Sunday, September 29, 2013

A soft landing and a majestic tree behind the Deptford Walmart

If you've driven through Deptford, you've probably noticed the balloons. Not that the place looks like a birthday party, but the welcome signs and even the town's water tower are bedecked with illustrations of hot air balloons. The colorful decor isn't just a cheerful way of reminding you where you are. It's a reference to the first manned air flight in the United States, which concluded in an out-of-the-way spot along Big Timber Creek.

Put the two together and you've got the basis of the story: the first time any human flew in America was in a hot air balloon, and it landed in Deptford.

Here's the story: a French balloonist named Jean Pierre Blanchard had been touring Europe, demonstrating hydrogen gas balloon flights, when he decided to bring the technology to the United States. On January 9, 1793, he lifted off from the yard of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail with the goal of crossing the Delaware into New Jersey. Among the spectators at his departure were President George Washington, Vice President John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Less than an hour later, Blanchard and his balloon landed on the banks of Big Walnut Creek. Some contend that the voyage inadvertently carried the nation's first airmail, too. Before he left Philadelphia, Blanchard secured a letter of introduction from President Washington, for use in the event the balloon's descent caused any problems with angry or suspicious property owners.

I've known the story for quite some time, but the actual landing spot eluded me until recently, when Triton Regional High School students Katie Field and Stephanie Espinal clued me in.

"You know where the Walmart is?" they asked me. Oh, boy. This is even better than the time the guy at the Greenwood Lake Airport sent me to the West Milford A&P to find the story of the first rocket-propelled air mail delivery. With their instructions in hand, I made my way down Clements Bridge Road to what looks like a brand-spanking new Super Walmart.

Rather than parking up front, I followed the truck route toward the back of the building, where the shipping docks are. The students had told me that there's a commemorative marker beyond the perimeter fence, and that there's a trail that brings you right to the site. No need to track through brush and brambles -- it's totally visible from behind a cinderblock wall.

I saw no sign of the marker as I slowly drove the perimeter of the lot, so I pulled over and explored on foot. Just as I'd been told, the trail starts behind a wall, and there's an opening in the fencing to allow you in. What I found was a marker placed on the 200th anniversary of Blanchard's flight, a boulder that appears to have once held a commemorative plaque, and big old oak tree.

I figured that the missing boulder plaque had told the balloon story, but research proved me wrong. The tree, as it turns out, is notable in its own right. Known as the Clement Oak for the family who once owned the land, it's said to have been a landmark to the Lenape before the arrival of the Europeans.

Like the Salem Oak farther south, the 400+ year old Clement Oak reportedly sheltered natives and white men as they negotiated terms of settlement. It also served as a reference point on early land surveys, leading historians to believe that it was held in regard even in the earliest days of European settlement. The Gloucester County Historical Society honored the white oak during the state Tercentenary celebration in 1964, lauding it as a symbol of New Jersey's continuous growth. Today, it's estimated to be 18 feet tall, with a trunk girth of more than 19 feet and an overall spread of more than 100 feet. To my eyes, it appears quite healthy, maybe even healthier than its cousin in Salem.

Who knew you could find so much behind a big box store?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ten speeds to legend: the Tour of Somerville

We've found some interesting roadside historical markers, but this was a new one: a bicycle behind glass. It's the centerpiece of a pocket park on West End Avenue in downtown Somerville.

From a distance, it looks like a display case containing a modern racing bike, and you'd be excused for assuming it's a promotional exhibit for an enterprising cycle shop. When you get closer, though, you see that it's seen better days.

We'd found the wheels belonging to Furman Frederick Kugler, the first winner of the nation's oldest cycling race, the Tour of Somerville. Held every Memorial Day in downtown Somerville, the 50 mile event is among the most prestigious of such contests and draws professional and amateur cyclists from around the world. Some even call it the Kentucky Derby of cycling.

