Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Sunday, October 14, 2012

West Milford: The Story of a Suburb, Ch. 1

Chapter One: Keeping the Fires Burning

Yesterday was a lovely, autumn afternoon in the town of Hewitt, New Jersey. The fallen leaves covered its shady lanes, all hues of brilliant yellow, orange and red. As we stood at the crossroads of Longhouse Road and Furnace Road, we almost envied the former residents the simplicity of their lives here. Of course, the company store, which also included the local post office, was in rather sad shape, and getting sadder, we were told. The U.S. Postal Service needn’t worry about whether to close the Hewitt Branch down; it was abandoned around1930, when the Wanaque Reservoir was built, cutting off the Erie-Lackawanna rail line. Vandals have since enjoyedtearing the edifice and other former homes down.

Hewitt is no more than a deserted spot on the map now. Once, however, it was one of New Jersey’s many “iron towns,” part of the iron industry that stretched some 250 miles from western Massachusetts out to western Pennsylvania in about 25-mile wide swatch of iron-laden hills and mountains. Hewitt was the site of a furnace or forge, making pig iron out of the iron found in the Ringwood mines.

Even in the Colonial era, Hewitt was still tiny. Peter Hasenclever, desperate for forgers to turn the iron into logs, or “pigs” (so named for the way they were crafted, with small extensions along the length of the rod of iron that resembled piglets feeding at the sou’s belly), which would later be sold down river, transformed into whatever uses the manufacturer had for the iron, imported 500 ironworkers and their families from Germany to build an ironworks “plantation.” A dam at Long Pond (Greenwood Lake) provided the hydropower to operate a blast for the furnace and a large forge. Two more furnaces were constructed in the 1860s.

The main use for the iron, with the Revolutionary War looming, preceded by King Philip’s War, better known as the French-and-Indian War, the iron was desperately needed for the war effort, in order to produce firearms, bullets, and tools for farming. The Lenape Indians – whatever was left of them after their population was unintentionally decimated by European diseases, found the tools fascinating and useful.

Abram S. Hewitt was the last owner of the Long Pond Ironworks in Hewitt. The first owner, Cornelius Board, founded the company in 1739. Board sold the works to Hasenclever, and his partners, Seton & Croft. Mining in mountains, before the advent of the railroad in the 1830s, was laborious and expensive work. The iron ore had to be hauled up steep, rocky hills and down dales to get it to the forge. The ore itself was not the iron we think of; in order to make workable iron requires to other ingredients – charcoal and limestone, which was in ready abundance in the New Jersey, but had to be quarried.

Charcoal is obtained by cutting down trees, fashioning them into a teepee, and setting a fire inside the teepee. The preferred wood is chestnut. Approximately 10,000 acres of trees were needed both to supply one furnace. Two men worked 12-hour shifts to keep the fire burning without it getting out of control and burning down the entire supply of lumber. The burnt portion was either scraped off or fell off on its own; the charcoal of the second ingredient.

The woodlands, when the Dutch first settled here in the 1640s was so densely wooded, that it was said a squirrel could leap from tree to tree from the Hudson River to the Delaware and never touch the ground. By the 19th century, the hills of West Milford were completely denuded; not a tree in sight. The trees that you see driving through West Milford Township today are all young trees. Don’t be fooled by the tallest of the trees; they’re sycamore, which grow very tall very quickly.

The ironworks were “foundering” and Hasenclever, who also owned the works in Charlotteburg (Bloomingdale), by all accounts, was unjustifiably fired. His partners bought the Ringwood Company and renamed it The American Company. Later, The American Company would be bought by Robert Erskine (George Washington’s geographer) and Martin Ryerson. Erskine and Ryerson’s works created the iron chain Gen. George Washington would order to be placed across the Hudson River, to prevent the British from reaching Albany. You can see a piece of the chain at Ringwood State Park.
Peter Cooper, foreseeing the profitability of the railroads, bought the mine next. He also built the chains that would drag canal barges along the Erie and other canals. His son, Edward, and son-in-law, Abram S. Hewitt took over the operation. War was not the only industry that required iron. However, the mines of New Jersey were not the only mines that could provide the iron ore. In the 1870s, iron ore was discovered in the flat lands of Michigan. Hewitt’s company found that it was easier to ship the iron ore from Michigan by rail than try to drag it out of the hills of northern New Jersey.

