Friday, March 28, 2014

The Montana mystery of Warren County... part two

Our visit to the Belvidere cemetery last summer revealed a surprising discovery: the existence of a community in New Jersey called Montana. Coincidentally, in the same trip we found the monument for a Warren County soldier who'd died in Montana Territory, which only added to the confusion. My follow-up research led to more information on the soldier than the community, leaving me hungry for a trip to this absolutely obscure place.

The Encyclopedia of New Jersey puts Montana on Scott's Mountain in Harmony Township, Warren County, describing it as a Revolutionary-era refuge for Tories and a nesting place for bootleggers during Prohibition. Nothing in the encyclopedia entry provides insights on local people, institutions or commerce. I can usually count on the WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey for interesting tidbits on remote places, but the writers apparently didn't venture far enough off of State Highway S24 to get the flavor of the place.

My best option, I figured, was to keep my eyes open as I drove between Morris Canal ports. Maybe I'd find a directional sign for Montana on S24's successor, Route 57.

Some distance outside downtown Washington Township (the Warren County one, naturally), I found it: a sign pointing left for Asbury and right for Montana. Away we go, up Scott's Mountain on Millbrook Road. My quarry: a town center of some sort... if not a community hall, library or post office, maybe a cluster of homes. I hoped that even if most of the buildings were unoccupied, there would be some sign of a past population cluster.

Montana, New Jersey: wide open country.
I didn't find it. After driving past farm fields, woods and a number of widely-spaced homes along Millbrook Road, I reached its intersection with Montana Road. Well-tended acreage stood ready for seeding on my left, a sign denoting it as both preserved farmland and a grasslands in progress. A good-sized set of farm buildings and a house stood across the way, but I didn’t see anything even approximating a town center, past or present. No post office, no old general store.

The one thing I did find was a very small church, complete with a small graveyard. Very tidy and well-kept, the Montana United Methodist Church reminded me of a similar structure I once saw in a remote Hawaiian town, just a little bigger. Next door, a building with a modified bell tower is apparently now a house, though I’d put my money on it having been a school at one time. Neither building had very much room in the way of parking, leading me to wonder exactly how many people worship there. I’d guess that whoever does is well accustomed to walking to church. It just seems like that kind of place.

Yup, that's a two-way road.
Believing I'd seen all there is to see, I turned right from Montana Road onto Harmony-Brass Castle Road. A mile or two down, a wrong turn landed me on Halfway House Road. Fortunately I’d seen a sign for the road before I made the turn off the highway, so I was confident I'd make it back to Route 57 eventually. I’d retrace maybe about half a mile of my highway driving to get to unexplored area. Pretty efficient.

I soon saw what might have dissuaded the WPA Guide writers from exploring Scott’s Mountain. Not that it was scary or dangerous, but the road soon turned a bit roughshod and very narrow, a faint remnant of a yellow line hinting it was meant to be a two-way road. Rather than going by matter of fact inclines and level stretches like Millbrook Road, Halfway House tended toward hillocks, its descent marked by only brief level portions. It reminded me of a kiddie roller coaster, with some turns thrown in for good measure. Houses were few and far between, leaving woods where it was very easy to imagine moonshiners setting up stills back in the 20s, or even earlier. I was happy that the season's snow and ice had already melted from the road, as it must have been quite an adventure to traverse, even after the plows got to it.

Wherever you go, there it is: the Morris Canal.
And characteristically, in the middle of nowhere, I came upon a Morris Canal sign, askew and worse for wear. Sure enough, I spied the telltale ditch, lined with fallen leaves and underbrush. You just can’t get away from it.

You have to tip your hat to the Morris Canal enthusiasts for their perseverance and dedication to promoting its history. Sure, it makes a lot of sense to erect signage along a state or federal highway. But to be so driven as to post a marker where fewer than a hundred people a year might see it? That's passion.



12 comments:

  1. Thank you for this posting. My father, now 86, always said he was from Harmony and Montana Mountain although he grew up in Phillipsburg. On fall Sundays we often would take drives on Montana Mountain, which implies they were familiar roads to him. just saw leaves. He has also mentioned Indian ancestors from Mntana Mountain. I His family dates back to the late 1700s (at least) in that area. We have tracked some names but no definite documented links.

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    1. Wow! Without a local to guide the way, it would be really easy to get lost on the mountain. One gets the sense that there's a LOT more there than meets the eye. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. If you had stayed to the left and taken Angen Rd. instead of going down Halfway House, you might have stumbled onto the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center - http://www.labsum.org/

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    1. Interesting! I once heard some Kalmykian throat singers at an event at Rutgers -- I wonder if they might have been affiliated. We'll definitely have to make a return visit to find the center. Thanks!

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    2. Another not-to-be-missed "hidden" gem in the area is the Blue Army Shrine on Mountain View Rd.

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  3. Loved this! I have an Uncle who writes about old timey places now for the Suburban Trends by the name of Russell Hannah ... & I tell ya what, the two of you? Your writing styles are identical! For a minute, I was thinking maybe HE wrote this article! LoL Great Job!

    But, I always seen that sign for Asbury & Montana out off of 57 & wondered what was back there myself. I would bet that a little investigative work into some of the names on that graveyard you came across would result in maybe finding a few more clues as to the history of the place. Good Luck, & keep these Articles commin! They're great! :-)

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    1. Thanks!

      There are two of us out there? That's scary!

      Montana's definitely one of those places we'll need to look into more. As we've discovered with other stories, locations tend to reveal their histories in interesting ways once you're aware of them. We'll definitely keep everyone updated as we discover more.

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  4. Many of my direct ancestors lived on Montana Mountain...Woolverton, Beers, Woolf, Unangst, Dewitt. Dewitts settled there in mid 1700s.
    Jan Godfrey Berger

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  5. Was far more interesting in the 50s & 60s. Merrill Creek Res took a lot of history with it. Lots of stuff under that water.

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  6. My discovery of your site is a bit late, but I’ve just come across you. Like Jan, many of my direct ancestors lived on Montana Mountain. In fact, at the church you reference herein, my last name appears on many of the headstones in the cemetery; Deremer / DeRemer. I used to drive Montana Mountain all of the time, fascinated by how the roads met one another and lead to the occasional abandoned house or nearly disappeared farmstead, the forest and the trees largely swallowing up what once was. Going to bookmark your page so I can continue to enjoy reading from you.

    Jennifer DeRemer

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  7. Hannah Laning [Lanning], my GGG Grandmother is buried in that cemetery. Love going up to Montana, it is so beautiful, and you can see for miles. :)

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