Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hidden New Jersey trivia: the Outerbridge Crossing

Yesterday was the anniversary of the opening of the Outerbridge Crossing, the span that connects Perth Amboy, New Jersey with Staten Island. Along with its sister to the north, the Goethals Bridge, it was constructed by the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) and opened on June 29, 1928.

Many travelers know of the Outerbridge but if you asked them the origin of the name, it's highly doubtful they'd come close to the right answer. While it's the southernmost crossing connecting New Jersey with a portion of New York, it's not the Outerbridge because it's the outermost roadway among them all. Rather, it's named for Eugenius Outerbridge, the first chairman of the Port Authority. Obviously they weren't going to call it the Outerbridge Bridge. Well, I guess they could have, but it would have sounded pretty silly.

Outerbridge himself was a pretty interesting man, having led the Port Authority as it conceived a comprehensive development plan for the harbor. Born in Philadelphia, he spent much of his career in importing/exporting. He also ran a business that made fiberboard for vehicle roofs, eventually manufacturing a product called Homasote, which used recycled materials.  Plus his sister Mary was the creator of American lawn tennis. No word on whether she ever played on fiberboard.

Now... a question for you! From what or whom does the Holland Tunnel get its name?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Strolling like the rich folks at Huber Woods

Among the multimillion dollar estates lining the Navesink River in Middletown, birds and other creatures find homes, too. The wooded tracts that obscure celebrities’ homes are the domain of a wealth of wildlife, largely inaccessible to the average person, but for Huber Woods, preserved open space with a beautiful alpine-style mansion. It’s a relatively short drive from Sandy Hook, and Ivan and I checked it out a few weeks ago after a trip to Fort Hancock.

So how is it that a county park arises on land that’s probably worth several million dollars? The property itself was once the home of the Huber family, who’d emigrated from Germany in the late 1800’s to develop markets for their ink business, which eventually became JM Huber. At first, they merely vacationed in the area, but they later bought land and built their home here and then planned for the preservation of the woods and surrounding lands upon the deaths of Hans and Catherine, the second generation of Hubers. The company later donated additional land and the home to Monmouth County to complete the park.

Today, the home is an environmental center, focusing on educating young children about nature and the surrounding habitat. It’s welcoming and comfortable, and you can imagine the Hubers inviting many friends there for casual dinners after a good hike through the woods.

But… we weren’t there for the house. We came for the birds, and though we were there at mid to late afternoon, there was plenty of singing to be heard as we set into the woods. There are about eight miles of trails, with varying degrees of difficulty and special designations for horseback riding and nature observation. You can guess where we went.

Not expecting much, the stroll was nicely productive. For example, we saw a pair of nuthatches popping into and out of a hole in a tree trunk, most likely keeping an eye on their nest. Not far away, we saw a scarlet tanager working its way around. (Honestly, they’re one of my new favorites, particularly because I can spot them easily and they sport the Rutgers colors, scarlet and black.) The usual culprits – catbirds and robins and blue jays – were showing themselves, too.

We didn’t go very far into the woods but it’s clearly a good place to check out at a later date, probably earlier in the day and later in the season. Such an easy destination from one of my favorite haunts, and located in the midst of beautiful countryside – there’s no reason not to return.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fall for America's industrial history in Paterson

Another ‘hidden in plain sight’ New Jersey notable is America’s first planned industrial community. Combine one of the state’s grittiest cities with the second largest waterfall in the eastern United States, and you’ve got a fascinating story with roots in the American Revolution. We talked about it a little in an earlier post on Garret Mountain, but the city deserves a post all its own.

Alexander Hamilton first conceived the city while accompanying General George Washington through New Jersey during the war. As legend has it, the pair stopped for lunch at the base of a magnificent waterfall, where Hamilton saw the possibilities for hydropower to run machinery. Counter to Thomas Jefferson, who saw America's future as largely agrarian, Hamilton believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. If we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. With others who felt likewise, he was instrumental in the creation of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, or SUM, which then built Paterson's industry starting in 1792.

