Alfred T. Ringling, he of circus fame, discovered the picturesque Berkshire Valley in the early 20th Century. Declaring it the most beautiful place he had ever seen, he purchased 100 acres and a pond in Petersburg (now the Milton section of Oak Ridge) and set about building a winter HQ for his circus. A 26-room mansion was built between 1917 and 1918, along with a series of outbuildings for his circus menagerie. Most of them survive today, in private hands.
The “No, 7 building” in the sketch map denotes the elephant building. Like the others, it was concrete with area fieldstone decorating the walls. It’s gone to ruin — the glass-roofed ceiling collapsed about 1996, according to the locals — but what’s left has been incorporated into the Berkshire Valley Golf Course.
I took the following photos in the spring of 2004 when the property was being transformed into the golf course.
These close-up photos give an idea of the size of the place.
Today, the Berkshire Valley Golf Course plays host to thousands of golfers every year. As a county golf course, it’s open to the public. Food and drink are available in the clubhouse, even if you don’t golf. And you’re able to borrow a golf cart and head over to the ruins yourself, if you wish.
There once was a lovely village called Newfoundland, up West Milford/Jefferson way. A landmark of the area was Brown’s Inn, a lovely four-story hotel renowned all over for its hospitality and unrivalled peace and quiet. It stood on what was then the Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike, which we know today as Route 23 South, just across from Green Pond Road. Gone now, of course; that’s the way of old hotels. But the story of the Inn is for another post.
Behind the Inn was a meadow crossed by the quiet Pequannock River. (There wouldn’t be a “northbound 23” until many years later.) Across the river stood the old Brown homestead, a nice little cottage. To get to it you would traipse across a lovely and well-made footbridge. No one can recall just when it was built — my earliest postcard view is from 1909, and it was likely constructed sometime in the 1800s — but it endured for over a century.
Here’s a close-up of the footbridge. Anchored on both sides, the ‘cabin’ was held up by three iron rods anchored to a boulder in the river. If you liked, you could sit in the little cabin and while away some time.
This is a view from one of the upper stories of Brown’s Inn. It shows a peaceful, tranquil, and unpaved meadow with a path from the homestead to the footbridge.
But as idyllic as it all seemed, Brown’s Inn was “a source of annoyance” to the City of Newark. Since the late 1890s, Newark had been buying land in upper Passaic County, and constructing dams and reservoirs, to supply it with fresh, clean water. Brown’s represented a problem to its campaign to prevent pollution from entering in its water supply.
Negotiations dragged on for a decade before a sale was made. Brown’s Inn was purchased, and then razed, in 1914.
In the early 1960s, Route 23 was “dualized” by the addition of two northbound lanes which came uncomfortably close to the homestead. As part of the project, the riverbed was actually “relocated”, in the state’s terminology, to make way for the new northbound lanes. (It is unlikely that such an action would be as readily granted today.)
And so the footbridge slumbered, unused. The half closest to the highway collapsed decades ago, and even when it was passable, there was nowhere to go except to climb the embankment to the highway.
Harvesting, storing, and selling ice was a major industry from before the 1800s until the late 1940s, when refrigerators became common in the home. Every lake and pond that could produce a decent quantity of ice was harvested all winter. In our region, that included the rural areas of Lake Hopatcong, Greenwood Lake, Charlotteburg Lake, Echo Lake (also known as Macopin Lake, Lake Macopin, and Macopin Pond), and the topic of this post, Greenwood Pond in the Oak Ridge section of West Milford.
Ice was a major source of employment. Companies would hire as many men (and teenaged boys) as they would need, as well as farmers and their horse teams who were idle during the winter. Ice was always needed by homes, hotels, and other businesses in the cities and vacation areas. Winters were colder two centuries ago; ice would form by November, growing to over a foot thick, and still be available for harvest as late as mid-March.
