Within northern New Jersey’s Watchung Reservation, a cluster of cottages in various states of repair mark the location of a mill town that became a summer resort.
Native Americans called the region the “Wach Unks,” which means high hills. A number of Native American artifacts have been found around the village site, and it is believed the area was used for winter residence. The land was sold to white men in 1664.
In 1736, Peter Wilcox purchased a 424 acre tract from the Elizabethtown Associates. He soon established a mill along the Blue Brook.
Early settlers are buried on a hill near the village. According to a Park Commission book from the 1960s, all of the original markers had disappeared, but the head stone of John Willcox was recovered and put into storage to prevent it from being stolen again.
In 1845, David Felt bought about 760 acres with water rights along the valley. He chose the location because the water was considered good for making paper and there were already two mills ready for his use.
Walking through the area today, passing families enjoying some time outdoors and people leisurely walking their dogs, you don’t get a sense of how regimented life here once was.
Felt considered the area “an ideal spot on which to found a village where the inhabitants would be removed from the temptations and sorrows of city life and would enjoy goodness, peace, and plenty.”
He set up housing for workers, but also subjected them to rigid rules on and off the job.
According to one account,
The owner of the village was a man of a strong, positive nature, cold and reserved, and he ruled the village people as far as he could with as much methodical strictness as he applied to his boxwood hedges and well trimmed cedar trees. All of his employees were compelled to trade at his store, and those who lived in his two large boarding houses had to keep within the strictest bounds. At seven o’clock in the morning the bell on the great barn at the ‘Mansion House’ rang for work to begin. At twelve and one o’clock it rang for the dinner recess, and when it sounded again the millwheel stopped and the mill hands came trooping out of the big door and climbed the winding paths beneath the trees on the bluff for their suppers. When night had fallen and nine o’clock came, the bell rang out again, and ill-fared the youth and maiden who were found strolling in the rocky glen or beside the rushing millstream, for a rigid rule was laid down that all in the village must be within doors when the last bell echoed through the darkened woods.
But Feltville would soon become a place of leisure. In 1860, David Felt sold the village and returned to New York City. Future owners failed to keep successful businesses. Mills crumbled and houses were abandoned as the place became a local curiosity known as the Deserted Village.
In 1882 the property was bought at auction by Warren Ackerman, who rehabilitated it as a summer resort called Glenside Park.
A brochure boasted that “The air is dry, clear and entirely free from even a hint of malaria.” Located on a wooded hillside a short carriage ride from a train station, the resort was largely successful until the mid 1910s. Its decline has been attributed to an increasing popularity of shore resorts and to the automobile making other places more accessible to people in the resort’s target market.
Glenside Park’s land was soon bought by a number of proprietors, then by Union County during the establishment of the Watchung Reservation in the 1920s.
During the Great Depression, the Park Commission restored the cottages and rented them for cheap to families who had lost their homes and properties. Soon all the cottages were occupied and a community identity was established.
To this day, some of the cottages are private residences, outposts of habitation among nearly identical buildings making a slow return to nature.
The people who have lived in the places we explore had different reasons to be there. For some, the Feltville area was handy housing for a nearby job exploiting the resources of wood and water. Some spent winters there and others enjoyed the country air during the summer. For today’s visitors, the Deserted Village offers a chance to witness time and nature weathering old structures while on a nice stroll through the woods.
Hawley, James B. The Deserted Village and The Blue Brook Valley. Union County Park Commission, 1964.