Category Archives: History Adventures

Concrete Arches

In December of 1911, trains began crossing the Paulinskill Valley over massive archways built from more concrete than any other structure in the world contained. Today the Paulinskill Viaduct towers over the valley below as a monument to railroad engineering.


The Viaduct was part of a massive project to more efficiently move passengers and freight across northern New Jersey.

The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company was formed in 1853 when two Pennsylvania railroads consolidated. Its primary purpose was to haul anthracite coal from the Scranton, PA area to connections in New Jersey, but it expanded into carrying other freight and passenger traffic. The DL&W’s 1869 takeover of the Morris and Essex railroad extended its line to Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from New York City.

In 1899 William Haynes Truesdale became president of the company. He had been a railroad man all his life, starting as a clerk in a Midwestern railroad company. Truesdale launched an ambitious program to modernize and improve the company’s infrastructure and equipment.

One of Truesdale’s concerns was the corridor between Port Morris, New Jersey, and the Delaware River. The 40 mile trip included numerous curves, some of them very sharp for a railroad, as well as steep grades that were expensive to haul coal over. A cut-off route was planned that would shorten the trip to 28 miles with only a few gentle curves, and a total rise and fall of only 11 feet.

DL&W’s chief engineer George J. Ray outlined the Cut-Off plan, but there is disagreement over whether Ray or one of the concrete engineers is most responsible for the design of the viaducts.

The Lackawanna Cut-Off was built in seven sections under seven different contracts, at a total cost of $11 million. Construction began in August 1908 and the first trains rolled through in December 1911.


The Cut-Off pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in railroad construction. The Paulinskill Viaduct is 1100 feet long and spans seven arches 117 feet above the valley.


When the Viaduct was built, it crossed over another company’s railroad that passed along the river. The foundations of their station and nearby buildings can still be seen.


The Cut-Off later fell under Conrail’s control and was abandoned in 1979. Its tracks were torn up afterward. Guardrails aren’t guaranteed either.


Passages in the rail bed lead to inspection and maintenance tunnels. Naturally, the tunnels are now full of graffiti – as well as satanic rituals and spirits of the dead, depending on which folklore you choose to believe.


Massive amounts of fill were needed to keep the Cut-Off at a gentle grade. Tunnels were built to cross through the fill. The tunnel at Route 94 is marked at the top of the arch with the year 1909.


A second tunnel nearby is now a park passageway.


The rail bed also cut through hilltops.


The tracks crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania at the 1450 foot-long Delaware River Viaduct, which Interstate 80 travels underneath.


The Delaware River Viaduct was completed in 1909. At its western end, the railroad curves sharply north and joins other tracks to go through a gap in the Kittatinny Mountains along the Delaware River.


Maybe one day the Lackawanna Cut-Off will again be topped with steel tracks and feel the rumble of passing trains. Hopefully space for a pedestrian walkway can be made if that happens. In the meantime, its viaducts offer the traveler a glimpse into what people once did to make a straighter railroad.



Casey, Robert J. and W.A.S. Douglas. The Lackawanna Story: The First Hundred Years of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Cunningham, John T. Railroading in New Jersey. Associated Railroads of New Jersey, 1951.
Photo of viaduct under construction is from Cunningham’s book.

Richman, Steven M. The Bridges of New Jersey: Portraits of Garden State Crossings. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

“Paulinskill Viaduct,” Weird NJ.


Head First Video: The Modern School of Stelton

The Head First crew explored the grounds of the Stelton Ferrer Colony with a former resident and discovered one of the most significant radical communities that existed in New Jersey.

The Modern School, based on the ideas of Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer, was a radical program of freedom in education. After Ferrer was executed in 1909, anarchists and social reformers founded Modern Schools in many countries, and the movement took root in the United States. From 1915 to 1953, a community anchored by a Modern School existed in Piscataway Township, New Jersey.

Head First took a tour of the old Ferrer grounds with Bob Vinik, who grew up in Stelton and attended the Modern School. He gave us a fascinating picture of community life and how students grew into successful adults. We also got a chance to see how the land of the old colony has changed as Piscataway Township grew around it. It was a pleasure meeting Bob and discovering the unique history around the corner.