Around 1897, Edward R. Greenwood founded what would become a prosperous coal business in Paterson. Two years later, he started a new venture, the Silk City Ice Company, alongside his E.R. Greenwood Coal & Ice Company. Initially, he imported ice from the Poconos. Wanting a more local source, around 1907 he purchased Greenwood Pond and surrounding lands, and constructed a dam to enlarge the pond. The pond and the dam still exist on Bonter Road (which was then called Icehouse Road), not far from Oak Ridge Road.
Greenwood built a large ice house ideally located between the shore of the 4.5-acre pond and the NY Susquehanna & Western (NYS&W) railroad line. A siding brought railroad cars alongside the ice house to be packed with ice cakes bound for Paterson.
A typical ice house would be quite large and several stories tall. Greenwood’s was perhaps 50 by 150 feet, between 40 and 50 feet tall. Echo Lake had one, as did Lake Hopatcong, while Greenwood Lake boasted two, both owned by the Hewitt family.
They were all built the same way: the outside walls were built of wide boards, and another such wall was constructed on the inside. An ice house would be divided into several rooms, with the dividing walls built the same way. The gap between them was filled with sawdust for insulation, while salt hay was used in the individual rooms.
Ice harvesting was grueling work. Teams of men would work 10- to 12-hour days; they were well-paid and, at some ice houses, also well-fed. At Greenwood, an early-morning steam whistle signaled that the ice was ready for harvest. Between 30 and 40 day workers would congregate at the pond as a crew would plow any snow off the ice. One team would carefully score a checkerboard pattern in the ice; this was necessary to ensure uniform ice blocks. Other teams would begin the cutting process. Originally the ice was manually sawed into long blocks using specially-designed saws. By the 1920s, gasoline-powered ice saws replaced that manual labor. (A gas-powered ice saw is on display at the Long Pond Iron Works in Hewitt, NJ.) The men would break for coffee as well as a hearty lunch. The ice blocks were floated to a long conveyor belt where they were cut into cakes; a steam engine-powered conveyor lifted them into the ice house where they would be stacked among the rooms. It might take several days to fill the Greenwood icehouse, while the two much larger icehouses at Greenwood Lake might require weeks.
All ice houses needed a delivery system for their product. Before the advent of railroads, much was packed into canal boats and sent down the Morris Canal. Railroads were much faster and could handle much more product. The same railroads that delivered vacationers to idyllic spots such as Brown’s Inn in Newfoundland could return to Paterson with a profitable payload. Greenwood Pond had a siding constructed to the railroad line just yards away, while Echo Lake had a dedicated, 1.5-mile railroad line (the Macopin Lake Railroad) connected to the NYS&W.
Railroad cars would arrive at his icehouse, and be switched to a siding on the roadway. Once packed with ice blocks, the railroad would take the ice to various destinations for delivery. Greenwood didn’t market his ice in Oak Ridge, but local people, and some shop keepers, would come to the ice house to purchase bags of ice chips that resulted from shaping the ice cakes.
Silk City Ice sold ice in quantity to big hotels and such, but also maintained eight local routes in Paterson and Totowa. Each of the eight route men had his own horse-drawn ice wagon from which to sell ice to housekeepers and small stores.
Newspaper accounts paint a portrait of a fair and generous boss:
E.R. Greenwood, coal and ice dealer of this city, gave a theatre party and banquet to his employees and their wives as a means of expressing his appreciation of the good work done by the men in harvesting the ice crop, during which time they labored day and night.
After watching a play at the Lyceum theatre, the party partook of a well prepared supper in a local restaurant. The ladies were presented with large boxes of chocolates, while the men received cigars.
Paterson Morning Call, 01 Feb 1917
In late 1920, Greenwood turned over the retail route business of Silk City Ice to eight of his long-time faithful employees. According to a 1920 newspaper article, he realized that the present cost of living was a constant worry to the man working for wages. In turning over the business to the route men, he set each up as an independent business man whose earnings would depend entirely upon the efforts he put into the business. Each man also was gifted the wagon each had been using, and had their names painted on the sides. The ice would continue to be harvested in Oak Ridge.
