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.