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South Mountain High
A look at South Mountain Reservation
by Mary Ann McGann


On March 18, 1896, Philander Ball, who lived in Maplewood at 172 Parker Avenue, sold three and a half acres of nearby wooded property to the recently created Essex County Parks Commission. This transaction is remarkable because Ball's parcel of land was the first to be acquired for what would become South Mountain Reservation.

Today, South Mountain Reservation boasts nearly 2048 acres, with 19 miles of hiking and walking trails, 27 miles of bridle paths for jogging and cross-country skiing, ten picnic areas, Washington Rock, the Diamond Mill Pond which is stocked with trout every fishing season, the Turtle Back Zoo with 238 animals and 76 species, the South Mountain Arena with two indoor ice skating rinks, and other historic and natural wonders.

Turning the area into Essex County's largest parkland, however, was an arduous undertaking, a century-old effort rich in history and vision.

The earliest inhabitants, the Lenape Indians, called the area the "Wach Unks," meaning "high hills." The first and second ridges of what we know today as the Watchung Mountains form the eastern and western boundaries of South Mountain Reservation. The two ridges - which, in early times were called variously the Newark Mountains, the Orange Mountains, and First and Second Mountains - stretch across parts of West Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.

When the first settlers arrived in Newark in 1616 and began building houses, logging mills quickly sprang up, supplying lumber not just to Newark, but to Philadelphia and New York as well. The forest was stripped of its abundant evergreen hemlock and white pine.

By the late 1700s, when the demand for lumber had lessened, paper mills took the place of sawmills, savaging the second-growth forest. Scottish immigrant Samuel Campbell, for whom Campbell's Pond is named, was the first to build a mill; he produced paper used to print money for the U.S. government. Other paper mills followed, including the Diamond Papermill Company, which today is the Paper Mill Playhouse.

The rapid industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries prompted a reaction by Essex County officials who saw a need to bring Nature back to heavily populated areas. With that in mind, the Parks Commission was formed in 1895 and the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, the well-known landscape architect who had designed New York's Central Park, was hired to help plan the parklands.

It would take more than a decade, however, for all of the Reservation's acreage to be acquired; deeds had to be untangled, owners approached and, in some cases, land had to be wrangled away from those reluctant to sell.

For example, Eneas Smith was offered $2445 for his 27-acre farm near Walker Road, what is now the Turtle Back Rock picnic area. He refused to sell and the Commission condemned the land and seized it. Smith still would not accept the money. After his death, one of his sons collected the payment.

With land in hand, the Commission turned its attention to restoring the natural woodlands decimated by the logging and paper mills. Hemlock and pine were replanted, as were mountain laurel and wild azalea. More than 3000 rhododendrons were planted in 1910, at a cost of 43 cents each.

Today, blights have all but destroyed the hemlocks. But you can still find rhododendrons along the Lenape Trail. And off the Tuiip Springs picnic area, there is a pine grove, fragrant with that fresh clean smell.

The yellow-blazed Lenape Trail is probably the Reservation's best-known trail for hiking. It is part of an ongoing effort to link dozens of county, municipal and historic areas along a 30-mile route. Six miles of the trail meanders through South Mountain Reservation. Among the sights and sounds along the way: Hemlock Falls, a 25-foot waterfall, spectacular after heavy rains or snow but bone dry during drought; Ball's Bluff, named after the man who sold that first three and a half acres; and Washington Rock, perhaps the Reservation's most cherished historic site.

It is here that Beacon Signal Station Number Nine was built, one of 23 observation/alarm outposts used to keep an eye on British troop movements in New Jersey during the American Revolution. On June 23, 1780, lookouts - perched 550 feet above Millburn with a clear view of Newark, Springfield, Union, Staten Island and the New York Harbor - spotted British soldiers marching westward toward Washington's army encampment in Morristown. So warned, Washington's men moved to intercept the advance and the Battle of Springfield began.

Legend has it that General George Washington monitored the battle from what is now Washington Rock. This site also was used as a lookout post during the War of 1812.

Today, just beyond the Rock, there is a flat concrete platform. Yet a look at old postcard photographs shows a magnificent structure once sat on the spot - a covered, open-air shelter built in 1908 of chestnut logs. It was a great place to enjoy a quiet view. And it was a favorite of young men with penknives.

"We all carved our names there," says W. Owen Lampe, town historian for Millburn-Short Hills. "Initials and hearts seemed to be carved on all available space, including the rafters."

Crest Drive is another popular, and paved, way to reach Washington Rock, roughly two-miles roundtrip. On any given day, you can find joggers, bicyclers, dogwalkers, and parents pushing babies in strollers. It is here I caught up with South Orange resident Rebecca Ries, walking her dog with ten-year-old daughter, Katy, on roller blades beside her.

The two say they like the exercise and the quiet. And, on hot summer days, says Ries, "we walk over the ridge on the trail down to Millburn and get ice cream."

An easy day hike, great for kids, is the orange-blazed Turtle Back Trail, a distance of two and a quarter miles roundtrip. Here you will find Turtle Back Rock with special carvings on its surface. According to Native American lore, members of the local tribe used the markings as directional guides. Today, the historic markings share space with graffiti.

Just off the Turtle Back path is a short loop, called the Interpretive Trail, so named because it once had more than 20 posts describing the flora and fauna along the way. Most of the posts are gone; the few that remain are unreadable.

"It's like walking in the Roman ruins," notes Sydell Rabin of the South Mountain Conservancy.

The Conservancy is a group of 20 or so volunteers, dedicated to maintaining and restoring the trails in South Mountain Reservation. The group works with the Sierra Club and the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, focusing on specific problems and concerns.

Rabin would like to see the Interpretative Trail made wheelchair accessible and the posts restored. Map boxes are currently being built and placed at certain trail entrances, containing updated guides on the length and route of the trail and its relation to the rest of the Reservation, according to Rabin. And another idea receiving some support is to create an evergreen garden and memorial plaque at the overlook terrace on Crest Drive, which today still bears the remnants of candles, poems, and children's essays, placed there by a numbed population after September 11.

Along Crest Drive, and elsewhere in the park, you're likely to spy a series of chain-link fences, part of a 23-acre deer paddock aimed at addressing the perennial problem of a growing deer population. Over the past winter, the paddock was used to "trap and transfer" deer, which were then tested for disease and, if cleared, sent to breeding farms.

"We have a standing policy where they can't be harmed or killed," says Tod Theise, Director of Public Information for the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

A "Deer Management Task Force" was assembled last September to examine the feasibility of all options - including hunting - and to come up with a long-term solution. Public opinion surveys have been sent our to residents and public hearings are being held. The task force hopes to have a long-term plan in place by the fall, says Theise.

As part of the research for this article, I spent a number of cool, crisp mornings on several trails - once with a friend, at other times with my family, my children running ahead on their short, little legs, excited about an outing and on the lookout for deer. I felt glad for them - glad that they could experience the great outdoors so close to home.

But Sydell Rabin sums it up much better than I: "The Reservation is important because it's the only bit of green we have," she tells me. "Essex County is overpopulated and densely populated. There isn't a place for most of us to escape. The Reservation is chat place. And that's why it is holy. It's wild, it's open, it's beautiful and it's here for us."

Mary Ann McGann sends a huge thanks; to W. Owen Lampe, who spent much of his boyhood exploring South Mountain Reservation and much of his adulthood examining its history.

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