Through a clever system of raceways, the Great Falls of the nearby Passaic River provided hydropower to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers Locomotive works, and a variety of textile mills. In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his Illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the engine for Lindbergh’s storied aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Over time, the series of water raceways was replaced by a more efficient hydroelectric plant near the falls that continues to serve the local power grid. And as suburbanization populated the area upstream of Paterson, a good portion of the Passaic's water was shunted off for other purposes. Now on most days, the Falls, while still impressive, are but a trickle of what they were over 100 years ago. Check them out after a good rain, especially after Wayne has flooded, and you’ll get a good sense of their full might.

Paterson itself continues as a gritty, working-class city, though much of the industry has left the same as it has in many US cities. A productive artists' colony now makes its home in some of the mill buildings, and there's been some effort to preserve the history that's all around. In fact, Congress voted to fund a management plan for the area, which earlier was designated a National Historical Park. With any luck, that will bring much-needed attention - and tourist dollars - to the city. There are a lot of National Park geeks who would visit a phone booth in a remote corner of Nebraska if it were on the Parks list (I should know… I’m one of them.).

It's really pretty astounding that Paterson hasn't gotten more attention, given its location, Hamilton's involvement, and the impact of its founding on America's economic history. Perhaps the industrial aspect was what held it back as a tourist attraction: how many people make it a point to visit gritty, working-class cities? In an upwardly-mobile, striving culture like ours, how many people want to be reminded that there are people still pushing their way up the ladder? Paterson has long been home to recent immigrants -- people who don't necessarily speak the language, and have different traditions. We all know how that makes some people nervous. Most of all, though, I think people just don't know it's there.

There's a great little welcome center near the Falls, and when I visited, I was welcomed by a city resident who was a wealth of information. He spent about an hour with me, outlining history of Paterson's founding, interesting facts about Alexander Hamilton (i.e. had things gone differently, he might have been our first African American president. Yes, you read that right. His mom was Creole.), the best local restaurants, and American traditions that have their roots in the city. It’s amazing what you can find out, just by running into the right person.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Exploring the last northern battles of the Revolution: Visiting old Connecticut Farms

New Jersey was the crossroads of the American Revolution, with more battles fought here than anywhere else during the battle for independence. The last of those battles occurred 231 years ago this month in Union County, including my home town of Union. A few weeks ago, Ivan and I visited two sites key to that -- the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church and the Caldwell Parsonage.

Here’s the story: in June 1780, General George Washington and his troops were still in Morristown after their second and most brutal winter encampment there. Many of the remaining troops were disenchanted with military life and on the brink of mutiny, having waited months for pay which hadn’t yet come. The British, having taken New York some time before, were stationed on Staten Island, within a reasonable rowing distance of Elizabeth. They’d made occasional forays into New Jersey and thought they’d capitalize on the discontent of the colonial forces to make a raid on Washington and his staff, plus their remaining supplies.

By this time, civilian New Jerseyans had mixed feelings about the rebellion against the crown. They’d endured several raids and battles, destruction of farms and theft of livestock, and the assumption was that they were too tired to put up much of a resistance to an incursion. With that in mind, the British, fortified by elite German Jaegers, planned to land in Elizabeth on June 7 and take the path of present day Morris Avenue (State Route 82) up to Hobart Gap and then on to Morristown.

What they didn’t count on was the effect of the colonists’ frustration, stirred to a frenzy by local Presbyterian minister James Caldwell. Known to the British as the High Priest of the Revolution, Caldwell was based at Elizabeth’s Presbyterian church but also preached before congregations in Springfield and Connecticut Farms (now known as Union). He was also chaplain for the Third New Jersey Regiment, better known as the Jersey Blues. Caldwell regularly used his pulpit to promote the cause of freedom and foment against the crown, making him a prized target for British forces and loyalists.

