The Ghosts of Clinton Road
No, this isn’t about former Pres. Bill Clinton, although his ghost is said to haunt Democratic fund-raisers. This about Clinton Road in West Milford, N.J., which attracts thrill-seeking teenagers every summer, looking for ghosts and former inhabitants of Jungle Habitat.
This ten-mile stretch of rural road seems endless, as there are few houses and fewer streetlights. A narrow, two-lane road, it’s rarely traveled, except by ghost-hunters. It’s a true country road. Recently, two sets of teenagers were involved in car accidents, one fatal – not on the fabled Clinton Road itself, but on the winding stretch of state highway 23 that leads to it.
Canistear Road is more notorious for accidents than Clinton Road. But it is Clinton Road where Jungle Habitat was located. The road and the surrounding woodlands have gained notoreity for legends of paranormal activity – ghosts, strange creatures, and gatherings of witches, Satanists, and the Ku Klux Klan.
It is also notorious for having the country's longest traffic light wait. This occurs at a double intersection where Route 23 crosses the road. The two lights can cause motorists to wait for 5 minutes in total. The lengthy wait was a result of traffic planners giving increased priority to Route 23 to reduce the traffic jams during rush hour (another legend of Rt. 23).
The road, like the reservoir and brook in the area, gets its name from the now-vanished settlement of Clinton, which was located about where the road crosses the brook.
There are several tales regularly told about different areas along or near Clinton Road.
- The ghost boy at the bridge: At one of the bridges over Clinton Brook near the reservoir, if you put a quarter in the middle of the road where the yellow line is, at midnight it will supposedly be promptly returned by the ghost of a boy who drowned while swimming below or had fallen in while sitting on the edge of the bridge. In some tellings, an apparition is seen; in others, the ghost pushes the teller into the water if he or she looks over the side of the bridge in order to save him from being run over as he was in life.
· Besides the ghost boy, there have been other ghosts described by Weird NJ readers. One claims to have seen a ghost Camaro driven by a girl who supposedly died when she crashed it in 1988 (any mention while driving the road at night is supposed to trigger a manifestation).
· Another claims to have encountered two park rangers one night while camping with friends near Terrace Pond, on a ridge accessible from the road by hiking trails, who in the morning turned out to have been the ghosts of two rangers who had died on the job in 1939.
· The Druidic temple: A conical stone structure just east of the road south of the reservoir was said to be a site where local Druids practiced their rituals, and horrible things might come to pass for any intruder who looked too closely or came at the wrong time. The building is actually an iron smelter left over from the 18th century when the ore was common in the area and needed for the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Clinton Furnace in 1976. It is currently fenced off by the Newark water department to prevent any entrance and the liability for injury that might result.
· Ghost truck: There are accounts of phantom vehicles: pickup trucks that supposedly appear from nowhere in the middle of the night and chase drivers to the end of the road, then disappear.
· Strange creatures, from hellhounds to monkeys and unidentifiable hybrids have allegedly been seen at night. If not of supernatural origin, they are said to have been survivors of Jungle Habitat, a nearby attraction that closed in 1976, which have managed to survive and crossbreed.
- Some visitors to the area report also seeing people dressed weirdly at odd hours who simply stare at those who see them and do not speak. Sometimes these people disappear or are apparently not seen by those present.
- Lastly, some travelers have reported a feeling of uneasiness or mounting dread as they drive down the road, sometimes so great that they have to turn back.
- Cross Castle (sometimes referred to as Clinton Castle) - In 1905, a man named Richard Cross built a castle on high land near the reservoir for his wife and three children. Later in the 20th century, it fell into ruin after a fire had destroyed part of it and thus became a popular destination for hikers and local teenagers looking for secluded locations to camp out and have parties. It was also widely believed to have played host to gatherings of Satan worshippers. Past visitors have written to Weird NJ telling of strange occurrences in or near the castle site, such as people going into seizures and bruises appearing on their bodies afterwards, or having strange, disturbing visions. Writings on the castle's interior walls, particularly in areas that were supposedly inaccessible, that suggest Satanism have also been reported. Newark's water department razed the castle as an attractive nuisance in 1988, but the foundations remain and several hiking trails can still be followed to the site.
- The Ice Man. One day in May 1983 a bicyclist going down the road noticed vultures feasting at a spot in the nearby woods. He investigated and discovered it was a human body. An autopsy found that the man had died of foul play but also something initially puzzling: ice crystals in blood vessels near his heart. His interior organs also had decayed at a rate far slower than his skin. Pathologists concluded that someone had frozen his body after death in an attempt to mislead investigators into believing he died at a later time than he actually did. The man was identified as someone on the periphery of Mafia activities in Rockland County. The investigation ultimately led to the 1986 arrest of Richard Kuklinski, a New Jersey native involved in Rockland organized crime who confessed to being the killer of not only the victim at issue but a veteran hit man for the mob. He claimed to have killed over a hundred others and similarly treated their bodies, which earned him the nickname "The Iceman." He pled guilty to five of the murders and received two life sentences, which ended with his death in March 2006.
Whether or not there are ghosts on Clinton Road, there is now yet another ghost on Route 23’s infamous bends in West Milford. The light at Clinton Road is responsible for such wrong-way accidents (the other accident involved alcohol) since drivers must cross through a wooded-median to get to the southbound lanes of the highway.
The first accident, involving the fatality, was a recipe for disaster: a 16 year-old driver on a learner’s permit, driving an unfamiliar car, late at night on unfamiliar roads, having read a stupid, but very popular magazine with an article about Clinton Road.
What is our state thinking of, issuing any kind of drivers’ permits to 16 year-olds? What are the parents thinking of? Kids are kids; they love this Weird N.J. magazine and will find a way to search out New Jersey’s mysteries. The real mysteries are in the bureaucracy of the Department of Transportation in Trenton, which issues permits to stupid kids, fails to put up proper direction signs, and improperly grades the roads.
We’re still waiting for a sign in Wanaque that indicates to drivers on Union Avenue where the northbound entrance to Rt. 287 is. Sit in the parking lot of the Stop & Shop on a Saturday evening and you’re likely to see some car mistake the exit ramp for the entrance and drive onto the highway the wrong way.
I met one of the sign-painters at the DOT in Trenton, a friendly fellow who would gladly paint the sign if someone would just give him the orders. As for the history-mystery hunting teens, it’s too bad they don’t pay more attention to the real history of New Jersey. Instead, they’re adding their own obituaries to the weird legends of New Jersey.
These kids always come from someplace else in New Jersey. Do us a favor, please: stay home! This isn’t the kind of tourism we need.