By the 1930s, however, the writing was on the wall for the ice harvesters. The invention of the refrigerator, and the introduction of “artificial ice” made in commercial freezers at ice plants, would soon doom the ice-harvesting industry. “Mechanical iceboxes”, which used a liquid refrigerant to produce cold, had been invented in 1915 as an add-on to the traditional icebox. By the mid-1920s, the modern refrigerator was available for purchase, but only the wealthy could afford them; it would take decades before they became affordable to many families.
Apparently, harvesting came to a close in the late 1930s, and the ice house was abandoned. Eventually, it collapsed; the wooden structure has long since returned to the earth. The railroad siding is long gone. The concrete foundation and footings, and some iron hardware, however, still survive, bearing mute testimony to a bygone industry.
Photo Credits: Dale Greenwood Dunn
Various details: Recollections of a New Jersey Ice Harvest by David W. Dunn, Jr. (2014)
My interest in Arrareek started with a print from an 1881 issue of a very popular 19th-Century magazine titled Harper’s Weekly. It depicted some farm scenes, but also a church I recognized right away, in a view that in some respects hasn’t really changed much since then.
That’s the Pompton Reformed Church. It sits, as it has since 1814, on the Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike in Pompton Lakes at Ringwood Avenue. (It was spun off from the First Reformed Church of Pompton Plains, but that’s another post.) That was the clue that got the ball rolling.
In the late 1800s, a Newark grain merchant named Clark W. Mills owned a farm he called “Arrareek” in the rural farming village of Pompton, NJ. In 1876, starting to experiment with hybridization of Jersey corn, he grew 13 acres of Southern corn, but began to worry when he realized that it would all likely be ruined by frost long before it would ripen. Unwilling to see it all go to waste, as Harper’s Weekly put it, “he remembered the old method of keeping roots in mounds of earth, practiced from time immemorial.”
Mills’ method employed silos to store his fodder — but not the tall, round structures we usually think of. These were subterranean silos.
Mills instructed all hands to dig two deep pits in the dry gravelly soil inside his barn. In each silo a layer of short, cut lengths of the Southern corn was laid on boards, which were then roofed with planks and compressed with bags of grain. Layer upon layer was added, and the compression allowed a lot of fodder to be crammed into each silo. It also allowed air and moisture to escape, which largely prevented the fodder from fermenting. As a silo was filled, it was also covered by earth. The fodder was then removed as needed throughout the winter.
This worked better than Mills could have hoped. Most of the corn remained edible, and his cattle thrived. Mills had, on his own, unwittingly rediscovered the ancient practice of “ensilage.” By 1880 he had perfected his innovation, and word of his success began to spread. He received more inquisitive letters than he could answer; reporters and the curious would visit, resulting in a lengthy piece in the April 23, 1881 Harper’s (accompanied by a full page of illustrations) and an equally effusive article in an early 1881 Journal of the American Agricultural Association, which titled Mills “the prophet and pioneer of ensilage.” Several out-of-state papers also wrote similarly admiring articles.
Harper’s reported that Mills’ 120 head of cattle and 12 horses “ate of it greedily” all winter long. Not only had he demonstrated a means by which to thriftily feed his herd at a substantial savings over hay, but his fat and contented cows produced “a large quantity of milk, the demand for which is so great that it is beyond his capabilities of supply.”
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Mills’ innovation; it was a real game changer in the farming world. Mills’ ensilage method became a subject of keen interest to farmers nationwide who began to adopt it, including Abram S. Hewitt on his 1,000-acre farm in nearby Ringwood. While the method would preserve any fodder, Southern corn was far less expensive than hay.
This is the full page of illustrations from Harper’s Weekly. It shows the expansive Mills farmhouse and barn, in which were two silage pits 13 feet by 40 feet, and twenty feet deep. To see it larger, click it.