According to legend, Kugler wasn't just the first winner of the Tour, he was the inspiration for its creation. His father Fred, also an accomplished cyclist, owned the bicycle shop in town and coached both Furman and his sister Mildred to prominence on the junior racing circuit. When Furman expressed weariness at the travel required to reach far-flung races, "Pop" Kugler decided to start a race in their hometown of Somerville. He mapped out a 1.2 mile oval track using portions of West Main Street, Mountain Ave, West High Street and Grove Street.

Local merchants supported the cause with donations of prizes for the winners, which surprisingly caused an issue for Pop's proposed track. West Main Street runs along a portion of State Route 28, and New Jersey road regulations forbid racing on highways. By calling the event a "tour," as suggested by a sympathetic Department of Transportation official, Pop could move forward with his plans while still staying within the boundaries of the law.

Furman had already won the Junior and National Junior Championships when the first Tour of Somerville was held on Memorial Day 1940. Victorious in the initial running, he returned the following year to set a national record of 2 hours, 5 minutes, 7 seconds in capturing the 1941 trophy.

Unfortunately, those would be the only local victories for the hometown hero. With America's entry into World War II, Furman joined the Navy and was killed in an accident onboard the USS Wichita off the Ryukyu Islands, Japan. His friend and 1942 Tour winner Carl Anderson also died in service during the war, prompting organizers to rename the race the "Kugler-Anderson Memorial" in their honor.

More than 70 years after its first running, the Tour of Somerville continues to draw cycling talent from around the world, cheered on by thousands of spectators who line the race route. Much like the Indianapolis 500 is for its hometown, the Tour is a Memorial Day staple that all of Somerville looks forward to. It's become an event for cycling fans and non-fans alike, with additional road races and plenty of activities for the whole family.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Another unexpected resting place: the Crawfords at exit 116

We run into a lot of obscure graveyards... many of them being attached to a particular institution (like the recent Sussex County Alms House cemetery) or perhaps an old family plot in a former farm turned something else (like the Willcox family plot in Watchung Reservation).

But it's decidedly unusual to find a cemetery next to a memorial that has nothing to do with anyone buried there. That's the case with the Crawford family cemetery located next to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel. A relatively small plot of land, the graveyard is elevated and encircled by a metal fence.

According to a sign on the fence, the cemetery was part of a 1219 acre lot that was originally granted to Captain John Bowne in 1687 by England's King James II. The land came into the Crawford family after Bowne's great granddaughter married William Crawford in 1756. And as many families once did, they buried their dead in a designated plot on their property, selecting a site on a gently rolling hillside. It was later described as being "one half mile east of Crawford Corners... about a half mile from the road to Everett and surrounded by woods, making it difficult to find."

The tract stayed in the Crawford family until the early 1950s, when descendants sold it to the state for the construction of the Garden State Parkway and Garden State Arts Center. As a condition of the sale, the cemetery land remained in Crawford hands, sectioned off with a rusty chain link fence from an unused part of what was then Highway Authority property. Its last burial occurred in 1923, and the graveyard appeared to remain unknown to the hundreds of thousands of people who attended concerts and events at the venue every year.

Things began to change in 1986, when New Jersey luminaries sought a site for the state's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Holmdel hillside was deemed to be the perfect location, winning over locations in Trenton and Jersey City's Liberty State Park. While the cemetery was protected via the agreement with the Crawfords, it became clear that it would need a slight makeover to befit the stature of its new neighbor. As the site was cleared for construction, the cemetery was sectioned off with a new fence and brick wall while overgrown brush was removed in favor of well-manicured grass.

The cemetery now stands three or four feet higher than the walkway that leads to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and a sign on the fence tells the story of how the property came to the Bowne and Crawford families. Those who visit with the intent of honoring soldiers also have the chance to get an unexpected history lesson about one of the longest-lasting bloodlines in the state. If that's not hidden New Jersey, I don't know what is.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Contemplating tumult in American history: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Era Educational Center

If you've driven past the Garden State Arts Center, you've most likely missed a huge opportunity to learn more about one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. You'll see small signs pointing toward the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but the markers do very little to alert passers-by about the impact of the place they could choose to visit.