Rocks on Mountains

On Sunday afternoon I went looking for some abandoned mines in the Ramapo Mountains. Ore from northern New Jersey’s highlands, especially iron, fed the state’s manufacturing centers and inspired the development of roads, canals, and railways to move metal and to bring Pennsylvania coal to foundries after local forests were too depleted to fuel them. Most of the mines were abandoned by the early twentieth century and some of them make worthy destinations for a history adventure.

Ramapo Nickel Mine and Mountains

I considered exploring the Peter’s Mine complex. I noticed that the trail near the Peter’s mine was closed, but I wasn’t all that concerned since I wanted to get off the trail anyway.


But then I vaguely remembered something that did concern me. It turns out the Peter’s mine complex was used as a dumping area for industrial waste, including paint sludge from a Ford plant in Mahwah. It’s now a Superfund environmental cleanup site. Local residents complain of health problems linked to contamination and it is still unknown how much waste remains in the area.

I chose to explore a different area, the Ramapo Valley County Reservation. Quite a few people were there in the mild weather, but the crowds dissipated the farther I got from the parking lot. I set out to find a couple of mines on my map, and hoped that by exploring deeper I could find something not on the map.

Skyline From Ramapo Valley County Reservation

Downhill from the Ridge Trail, just south of its junction with the blue-and-white trail, is a location identified as Nickel Mine. If you look carefully, you can see the outline of a hole with a horseshoe-shaped pile of waste rock – called tailings – around it.

Ramapo Nickel Mine Tailings

There were a few openings and a trench nearby.

Ramapo Nickel Mine

Just down the hill is a rock face.

Ramapo Mountain Icicles

I got back on the trail and set out for the Pierson Exploration. I explored the area the Pierson Exploration looked to be on the map, but I don’t think I found it. As it turns out, the mines in this area are well-cataloged and described in the book Iron Mine Trails by Edward J. Lenik. According to Lenik, the Pierson Exploration is an opening on the hillside to the west of the woods road about 1100 feet from its junction with the green trail. It appears on an 1862 map of the Pierson estate, so it was dug sometime before then.

By the time I got to the Pierson area I was approaching the time I set to head back to the parking lot. But I decided to go up a nearby ridge.

Ridge in Ramapo

I did not find evidence of a mine up there, but did find evidence of much earlier activity: a boulder that must have been left on the ridge by a glacier. Since it was the highest thing around I obviously climbed on top of it.


Embarrassingly I had trouble finding the woods road after coming down from the ridge, and had to do more compass work and pushing through thorn bushes than I should have needed.

With that detour, I was actually concerned about getting a ticket for parking in the county lot after it closed. So I sped down the trail, and got to my car just as a truck with flashing lights pulled into the lot. They didn’t look like they were giving tickets, but I left the parking lot feeling like an action hero anyway.

All in all it was a good afternoon. You never know what you might find when you take the time to look. Just watch where you’re going and know how to navigate back if you miss something. This trip would not bring me to mines as impressive as those we explored in Harriman State Park, but it did give me a much-appreciated opportunity to experience the outdoors and see what’s out there.

Ramapo Mountains Sunset


Layton, Mary Jo. “No end in sight for Ford cleanup in Ringwood.” The Record, December 12, 2010.

Lenik, Edward J. Iron Mine Trails: A History and Hiker’s Guide to the Historic Iron Mines of the New Jersey and New York Highlands. New York: New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 1996. Pages 66-69.

Map Archive of New Jersey’s Abandoned Mines. State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water Supply and Geoscience.

Trail Map 115 – North Jersey Trails. New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, Inc. 9th Edition, 2009.

Background on mining’s impact on transportation networks:
Lane, Wheaton J. From Indian Trail to Iron Horse: Travel and Transportation in New Jersey, 1620-1860. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.

Old Time Traffic

Central New Jersey has long been an important travel corridor. Native Americans, Dutch and English settlers, and the Continental Army all passed through on routes not much different from today’s Route 27. By getting off the highway, we can get a taste of what it was like to travel between Philadelphia and New York going overland from the Delaware to the Raritan River.

The most important Lenape pathway from the Delaware River northeast to the Raritan and Hudson Rivers was known as the Assunpink Trail. Between the Raritan and Delaware Rivers it split into the “Upper Trail” and “Lower Trail.” European settlers expanded and slightly straightened the Upper Trail into a throughway that became known as the Old Dutch Road. By 1765 it was the favorite route for travel between Philadelphia and New York because of its directness and the accommodations for travelers along the route.

George Washington’s troops burned a bridge along the road in January 1777. A stone bridge was built in 1793 to replace it.