But Clark Mills’ newfound fame didn’t just benefit cattle farmers. Harper’s included flowery paens to the natural beauty of the Ramapo Valley, proclaiming “There can be no more beautiful country than that found in Passaic county, New Jersey, in the neighborhood of Pompton.” As word spread, more people came to make Pompton their home.
But enough about ensilage! So just where was Arrareek? An 1882 piece in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it thus:
“On Arrareek Lake, a beautiful sheet of water, on which is part of Mr. Mills’ farm, resides the celebrated Mary Virginia Terhune, better known as Marion Harland, the author of a number of popular novels, and who during the present year celebrated her silver wedding at this pleasant summer home.”
“Arrareek Lake”? A search of the internet found this stereo postcard of that lake. (Click it to see it larger.) It could only be Pompton Lake. I’m not sure just where on the lake one can get this view; if you might know, please leave a comment.
As those familiar with Pompton area history would know, Mary Terhune was the mother of celebrated author Albert Payson Terhune. This description refers to (what would later be called) Sunnybank, located by the southeast corner of Pompton Lake. But there were more clues in this Lancaster PA publication:
“Just beyond Arrareek Farm you see the continuation of the plateau as it breaks through the blue hills and extends far beyond. …on Arrareek Farm there are two fairly big rivers, the Wynokie [Wanaque] and Ramapo. …right by Arrareek Farm stands an ancient stone house, which tradition states was once General Washington’s headquarters in 1777, for the old Pompton road was the back route on the line of communication between Trenton and West Point.”
So Arrareek was between the Wanaque and Ramapo Rivers, which narrows it down, and the “ancient stone house” on “the old Pompton Road” surely sounded like the Yellow Tavern. Also known as the Yellow Cottage, it stood on the site now known as Federal Square.
Those clues led to an 1877 map of Pompton. It was easy enough to find the Mills farm; it was quite expansive, encompassing some 290 contiguous acres of prime Pompton Lakes land. To see the map larger, click on it.
Clark Mills’ land holdings extended east from the Wanaque River, past today’s Federal Square, across Hamburg Turnpike to the end of Passaic Avenue, before turning south to about where Tudor Drive is today. From there he also owned a wide strip all the way to Pompton Lake (“Ramapo River” on this map). A person sitting comfortably on the front porch of the Mills farmhouse probably enjoyed the view accorded in the “glimpse of Pompton” illustration at the top of this post.
A neighborly feud
One of Mills’ neighbors was James Ludlum, the principal proprietor of the Pompton Steel Works, located on the Ramapo River just downstream of the falls. They shared a boundary west of the river (not shown on the map above), which seems to have led to some disagreements. A news item from 1883 tells the tale:
The residents of Pompton, N.J., were favored with a novel sight on Wednesday evening. It was the Sheriff of Passaic County driving sixteen cows along the road through the pouring rain. For some time there has been unfriendly feeling between Assemblyman Clark W. Mills and James Ludlum, the principal proprietor of the Pompton Steel Works,
Mr., Ludlum charged that Mr. Mills’s cattle trespassed on his domain. Finally sixteen of Mr. Mills’s cows were caught and locked up in Mr. Ludlum’s barn. Mr. Mills got a writ of replevin, armed with which Sheriff Winfield Scott Cox proceeded to Mr. Ludlum’s place on Wednesday and took possession of the distrained cattle.
There were sixteen cows, and it was dark and raining hard as the highest official of the county of Passaic with his consignment of beef proceeded “on the hoof” to Mr. Mills’s farm. Sheriff Cox, however, was raised in the country, and knowing something about cows, he got them safely to their owner’s barn.
New-York Tribune, 29 Jun 1883
And, finally, what is the origin of the name “Arrareek”? This is all I could find:
“…there were no Indians formally known as the ‘Arareeks’ [sic], but the name appears in an ancient deed, in which, as he recollected, the Pompton Falls or the land immediately about the same, was so designated. Any Indians, and there must have been very few, if any, living about Arareek, would be naturally designated by the name of the place.”
Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, 1913
Perhaps Mills knew about that “ancient deed” — he might even have owned it — and liked the name enough to resurrect it from the dustbin of history.
More than a farmer
In addition to being an ensilage pioneer, Clark W. Mills had a few other accomplishments to his name. In his occupation as a well-known grain broker, he and/or his partners were granted several patents in the 1860s and 1870s for improving the cooling of grain after being dried, as well as “a certain new and useful Improvement in Floating Grain-Elevators” for transferring grain from canal boats to a storehouse or vessel.
Mills also served, at various times, as the Chairman of the Township Committee of Pompton as well as Chairman of the Board of School Trustees. He also represented the first district of Passaic County in the NJ Assembly from 1883 to 1884. There’s a page of info about him, his wife Julia, and their eight children at the Familysearch genealogy site.
Clark Wickham Mills died at Newark, aged 54, on January 5, 1887; his lands were sold a year later for $18,000. Nothing of Arrareek survives today; the house, the barn, the silos are all long gone. As the village of Pompton Lakes grew, due to the rapid growth of local employers like the German Artistic Weaving Company and the Smith Powder Works, farms and fields disappeared, streets were constructed and homes sprang up where corn and wheat once grew.
But some of his land along the Wanaque River was preserved as open space and parkland, stretching from Hamburg Turnpike (the “old swimming hole”) to Herschfield Park. It’s a lovely area that has been long been popular with young and old for decades. As Harper’s described it, “There can be no more beautiful country than that found in Passaic county, New Jersey, in the neighborhood of Pompton.”
Some of you know that I like to browse the old newspapers, because you never know what you’ll find there. This clipping, from 1905, is from a longer article and includes a nice description of Newfoundland and some interesting details.
For starters, “Newfoundland is the centre of the sugar bush country“. Who knew that some folks made maple syrup there?
And this tidbit: “There are two white frame churches with green blinds continually challenging each other from adjacent hills and so near alike that a newcomer might easily get mixed as to his doctrine by going to the rival church by mistake.”
I take this as a description of the M.E. church (now the dog-grooming place) and the long-gone Baptist church on Clinton. They were, in fact, almost identical in appearance.
But it’s the sardonic description of Brown’s Hotel that I like the best:
“There is but one tavern with a bar in the place, and there is a bar that a bishop might dedicate without calling forth whereases and therefores from a single protesting body of his laity. It is a saloon in which there are window-boxes filled with oxalis and geraniums and begonias and other plants generally associated with grandmothers. It is one of the improving duties and pastimes of the bartender to water those plants and pick off the dead leave.
” ‘Botany before booze’ might be the motto of the place, but the only sign displayed is ‘Welcome,’ worked in light blue worsted on bristol-board and hung above the bottles. There are no drunkards there.”
The “saloon” the writer describes seems to refer to Brown’s Hotel. Those who have studied the history of Brown’s will recall that at some point in the 1890s, J.P.’s son Theodore decreed that Brown’s would go “dry”, and he no longer sold alcohol there. And the writer was clearly very disappointed!
From 1948 to 1952, large crowds would gather on weekends at the Union Valley Dude Ranch — later renamed Newfoundland Speedway — in Newfoundland (a part of West Milford) to watch motorcycles race around a dirt track. A course had been built on a farm owned by Richard Boulden and his wife, Violet Cole, in the Bearfort Mountain range. The Paterson Motorcycle Club sponsored the races, which drew racers from states along the East coast. Families would gather on weekends throughout the spring, summer and fall for “a good day of sport and clean racing,” as a 1951 newspaper article put it.
As many as 60 riders would compete in time trials and races along a newly-constructed 1/3 mile oval dirt track specially built for the sport. The track was 25 feet wide and featured a flat, dustless surface. A “dog leg” (sharp bend) heightened the excitement. Trophies and prize money were awarded. The novice trophy was especially prized.
