought 400 passengers each to Deckertown, and many more came by foot or on horse. An estimated 4000 were actual veterans, with the remaining 36,000 visitors being a combination of family members, curiosity seekers and, despite Kilpatrick’s assertions, the criminal element. On the positive side, they got the fireworks, sham battles, food vendors and games of chance they’d been promised. On the other hand, carpenters were still working on the grandstands when the guests arrived, and the promised water supply broke down early in the encampment, forcing thirsty vets to purchase beer from the 10,000 kegs on hand. And despite the promise of a family environment, a tent pitched in a distant yet accessible area was reportedly doing a fair amount of business as a brothel.

Kilpatrick had overpromised on the dignitaries, too. President Hayes skipped the event, as did General Sherman, though Major General Dan Sickles, a colorful personality in his own right, came to show his support.

Did the campaign stunt work for Kilpatrick? Folks might have had a great time, but it didn’t help their host’s political standing. He took his name out of consideration for the Republican nomination for the district’s House seat in 1878 and subsequently lost his bid for the seat in the 1880 election. As consolation, President James Garfield reappointed him envoy to Chile, where Kilpatrick died of nephritis in 1881. His remains were returned to the United States six years later for reinterment at West Point.

Arrogant, overconfident and blindly ambitious as he was, Kilpatrick inadvertently introduced New Jersey and perhaps the nation to a new tradition that persists today. The military re-enactment has evolved from a political stunt and carnival to an opportunity for those with no war experience to get a firsthand view into the lives of everyday foot soldiers in the field (sometimes incredibly accurate, sometimes not so much). Does that make up for his litany of shortcomings, blunders and unnecessary sacrifice of subordinates? No, but as they say, it’s a truly ill wind that blows no good.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grassland restored: Kestrels and secretive sparrows at Negri-Nepote

Birding has taken a back seat for us over the past couple of weekends, given the usual summer lull enforced by avian behavior. After warbling and chirping their hearts out looking for mates, songbirds have been spending most of their time on the nest, collecting food and raising their young, leaving their human admirers to wait for the fast-approaching southbound shorebird migration.

Negri Nepote Native Grassland Preserve, Franklin, NJ Hidden New Jersey
The fields and pond at Negri-Nepote.
Even with that reality facing us, if we try hard enough there's always the possibility of locating birds that have somehow evaded us up until this point in the year. Thus, Ivan and I decided to make a return visit to Negri-Nepote Native Grassland Preserve in Franklin Township, Somerset County to find Grasshopper sparrows. Consistent with their name, members of this species make a buzzy, insect-like sound and nest in meadows, pastures and other expanses where grasses provide sufficient cover. Given how much of that kind of habitat has been lost to development in the state, the Grasshopper sparrow is considered threatened as a breeding species in New Jersey. According to the online eBird tool, other birders had seen them at Negri-Nepote recently, creating one of our best chances to see them this year.

This particular spot is especially nice, given that it's on a narrow road and you have to drive past the Trojan cow farm to get there. That said, it's been a while since we've been to Negri-Nepote. Longtime readers might remember our original visit to this former farm turned sanctuary, when we failed to find the reported Dickcissels but harvested a bumper crop of ticks for our troubles. We hoped our luck would be different this time: more of our sought bird and no pesky blood-sucking arachnids.

Photo by Greg Hume (wikimedia commons)
American Kestrel (Photo
by Greg Hume)
We arrived to find we were apparently the only humans to consider a visit on what was setting up to be a glorious day. Seemingly the only birds on the wing that morning, Tree swallows zoomed and swerved overhead and past us as we walked along the perimeter of the field. If the sparrows were there, they weren't saying much.

Then we noticed something a bit bigger jetting around with what seemed to be more purpose: an American kestrel.

Well, actually two American kestrels, with more apparently in the works. We watched as the small raptor (a.k.a. the sparrow hawk) zoomed back to a nest box planted on a pole near the center of the preserve, a few yards from a pond that looks rather like a big puddle. Not long afterward, she was back outside, aloft and looking for a meal as she was hassled by a Red-winged blackbird. Ignoring the aspiring tormentor, the kestrel perched on a power line stretched across the field, perhaps watching and waiting for suitable prey to pass below.

