Friday, June 27, 2014

Forging iron, not fright, on Clinton Road

When talking to folks about Hidden New Jersey, we sometimes get suggestions for stories that are more along the "scary" or "spooky" than the historic or natural. We generally leave those to other websites and publications that have a long history of covering them.

But sometimes, there's a convergence -- a site with scare factor that actually has some history attached.

Mention Clinton Road to a large subset of New Jersey explorers, and you're likely to hear a string of stories about scary goings on and late-night encounters with angry, high-beam flashing pickup trucks and shrouded apparitions that may or may have satanic intent. This sparsely-populated, two-lane road winds through several miles of woods in West Milford, attracting scores of adventure seekers who often stop at a small bridge to throw coins at a spirit who, according to legend, will toss them right back.

Our story isn't about any of that.

Clinton Road, West Milford, Clinton Furnace, Hidden New Jersey
Nothing's spooky about
the Clinton Furnace.
A while back, Ivan and I took the right turn off Route 23 North and onto Clinton Road, likely in the search for an interesting bird or two, when we came upon a large pile of stone that had been very purposefully set. This wasn't, as the spooky storytellers would have you believe, a Druid temple. Having seen my share of lime kilns and furnaces, I knew we were onto something very old and very industrial.

Indeed, we'd stumbled on the Clinton Furnace, one of a number of old ironworks scattered in the wilderness of Passaic County and neighboring New York State. Scanning the environment, you can see why William Jackson bought about 1000 acres of land there in 1826 to process iron. Two ponds and the nearby Clinton Falls provided ample water and power to operate his planned sawmill and gristmill, and the surrounding forest contained enough timber to make the charcoal that would keep the furnace running.

According to the Friends of the Long Pond Ironworks, Jackson was unable to finish the project and sold the property to a buyer who flipped it to John Winslow and Freeman Wood, the partnership that completed construction in 1833. They operated it as the Clinton Ironworks for three years before selling it to a new owner who ran it sporadically for another year, finally abandoning it in favor of a forge. These being the times before coal was a viable fuel option, it appears that they'd exhausted the local supply of wood for charcoal, forcing the closure of the perpetually hungry furnace. The remaining forge continued operation for about 15 years before it was finally abandoned in 1852, and the property became part of the Pequannock Watershed in 1900, serving as part of the water supply for the city of Newark ever since.  

Clinton Furnace stands today as one of the best preserved ironworks of its kind in northern New Jersey, especially given its location along of the region's most storied "spooky" roads. Patrols from the Newark Watershed Commission have likely discouraged vandals from mischief on the structure, or maybe the tales of satanic rites in the area have put the fear into anyone who might have been inclined to harm the furnace. However, what we see today is just the bottom of the structure; originally an additional 11 feet of brickwork loomed above. 

Our visit elicited nothing but history, but I'd be remiss if I didn't share a postscript on the "spooky" aspects of Clinton Road:

During one of our birding ventures in Sussex County, we crossed paths with a birder who told us he lives just off of Clinton Road. He's very familiar with the legends surrounding the area, particularly the one about the spirit of a small boy who lives under the bridge and tosses back coins thrown to him. Holding up his rather pricey binoculars, the birder noted that over the years, collecting all of those coins has been a rather lucrative hobby for him. Moral of the story: if you've ever been one of those coin throwers, you can rest easy knowing that your pocket change has gone to a good cause.

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