Unsurprisingly, accidents and spills happened. Miscellaneous cuts and bruises were not uncommon; sometimes, broken bones resulted from a spill. West Milford’s Volunteer Firemen’s Ambulance Corps was on hand to help. A man with a broken collar bone would be taken to a local doctor, who would patch up the rider before sending him to a hospital in nearby Franklin. At times, their main ambulance would be busy, spurring them to station a second, auxiliary ambulance as well.
Occasionally, proceeds from a race would be given to the volunteer corps for “faithfully contributing their time and equipment for the protection of the drivers.”
Riders came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut to compete. Some riders achieved local fame. Don Pink, of Yonkers, was apparently a popular fellow, as was Cornwall, NY’s Warren Sherwood. Easton, PA was represented by Jack Brewer and Ken Wismer. Al Wilcox was known as the “Trenton Flash” and Al Scirpo, the “Hartford Flash”. Race results were published in local papers, and undoubtedly a few wagers would be placed.
In 1949 the track was christened the Newfoundland Speedway. There’s a great video of a race there on YouTube. Races were held every Saturday, and often on Sunday. The only exceptions were for larger motorcycle races such as the Gypsy Tour at the half-mile track on Route 6 (today’s Route 46) in Dover NJ — and, of course, rain.
The races came to be very popular. As many as twelve events were held, and the American Motorcycle Association would provide judges and timers.
The races ran almost every weekend through 1952, when the farm was sold. Today, it’s known as the West Milford Equestrian Center, and it is again up for sale.
There are some nice shots of races, and close-ups of the bikes, at this site.
In the late 1920s, when Francis Burdett was 63 years old, living in Wayne NJ, he decided to build a house. He didn’t arrange to have burly carpenters do it; he built it himself. He got the lumber, sawed it, fit it, and nailed it, until he had built a handsome Dutch Colonial home “3 stories high, seven rooms, bath and large attic.”
That would be quite a task for any 63-year-old. What made it unique was that Francis Burdett was quite blind. He had lost his sight at age 50 in a moving vehicle accident. And he wasn’t a carpenter, but had spent his life as a watchmaker.
So why build a house? According to one newspaper account, he had had a concrete foundation laid on a lot he owned. A smallish bungalow was supposed to have been delivered to the site from several miles away, but the deal fell through. So what’s a blind fellow to do, except build a house?
Burdett didn’t have any formal experience as a carpenter, but — as many men did in that era — he had picked up the skills by doing odd jobs over the years.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Burdett and his house — two and a half years in the making — often found themselves the object of curiosity. Many newspaper articles were written about him, and he was even featured (briefly) in a 1930 episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (It starts at 1:16, and don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)
His neighbors kept an eye on his progress as well:
About this time all the nervous people that lived hereabout were in a constant unsettled state of mind. Nothing seemed to allay the fears of the people. Even the BLIND BUILDER’S continuous exhibition of skill and his daily performances before their eyes, did not tend in the least to abate their fear, and each day brought a fresh new anxiety. People talking together on the street would look up unconsciously to see if the BLIND BUILDER was still up there or on the ground ready for the hospital or morgue.
It must however, be said that everybody enjoyed the Blind man’s progress and looked on as if a war was in progress, and each day a battle won.
— From “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark”
Was he really blind? From all accounts, yes. Did he do the work himself? Again, written articles and a book agree that he did. He planned the house in his head, and was meticulously aware of his surroundings. From a newspaper article:
It is uncanny to watch this blind man, sixty-odd years of age, climb ladders, perch on narrow scaffolds and use the tools of the carpenter, from adz to plane. He knows where each tool is to be found. Every piece of material, from a ball of twine to the 24-foot timbers used in the construction is catalogued in his mind.