Admittedly, I was one of those people until fairly recently. Having visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., I expected the New Jersey version to be similar, just smaller. However, what I found was much more: both a memorial and a museum that explains the Vietnam War and its lasting impact on American society.

Located steps away from the memorial, the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center is the country's only such facility, and when you think about it, it's something that's sorely needed. With the passage of time, the war and its impact have evolved from political hot buttons to subjects in history classes, and the brothers and sons who served and survived have aged to become grandfathers and uncles. Thankfully, veterans are treated with greater respect now, but it's still important that people continue to understand the complexity of war and the range of challenges it poses to the nation and society.

The museum's layout is simple yet effective. The main exhibit area is a large, circular room, ringed with a timeline that explains the history of Vietnam, crucial events during the war, U.S. involvement, and what was going on 'back home,' from popular culture to protest. An inner ring brings the story from history to personal experience: actual letters from soldiers and loved ones often poignantly reveal the pain of separation and the alternately mundane and terrifying aspects of war. Scattered among the letters are service medals, childrens' drawings and a shockingly pragmatic telegram notifying family of a soldier's death and the shipping process for his remains.

The center of the room has the potential to make the biggest impact on visitors. It's the testimony theater, where speakers share the impact the Vietnam War had on their lives. Whether a veteran, a war protester, or perhaps the family member of a soldier who died in the war, each offers intensely personal perspectives on abstract concepts of loss, experience or opposition.

Unfortunately, no testimonies were scheduled for the day of my visit, but I was fortunate to get a tour of the outdoor memorial from volunteer guide Dan O'Leary. While the memorial is open 24 hours a day, it's well worth going when the museum is open and Dan or one of his fellow veterans can share their own wartime experiences.

Designed by Vietnam refugee and naturalized American citizen Hien Nguyen, the memorial is rich in symbolism. As we walked toward the memorial, Dan explained that the lighting fixtures along the path were spaced at the same intervals as soldiers walked when they moved through the jungle. By allowing several steps distance in front and behind, they'd avoid mass casualties if the lead soldier set off a booby trap by disturbing a trip wire strung across the path.

Visitors enter the memorial itself through one of two concrete tunnels shaped like bunkers, representing the transition from home, or 'the world,' to 'in country' (the theater of war in Vietnam). Once inside, you're at the lowest part of a large bowl carved into the terrain, with the state tree, a red oak, in the center. A dramatic sculpture stands nearby, featuring a nine-foot tall statue of a soldier standing over another of a nurse who's tending to an injured GI. Each is a different ethnicity, reflecting the backgrounds of the Americans who served in the war. Two ramps leading upward toward the surrounding walls are meant to represent DNA, the strands of life.

The New Jersey memorial lists 1562 state residents by the day of the year on which he (or in one case, she) was killed or listed as missing in action during the war. Of the 366 panels that circle the inside of the memorial, only a few are blank, leading me to think about the randomness of death during wartime. During a war in which U.S. involvement was so lengthy, why were some days 'lucky' while others were not? And being able to see dates of loss gives visitors a chance to make a personal connection even if they didn't know anyone who was killed in the war or who lost a loved one there. On a birth date, or a wedding anniversary, while you were celebrating, had someone else made the ultimate sacrifice?

On the walk from the museum to the memorial, Dan pointed out other poignant features of the grounds, too. An inviting, shaded meditation garden is dedicated to all women veterans of the Vietnam War and offers a quiet place to contemplate. Another area features a statue memorializing dogs who serve with the troops in all wars, past, present and future.

More than 9000 students visit the memorial and museum every year to learn more about the Vietnam era, and if their experience is anything like mine, they come out enriched from the experience. Even if you're old enough to remember the war and the tumult of protest in the U.S., it's well worth getting off the Parkway and spending an hour to learn more and contemplate the sacrifice of our fellow New Jerseyans.

Monday, September 16, 2013

In Fort Lee, naturally: groundbreaking filmmaker Alice Guy Blache

Quick! Who was the first woman film producer?

Back in April we learned about Fort Lee's hidden but critically important contributions to the development of the motion picture industry. It shouldn't be a surprise that the world's first female film producer - indeed the first to own a studio - lived and worked right here in New Jersey. In fact, she'll be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in October.