After landing in Elizabeth, over 5000 British and Hessian troops and their artillery began the advance westward, expecting little to get in their way. They were confronted by 800 Jerseymen and a host of angry local farmers, prepared to fight for their land. The patriots fought valiantly against the invaders, holding them back for three hours. Ultimately, the British forces pushed the locals west toward Springfield, but realized they faced much more resistance than they’d anticipated. Vowing to return another day, they finally retreated back to Staten Island, pillaging and burning the village of Connecticut Farms as they left. They’d make another foray on June 23, this time to Springfield, but that’s another blog entry.

The Battle of Connecticut Farms gave Union County what’s probably one of the most gruesome government seals in the country: an image of a woman being shot by a British soldier as she runs from a cabin. It’s meant to represent Reverend Caldwell’s wife, Hannah, who, according to legend, was killed by British gunfire as she fled the Presbyterian parsonage. In truth, she was sitting inside the house and was the victim of a stray bullet which might have even come from a colonist’s musket. Regardless of where the bullet originated, she was seen by many as a martyr to the cause, and her death brought a rallying cry for revolutionary forces eager to avenge her death.

The parsonage and church were torched as the British left, along with the rest of the village, but the congregation soon rebuilt both, and those ‘new’ buildings still stand today. As Union has grown more and more urban, places like these remind residents and visitors of the town’s rural colonial heritage. The high school’s sports teams aren’t known as the Fighting Farmers for nothing.

The Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church stands beside a busy intersection near Union Center, with a congregation proud of its colonial heritage. Its churchyard holds many Revolutionary-era headstones and a mass grave of Hessians killed in the battle; you can contact the church to arrange a visit. In my youth, the church also had a small room with artifacts including a cannon ball that pierced the church’s wall.

Caldwell Parsonage is a few blocks away, on Caldwell Avenue. Once standing in farmland, it’s now shoehorned between other homes of more recent vintages, making it a bit difficult to imagine how a stray gunshot could have possibly gotten anywhere near the window where Hannah sat. The building now serves as the Union Township museum, displaying the town’s full history from first settlement to today. It’s a bit jumbled inside, but well worth a visit if you’re interested in obscure Jerseyana. It’s open on the third Sunday of the month, from 2-4 p.m.

There’s plenty more to say about these last battles… and a few more great sites to visit. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ticking away at Negri Nepote Grassland

Franklin Township (Somerset County) is one of those massive towns in the middle of the state that just seems to go on and on. Its reach is so vast, in fact, that it includes several unincorporated communities and three of the state’s six area codes hold sway there. With a history that goes back to colonial times, the township was largely rural for many years, until a building boom in the ‘80s that brought condo and townhouse development. Fortunately, though, there are still a few sizeable farms, and much of the open space is being preserved by the township and other entities so that about 75 percent of the acreage is still undeveloped.

It was one of those preserved entities where Ivan and I went for some light hiking and birding. He’d seen reports of dickcissels at the Negri Nepote Grassland and wanted to check out a new spot.

While I know some of Franklin Township, I wasn’t entirely sure of the exact location, and I was tickled to find it’s not far from the Trojan Cow. Yes, you read that right. Somewhere off South Middlebush Road, there’s a dairy farm with a massive Holstein cow in the yard. When we passed, it was standing, proud and freshly painted, with its living counterparts clustered around it. I don’t know anything about it; I’ve been aware of it for many years but haven’t yet had the guts to drive up and ask the farmer about it. Frankly, I’d rather keep the mystery going in my mind.

In any case, the Negri-Nepote property itself is largely grassland with some wooded areas thrown in for good measure. There’s also a very small, apparently man-made pond with an elevated blind; when we were there, the water level was pretty low and a lone mallard was hanging out. The field is traversed by a set of high-voltage transmission lines, which buzz ominously a hundred feet or so above you as you walk. (Old power company joke: Why do transformers hum? They don’t know the words.)

The path starts out as a gravel bed from a small parking lot, eventually turning into a wide swath of mowed grass when it veers to the right. After some of the places we’ve been, it was a bit of a relief not to have to bushwack or be overly concerned about brushing past high grass, but it’s no place to let your guard down. As we walked, we picked up a fair number of ticks that seemed to be laying in wait for us. Together, we must have attracted close to 20 of the suckers. Thank goodness for light-colored hiking pants.

