Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beauty after the encampment: Bernardsville's Cross estate

Morristown National Historical Park is deceptively large, holding surprises for those who go beyond the obvious to seek out the entirety of its acreage. Sure, you've got the Ford Mansion that was Washington's headquarters during the two winters the Continental forces were stationed in town, and property on a hill not far away held fortifications later known as Fort Nonsense. Farther outside town, Jockey Hollow dramatizes the legend of Tempe Wick and the tribulations faced by the Pennsylvania brigade during the harsh winter of 1779-1780.

To get a true sense of the enormity of the Morristown encampment, you need to do a bit of driving. The National Park Service makes no secret of the fact that over 10,000 soldiers were stationed there during the worst winter, but it's easy to overlook the fact that Jockey Hollow wasn't the only spot they took up. Troops were spread out for miles. Our own spiritual forebears, the New Jersey Brigade, endured the winter about two miles away from Jockey Hollow, on a steep plot of land in what's now Bernardsville. You might say that beggars couldn't be choosers when it came to a campsite: the 900 men were among the last to get to the encampment in 1779, arriving on December 17. Rapidly building shelter for the winter, they moved into their cabins on Christmas Day.

Even in the earliest days of spring, visitors can imagine the beauty
of Cross estate gardens 
When I went to check it out, I found another interesting, yet more recent treasure: the Cross estate gardens.

Bedminster is known as one of Somerset County's more affluent communities, and when you take Jockey Hollow Road to get to the encampment site, you get an eyeful of why. A series of large estates is nestled in what became known as the Mountain Colony of the town, a place where wealthy city dwellers could escape the stresses of urban life. (Check out this map for perspective on just how popular the area became around the turn of the 20th century.)

Land surrounding the New Jersey Brigade campsite was purchased in 1903 by civil engineer John Anderson Bensel and his wife. A graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology, Bensel held a series of jobs that had him working around water, including chief engineer for the New York City Dock Department. While building a 23-room stone mansion for himself and his wife, he applied his professional acumen to providing water for the property. The product, a five-story high stone water tower, remains as a landmark of sorts on the property, though it's no longer topped by the windmill or ringed by balconies Bensel designed.

Lighthouse in the hills?
No, a water tower.
Alterations on the structures came with the second owners, W. Redmond and Julia Appleton Newbold Cross, who purchased the property in 1929. For many years the president of the New York Horticultural Society, Mrs. Cross is credited with improving the gardens, in concert with regionally-known landscape architect Clarence Fowler.

Much of the estate was purchased by the Park Service in 1975 as a buffer to protect the New Jersey Brigade encampment from possible future development. However, the formal English-style gardens the Crosses had cherished continued to lay untended and overgrown, as the NPS had no resources to care for or cultivate them. Fortunately, local residents came together to rediscover the paths, walls and borders, trimming back the overgrowth and replacing what specimens had been lost. The gardens are now much as they were in the 30's and 40's.

When I visited, the grounds still held a few small mounds of persistent snow, and there was little evidence of an awakening garden. Even on that cloudy early spring day, though, I could see the garden has real potential. It's beautifully laid out with a view of the Watchungs, backed with a wide, vine-entangled pergola. Well-placed benches offer a pleasing spot to sit and take in the sights and smells of flowering plants. Walking between rows of shrubbery, I enjoyed the aroma of damp boxwood plants, always the hallmark (for me, at least), of a historic garden. It would be the perfect place for a genteel afternoon tea, or simply as a spot to rest and meditate after a long hike from Jockey Hollow.

We'll be sure to return when the greenery has returned.


  1. I knew virtually none of this -- thank you! That garden is a great place to bird in the fall, and the woods below have lots of breeding hooded warblers.

    1. Thanks for the birding reminder, Rick! I totally forgot to mention that the property shares a boundary with New Jersey Audubon's Scherman-Hoffman Wildlife Sanctuary, too. History and birding together: makes for a great field trip.


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