Kingston Mill and Bridge

But the energy of the new republic could not be satisfied with repairing old roads – new ones were desired. In the first third of the nineteenth century, numerous turnpikes were built to connect markets, manufacturing centers, and raw materials.

In late 1804 the Trenton and New Brunswick Straight Turnpike Company was formed, and their route between the two cities would eventually become part of US Route 1.

Turnpike companies were each created by a specific act of the state legislature, and they received a number of favors. Competing with chartered routes was prohibited for a fixed number of years, if not permanently. Travelers who dodged tollgates by taking byways known as “shun pikes” could be fined three times the legal toll. Turnpike companies could also use the power of eminent domain to take private property in some circumstances.

Turnpike companies often took over existing roads, straightening them where previous concern for property boundaries led them to be circuitous. But others, including the Trenton and New Brunswick, were laid out in entirely new, straight routes.


New turnpikes were required to be as direct as the ground would allow. Those leading through relatively level areas were permitted a deviation of three degrees from the plane of the horizon.

The Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike soon opened to travelers. The Kingston Branch, established in 1807, extended service to Princeton and Kingston over part of the Old Dutch Road.

Increased traffic during the War of 1812 took its toll on the roadway. Heavily loaded wagons turned road surfaces into a maze of “hopeless ruts and quagmires.”

Wheaton Lane shows us that road rage is an old tradition:

This part of the route through New Jersey was in such ill repute with drivers that when the going was bad they sometimes refused to take the short trip of twenty-five miles. When the roads were drier however, teamsters even fought among themselves with whips while struggling to have their wagons loaded first.

Conditions improved after peace relaxed freight transport. The turnpike became a popular route for stage lines to take passengers through the state between Trenton and New Brunswick, where ferries and steam boats took them on the Delaware, Raritan, and Hudson Rivers.

In the mid-nineteenth century, competition from canals and railroads hurt turnpike companies and the roads became mainly used for local travel. In 1897 the state passed a law where remaining turnpikes were bought and turned into public roads with a combination of funds from state and county treasuries and local landowners.

People who held stock in turnpike companies rarely made large financial profits from the pikes, but since they were usually local landowners, farmers, and businessmen, they gained from the improved transportation networks they helped create. Wheaton Lane estimates that toll roads reduced the costs of transportation by as much as 50% and boosted rural and urban development.

Automobile travel in the 1910s and 1920s brought old roads to new prominence. The New Jersey section of the transcontinental Lincoln Highway (now Route 27) largely followed the Old Dutch Road, and the section of US Route 1 between the Raritan and Delaware Rivers was built on the route of the Trenton and New Brunswick Turnpike.

Between the two highways, a wooded area offers the explorer an idea of what old roads might have looked like.

Cook Natural Area Trail

The Cook Natural area extends east from Ridge Road in South Brunswick. And there is mud.

Cook Natural Area Mud

The trail leads to an old stone bridge that was once used as a road crossing over the Heathcote Brook.

Cook Heathcote Bridge

The roadway across the bridge would hopefully have been better covered when it was in use. Now the structural stones are visible sticking out of the top.

cook bridge surface

A stone on the middle of the bridge appears to be engraved with “Heathcots Brook”.

Heathcots Brook

The traveler speeding through New Jersey or waiting behind a truck on Route 1 is part of a longer tradition than one might think. But when the luxury of time can be enjoyed, there are many places to discover along the road. Some of them are worth getting a little dirty for.

Bridge in Cook Natural Area


Backes, William J. A History of Trenton, 1679-1929. The Trenton Historical Society.

“Cook Natural Area,” Kingston Greenways Association.

Dawson, George, ed. Guide to Historic Sites in Central New Jersey, 4th
Edition. Somerset, NJ: The Raritan-Millstone Heritage Alliance, Inc,
2012. Page 126.

Kingston 1999 Committee. Kingston: Crossroads to History: 325th
Anniversary of the Village of Kingston, New Jersey, 75th Anniversary
of the Kingston Volunteer Fire Company. 1999. Pages 8-11. Accessed at South
Brunswick Public Library, 110 Kingston Lane, Monmouth Junction, NJ.

Lane, Wheaton J. From Indian Trail to Iron Horse: Travel and
Transportation in New Jersey, 1620-1860. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1939. Assunpink Trail, pages 17- 18, 51; Turnpikes, pages 143, 150-162, 168, 199-201. Quote on road condition, 159.