Approaching the humming path of the transmission lines, Ivan noted a red-tailed hawk sitting atop one of the towers a few hundred yards away. Curious whether it might be keeping tabs on us, I took a quick scan of the other towers and found a large stick nest perched atop one of the higher-voltage towers. I could just about spy some feathers up there, but I couldn't tell whether it was the other parent or maybe a chick.

Not long after, we got our answer. We heard the distinctive scream of one of the parents, who’d taken wing ahead of us, warning us away from the nest. Little did he/she know, they’d selected what is probably one of the safest places around to raise a hawk family: not only would it be a tough climb up that tower, the surrounding voltage would quickly fry anyone foolish enough to try the ascent without the appropriate safety gear. Good luck to anyone who wants to band the chicks in that nest.

The dickcissels were quiet, perhaps because it was midday, but we saw a fair number of tree swallows and more than a couple of bluebirds making use of the nesting boxes off in the fields. We also spotted a kestrel perched on a ladder rung of one of the transmission towers. She obligingly took flight so we could fully appreciate her plumage.

All in all, it would have been a nice, leisurely walk in the field, but for the ticks hitching a ride on us. Next time, I’m bathing in DEET before we go… and perhaps wearing a Tyvek suit.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The history and romance of Newark Airport (yes, you read that right)

For some cockeyed reason, I still enjoy flying. Even when I'm crammed in like a sardine on one of those huge buses with wings, the little kid in me can't help but grin when I look down from the skies and see the earth in miniature. Taxi-ing around the tarmac, I'm drawn to the most mundane inner workings of a busy airport. I wonder whether those guys who guide the planes to the jetways get a secret thrill at edging huge aircraft into their parking spots just minutes after they've crossed the continent or the Atlantic.

That's not to say I enjoy the process of getting to the plane, or dealing with nasty people or any of that. I love the concept of flight, and the romance of it. When I can block out the garbage, I can mentally drift away to a time and place when air travel was still kind of exotic and people wore nice clothes to get on the plane. Don't get me started about prop planes -- make me climb up into the cabin on a drop-down staircase, and I know I'm itching for an adventure.Despite myself, I get nostalgic at some of the older airports. Lindbergh Field (a.k.a. SAN, San Diego) looks nothing like its past but was the home field, of sorts, to the Spirit of St. Louis. The couple of times I flew into Washington National (DCA, now Reagan) I half expected to see Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith, striding purposefully down the corridor.

Now, Newark (EWR) that was a glamorous airport. Once the East Coast terminus of the Air Mail, it was the busiest landing strip in the United States for a time in the late '20s and early '30s. It eventually had a beautiful WPA-style terminal and administration building with an observation deck where you could watch the planes take off and land. And it was a regular stop for the pioneers of aviation as they traveled to other places. Names of fallen flyers like Earhart and Post are memorialized by some of the access roads within the airport fences.

Needless to say, the airport's gotten a lot bigger over the years, and virtually all of the vestiges of its early glory have been obscured. Unless you know where to look, that is. Nestled in the north corner of the airport, not far from Route 1, that 1930's style terminal still stands, having been moved from its original spot and restored to most of its former glory. It now houses the Port Authority Police and some other security, but interestingly enough, it's still open to visitation. Step inside, and marvel at the art deco style architecture and trim that brings the early age of passenger flight to life. You can very easily imagine checking in for your flight and then walking directly outside to the moveable stairs to your airplane.

And, there's more. Years ago, as my plane taxied to its gate at Terminal A, I gazed down at the tarmac to see the word LINDY in bold yellow letters outlined in black. Charles Lindbergh had taken off and landed at Newark many times, so I assumed that history-minded airport workers had painted his name on the pavement. For whatever reason, perhaps the tradition still persists. In airport parlance, these markers are known as hard stops.