Kestrels are always a treat to see, not only because of their awesome flight abilities, but because they're on the threatened species list in New Jersey. Like Grasshopper sparrows, they're best suited to open grassy fields and seek out insect meals, though they're also content to make a meal of smaller birds and mammals like voles. And though they're unable to dig out their own nest areas as woodpeckers do, kestrels lay their eggs and raise their young in natural or man-made cavities. You'll sometimes see kestrel boxes at the edges of cultivated fields, placed by farmers hoping for some natural pest control. The Negri-Nepote box, as I later found out, has had residents for a couple of years, thanks to the combined stewardship of the township, county and New Jersey Audubon.

After observing the kestrels for a few minutes, we continued our walk down a mown path across the field, enjoying the black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and other blossoms amid the grasses. It seemed that the life around us was waking up a little, or maybe we were just hearing things we hadn't before. Song sparrows called out from the perimeter, along with a striking male Indigo bunting as the Tree swallows continued their aerial strafing. The place didn't seem buggy at all, but they were hard at work.

Then, an insect-like buzz caught our attention from deep within the higher grasses. Was it a loud bug, or was it a Grasshopper sparrow? We had no way of knowing unless the secretive bird rose above the tall blades, and even then we'd have to identify it on the fly. These guys spend much of their time on the ground, and besides, there was virtually no place for one to perch. And I'd have to hope Ivan saw the bird the same time as I did, because there was no way I'd differentiate it, in flight, from any number of other somewhat similar-looking sparrows I haven't learned to ID yet (Getting good at identifying sparrows is somewhat like learning Middle English - an impressive achievement, but way too complicated for me to tackle without abandoning all of my other interests. To prove my point, I found this guide to be especially amusing, as it's two years old and the author appears to have given up.)

Buzz.... buzzz..... and flight! A small brown bird - right size, right shape - emerged from the vegetation, rising a couple of feet above the grass tips and darting a few yards to the right. Then it dove back down, impossible to see. But, as Ivan confirmed, it was our quarry: the Grasshopper sparrow. 

I, for one, was completely satisfied, and I think Ivan was, too, at least until Sunday morning, when he read the mocosocoBirds report of birds seen in Morris and Somerset counties the day before. Just a few hours after we left Negri-Nepote, another birder had spotted a Dickcissel perched in the trees not far from the path.  

It may be our perpetual luck never to see a Dickcissel there, but one good thing came out of the venture: the tick curse seems to have lifted. Apart from one hanger-on I found on my pants leg before getting back into the car, we left unscathed. That's gotta be worth something.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Stranded real estate: Delaware Bay's water-based lighthouses

A few months ago, we made a virtual visit to one of New Jersey's most obscure historic sites, the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in Delaware Bay. This time, the imaginary cruise takes us to two other locations out of sight along the coast of Cumberland County, the Ship John Shoal's neighbors, the Miah Maull Shoal Light and the Cross Ledge Light. Together, they've helped guide vessels around the shoals, or submerged sandbanks, that create moguls of sorts, where ships could go aground if not for some skillful maneuvering and clear warning.

Starting in the mid 1800s, the United States Lighthouse Board erected several lighthouses on shoals in the bay, using the screwpile method first and then the more advanced caisson style in later construction. Aside from their isolation, what made them fascinating to me, when I saw photos of them, was their diversity. Unlike the Great Beds Light in Raritan Bay, which is shaped more like a spark plug, the Delaware Bay lights were built in many different styles. Some even looked like houses of their day, albeit swept to sea and landed on firm platforms.

Miah Maull Shoal Lighthouse.
Photo courtesy US Coast Guard.
The squat red Miah Maull Shoal Light gets its somewhat unusual name from a tragic event in the rich Down Jersey nautical history. Nehemiah Maull was a second-generation Delaware River pilot, son of an Englishman who'd immigrated to the New World in 1725. Despite his presumed navigational skills, Maull perished in a 1780 shipwreck in Delaware Bay, not due to his own miscalculations but someone else's. As the story goes, he was a passenger on his way to Great Britain to gather his share of family wealth when the ship went aground on the shoal that became known by his name.

It took more than 120 years before the Federal government saw fit to mark the shoal with an aid to navigation. At the recommendation of the Lighthouse Board, Congress allocated funding in 1906 and 1907 for the construction of the circular, three-story caisson-style light, topped with a lantern room and anchored in a 400-foot diameter plot of submerged land on the New Jersey side of Delaware Bay. Foundation work was stalled by the original contractor's financial issues but was finished in time to host a temporary light by September 1909. Meanwhile, the cast-iron body of the lighthouse itself was being completed in Pennsylvania, finally being installed on the foundation, fitted out and entered into service in 1913. Oddly, the structure was painted brown at the start, which doesn't seem like the best choice for a lighthouse day mark, though it might contrast well enough in foggy weather.