Her name is Alice Guy Blache, and though she only spent about 20 years of her long life in the United States, her impact on American cinema was both profound and lasting. Her boosters in Fort Lee call her a "reel Jersey girl."

Born in France in 1873, Guy entered the early filmmaking industry as a secretary for Leon Gaumont, an inventor who initially was in the business of manufacturing and selling motion picture equipment. To demonstrate his products, Gaumont opened a studio in Paris, producing brief films that were later shown in penny arcades. At the time, that's basically what movies were: "shorts" of a minute or less that showed slices of life like street scenes or athletic feats.

The 23 year old Guy saw other possibilities and reportedly asked Gaumont if she could use the equipment for a project. Starting with La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), she was soon turning out movies with scripted plots, becoming the first producer to capitalize on filmmaking technology to tell a story. Using new Gaumont technologies in 1905 and 1906, she even experimented with adding sound to her productions.

Guy married cameraman and coworker Herbert Blache, and the pair came to the United States in 1907 to promote their employer's talking film system. The producing bug, however, still stirred inside her. Finding no opportunity to continue directing films for Gaumont in the U.S., she and Herbert formed Solax, their own production company, in 1910. Working first out of Gaumont's Flushing studio, Guy soon found the facilities inadequate for her purposes. It was clearly time to move, and what better place than Fort Lee, the established film capital of the world? Since Herbert couldn't get out of his contract with Gaumont, the couple agreed that he'd stay at his job while Alice managed the construction and operation of the Fort Lee studio.

The couple purchased land on Lemoine Avenue in 1911 and a year later celebrated the completion of a $100,000 state-of-the-art studio. Designed for maximum efficiency and productivity, the brick and steel structure was four stories tall, with a film studio large enough to accommodate five stage settings at a time. Glass roof panels let natural sunlight in for more intimate outdoor scenes, while a large outdoor lot was landscaped for larger group settings.

At the studio, Guy wrote, directed and produced over 700 films, often giving camera operators and technicians step by step instructions on how to achieve the effects she sought. To calm the nerves of stage-trained actors during their early experiences before a motion picture camera, she reminded them to "be natural," even posting a sign with those words above the studio stage.

Guy herself attracted industry attention for her achievements. One trade publication described her as "the presiding genius of the Solax Company... a remarkable personality, combining a true artistic temperament with executive ability and business acumen." Today, film scholars credit her with being the first to use film to address topics including immigration, relationships and homosexuality.

While her impact was profound, Guy was effectively out of the film business by the early 1920s. Illness kept her from working for several years after 1918, during which the Solax studios were rented to other production companies. She and Herbert divorced in 1922, diminshing her influence in an industry which was becoming increasingly more and more bureaucratic and focused on commercial success.

The studios themselves were making the transition from the East Coast to the sunnier, more temperate climes of Southern California, but Guy chose to return to France with her two children to cast her fortunes there. Still recovering from the devastation of World War I, her native country was anything but a fertile environment in which to rebuild a film career, and Guy settled for a career novelizing film scripts and delivering lectures. Long overlooked for her achievements, it wasn't until 1953 that she received official French recognition with the Legion of Honor. Even her former employer, Leon Gaument, neglected to mention her contributions to his business in his own memoirs.

Alice Guy returned to New Jersey in 1964 to be closer to her children, who'd returned to the United States in adulthood. Nearly 95 years old at her death in 1968, she's buried at Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah. Thanks to the Fort Lee Film Commission, her gravestone now credits her as a film pioneer. The Solax studio building is long gone, with an A&P supermarket now standing in its place, but an informative historic marker invites shoppers to consider the history that was made where they now shop for produce and canned goods.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Finding the forgotten: the Sussex County welfare cemetery

It couldn't have been any more poetic. As we drove through Frankford to our recent speaking engagement at the Sussex County Library, we found hidden history we didn't expect. Across County Road 655 and a few hundred feet up was a wooden gate with a large sign that denoted the Sussex County Welfare Home Cemetery. A field just beyond was hilly and covered mostly in tall grass, though one section appeared to be a bit better kept.

