Thursday, June 27, 2013

Drawing the line in Rockleigh

I love a good border dispute, and New Jersey has had its share. The most recent reached the U.S. Supreme Court, when New Jersey won bragging rights to a portion of Ellis Island in 1998. A hundred and thirty years earlier, the state of New York basically appropriated a tract of oyster bed on our side of Raritan Bay and gave it to the federal government for the construction of Great Beds Lighthouse.

Then there's Rockleigh, the tiny Bergen County village. It's so close to the border that some might think it's actually in New York, and for a time many years ago, it was.

Where the Ellis Island and Great Beds issues might be perceived by Jerseyphiles as yet another example of our larger neighbor throwing its weight around, the Rockleigh story is based in bad mapping. We're talking about the 1600s here, an age where surveying equipment left a lot to be desired.

When the Duke of York issued the charter for New Jersey in 1664, he was working with bad information. He declared the boundary with New York to start at latitude 41 degrees, 40 feet to the west and conclude where a southern branch of the Delaware River fed into the Hudson River. You can see the problem: nowhere do the two rivers meet.

Though settlers faced a degree of uncertainty when they applied for land patents, they came, nonetheless. London physician George Lockhart seems to have taken the safe route in his approach to owning land in the area. Having received a patent of 3800 acres from the East Jersey Proprietors in 1685, he sought further confirmation of his ownership from the Province of New York when that government claimed the tract within its jurisdiction. The guy really covered his bases, even though he never settled the land, himself.

It wasn't until 1769 that the current boundary line was settled by royal commission, frustrating both colonies. New York had wanted the land as far south as Closter, and New Jersey had claimed additional land up to Haverstraw in Rockland County.

Either way, Rockleigh's status was settled: it was in New Jersey to stay, first as part of now-dissolved Harrington Township and eventually as part of Northvale. As was once the fashion among certain communities in the state, residents seceded in 1923 over a dispute with the larger township (this one over water lines) and formed their own borough.

The community proudly preserves its historical district, which includes several 18th and 19th century homes, many of Dutch architecture. In all, Rockleigh's population is just over 500, living in fewer than 70 homes, each standing on at least two acres of land. It seems that the town has remained true to the description it provided to the National Register of Historic Places: "represent[ing] a way of life which appears to have disappeared from the New Jersey culture: an area settled by a small number of families, enlarged by family intermarriages and an occasional local settlers and stabilized by the mid-19th century."


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