What I never noticed was the other tribute. If you take a close look at this photo, pulling the image up so you can see what's beyond the bottom edge of the original frame, you'll see two lighter strips of pavement, with planes parked on them. On the right one, you'll see "LINDY," clear as day; another is obscured by the plane parked above it. On the left, you'll see the name "AMELIA" painted twice, for Amelia Earhart. While her aviation skills are still in dispute, it's pretty neat to think that someone's keeping the faith.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Roebling aqueduct - finding New Jersey on the Upper Delaware River

Sometimes Hidden New Jersey spots jump out at us serendipitously, a phenomenon which seems to happen more often out of state. That was the case on an unplanned recent visit to the Upper Delaware River in New York State.

First, though, a little background, starting when I was writing the blog entry on Trenton's Riverview Cemetery. In researching the Roebling family members whose graves we visited, I discovered that one of John Roebling's early spans was an aqueduct crossing the Delaware between New York and Pennsylvania. I didn't read much about it, but the photo looked cool, and I told Ivan we should visit. Not surprisingly (because we'd already grown accustomed to such coincidences), he'd already come upon it in his travels. In fact, he'd discovered it after having his own bit of serendipity: the nearby Minisink Ford hosted a battleground where a commissioned Mohawk named Joseph Brant had led British troops against local colonists in 1779. Ivan had seen the name at another distant stop on his trip, no doubt remembering the name because it's, well, a species of goose. Making stops in two obscure places and seeing the same name? What are the chances?

I'd totally forgotten about the bridge when we got to the area, and thought it would be fun to check out the battlefield, which we did. Taking another road from the site than the one we used to get there, we found ourselves squarely across from the Roebling bridge. This was too good to be true! We had to stop.

What's now a one-lane river crossing was once an active aqueduct for the Delaware and Hudson Canal. Current day pedestrian walkways were once tow paths for the mules who pulled barges along the waterway, making for an interesting stroll across the broad river.

It's kind of funny to think of there being a water bridge across a body of water, but when you look at the history, it makes sense. The canal had to cross the New York/Pennsylvania border, and originally the barges would traverse the river to get to the dug canal on the other side. Problem was, loggers upstream would use the river to transport wood downstream, making collisions almost inevitable. Someone had to yield, and it ended up being the canal traffic.

Enter John Roebling, engineer and wire cable manufacturer. From 1847 to 1851, long before becoming famous for building the Brooklyn Bridge, he built four suspension aqueducts along the canal. The one we visited was the last remaining, and also the oldest wire cable bridge in the United States. He did good work, too. According to the NPS website, nearly all of the bridge's ironwork, from cables to suspenders, are the same materials installed upon the structure's construction. The cables - spun on site under Roebling's direction - were tested in 1983 and found to be still viable. Now, that's craftsmanship!

For a time after the D&H was abandoned, the bridge operated as a private toll road, serving in that capacity until 1979. After many years of disrepair, the National Park Service bought and restored the aqueduct and toll house in 1986. Visitors can enjoy a few interpretive exhibits in the New York-side house, and even drive across the bridge's active roadway.

We decided it would be more fun to stroll the towpath from New York to Pennsy and back again, taking the chance to do a spot of birding. While it was an overcast day, the scenery was beautiful, and we even saw a young bald eagle in the distant sky.

Having found New Jersey striding across the far reaches of the Delaware, I can't help but realize that the water that flowed under the bridge deck beneath our feet eventually glided past Roebling's grave in Riverside Cemetery in Trenton. Hopefully he's resting well, knowing that his works continue to serve the traveling public, over 150 years later.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking on the wild side at Duke Farms

Having run a quick errand and grabbed lunch after the Deserted Village, we weren't quite sure what to do. We were in Somerset County... why not check out Duke Farms in Hillsborough?

For many years, Duke Farms was off limits to the masses, as one of the largest privately-owned tracts of land in New Jersey. It was the home of James Buchanan Duke, the entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded the American Tobacco Company and Duke Power, and endowed Duke University. You may know him as the father of the eccentric heiress Doris Duke. In any case, he started buying Somerset County land in 1893, ultimately amassing over 2700 acres for his estate and a fully functional farm like the one he grew up on in North Carolina. While the land is naturally much flatter than that of his southern home, he hired several landscape architects and engineers to transform his New Jersey property into a paradise of lakes, fountains, statues and scenic roadways. He even built a small-scale railroad to trolley visitors about.