There’s more to the tale of Francis Burdette’s house, but if you want to know the whole story, by all means read the book “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark.” Written by William Vahrenkamp, a cousin, the book lovingly explains, in superb detail, how Burdett did it. The book is lavishly illustrated with many drawings and photos.
Little remains of it today, but the “Pompton feeder” was an integral part of the Morris Canal system’s eternal need for water. The feeder was used to supply additional water to the Morris Canal by channeling water from the Pompton River. The feeder was, in fact, a navigable mini-canal that ran nearly five miles south from Schuyler’s Basin, at the river, to Mead’s Basin (known as Mountain View today). There was also a lock that afforded access to canal boats to the Ramapo River to head north.
The entire route looked like this. Click on it to view it full size.
A wide, low dam was built on the Pompton River in Pompton Plains, NJ in 1837, six years after the Morris Canal was completed. This supplied a feeder lock which could, at the lock tender’s discretion, release water into the feeder canal.
This diagram shows the setup: the river supplies water to the feeder canal via a lock. A lock tender lived in a house on site to release water as needed.
This early 20th Century photo shows the lock tender’s house and the lock.
The Pompton feeder canal primarily served as an artery of the Morris Canal. The feeder lock — which was just upstream of the feeder dam — not only helped to maintain the feeder canal’s water level. It also admitted canal boats which traveled up from Mead’s Basin (Mountain View), through the lock, and into the Ramapo River, carrying coal and other supplies north to the Pompton Furnace area in Pompton Lakes. The boats would carry iron (and on occasion other) products back down to Mead’s Basin.
According to historian Ed Lenik, “The Pompton Feeder was a significant waterway: it provided water from Greenwood Lake to the Morris Canal’s eastern division. Pig iron, bar iron, wood, and other products were shipped south and coal, building products, food, and other merchandise were shipped north.”
The feeder canal also provided splendid recreation year ’round — fishing and swimming and canoeing in warm weather, and ice skating in the winter.
The feeder canal more or less paralleled the Pompton River. This photo, taken near the Newark-Pompton Turnpike in Pequannock near the Wayne border, shows the river (left) and the feeder canal side by side. The canal still exists as a muddy ditch. The bridge carries the Newark Watershed pipeline over the river and on to the cities which it serves.
The Morris Canal was successful for about a century before succumbing to the faster and more efficient railroad system. It was decommissioned about 1924, and large sections of it were drained and used for other purposes. Only a small part of the feeder canal itself remains in lower Pequannock; the lock lies in ruins, and the lock tender’s house was razed long ago. What remains is the feeder dam and spillway, which are part of the Morris Canal Greenway initiative, which is “envisioned as a 111-mile continuous pedestrian and bicycle trail connecting six counties in northern New Jersey.” Many segments of the greenway have already been completed, and a trail map is available as a guide to them.
Long-time area residents remember the exquisite dining experience known as the Swiss Tavern. The place had been some sort of eatery for years before it opened its doors, in the early 1930s, as a full-fledged restaurant under the management of Ernest Alpsteg, the owner-chef from Switzerland.
His son Hans and his wife, Agatha, by all accounts turned it into an first-rate dinner destination during the 1960s and 1970s; Swiss Tavern was rated ‘four stars’ by the New York Times.
The Alpsteg family kept it going until 1979, when the place was sold and transformed in L’Auberge de France. But we’re getting ahead of the story…
…the Swiss Tavern in Wayne began life as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The family of the present owner‐chef, Hans Alpsteg, turned the century‐old frame house into a full‐fledged restaurant in 1934, but managed to retain the Victorian coziness of the small parlors and the Victorian splendor of the large bar and grill.
(I don’t know anything about “the bar and grill” that it was before now, but I’m sure the building had an interesting history prior to its Swiss Tavern incarnation.)
The building itself was described as “A large 1850 house of many small rooms, glassed-in porch, a roomy oak-paneled bar, period wallpaper and furniture, paintings and drawings, ferns and aspidistras. Candles and fresh flowers, good napery, friendly service.”