Yet Abrams was a decent owner who did not want to abandon his employees. They lived a hardscrabble existence. They were paid in scrip rather than money, for the most part, as the company didn’t want its employees running off as soon as they saved enough money to live a better life. An iron worker was basically chained to his existence. The workers of those times, poor as they were, were happy to have employment – and a free house, which the company provided – so few really tried to leave. Whatever supplies they needed were available at the company store/post office.
However, by 1882, Hewitt and Cooper were told the ironworks just weren’t working out. Hewitt was in the midst of building a giant new waterwheel alongside the Wanaque River. But when he got the bad news from his number crunchers, the project – and the town – were abandoned.

The villagers of Hewitt did not look to the government for help, however. The rail line was gone, but the automobile had arrived in its place. The Greenwood Lake Turnpike brought many visitors past their village on their way to the fancy hotels at the Lake and in Tuxedo Park. So the villagers of Hewitt opened up a roadside food stand. For five cents, customers could sit at a picnic table and admire the sparkling Wanaque River. Hewitt did so well, financially, that the town was able to build its own church and hire a minister. Prior to that, itinerant preachers traveled through the area, delivering the Good News in open-air meetings.

The growing city of Newark, though, was rapaciously thirsty water. Its early settlers quickly bought up the lands in West Milford (and Ringwood) with plans to capitalize on property values, mines, quarries, and a future water source for the city. In the late 1920s, they razed many little hamlets in order to create the Wanaque Reservoir. Originally, the huge reservoir was meant to provide water to the cities of Paterson, Passaic, and Clifton. But Newark owned the rights to the land.

Hundreds of homes, businesses and churches were razed, and many towns disappeared under its waters. Hewitt was spared, for the time being. Then in 1984, the Monksville Dam and Reservoir were built, destroying most of the town. Hewitt was gone, save for a few, abandoned houses and the church, which is right on the Greenwood Lake Turnpike. Like a set in an old Western, you can look at most of the houses, but can’t go inside. There’s nothing inside the houses, anymore, not even the walls. The houses were stripped bare, like the company store, by vandals.

The Long Pond Ironworks is now a State Park, in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Protection, is mainly run by volunteers. The Ironworks only open once a month. There are no rangers to protect what is left of the site. The main feature is the forge itself. Damaged by weather and vandals, the volunteers have covered the furnace with a tarp. They also do what they can to maintain the remaining houses, moved to the site before the Monksville Reservoir flooded them. Archaeologist only deemed a handful of the buildings worth saving. Long Pond has requested at least enough money to preserve the forge –given its history of having built the great Hudson River chain. The answer from the government, in a bad economy, is “no.”

Therefore, Long Pond must depend upon donations to do what they can. Tourists should come to see the site, although they would be well to wear hiking boots. The pathways are strewn with rocks and rubble. Underneath the carpet leaves, you can still see the traces of a paved road. Long Pond is a testimony to the industriousness of its immigrant workers, the ingenuity, commitment and patriotism of its owners and the courage and tenacity of the iron workers and miners who lived a difficult, dangerous and hardscrabble existence in the northern New Jersey Highlands.

At least, as modern suburbanites whizz past the Ironworks, and they’re thinking of“evil capitalists” like Mitt Romney, they can remember Peter Hasenclever and Abram S. Hewitt, as well as Robert Erskine. They made their fortunes, but they put every effort into keeping their employees employed. They can also remember the families who lived in the area: the Sehulsters, the Vreelands, the Strubles, and the Van Ordens. When things got tough, they didn’t get going; they changed with the times and turned economic hardship into opportunity.

One has to wonder at our government, which wastes money on “affordable housing” that local townspeople really don’t want, but refuses to spend a penny on an historical site that symbolizes the true American work ethic. But why would they want to? Especially this administration. Why would they “subsidize” an 18thCentury “capitalist” enterprise that forged the ammunition that helped America win the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and earn her freedom from tyranny?
Iron makes you strong and that’s the last thing the Obama administration wants – a strong, self-sufficient nation.


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