Upon JB's death, the land transferred to his only child, Doris, along with properties in Rhode Island and Hawaii. An appreciator of nature herself, she pretty much maintained the property, and after she died it became the property of her charitable foundation. For a time, visitors could take tours of the Duke home, but today the foundation is working to repurpose the property as a nature sanctuary and learning lab of sorts, with assistance from New Jersey Audubon and other organizations.

Ivan and I visited on a day when the only public program was the self-guided nature tour called Walk on the Wild Side. Driving through the gates to the elegant visitor center, we were welcomed with a laminated map of the open grounds and trails. The docent we spoke with told us that over 200 bird species had been spotted on the property, including more than 130 that chose to breed there. We were asked to make sure to carefully close any of the deer gates we passed through on the trail, to help preserve the understory of the forested areas of the property.

The 1.25 mile trail winds through woods, along a tree-lined allee, and even through the stone walls of an old, roofless hay barn that's been converted to a classical statuary. We also strolled through a research tract being studied by teams from Rutgers and NYU; there were still remnants of old greenhouse structures, making the place look somewhat abandoned, perhaps the signs of a departed civilization, if you have a bit of an imagination.

We heard plenty of birds around and about, even though we visited in the midday quiet period. There's a nesting pair of eagles somewhere on the property, away from the public trail. Hard core birders can sign up for occasional NJ Audubon tours to get into the non-public portions of the farm.

All in all, Duke Farms has real potential as a destination for any nature-focused New Jerseyan: an easy trail for newbies, plus opportunities to learn more from a growing list of workshops for birders, gardeners and the curious. I hope that eventually they reopen the house to tours, too, but I'll be perfectly happy if they continue to keep this tract of land safe from developers, educating people about the need to preserve land in the most densely populated state in the nation.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Deserted Village - neither deserted nor a village. Discuss.

After our previous birding jaunt to Watchung Reservation, I knew I had to bring Ivan back to check out one of Union County's most interesting historic destinations, the Deserted Village. Fate seemed to intervene when one of his birding sources noted some interesting sightings in that part of the park.

Hard by the sound barrier erected when Interstate 78 was built through the northern edge of the reservation, the Deserted Village retains a very remote, removed feeling, nonetheless. It's hard to believe that the site was once a bustling factory town and, later, a chic resort for city folk.

Visitors today are treated to the sight of about ten whitewashed cottages in various states of disrepair, only a few of them actually occupied. There's also a fully-restored community building as well as a barn that's in the process of being rehabilitated into classroom space. And if you know where to look, you can find a small graveyard that holds the remains of the Badgeley and Willcocks families who were the original white settlers here in the 1700s. Peter Willcocks, in fact, constructed a sawmill and cleared a great deal of the area along the tract's Blue Brook, a sight hard to conceive when you look at the well-forested area.

Following the Willcocks' departure, New York businessman David Felt bought hundreds of acres of land around the brook to build a stationery and printing mill. To staff his enterprise, he hired over a hundred people, whom he housed, with their families, in a community of small homes clustered on the bluff above the brook. At one point, over 175 people lived in the town, as many as four families to a house. Felt ran the town with firm rules, requiring all residents to attend church services and to send their children to the one-room school. According to legend, his employees held him in high regard, despite his strictness, lovingly calling him "King David."

Upon Felt's retirement in 1850, several other businesses attempted to run operations at the site but were unsuccessful until Warren Ackerman bought the property in 1882. Capitalizing on the property's idyllic and rustic setting, he converted the former factory setting to Glenside Park, a summer resort. Renovating the houses, he added attractive porches and turned duplexes to single family structures any prosperous businessman and his family would enjoy. Ackerman also built a barn in which visitors and residents could house their horses and carriages, and, later, their cars.

