Mine, Federal Hill, Passaic County
Photo Courtesy The Land Conservancy of New Jersey
Highlands history is all about iron, with geography calling the shots. Northwest New Jersey was a wilderness until after the Revolution, but the first visitors saw that iron ore lay underground in a wide diagonal swath through the area. And the forests provided all the charcoal they would need. Mining began early in the 1700s, or even before. While the English were in charge, colonists were forbidden to manufacture metal products for local use: those made the profits, and profits belonged to the mother country.
Washington knew the importance of northwest New Jersey iron. Local ammunition providers were concealed and protected. Wintering in Morristown was not an accident. After the Revolution, knowledge, investments, and a work force were ready to grow. Iron was the growth engine of Highlands settlement. At Ringwood and Mt. Hope, Mine Hill, Andover, and Oxford, the Ogdens, Fords, and Hewitts flourished. Markets opened in New York and beyond, reached via that engineering marvel, the Morris canal, which carried loads of ore and local produce. By mid 19th-century, railroads and the historic road network – turnpikes: the prototype Morris, the Hamburg-Paterson, the Newark-Pompton; parts of modern Routes 46, 23, 24, 206 – put the area on the move. Waterways like the Musconetcong and the Whippany, which defined the original Highlands travel patterns, changed from transportation corridors to power sources as agricultural land use spread into the lower, more fertile Highlands areas, and small towns grew up to provide commercial services.
Of course the story of Highlands development doesn’t stop there. The geography also gave us lakes, where city dwellers fled in summer for health and fun. Many lake communities, planted in late Victorian days, are still with us. We can still see their typical architecture and clustered growth patterns, under the changes that now make these little houses livable year-round.
The remnants of this 19th-century built environment are today’s cultural resources. To understand and honor their story, we must protect them, as the Highlands Act requires. Less than 10% of these resources have even been identified; we must find the rest. It is a huge job, and the Council will need lots of help from the community.
We have to label and celebrate the rusty “industrial archaeology,” the almost invisible farmhouse and barn foundations, the patterns of early cultivation in the fields. Historic resources are not just big pretty houses. Telling the whole story of our past means seeing what our ancestors saw, in its open scenic setting, with all its limits and subtleties. The natural and built environments support each other, and together they keep us alive. Protect the water, protect the land, protect the past, to make sure the Highlands has a future.
The New Jersey Highlands are rich with connections to our past. In total, there are 597 identified historic and cultural sites and districts in the region, many of which are listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The Highlands Region also has four National Historic Landmarks and 56 archaeological sites.