Watchung Reservation History Trail
The Watchung Reservation History Trail is a 6-mile loop trail that visits and identifies several sites of historic interest. These sites recall features from the early years of the Watchung Reservation, or describe uses of the land before it was incorporated into the park. The trail is marked with pink blazes. Signs on posts along the trail will identify the sites. The trail is designed to start and end at the Trailside Nature & Science Center, but can also be accessed from parking areas at the Deserted Village of Feltville and Lake Surprise.
Trailside Nature & Science Center
In 1941, a small nature display was set up on a table in the corner of a plant nursery maintenance garage. It was so popular that the whole building was quickly given over to exhibits and became the Trailside Museum, a name that came from the National Park Service’s model for museums located next to trails. The building was expanded in 1952. In 1961, the facility was renamed the Trailside Nature & Science Center, and a Planetarium was constructed alongside the Museum in 1969. A modern Visitor Center, designed by nationally renowned architect Michael Graves, was erected uphill from the older buildings in 1975, and that building was expanded in 2006. Today, this environmental education facility is perhaps the oldest surviving trailside museum in the United States. It is open daily from noon to 5:00 p.m.
Exploration for copper in this area of the First Watchung Mountain may date back to at least the 1600’s. Crushed ore may have been used for tools and decoration by the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Another story holds that Hessian soldiers held captive near here by the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War were compelled to dig for copper ore to support the war effort. The ore was of low quality and the exploratory mine never progressed more than 15 feet into the mountain. Portions of the mine have collapsed and are visible to the North of the gorge. On the edge of the collapsed area, a large stone used for sluicing the ore can be seen.
Feltville Mill Site.
In 1845, David Felt built a 3½ story mill, powered by water from the Blue Brook, to serve as a factory for his printing business, Stationers Hall Press. Felt built an entire town, Feltville, on the bluff overlooking the mill to house his workers. A 3-bay garage next to the mill housed ox-drawn wagons that carried Felt’s stationary products to his store in New York City. The mill was torn down in 1930.
This spring-fed pond was built about 1882 by Warren Ackerman to supply water to the guests of his summer resort, Glenside Park. A house was built uphill from the pond for the man, who came to be known as the Hermit, who was responsible for operating a steam-driven pump and steam laundry at the pond.
Drake Farm House & Barn
600 acres of open land along the Second Watchung Mountain were farmed to provide food for the residents of the mill town of Feltville. Later, the land was used by Warren Ackerman for cattle grazing and by the guests of the summer resort of Glenside Park for their recreational pursuits, including golf. Even after this land was incorporated into the Watchung Reservation in the 1920’s, a portion of this land was farmed by the Drake family up until the 1940’s. The stone foundations of the Drake Farm house and barn are still visible.
Deserted Village of Feltville/Glenside Park
About 1736, Peter Willcocks built a sawmill along the Blue Brook to produce lumber, which would be needed by farmers as they settled this frontier area. The sawmill operation cleared hundreds of acres of forest. In 1845, David Felt bought 760 acres of land and built a printing factory along the brook. He built an entire town on the bluff above the brook to support the mill operation, and by 1850, 175 people were living in Feltville. After Felt retired in 1860, other business ventures were tried but failed, and the town became deserted for a short time. But in 1882, Warren Ackerman bought the property and converted the former mill town into a summer resort, called Glenside Park. When the popularity of mountain resorts was displaced by the advent of the Jersey Shore, Glenside Park closed in 1916. Soon after the Union County Park System was formed in 1921, this area was incorporated into the Watchung Reservation, one of America’s first county parks. The grounds of the Deserted Village are open daily during daylight hours. There is a guide book available for a 1-mile walking tour that explains the ten surviving historic buildings, some of which are still inhabited.
Former Boy Scout Camporee Field
This field was used by Boy Scouts for tent camping until Interstate Route 78 was built
nearby in 1985. The State and Federal governments paid to relocate Scout camping activities away from the highway, to the other side of the park. When Lake Surprise was restored in 2000, the 52,000 cubic yards of sediment that was dredged from the lake was disposed of here and at the adjoining Corn Field. These fields are now the largest wildflower meadows in Union County.
This field is named for the crop that was grown here when the area was still farmland.
In the woods below the Corn Field, the Elizabeth area Boy Scouts built their first official camp, including a log mess hall and three-sided lean-to cabins, in the 1920’s. Until
the formation of the Union County Park Police a few years later, the Boy Scouts patrolled the trails of the Watchung Reservation, helping lost hikers and picking up litter. The log mess hall has since been demolished. The lean-tos were replaced with newer structures in the 1960’s, but are no longer in use. This field is named for the crop that was grown here when the area was still farmland. In the woods below the Corn Field, the
Elizabeth area Boy Scouts built their first official camp, including a log mess hall and three-sided lean-to cabins, in the 1920’s. Until the formation of the Union County Park Police a few years later, the Boy Scouts patrolled the trails of the Watchung Reservation, helping lost hikers and picking up litter. The log mess hall has since been demolished. The lean-tos were replaced with newer structures in the 1960’s, but are no longer in use.
In 1845, David Felt built a secondary water source for powering his mill at Feltville by damming the Blue Brook. Feltville Lake was renamed Ackerman Lake when the summer resort of Glenside Park opened. By the time the Union County Park Commission bought the property for inclusion in the Watchung Reservation, the lake was called Silver Lake and was a popular place for swimming and boating. The park planners laid out a road to the lake that wound its way down through the woods such that the lake could not be seen until you were right next to it. Hence the new name – Lake Surprise.
Girl Scout Cabin
A cabin was built on a bluff overlooking Lake Surprise for use by area Girl Scouts. The cabin was destroyed by fire in 1975.
Lake Surprise Boathouse
By 1930, park users could rent rowboats at a rustic boathouse along the southern shore
of Lake Surprise. Nearby was a refectory where park visitors could buy refreshments. A restroom building stood on the hillside up behind the boathouse, where it could also serve park visitors from the Loop Area parking lot. All three buildings were dismantled by the 1970’s. Boats are still allowed on Lake Surprise, with the proper permit decal (call 908-527-4900).
Lake Surprise Bathhouse
In the early years of the Watchung Reservation, park visitors could swim at a beach on the
southern shore of the lake, and could change into swim suits at a bathhouse. Aquatic carnivals at the lake drew hundreds of participants for swimming and boating events. Lifeguards kept watch from a tower in the middle of the lake
In 1736, Peter Willcocks built a sawmill along the Mo-No-Pe-Nonck Indian trail, near the Blue Brook. He built a house on the Second Watchung Mountain. At the same time, his in-laws, the Badgleys, built a house along that same trail on the First Watchung Mountain. Over the next 250 years, the house was a residence, horse riding stable, and maintenance garage, until it was destroyed by fire in 1984.
Road from Westfield to New Providence
The former Mo-No-Pe-Nonck trail used by Lenape Indians grew into the Road from
Westfield to New Providence as farmers settled this area of the West Fields beyond Elizabethtown. The road still exists outside of the park as New Providence Road in Mountainside and Glenside Road in Berkeley Heights, and in sections inside the park as hiking or bridle trails.