The Glenside Park era lasted no longer than Felt's kingdom, however, as the Jersey Shore became the next great attraction for summer excursions. Finally, the property came under the aegis of the Union County Park System in the early 1920's, where it continues to be managed today. Many of the houses were once rented out, and reportedly the village was fully occupied as recently as 1985. Today, though, only three are in use as residences, with the rest in rapid decay.

The county has done some work from time to time to stabilize the unoccupied houses, but it seems to be of little good now, as roofs sag, porches disintegrate and windows crack and break. Reportedly, in the 1920s a Mexican muralist painted scenes on the interior walls of one of the houses; one has to wonder if the integrity of the plaster walls still supports the artwork.

There's plenty of decent, leisurely hiking in the immediate area, as the Reservation's Sierra Trail (white blazes) winds through the community. Take the gravel path down to the ravine below, look up, and you'll get an interesting view of the backs of the houses situated at the edge of the eroding land above.

One can hope that at some point the vacant houses will be restored. For now, archaeology students occasionally do digs here, and the county holds events here in the fall on Four Centuries Weekend and to celebrate Halloween.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Aw, dam: driving Splitrock Reservoir

If you're like me, when someone offers a chance to drive across a dam, you don't pass it up. That's exactly what I thought over the weekend, when Ivan suggested we check out the Splitrock Resevoir Dam in Morris County. With totally improbable visions of the Hoover Dam in my mind, I gladly took direction over hill and dale on the slim Split Rock Road, woods encroaching on either side.

Right after the pavement on the road stopped, we ran into this sign (click to read, if you don't have microscopic vision):

Then, after a bit of bouncing around, we came upon this:

And then this:

Hoping to all that's holy that we wouldn't come upon a vehicle headed in the other direction, I continued along the rutted road and across a portion of Jersey City's Splitrock Reservoir.

We were lucky to run into no opposing traffic until we were off the dam and the road widened a touch. There's a pretty substantial parking lot for kayakers and canoers on the other side, but I'd wager that they all hit the road from the other side to detour the dam drive.

How was it that I hadn't yet heard of this place? Was it one of those "uh, a bunch of my friends got stoned and drove out to this scary place at midnight" kind of things I tend to ignore in Weird NJ? Or was it just one of those odd things you don't know if you don't live right next to it?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Finding the Ford Faesch house

Following our unexpected side trip to the Mount Hope Mines, Ivan and I were even more set on finding the Ford-Faesch House in Rockaway, the colonial-era home of the mine's developer, John Jacob Faesch. I'd already done a little research to discover that the house had other historical ties as well. It had been built by Colonel Jacob Ford, who also built the eponymously-named mansion in Morristown that General George Washington had made his headquarters for a time during the Revolutionary War. In fact, the two homes are somewhat similar in layout, but the Morristown estate is whitewashed while the Rockaway home retains its stone faced exterior.

Given that we had some trouble finding the house, it wasn't surprising that Ford had left the house in 1770 for his new and probably much more convenient digs in Morristown. (If you doubt that, consider how close it is to present day Interstate 287.) The Swiss-born Faesch, already known as ironmaster for the Ringwood Mine, was the first of what would eventually be a succession of mine owners and superintendents. He was also a well-regarded patriot, having supplied the Continental Army with munitions. In 1931, the house became a two-family home, remaining inhabited until 1973, when it was put on the New Jersey Register of Historic Sites.

All we knew to look for was an old stone house on Mount Hope Road, and as the pavement curved through suburbia and less populated areas, we began to wonder if somehow it might have disappeared. I'd found an outdated website about the house and hoped restoration was still in the cards, but in the absence of involvement of a major historical organization, you can never be too sure.

Then, the road revealed a broad opening in the wooded boughs and revealed a broad grassy hill topped by a stone house flying an American flag from its front door. The wayside marker revealed it to be... the Ford-Faesch House. Nowadays, it overlooks the entrance to a large quarry facility and a broad body of water. We pulled up and around the back of the house, expecting to find a small parking lot or even an indication of where to enter, only to find nothing. I pulled out and parked down the hill, concerned we'd driven somewhere we shouldn't have.

