If you have traveled on Interstate 78 between the Newark area and I-287, you might have noticed driving under bridges with trees on them. These bridges link areas of the Watchung Reservation, a large county park split by the interstate.
One of the bridges carries no pavement at all.
The Watchung Mountains are a fairly low range in northeastern New Jersey. In the 1950s the region was characterized by rural towns and park lands. When the US government announced a plan for an interstate highway through the area in 1957, it began a long fight with local officials and conservationists.
The Watchung section of Interstate 78 was finally completed in 1986. The highway cut through the northern part of the Reservation, and bridges were constructed to serve as wildlife crossings.
As I was searching online for information about the Watchung Reservation, I found that the Wikipedia page on the topic said, “Land bridges designed to allow wildlife to travel safely between the severed parts of the Watchung Reservation were built, but they have failed and are largely not used by animals.”
That is a bold statement to make without citations. I figured that while I explored the area I should look for signs of wildlife. Unfortunately the previous day’s snow had turned to rain during the night, so it was not as easy as I hoped it would be.
I did find numerous animal tracks, which are kind of hard to photograph.
There were several piles of droppings on the wildlife bridge.
Laying on the ground to photograph feces was a new experience for me!
There was also a game trail that went all the way across the bridge through some bushes.
There are deer bones on the bridge too.
Even hawks like the place.
“Largely not used” is a pretty vague statement, but it is clear that animals do use the crossing to some degree. There are plenty of downed tree branches in the area for anyone who would be interested in building a blind and sitting in highway noise and fumes for a few hours to observe wildlife.
West of the bridge without pavement is the old Nike Road crossing. It is named after the Nike missile base that used to be in the area, one of the many air defense installations that ringed New York and other major cities until the Nike system became obsolete. The Watchung installation, NY-73, was operational from 1958 to 1963.
There is a gap between the road surface and the wooded shoulder of the bridge, which is a little spooky to look through and see tractor-trailers scream by below.
The road makes a sharp turn and heads uphill.
It would be a nice view if not for the incessant highway noise.
A rusty fence topped with barbed wire is presumably a remnant of the Nike base.
Near the top of the hill, the road curves back and ends at a residential neighborhood. But a side path leads to the grounds of a high school, near where the Nike radar installation stood.
While much of the Watchung Reservation is surprisingly quiet, the noisy parts have a few stories to tell. The federal government’s support for automobile and highway travel, its conflicts with locals about new construction, and the effort to accommodate or appease environmental concerns are part of America’s post World War II story just as much as the missiles deployed to intercept Soviet bombers. Taking the time to explore on foot gives you a chance to gain a new understanding of a place you might have driven through hundreds of times.
“The Bunny Bridge of Watchung.” The Lostinjersey Blog. March 19, 2009.
Di Ionno, Mark. Backroads, New Jersey: Driving at the Speed of Life. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Pages 17-20.
Preview at Google Books.
“MISSILES in Mountainside — Nike Battery NY-73.” The Hetfield House, Mountainside Historic Preservation Committee, November, 2009.
Watchung Reservation Trail Map. Union County Department of Parks and Community Renewal. Bob Cosman, 2001, Updated 2010.