The NY Times reviewer was enthusiastic about the fare, describing it as “excellent” and “delectable”.
The recommended dishes included “baked oysters or baked clams ‘Swiss Tavern,’ homemade headcheese, butterfly shrimp Genevoise, laeberle (Swiss‐style liver), oxtail in a red wine sauce, sauerbraten with spaetzle, rack of lamb persillade for two, soufflé potatoes for two, apple fritters, caramel custard, and Swiss apple cake.”
There was even a fountain pond out front, stocked with live trout, where patrons could check out the fish, have the chef catch it in a net, and have it cooked to order.
Besides being a lunch and dinner haven, the Swiss Tavern was something of a social center as well. Rotary meetings and political get-togethers were held there; local mayors held meet-and-greet functions; the Pompton Lakes chamber of commerce held its annual dinner-dance there. Large dinner parties were not uncommon. Many a wedding party held its reception there, as well as later anniversaries.
The place stayed in the family until 1979 when the Alpsteg family sold it, whereupon it became a French restaurant, L’Auberge de France.
For four months, the establishment continued to be known as The Swiss Tavern. But two months ago, it became L’Auberge DeFrance, translated literally, “The French Inn.” Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation, or the transformation, if you will.
The food was just fair to middling, according to the reviewer, but with “big league” prices, and noted that “it is a rarity to find a dish that totally satisfies at this new restaurant.” The review concluded by lamenting “It is a pity when a restaurant as good as The Swiss Tavern leaves us, but more’s the pity when its successor leaves so much to be desired.” The reviewer pronounced it merely “fair” — no stars.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t succeed. I don’t know when the restaurant closed for good (I understand it became other eateries including the French Quarter and the Red Fox Inn), but the long-abandoned building is slowly crumbling. A website called “Abandoned but Not Forgotten” visited the place at some point; see the photos here.
An enterprising fellow named Luke also managed to get inside and take some photos. He’s posted them on his Flickr account.
Update: The building was razed on April 9, 2019; it seems a WaWa will be built on the site. I arrived a day or two late, and this is what greeted me.
As anyone who has lived in or near the Pequannock valley knows, we get floods from time to time. The convergence of three rivers makes it inevitable whenever there is prolonged and copious rain. I’ll write a post on several infamous floods at some point, but this post is about a flood that took place in April 1927, and a young mother, camping out in a riverside bungalow in Pompton Plains, who rescued her family from one.
I can’t match the breathless writing of this newspaper article, so I’ll just post it. Click on each image for a full-sized and readable version. I’ve added my comments afterward.
Pretty incredible, right? Imagine you’re in the middle of nowhere (Pequannock Twp was a lightly-populated village at this point), sleeping soundly in what was probably a one-room bungalow right on the river. You are awakened by odd sounds, you swing your legs off the bed and… into knee-deep water.
Since the article only calls her “Mrs. Ormsbee”, I took to the Ancestry website and discovered that her name was AliceShe was born Alice Miller in Beacon NY in 1900. She was 24 at the time this happened. With her was her mother (age unknown, but likely in her 40s) and her two young children, a son aged two and four-month-old daughter.
So: It’s the middle of the night, it’s raining , your cabin is flooding, and it’s pitch black outside because the power is out. She leads her mother and two very young kids through the darkness to the bridge, hoping to get to the main road, only to find herself falling into the river because half the bridge is gone. She grabs a canoe and gets her family into it, and they all endure a night of terror until they’re rescued in the morning.
(The article notes she was “embarrassed by their clothing” likely because they were in their night clothes, and didn’t stop to get dressed.)
But what an incredibly brave young woman, at a time when women were widely regarded as kind of helpless, and weren’t expected to do or know much. Her two-year-old son, Roland, because a doctor and died in 1995. I don’t know when or where Alice passed, but I’ve reached out to someone who has her in his family tree. Perhaps I’ll learn more.