The Miah Maull's service history seems to have been rather mundane -- no big collisions, a lens upgrade, and the exterior paint change to red. After automating the light in 1973, the Coast Guard transferred the three-man crew to other duties, finally declaring the lighthouse as surplus in 2011. Like several other lights, including the Ship John Shoal and Great Beds, Miah Maull was first offered to non-profits for historic preservation, and then transferred to the General Services Administration for auction. It appears that despite two auctions, it's still hanging out there, claimed by no one but the cormorants and gulls that congregate there.

As Miah Maull awaits its fate, it's still been faring better than one of its former neighbors. The stone platform of the Cross Ledge Lighthouse off Fortescue was once the foundation for a two-story wood-frame house topped with a lantern room. Built in 1875, its light was extinguished in 1907 with the opening of the Elbow of Cross Ledge Lighthouse. During World War II, pilots on bombing practice from NAS Wildwood used the retired light for target practice, dropping flour sacks on it to hone their aim. The house met its sad destiny in 1962 with a fire intentionally set by the Coast Guard, presumably to avoid vandalism to the abandoned building. Ironically, the replacement Elbow of Cross Ledge light had already been virtually destroyed during a 1951 hurricane and succeeded by an unstaffed beacon atop a skeleton tower.

Getting out to the Delaware Bay lights is possible, but not an everyday opportunity unless you have a friend with a boat. A couple of boat operators run the occasional scheduled tour to a variety of the lighthouses, but if you're going to take that option, be sure to ask which locations they'll take you to. Not all will stop at the Miah Maull, Cross Ledge or Ship John Shoal, and there are others out there, some in Delaware waters.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Revolt and execution: the little known Pompton Mutiny

We've shared many aspects about the many heroic, though lesser-known aspects of New Jersey's Revolutionary War history. We've visited places where patriotic militias turned back the British, and other sites where the locals put up a good fight but ended up losing their homes. And we've marveled at the tenacity of the men who endured the terrible winter of 1779-1780 in the rough log huts of the Jockey Hollow encampment, surviving despite minimal rations, ragged clothing and, in many cases, without even the most rudimentary of footwear.

More than two centuries later, it's easy to look upon the hardships and the outcome of the war, and assume that the men of Washington's army were some sort of saints who endured in the knowledge that they would emerge victorious. Grade school history books do nothing to tarnish that assumption, but we're talking about very human people put into an extraordinarily awful situation. The conditions were enough to try anyone's patience, and, in fact, some were stretched to their breaking points. Adding insult to injury, many hadn't been paid in quite some time, and newer recruits were getting more generous bounties than longstanding soldiers had gotten when they enlisted.

By January 1781, the troops of the Pennsylvania Line of the Continental Army had had enough. Believing their three-year hitch was up, they left their Jockey Hollow camp to air their grievances with the commonwealth's Supreme Executive Council (effectively the group acting as governor). Long story short, the two sides ultimately agreed that the longer-serving soldiers would be discharged and allowed to reenlist, thus receiving the more generous bounty. One might say they were rewarded for severe insubordination, not something that military leadership would generally want to encourage.

A few small markers at Jockey Hollow offer brief mentions of the Pennsylvania Line mutiny, but the New Jersey mutiny -- and there was one -- is a little harder to find.

The exact location is in question, but you can learn about it on Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Riverdale, from a marker across the road from the grade school. Ivan found it: a small sign about the size of a "no parking" warning, that's labeled "Pompton Mutiny."

Encamped near Federal Hill overlooking present day Passaic County, the soldiers of the New Jersey Line were just as destitute as their Pennsylvania brethren -- poorly clothed and malnourished. And like their cohorts, about 200 of the Jerseymen set off to air their grievances to the state government in Trenton. Hearing of the Pennsylvanians' success along the way, these new mutineers soon returned to Pompton, hoping for a similar outcome. Receiving none, they revolted again a few days later.