Having already stumbled on the largely unmarked Warren County poorhouse cemetery, we were glad to see that at the very least, Sussex had seen fit to make the presence of its potters field clear to passers-by. Also unlike its counterpart in Pequest, this graveyard was in proximity to the almshouse where the buried once lived. The large old white building has been converted to government offices, but those familiar with poorhouse architecture can easily determine its previous use.

Finding grave markers in the Sussex cemetery was as difficult as it was in Pequest, but for another reason. Rather than laying stones with name and date of death atop the surface above each grave, the Sussex authorities used simple numbered stone stakes. Perhaps it was less expensive that way -- markers could be ordered in bulk and engraving costs were much lower than they would have been had the names been inscribed. Or maybe it just didn't occur to management that someone might someday want to pay respects to a loved one. Traditionally, people end up in almshouses because they have no other options, no loved ones or friends to turn to, or perhaps they've alienated everyone who can help them. Many Sussex Alms House residents were probably as forgotten in life as they are now, in death.

We did find that one of the graves was decorated with two U.S. flags and a marker denoting the deceased as a World War veteran. Obviously, someone knew who was buried there and regarded him enough to have the designation placed. Other visitors, unfortunately, would have to do some investigative work. The county must have a list that matches grave number to the buried person's name, but the veteran's marker -- and those around it -- was too weathered to yield even that small bit of information.

The unnamed veteran, however, made out a bit better than many who died at the alms house before him. Turns out that the history behind the internment of the deceased is a little more involved than we anticipated. According to The Sussex County Alms House by Phyllis and John Stanaback, another cemetery "attached to the Institution" received unclaimed bodies of the indigent dead in unmarked graves from 1833 until 1900. The cemetery we'd found was opened in 1900 with the burial of Charles Bird under the stone marked 1. At least 140 graves are documented, though some have estimated that there may have been as many as 300 people buried there by the time the cemetery closed in 1955.

Judging by the state of the markers we were able to discern in the field, it's easy to accept that there are more hiding in the grass beyond the three or four visible rows. Perhaps a careful scything of the tall growth will yield signs of more graves. What's most unfortunate is that somewhere in the area is a field where the earlier deceased lie, unmarked and unremembered. Finding them sounds like a good project for an enterprising student of history.

Many thanks to Sussex County Senior Librarian Michelle Aluotto for her assistance in uncovering the history of the cemetery!

Monday, September 9, 2013

History revised, Cornwallis redirected: Closter Landing and the times that try mens' souls

After a visit to the State Line Lookout hawkwatch in Palisades Interstate Park, we took an exploratory drive literally down the cliff to Alpine Landing. Once known as Closter Landing or Closter Dock, this sea-level portion of the park offers easy access to the Hudson River and once served as a terminal point for ferries traversing between New Jersey and New York. It also provides an interesting lesson in the ways history can become distorted or revised, based on faulty information or the passage of time.

Mistakes were made...
According to an old historic marker at the base of the Palisades, the British took advantage of this favorable landing spot on November 18, 1776, starting the chain of events which resulted in the evacuation of Fort Lee (the military installation, not the town) and Washington's retreat across New Jersey into Pennsylvania. You might recall that we covered this unhappy turn of events after our visit to New Bridge Landing last year. Once across the Hudson, the troops were said to have taken a stone paved road up the embankment, then turning south to reach Fort Lee. What's more, their commander, General Lord Cornwallis, is said to have appropriated a nearby house and tavern for his headquarters. Some even said that the tavern's owner, Rachel Kearney, served beverages to Cornwallis as he plotted his troops' next moves.

The house and the road are still there, but the story is off by a distance and a few days. As a much newer, adjacent waymarking sign states, the actual date was November 20, and scholarship now proves that Cornwallis' troops landed at a place known as Huyler's Landing about a mile to the south. The timing error, it seems, may have been due to some hasty record-keeping by a British officer. In any case, the nearby road was no doubt used by generations of travelers and locals who plied the river, but it most likely was not trod by invading Redcoats.

