The South Mountain Reservation, the largest park in the Essex County Park System, is a unique 2,110-acre public land. Endowed with hills, rivers, and woodlands, the Reservation has been preserved primarily in its wild state. Numerous trails and overlooks offer inspiring scenery: vistas of New York City, a dramatic 25-foot waterfall at Hemlock Falls, the cascade of Maple Brook in the deep woods, and millponds, streams, and open fields in the interior valley. After more than 100 years, it remains a green island in the midst of a sea of urbanization.
Behind South Mountain’s scenery are local events woven into the fabric of American history. The presence of the early Lenape Indians lingers in the name given to the Watchung ridges of New Jersey, the first and second of which form the Reservation’s eastern and western boundaries. To the Lenape, the “Watchung” were “the high hills.” By colonial times, sawmills were flourishing on the Rahway River meeting the demands of the logging industry.
During 1779-80, the Revolutionary War was centered here. The eastern ridge, with its easily defended passes, protected the Continental Army’s encampment at Morristown and afforded observation posts. Washington Rock Lookout was the location of Beacon Signal Station 9, one of 23 beacons built by General Washington to observe the movement of British troops quartered on Staten Island and Manhattan. It was from this outlook that, on June 23, 1780, Essex County and Newark Militia were first warned that the British had launched an attack westward. In a pincer movement designed to gain access to Hobart Gap, Hessian troops fought bitterly along Vaux Hall Road while the British advanced along Galloping Hill Road before being repelled, the Hessians at the base of the mountain and the British in Millburn (then Millville). Washington Rock served again as a lookout for the Army when reactivated during the War of 1812.
By the 1790’s, paper was in growing demand. Samuel Campbell, a Scottish immigrant, was the first to dam the river to establish a paper mill. Campbell’s Pond (B3) carries his name. By the 1820’s, the Diamond Paper Mill Company had dammed the river to sluice water to their mill site, today transformed into the Paper Mill Playhouse.
An Olmsted Park
South Mountain Reservation was the last public work to receive the attention of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture in the U.S. Olmsted believed in nature’s restorative power to heal and inspire people living in an alien city environment. Seeing the beautiful parks of England and France, he became a vigorous advocate for city parks. As he did in New York’s Central Park, Olmsted’s intent was to make woodland beauty available to all people. Among the benefactors of this movement was Essex County. The first in the nation, the Essex County Park Commission was permanently established in 1895 and soon began purchasing private lands for the Reservation. Most of the land had not been cultivated for agriculture because of the rocky and uneven terrain, but consisted of “wood lots” cleared to supply timber to the paper mills. It took decades to complete all the purchases and develop the park.
Restoration, Neglect, and Current Efforts
To increase the variety of vegetation, the forest was judiciously thinned according to plans developed by the Olmsted Brothers firm, with Olmsted’s stepson, John C. Olmsted, doing most of the design work. Massive plantings of mountain laurel, wild azalea, dogwood, and rhododendron were set out. Hemlocks, white pine, various oaks, tulip trees, beech and other evergreens were reintroduced. Much of the construction work—trails, foot bridges, and shelters — was carried out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.
When the Commission was abolished in 1979, a newly created Department of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs within the County government assumed its responsibilities. Increasing budgetary constraints, however, limited mainten-ance and improvements. In 1998, Essex County voters approved a one-percent County tax for improving the County parks and preserving open space. In 2005, these funds began to be used for trail reconstruction and forest restoration as part of a series of state Green Acres grants. That same year, a comprehensive assessment and restoration plan, championed by the South Mountain Conservancy, was completed by the County to identify problems and direct efforts toward needed improvements, maintenance and forest management.
One of the key recommendations of the assessment was the need to manage the explosive growth of white tailed deer that were decimating the forest understory by over-browsing — and undermining the forest’s ability to replace aging trees. This prompted the County to begin an annual culling of deer starting in January 2008 to reduce down the deer population density to an ecologically sustainable level over several years.
Complementing this culling, in the spring of 2008 the County went forward with a Conservancy proposal for a multi-year, $800,000 forest regeneration program to accelerate the restoration of the forest understory. This was funded from grants from the Essex County Open Space Trust Fund and the NJ Green Acres program. The original concept was developed by Dennis Percher, Conservancy Chairman, and Board member Tricia Zimic based on the ideas of Troy Ettel of the New Jersey Audubon, Emile Devito of the NJ Conservation Foundation, and biologist Michael Van Clef.
The County funded a set of detailed restoration plans in the fall of 2008 by landscape architect Dan Dowd and ecologists from Rutgers’ Center for Urban Restoration Ecology, Steven Handel and Kristen Ross. This led to the engagement of contractor Andy Matt who created by October 2009 41 forest regeneration sites covering 498,000 square and planted with some 24,000 native species. This was in addition to the cultivation of the 14-acre Wildflower and Forest Preserve surrounding the dog park with a comparable number of native plants. These plantings supplemented the Conservancy’s work of the prior 12 months to create a Wildflower Meadow in the Preserve funded by a NJ DEP Recreational Trails Grant. The Conservancy and County hope this comprehensive regeneration program, combined with the ongoing reduction in the deer population,will begin to restore the Reservation’s dying forest so it can be enjoyed by succeeding generations.
In 2009, 52 acres were added to the Reservation above Mayapple Hill though it is still owned by the State. In October 2009, an additional 11 acres north of that parcel was purchased for $1.7 million by the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, West Orange, and the South Mountain Conservancy using Green Acres funds, all of which was matched by the County through its Open Space Trust Fund. This has brought the Reservation’s total acreage to 2,110.
In the Summer of 2012, about 2.5 miles of trails were professionally built utilizing these funds. New trails were added on Mayapple Hill creating a loop and an extension of the Lenape trail, and trails were added near the zoo, opening up a new reservoir-zoo loop trail. In addition, significant restoration was done to many of the woods roads including an impressive set of steps near Hemlock Falls.