“Natural Areas.” Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park.

Frozen Tower

Not long ago, observers watched for signs of forest fires from towers in the mountains.

More than 100 fire towers stood in the forests of New York before newer methods of fire-spotting displaced their role. A few remain and draw hikers year-round. The tower at the highest elevation of any in New York is on Hunter Mountain, 4,040 feet above sea level.

Hunter Mountain Tower and Cabin

In the first decade of the twentieth century, fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of New York’s forests, forcing local residents to evacuate and darkening the skies near Albany. One of the state’s responses was an improved fire observation program.

The first of New York’s fire towers were constructed in 1909. Among them was the original Hunter Mountain tower, a 40-foot tall structure built from logs. The wooden tower was replaced with a steel 60-foot tower in 1917. The steel tower was originally placed a third of a mile from the summit of Hunter, but was moved to its current location at the true summit in 1953.

Observers were on station from April until the first snows, usually in October or November. During this time they usually stayed in a cabin near the tower.

There seems to be a route to the tower on Hunter from a lift at the Hunter Mountain Ski Area, about 2 miles of trail from the summit. But if you went that way, then you haven’t really climbed Hunter, and you’ve missed out on gaining a physical understanding of the mountain.

Becker Hollow Trail View

Darian on Becker Hollow Trail

As you gain altitude, snow gets deeper and more is frozen onto trees. Trees get smaller near the summit, and at the top of Hunter conifers dominate.

The relatively flat walk along the ridge to the summit had a concentrated winter setting.

Hunter Mtn Trees in Winter

The fire tower stands above the treetops.

Hunter Mountain Fire Tower

Climbing the stairs of the tower is not discouraged in any way, but do hold the handrails and prepare for windy conditions.

Climbing Hunter Fire Tower

The cab at the top of the tower was locked, though it might be open and staffed by volunteers on weekends in more temperate seasons. Either way there are excellent views from the stairs. Looking out, you can understand how the tower played an essential role in protecting New York’s forests and the people who lived there from uncontrolled fire.

Looking Out from Hunter

In the 1980s, New York’s fire towers were phased out of service as airborne observation took a greater role. The state officially closed the Hunter tower in 1989.

Most of New York’s fire towers were dismantled. A campaign to restore the remaining towers managed to save five of those in the Catskills. Preserving over a hundred towers might be excessive and detract from the wilderness experience, but there is no question that we can learn much about the mountains looking out from the towers that used to protect the forests and towns between the ridges.

View From Hunter Mtn Fire Tower


Catskills Trails: Northeastern, Trail Map 141. 9th ed. New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 2010.

“Fire Towers of the Catskills: A Guide for Hikers and History Buffs.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Hunter Mountain Fire Tower,” Catskill Fire Tower Project, The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

Podskoch, Marty. “Standing Tall.” New York State Conservationist, October 2009.

Strong Currents

You might have seen Paterson’s Great Falls in The Sopranos. But there is more to the place than a backdrop for a crime drama. A hundred years ago, Paterson became the center of American labor conflict when over twenty thousand silk workers walked off the job for months.


The Lenni Lenape had known the falls for years, but Europeans began to settle the area in the seventeenth century. Shortly after the United States won independence, influential citizens looked to the Passaic River as a potential source of industrial power.


In 1791, the Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufactures was created. With Alexander Hamilton in a leading role, and New Jersey’s governor and Federalist-controlled legislature backing the initiative, Paterson would soon become a center of manufacturing.

The early mills were powered by water channeled through a series of raceways. With gravity behind it, the water was able to turn the massive wheels that powered the machines. Here’s a diagram from the American Labor Museum:


The remains of the raceways can be explored not far from the falls.



The raceway system would be replaced with electric equipment powered by water-driven turbines from a plant directly below the falls. The SUM plant operated from 1914 to 1969, then reopened with updated equipment in 1986. It averages about 33 million kilowatts of electricity production per year.


Paterson’s silk industry began in the mid-nineteenth century in a mill complex near the banks of the Passaic River. A number of industries thrived in the complex at one time, including cotton textiles, steam radiators, and Samuel Colt’s first revolver factory, but silk weaving and dyeing became its primary activities.

Many of the 1913 strikers worked there. Unfortunately, after the complex was abandoned in 1983, fires destroyed the buildings and plans for restoration or redevelopment have not made it through the maze of city politics.