The Kearney House, awaiting post-Sandy restoration.
It's doubtful that the house's history includes a general's stay, and Mrs. Kearney wasn't born until 1780, four years after the British crossed the Hudson that November. She and her second husband, James Kearney, didn't move into the home until 1817. Still, historians have it on fairly reliable word that Rachel converted the family home to a tavern after James' death in 1831, eventually building an addition to accommodate more business and lodgers. It was a savvy move, as the site was landing point for many river travelers and even hosted a steam-powered oat and coffee mill starting in the 1860s. The tavern kept rivermen fed and in good spirits until it was purchased by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission in 1907 as part of a larger plan to preserve the Palisades and build a public recreation area.

Today, the Kearney house stands as a reminder of habitation and industry at Alpine Landing, though it currently wears the evidence of 21st century intervention. The small white wood and stone structure was inundated by floodwaters during Hurricane Sandy, and plywood covers the lower windows as well as a large hole in a lower wall. Restoration is underway, based on the meticulous documentation the Commission has done of the building over the past century. Fortunately, the park and volunteers anticipated the potential for flooding and moved many artifacts to the upper floors before the storm, though other pieces were later retrieved from various spots on the landing where the storm had deposited them.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Nearly running the gauntlet in Oxford

In our travels, we've sometimes been fortunate to find hidden history in pairs, like the Warren County Alms House and its cemetery, separated by a few miles. Other times, we don't find the proximity until we're knee-deep in research, miles away from what was once so close it's surprising we hadn't tripped on it.

We found ourselves roaming the back roads of Warren County again recently, and made a quick stop in Oxford, the site of a historic iron furnace and its' founder's home, Shippen Manor. When you set off on a wandering mission, you always take the chance that a historic home or museum won't be open, and that always seems to be the case when I happen to be in the greater Oxford-politan area. Nonetheless, because Ivan hadn't been there before, I pulled onto the property and slowly drove the road that traverses behind the manor and wraps around the front.

Good thing I did, too, because we discovered something I hadn't noticed on my other visits. Embedded in the stone retaining wall between the home and the drive was this:

The Warren Railroad was a new one on me, but I wasn't surprised to discover that there had been yet another company operating what I assumed was freight transport in the area. After all, Oxford Furnace was just down the hill, and Warren County's own John Blair was the nation's most active builder of railroads in the 19th century.

Back at Hidden New Jersey headquarters, I did some digging to find out where this plaque originally sat and why it was at Shippen Manor. And once again, I discovered that we'd been very close to more of the story without realizing it. The plaque had capped the top of the western portal of a now-abandoned tunnel built by an ambitious railroad executive.

Railroad history in New Jersey is long and convoluted, to the point where it would probably make for a good miniseries for someone who had the patience to work through it all. For the purpose of the Oxford story, it's only really necessary to know that the Warren Railroad was chartered in 1851 to connect the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western's terminal point on the Delaware with the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Hampton station. The goal: to further connect the coal mines of Pennsylvania with markets in New York City. The fact that the Oxford Furnace was nearby probably didn't hurt, either.

Construction began in 1854, and it was an ambitious task, pitting mid-19th century technology against the very stubborn gneiss rock of northwestern New Jersey. Most frustrating, it seems, was Oxford Mountain (now known as Scott's Mountain) at Van Nest Gap, where the path of the railroad called for a 3002-foot long tunnel to avoid laying track at a steep incline with difficult curves. In the words of the New York Times account of the tunnel construction, "The rock is of a syenitic formation, and during the progress of the job almost every form of underground operations proved necessary. From the hard, seamless rock, offering the most stubborn resistance to construction, every degree of formation was encountered, to quicksand, with an unusual quantity of water."

Understanding that the tunnel would take some time to build, Blair's engineers devised an alternate path around the mountain, enabling the railroad to commence operations in 1856. In fact, my research reveals that without realizing it, Ivan and I had driven along the interim right-of-way when we passed behind Shippen Manor. He'd noticed that beyond the current driveway, the trees directly ahead -- ones that would have been in the road if it had continued on a straight path -- were younger than those to the side. We'd surmised that it might have been a carriage path, not considering the possibility of a railroad running so close to the house.

