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Preservationists spotlight historic sites in peril in Morris County, New Jersey

Top 10 list of the most threatened historic sites in Morris County released


(Morristown, NJ) If you were a merchant in northern New Jersey with a huge shipment to move from the Delaware to the Hudson 170 years ago, you put your faith in the Morris Canal to get it there.

The man-made 102-mile-long waterway, built between 1825 and 1836, climbed up and down hills and crossed rivers with a system of aqueducts and water turbine-powered inclined planes and lift locks all working hand in hoof with two dependable mules that pulled the boats along. The trip took five days, so you were more than happy to reach a popular pit stop called Waterloo Village with an inn, a general store and a grist and saw mill and blacksmith shop.

Today, that once welcomed site that became a historical living museum is a run-down collection of buildings on state-owned park property in both Sussex and Morris counties. And most of the canal is gone save for a couple of fortunate spots – one of the best preserved ones in a hard to reach section of the village at the western edge of Morris County in Mount Olive.

That is where you’ll find Plane 4 West, an inclined plane that moved canal boats carrying up to 70 tons of cargo some 70 feet to 80 feet in elevation. It is one of the best inclined planes frozen in time along one of the last sections of canal that still has water.  There’s also deteriorating frame house and foundations of the village’s ice houses. 

If the state doesn’t take action to preserve that area, that section of the canal will deteriorate and the walls will collapse as will the rest of history that’s weathered time there. 

Two organizations that have focused on the fates of historic properties in Morris County for the last 11 years, however, hope to prevent that from happening by drawing attention there, adding it on the 2011 list of the 10 most endangered historic sites in Morris County. 

“These places on the list are important. The historic character of Morris County contributes significantly to the quality of our lives. We care how our world looks and we care how we got here. These sites tell us that story, tell us what happened here and that matters to us. We don’t want to lose that. You just can’t bulldoze over history and build tasteless modern development" said Marion Harris, head of the Morris County Trust for Historic Preservation. 

The list was compiled by the Morris County Trust for Historic Preservation and Morris County Tourism Bureau. The list helps raise awareness and generate money from government and private sources to restore and protect the sites important to the sense of identity in each community. 

That forgotten section of Waterloo Village is the newest entry on the annual list and notes its future is threatened by neglect and a lack of recognition, maintenance and funding. 

Also new to the list is the 231-year-old Parrot Mill Inn in Chatham Borough, the David Douglas House in East Hanover and the Kincaid Barns in Boonton Township. 
The remaining listed sites include a near neighbor to the David Douglas House, the Adoniram Pruden House as well as the Greystone Administration Building in Parsippany, Morristown’s Central Business District, the Mount Hope Mining District in Rockaway Township, Hurstmont in Harding and the Susquehanna-Roseland Electric Corridor which, if constructed, would traverse Boonton Township, East Hanover, Jefferson, Kinnelon, Montville and Parsippany. 

The creators of the list also focus on a broader pressing historic preservation issue and this year that’s the fate of cultural resources located in the Highlands region that provides drinking water for 5 million people. 

At issue is the identification and preservation of an unknown number of cultural resources and the need for towns in the region to at the very least examine and inventory the archeology in areas where development can take place. 

Preservationists hope being added to the list will make a difference. 

Brian Morrell, president of the Canal Society of New Jersey, noted, “Placement on the list is the first step towards recognition and that leads to appreciation of the historical significance and ultimately preservation of these important historic structures on the Morris County side of Waterloo Village.” 

That side has gotten very few visitors following the collapse of a pedestrian bridge over the Musconetcong River years ago. “It has really made it difficult for state park officials to get to that side,” Morrell said, noting as a result that side was left out when the state put together a master plan for the village’s future.  

“The public will not see a complete picture of the village because of that inaccessibility. In a perfect world the state would find sources of funding to replace that bridge and preserve those elements of the village,” Morrell said.  