This mutiny would end much differently. Once he received word of the revolt from camp commander Colonel Israel Shreve, General George Washington took quick and decisive action. A wave of mutinies would destroy the Continental Army even as Congress was working to resolve longstanding pay issues. Maintaining order was essential to a strong military, and an early example had to be set. He sent General Robert Howe and 500 troops south from West Point to quell the disturbance, with no allowances for negotiation. To further emphasize the seriousness of his intent, Washington ordered, "If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders."

That's exactly what happened on January 27, 1781. After surrounding the mutinous bunch and finding no further resistance, Howe selected about a dozen of the mutineers as a firing squad to execute their ringleaders, Sergeants David Gilmore and John Tuttle.

In a letter to New Jersey Governor William Livingston, Washington portrayed the executions as an inevitable step in quelling the revolt:  "The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers."

Where, exactly, all of this occurred, is up for conjecture, perhaps fueled by the fact that the area known as Pompton during the revolution has been divided into four separate towns in the years since. Besides the Riverdale sign that caught our attention, another marker on Union Avenue in Bloomingdale claims marks the spot of the execution of two of the mutineers. Some say that the graves of Gilmore and Tuttle are somewhere on Federal Hill, marked only by the piles of stones heaped upon their final resting places.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Forging iron, not fright, on Clinton Road

When talking to folks about Hidden New Jersey, we sometimes get suggestions for stories that are more along the "scary" or "spooky" than the historic or natural. We generally leave those to other websites and publications that have a long history of covering them.

But sometimes, there's a convergence -- a site with scare factor that actually has some history attached.

Mention Clinton Road to a large subset of New Jersey explorers, and you're likely to hear a string of stories about scary goings on and late-night encounters with angry, high-beam flashing pickup trucks and shrouded apparitions that may or may have satanic intent. This sparsely-populated, two-lane road winds through several miles of woods in West Milford, attracting scores of adventure seekers who often stop at a small bridge to throw coins at a spirit who, according to legend, will toss them right back.

Our story isn't about any of that.

Clinton Road, West Milford, Clinton Furnace, Hidden New Jersey
Nothing's spooky about
the Clinton Furnace.
A while back, Ivan and I took the right turn off Route 23 North and onto Clinton Road, likely in the search for an interesting bird or two, when we came upon a large pile of stone that had been very purposefully set. This wasn't, as the spooky storytellers would have you believe, a Druid temple. Having seen my share of lime kilns and furnaces, I knew we were onto something very old and very industrial.

Indeed, we'd stumbled on the Clinton Furnace, one of a number of old ironworks scattered in the wilderness of Passaic County and neighboring New York State. Scanning the environment, you can see why William Jackson bought about 1000 acres of land there in 1826 to process iron. Two ponds and the nearby Clinton Falls provided ample water and power to operate his planned sawmill and gristmill, and the surrounding forest contained enough timber to make the charcoal that would keep the furnace running.

According to the Friends of the Long Pond Ironworks, Jackson was unable to finish the project and sold the property to a buyer who flipped it to John Winslow and Freeman Wood, the partnership that completed construction in 1833. They operated it as the Clinton Ironworks for three years before selling it to a new owner who ran it sporadically for another year, finally abandoning it in favor of a forge. These being the times before coal was a viable fuel option, it appears that they'd exhausted the local supply of wood for charcoal, forcing the closure of the perpetually hungry furnace. The remaining forge continued operation for about 15 years before it was finally abandoned in 1852, and the property became part of the Pequannock Watershed in 1900, serving as part of the water supply for the city of Newark ever since.  

Clinton Furnace stands today as one of the best preserved ironworks of its kind in northern New Jersey, especially given its location along of the region's most storied "spooky" roads. Patrols from the Newark Watershed Commission have likely discouraged vandals from mischief on the structure, or maybe the tales of satanic rites in the area have put the fear into anyone who might have been inclined to harm the furnace. However, what we see today is just the bottom of the structure; originally an additional 11 feet of brickwork loomed above. 

Our visit elicited nothing but history, but I'd be remiss if I didn't share a postscript on the "spooky" aspects of Clinton Road:

During one of our birding ventures in Sussex County, we crossed paths with a birder who told us he lives just off of Clinton Road. He's very familiar with the legends surrounding the area, particularly the one about the spirit of a small boy who lives under the bridge and tosses back coins thrown to him. Holding up his rather pricey binoculars, the birder noted that over the years, collecting all of those coins has been a rather lucrative hobby for him. Moral of the story: if you've ever been one of those coin throwers, you can rest easy knowing that your pocket change has gone to a good cause.