Returning to the house, we found that restoration appears to be ongoing: there are a few building permits posted on a back window, and a bare bulb lit inside the first floor. Other than that, though, there wasn't much evidence of human habitation. Wandering around the property, we found a large pile of logs configured much like the signal fires the Continental troops had constructed along the Watchungs to warn of enemy approach. It made me wonder if perhaps a historical society occasionally held programs there, but we couldn't find evidence of that, either. From my internet research, it appears that the Historical Society of the Rockaways is responsible for the restoration, upkeep and operation of the house.

Recalling what I'd read in the past about the house, I though there might also be an old, shuttered church nearby, also awaiting restoration. We walked further up the side street and eventually found it, sectioned off in a field across the street from the house and marked with NO TRESPASSING signs. It seemed a bit odd that the church was situated so that its side, rather than its entrance, was facing the street it was visible from. In fact, the entrance was facing an overgrown tract about the size of the house's lot, surrounded by a very well-constructed stone wall that was occasionally broken up by stairways leading into the brush.

A bit of research shows that this was the Mt. Hope Methodist Church, built in 1868. In addition to being a house of worship for both miners and the well-heeled, it also served as a school and, at times, as a hospital. Ultimately, the congregation dwindled to a few families and the building was left to deteriorate and suffer the indignity of vandalism. From what I can find online, it appears that the church was open for visitation as recently as three years ago, but it honestly doesn't look all that inviting now.

As for the tract in front of the church, our best guess is that it might have been the church's cemetery. We walked as far as we could (legally) around the property and couldn't get a clear view in to see any stones or monuments. One wonders who might be resting there.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Four thousand holes in Mount Hope...

If New Jersey was the crossroads of the Revolutionary War (or the cockpit, as others have said), Morris County was the arsenal. It was no coincidence that Washington spent a fair amount of his time here: the hills were full of iron which were used to make guns and ammunition, making the area well worthy of defending.

Ivan and I braved the mosquitoes on Memorial Day to check out the Mount Hope mining area in Rockaway. I'd remembered that several years ago, a developer wanted to build a pumped storage hydro power plant in the area, capitalizing on the long shafts of a huge iron mine that had been tapped out and abandoned many years ago. Essentially, pumped storage uses two reservoir areas, one higher than the other, and connected by shafts with turbines in them. Power is created when water is released from the upper reservoir into the shafts, turning the turbines as the water flows downward. Gravity does the work. As part of the plan, the company was to restore several historic buildings, including a Revolutionary-era house and church.

Move ahead several years, and the project has yet to move forward. Approvals from several agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, were needed to enable the hydro plant to connect to the electricity grid to contribute power, and, well, you know how that kind of thing goes.

I had an address for the house on Mount Hope Road, but barely an idea of what to look for. When we saw signs for the Mount Hope Historical Park, we thought we'd found it, but instead we'd found a new adventure: a series of paths leading to a string of smallish but often deep mine holes.

After parking the car, we were on our trek into the woods. Appropriate to the humidity of the day, we ran into tons of mosquitoes along the rocky path. It didn't take long for us to find the first mine pits, also known as subsidence pits that once led to mines developed by John Jacob Faesch just before the Revolutionary war. The property had been mined for about 50 years before he'd come to it, but he's considered to be the first true developer of large-scale iron mining in the Mount Hope area. The trail map showed we weren't far from the Picatinny Arsenal run by the U.S. Government.

You can still see evidence of the stone paths that were probably used to cart the iron ore out of the mine area,  and there's some sign of a few building foundations well into the woods. That said, it's still hard to believe that the tract was mined until the late 1950's. It's amazing how quickly nature will reclaim land that man leaves fallow. While we were there, Ivan heard a host of songbirds and even spotted a neat little reddish-orange Eastern Newt eft dashing through the underbrush of leaves.

And as for the house and church, they clearly weren't to be found on this stop, at least not unless we wanted to take along walk along the power line cut. Onward...