Meanwhile at the very eastern edge of the county, in Chatham, the fate of the historic Parrot Mill Inn is a concern. The structure was built in 1780 just a block away from a home where George Washington stayed. The land behind the mill was transformed into a soldier encampment at the time. Ultimately, it became a bed and breakfast. 
The property was put on the market and last year a residential treatment company focusing on gambling addiction secured local planning board approvals to open a center. That green light quickly turned red, however, when the local zoning board considered those plans to be counter to the approved uses for that site. The company has sued the borough. The building was put back on the market. And a new proposal has surfaced to construct a preschool behind the original Parrot Mill structure, which would be preserved and used for meeting space.

So much uncertainty has local historic preservationists concerned. “That property is the gateway to Chatham’s historic district. It is part of our Colonial-era history and it is important that the inn be saved,” said Colleen Foley, chairwoman of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Uncertainty also is an issue in Boonton Township, where three barns that were part of the Kincaid farmland have been deteriorating. Without stabilization their days are numbered. Gretchen Longo, a member of the Historical Society of Boonton Township, and her mother, local history authority Jean Ricker, note the barns that housed cows, a forge and corn crib and granary operations are on Morris County Park Commission property.

“The barns are linked to the earliest settlers here and have been part of our community since 1785. People are always asking us when will we do something about those barns. We want the park commission – the owners of those barns – to do something to save them,” Longo said. 

Some 40 nominations -- from a single building to sections of towns to large areas traversing multiple municipalities -- have made the list over the last 11 years. All told, six sites have been reduced to rubble, including the Bayley-Ellard Carriage House in Madison, the Afton restaurant in Florham Park, Wheatsheaf Farms in Morris Township, the 20-44 Court Street homes in Morristown, Troy Village & Forge Pond in Parsippany and the  Lum-Skeele House in Chatham Township. Eight other sites have been saved, including the Millington  Schoolhouse, the Vreeland out kitchen in Montville, the birthplace of the electromagnetic telegraph called Historic Speedwell and One  Madison Avenue both in Morristown, the  Nesbitt Cider Mill in Mendham Township, the Mount Hope Methodist Church in Rockaway Township, the  Union Church ruins in Washington Township and the  Morris & Erie Railroad water tower in Hanover.

Carol Barkin, outreach coordinator with the Morris County Tourism Bureau, noted, "The list plays a vital role by highlighting historic properties that are threatened by development or neglect, a lack of funding, public support or local ordinance protection. It’s easier to educate standing in front of a Colonial barn, a miller’s home, a section of the Morris Canal or a Gilded Age mansion.   We have an obligation to try to preserve these properties for what they can teach us and future generations about Morris County’s architectural past.  

Moved off last year’s list and placed on the groups’ “watch list” were Netcong’s downtown area and Musconetcong Iron Sites of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Iron Works and Morris Canal sites dating back to 1830 in Boonton. Both areas are under development with little attention being paid historic buildings, sites and landmarks.

Joining those entries:

  • Slater’s Mill in Riverdale, where the future of this 19th Century structure remains in limbo due to neglect and awkward modernizations at the hands of its current owners. 
  • And Hurstmont’s next-door neighbor in Harding, the 1847 Gothic Revival treasure named Glen Alpin, co-owned by the Harding Land Trust and the local municipal government, which are at odds over grant money and use of the property.  

Hurstmont, meanwhile, has been on the list since 2003, but new owner Morristown architect Peter Dorne hopes to resuscitate the 16-room Colonial Revival mansion designed by noted architect Stanford White and built in 1892 by Glen Alpin’s rich owner as a gift to his daughter and her equally rich husband.

The mansion has remained vacant and falling apart for 31 years. If Dorne, who purchased the property for $1.25 million, can nail down local approvals, there will be a handful of townhouses in the carriage house, existing playhouse and a new barn structure. The exterior of the mansion would be restored and the interior reconfigured as four townhouses.  

And that will keep true what’s survived for years on fireplace mantle in the crumbling Hurstmont ballroom, a poem by Henry Van Dyke:  
The cornerstone of Truth is laid,
The guardian walls of Honour made,
The roof of Faith is built above,
The fire upon the hearth is Love,
Though rains descend and loud winds call,
This happy house shall never fall. 

For more information call Bill Swayze (973) 862-3338, Marion Harris (973) 267-4717 or Carol Barkin (973) 631-5151.


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