Tuesday, June 17, 2014

One if by land... the Revolutionary Watchung Mountain signal beacons

No matter how much we think we know about New Jersey's role in the American Revolution, no matter how many relevant sites we've unearthed in our explorations, there always seems to be a new one around the corner.

Or, in this case, at the corner, as Ivan discovered on a ridge of the Watchung Mountains in Long Hill. Sitting rather innocuously near the intersection of Long Hill Road and Pleasant Plains Road was this plaque on a rock:

So, what's the story?

The Watchungs were strategically crucial during the Revolution, as General George Washington chose the protection of the triple-ridged mountain chain for part or all of four winters during the conflict. Whether he was encamped at Middlebrook in Somerset County or in Morristown, the altitude and safety of the mountains allowed him to keep an eye on the British troop movements across the eastern New Jersey lowlands while guarding the local area and protecting himself from potential kidnap raids.

Ivan points out the fine view of the first ridge
of the Watchungs, to the east of Long Hill.
Once the British were spotted, the news needed to be transmitted to the local militias and to the Continental troops camped in the area. The old Paul Revere* "The British are coming!" method wouldn't quite work with so much ground to cover, leading General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) to a better idea. Capitalizing on the Watchungs' roughly 400 foot altitude, he ordered 23 beacons to be erected at strategic points along the ridge during the spring of 1779. Each was to be constructed as a wooden pyramid with a 14 foot base, using Alexander's precise directions for height and type of logs used. Uniformity was key: if they were to be reliable signals, they had to burn equally as well and put out an adequate volume of smoke to be visible for long distances during the day.

The beacons were used several times to call out the militia to ward off the British, including the June 1780 battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield. They served their purpose: while the Redcoats made several raids in the eastern lowlands, they were never able to reach the Watchungs or Washington.

After the war, the signals were mostly forgotten, only a few commemorated with markers, leaving us to wonder exactly where they were located. Papers belonging to Governor William Livingston identified the men responsible for lighting some of the Somerset County beacons, leading historians to wonder if those signals were located on or near those patriots' homes. If that theory holds true, the Long Hill beacon may have been the responsibility of Morris County Militia Colonel Cornelius Ludlow, who lived in the home just across Pleasant Plains Road from the marker Ivan found.

In any case, we've got a new quest on our hands: finding 22 New Jersey beacon sites. Have you seen them, and if so, where?

* Or, for true Revolutionary War trivia lovers, Sybil Ludington.


  1. Here's additional information on the NJ signal beacons.

    1. Thanks, Alan! The Historic Marker Database is a fantastic resource.

    2. From the top of Madison Hill Rd. in Clark, NJ I can see Mount Saint Mary's Academy on the First Mountain. I am wondering if this served as a beacon hill between Spanktown and the Watchungs.


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