I'll admit it: Morris County confuses me sometimes. Having grown up to the east, my primary reference point to the county was its very historic seat, Morristown, and I rarely had an occasion to go much farther beyond. If I had to go anywhere beyond, I'd usually take the quick route on Route 80 or, on occasion, a county road. Thus, despite four years of Hidden New Jersey barnstorming, I still get a bit disoriented on solo trips in the region.
This all came to a head over the weekend, when I endeavored to track down a few mills said to be in Warren County. I set myself to take Route 57 west from its terminus in Hackettstown, maybe stop in one or two of the old canal port towns if I got that far. Usually it's a matter of taking Route 46 to Hackettstown and keeping an eye out for signs leading to 57. Usually. This time, as the great philosopher Springsteen once sang, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.
More accurately, I didn't take a turn when I was supposed to. Things didn't feel quite right from the start, but I persisted as the road brought me further away from 57 altogether. A street sign at an intersection told me I was on Schooley's Mountain Road. Okay... this is different, I thought as the road started climbing in elevation.
Still doubtful, I was somewhat reassured when I passed the Washington Township Police Department building. There are no fewer than four communities in New Jersey named for our first president. Could it be this was part of Washington, Warren County, the community along Route 57? Could two of them be within mere miles of each other?
As it turns out, yes, and Schooley's Mountain takes up a good part of the Morris County version. At about 1200 feet high, it's a commanding elevation, and its namesake road twists a bit as it descends into Long Valley. The chances of me getting to the mills within my time frame were waning with every mile of country road I took forward. A quick look at the map revealed that it was quite a distance to the next major highway. Schooley's Mountain Road, a.k.a. County Road 517, was once the Washington Turnpike or Morristown-Easton Turnpike, leading to CR 513, which leads to, well, more countryside before it gets you to a more modern highway. I'd be lucky to find a gas station for miles.
Fuel for me was a little easier to find: the Schooley's Mountain General Store puts together a decent fresh mozzarella and roasted pepper sandwich with pesto. As I lunched, I perused the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey to determine whether I was close to tripping on a good story. I discovered that the mountain was named for the family that once owned farmland there, but that's just incidental to its true claim to fame as New Jersey's first resort, perhaps the nation's as well.
Morris County is well known to historians as an iron-rich region, once hosting colonial-era mines that earned it reknown as the arsenal of the Revolution. It wasn't the ore that drew thousands of people to Schooley's Mountain, however. It was the waters. Known alternately as chalybeate or ferruginous waters, or salts of iron, the mineral content of the Schooley's Mountain springs were acclaimed for their healing powers, first by the Lenape and then by European settlers.
Visitors seeking the waters' restorative powers first stayed on the site in tents. The history is somewhat cloudy, but from what I can tell, Joseph Heath was the first to capitalize on this natural phenomenon, opening accommodations on the mountain in 1801. He later built a larger facility called Heath House, which then drew competitors as well as regular visitors. By 1815 the springs were well known to be the purest of their kind in the nation, drawing health-minded devotees from all over.
Depending on the source, two or three more inns were built and by the late 19th century, accommodations for a few hundred were available to people who wanted to sample the spring or just get back to nature, away from the chaos of America's burgeoning cities. Schooley's Mountain reportedly attracted a wide range of celebrities, some even taking a break from their vacations to spend a few days. President Grant and his daughter stayed at the mountain's Belmont Hotel when they wanted a change from their summer visits in Long Branch. Rosters of the notables who are said to have taken to the waters include all the usual suspects: the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and Thomas Edison, as well as several governors and former governors.
It was all gone, however, by the 1930s, apparently for the reason so many other New Jersey vacation spots suffered: improved transportation made it easier for visitors to go farther afield to other resorts. Detonation for a road construction project had reportedly ruined the spring site; some stories also note that the spring house itself was dismantled by highway workers. According to Henry Charlton Beck in The Roads of Home: Lanes and Legends of New Jersey, the Heath House may have been taken down and moved to Brooklyn.
When I hear stories of natural resources made inaccessible, it leads me to wonder whether they've simply been taken out of public view. Today, there's a Heath Village on the Hackettstown end of Schooley's Mountain Road, a seniors facility that offers a range of options from independent living to nursing care. A conspiracy theorist might wonder if the home's operators have hit upon something: could the waters extend life? Do the locals guard a still-existent spring from the outside world, sheltering it from future exploitation?
What it all says to me is that there's room for much more Hidden New Jersey exploration on Schooley's Mountain. And I wouldn't mind grabbing another sandwich at the general store.