The Van Nest Gap tunnel opened to train traffic in 1862, paralleling present-day Route 31 and shortening the trip between Scranton and the Hudson River by six miles. While it originally had two tracks to simultaneously accommodate traffic in both directions, changes in railroad gauge and an increase in the size of rolling stock forced a change to gauntlet tracks in 1900. Basically, another set of closely overlapping tracks was built parallel to an existing set, with traffic headed eastward using one track and the westward another. (You can find a more technical description here.) This allowed larger trains to pass through the tunnel but also caused delays, as only one train could pass through the tunnel at a time.

Meanwhile, the Warren Railroad had come under the control of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western, which undertook yet another ambitious project to eliminate the Oxford bottleneck. The Lackawanna Cut-off reduced the length of the railroad's main line by another 11 miles and included the famed Paulinskill Viaduct, an impressive 110-foot high concrete bridge over the Paulinskill Valley. The Warren Railroad route was relegated to second-banana status, starting a decline from which it never recovered. By 1970, even the tracks were gone, leaving just memories, a partially flooded tunnel and a capstone that shares a hint of a story to the few people who might notice it behind a historic house.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wiped off the map: Montague's Brick House Village

Just a couple of days after visiting the Sussex County Library to share the story of the Cat Swamp hijacking and murder, we found ourselves pretty much as far north in the state as you can get. We were wandering around looking for the Deckertown Turnpike and the scene of Kilpatrick's Reenactment when we came upon the Milford-Montague Toll Bridge where 206 crosses the Delaware River.

Today, there's a somewhat awkward five point intersection where County Road 521 branches off from 206 and heads northward while the Deckertown Pike and Old Mine Road start and radiate outward. It all looks oddly sanitized and overly engineered, much different than most of the more natural-looking crossroads in Sussex County. Instead of the usual church, general store or gas station, there's just about nothing, save one of those wonderful county historical markers.

Brick House Hotel, Montague NJ Hidden NJ
The former site of the Brick House Hotel, near the Milford-
Montague Toll Bridge on Route 206.
We stopped to discover we'd found the site of the village of Brick House, once the commercial center of Montague. The WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey described the community as "scattered along the two-lane macadam highway with a few worn houses, a gas station before the old country store, and the old Brick House Hotel (open)."

The Hotel had indeed been old, even during the Great Depression. Built sometime between 1721 and 1780 along a former Indian trail, it had been a key stop on the Buffalo-Hoboken stagecoach route. Over the years, the brick, wood and stone structure was enlarged to include a barroom, sitting room, dance floor and nine sleeping rooms. A village grew around it, with sufficient commerce, a school and two churches to serve the local population, mostly farmers and their families.

The first strike against Brick House came in 1943 with a devastating fire that took the general store. Less than 10 years later, when Route 206 was realigned to meet the new Milford-Montague Bridge, the Brick House Hotel was taken by eminent domain, condemned and demolished.

The final and most lethal blow to the community was dealt in the early 1960s, with the introduction of plans for the Tocks Island Dam. Conceived to manage downstream flooding and generate hydroelectric power, the project was designed to create a 37-mile long recreational lake by flooding property surrounding the Delaware and designating thousands of acres of land as a park. Depending on which reports you read, the Federal government either declared eminent domain or strong-armed residents off their property, leaving virtual ghost towns to be torn down before the river was dammed and the area was flooded. Brick House sat within the borders of the proposed project, and its remaining buildings were either demolished or displaced.

Ultimately, a combination of factors stopped the project, which was deemed both geologically unwise and unfair to the families who'd lived there, in many cases for generations. The land, already out of the hands of its original owners, was transferred to the National Park Service in 1965, creating the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. However, it was already too late for Brick House village, whose crossroads location is commemorated now only by the blue historic marker and what might be considered a gravestone for the hotel that lent the community its name.