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 the 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 thewhole 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.
Farms and farmstands, orchards and vineyards abound in the New Jersey Highlands. Nearly 13% of the land in the region is dedicated to agricultural uses. Agriculture provides jobs and contributes to our local economy. Farms add to the scenic beauty of the region, and provide opportunities for agro-tourism.
Farming is a way of life for many. The state and local governments recognize the benefits agriculture adds to the economy and to the quality of life in the Highlands. However, agricultural viability remains at risk due to high operating costs and development pressures.
- 39,646 acres of Preserved Farmland in the New Jersey Highlands thru 2015.
- 27,500 acres of farmland were lost to development in the Highlands between 1986 and 2002.
- 483 farms in the Highlands have been preserved since 1983.
Support Local Farms
- Buy local, buy fresh – at roadside stands and community farmers markets. See www.state.nj.us/jerseyfresh and www.foodshedalliance.org
- Buy organic – visit the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey’s website at www.nofanj.org
- Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and contract for a share of the produce. See www.nofanj.org and www.localharvest.org
- Pick your own – fruits, vegetables, flowers, pumpkins, etc. See www.state.nj.us/jerseyfresh
- Cut your own – fresh Christmas trees. See www.njchristmastrees.org
- Plant your own – New Jersey grown flowers, shrubs, trees, etc. See www.state.nj.us/jerseygrown
- Take a farm tour or stay at a farm bed & breakfast. See www.visitnjfarms.org