Another building the strikers would have known is the Phoenix Mill, built in the 1810s and converted to apartments in the 1980s.


The laborers and the owners of the silk mills both wanted to get what they thought they should earn from production. At the time, silk manufacture required skilled weavers to prevent damage to the delicate fabric. Many of the weavers were immigrants who brought not only their skills, but also the fierce pride and willingness to challenge the bosses that were typical of skilled artisans.

Large silkworkers’ strikes had taken place in 1877 and 1894, but nothing on the scale of the 1913 strike. Following the defeat of the 1902 dyers’ strike, which saw significant violence and property damage, the city’s business owners were able to take greater control of the local government and strengthen its police force under new chief John Bimson. Their efforts were bolstered by prejudice against Italians.

At the beginning of 1913, the Doherty mill introduced four-loom assignments, replacing the previous two-loom assignments. This meant that workers would be overseeing more machines and many would lose their jobs. The Doherty workers walked out. By the end of February, workers at all the silk mills in Paterson were on strike. 24,000 men, women, and children walked off the job. Demands expanded to include better working conditions and an eight-hour day.

Workers did not see themselves benefiting from technological advances that increased production.

As one striker put it:

[A]s a rule we never receive any benefit from improved machinery they put into the mills… It only antagonizes the workers the more, because they can see themselves that they can produce more under the improved machinery; still they get less wages.

The Paterson workers called on the Industrial Workers of the World for assistance. The IWW was emboldened by its recent success in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was enthusiastic about helping the Paterson workers.

On February 25, 1913, IWW speakers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, addressed a crowd in Paterson and were quickly arrested. A crowd of 1500 striking workers met them outside and followed the police escort despite being bludgeoned by officers.

The strike was run by workers through their elected Central Strike Committee, but many citizens thought that the IWW and its charismatic leader Big Bill Haywood were actually in charge, and furiously searched for a “responsible party” to deal with. Exactly how much the IWW leaders influenced strikers or led events is debated by historians, but their presence strengthened the resolve of workers and gained significant attention from outside observers. They also contributed their knowledge of organizing what would be a largely non-violent strike.


Worn down by hunger, by the ability of manufacturers to outlast them, by the continued operation of Pennsylvania silk mills, and by mounting pressure from police and private detectives, workers began returning to the mills in July after making deals on a shop-by-shop basis. The demands of the general strike were not met, but events in Paterson helped focus more public attention on labor conflict and prepared workers for future struggles.

The Great Falls Cultural Center, which has a lot of helpful literature, lists the strike among noteworthy Paterson events.


The city of Paterson was run by the manufacturers in 1913, but its suburbs were not. After police suppressed assemblies in Paterson, the Socialist mayor of Haledon invited strikers to meet in his town. One of the most significant meeting locations was the Botto House, where speakers rallied thousands of workers from the balcony and representatives of hundreds of shops met.


The Botto family arrived in America in 1892. They were a family of skilled textile workers from the Biella region of Italy. After years of hard work in American mills, they were able to afford a small plot of land in Haledon and build a house, which was finished in 1908. It served as a family home, guest house, and cottage industry while the Bottos worked six days a week. During the strike, the Botto house was a place of hospitality and free speech.


Today, the American Labor Museum resides in the Botto House, with permanent exhibits on the 1913 strike and a few rooms furnished with what skilled workers would have owned (unskilled workers had significantly less). A Strike Centennial exhibit will open January 11.




Harnessing the power of the Passaic River made Paterson a center of industry and a center of social conflict over how the profits of industry would flow. By exploring old buildings and the devices used to harness the power of the Passaic, the story can be better understood.



American Labor Museum exhibits and website. Botto House National Landmark, 83 Norwood Street, Haledon, NJ.

“The ATP Site.” Paterson Friends of the Great Falls.

Carlson, Peter. Roughneck: The Life and Times of “Big Bill” Haywood. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Fleming, Thomas J. New Jersey: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984. Pages xi-xiv.

Golin, Steve. The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Temple University Press, 1992.
Quote from a worker about technological advances is from The Fragile Bridge, page 22.

“The History of Paterson’s Silk Industry, 1839-1945.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

Paterson Great Falls brochure. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

“The S.U.M. Hydroelectric Project.” Historic Notes. Great Falls Historic District, Paterson, NJ. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

“A Visitor’s Guide to the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.