Recent news headlines reflect that the City of Newark is experiencing water problems — this time contaminated water as a result of lead pipes. The city was compelled to distribute free water to some of its residents. As much of the City of Newark’s water supply emanates from the Northern New Jersey area, it might be of interest to briefly review the history of their water supply and the tremendous impact it has on this area.
The development of Newark dates back to 1666 when a group of persons from Connecticut obtained the needed approvals and purchased land from the Indians to form a Puritan community. With the arrival of 63 persons headed by Robert Trent, their first public water supply was a communal well, known as "the watering place." Reportedly, this well served the needs of the general public for nearly one century.
But time brings changes, the population increased, Newark became known as an industrial community, the polluted Passaic River was causing serious illnesses and deaths and a source of a new water supply was needed. In 1800, realizing the need for an adequate and safe water supply, a corporation, Newark Aqueduct Co, was formed.
Over the years, however, residents felt that the water supply should be owned by Newark itself. The Pequannock Watershed was eventually viewed as the best and safest source of a water supply. Presumably several men, described as land speculators, with an abundant source of funds, decided the same thing and began acquiring vast tracts of land in the Pequannock Watershed, reportedly filing the deeds in Morris or Sussex counties to conceal their actions.
Eventually the combined purchased properties came into the ownership of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, which had acquired the water rights of the Morris Canal and Banking Company. Newark contracted with them and they, in turn, transferred the contract to the East Jersey Water Company, which was organized for the sole purpose of providing Newark with a safe and ample water supply.
That contract would change the face of six municipalities, located in three counties, forever, and continue to have a tremendous impact on them to this day. A breakdown in Morris County includes 4,053 acres in Jefferson Township, 185 in Kinnelon Borough and 2,340-acres in Rockaway Township. In West Milford Township, Passaic County, 18,000 of its 56,000-acres are owned by the watershed and here in Sussex County, 4,000 acres are located in Hardyston Township and 5,568-acres in Vernon Township
On Sept. 4, 1889, the City of Newark contracted with the East Jersey Water Co. to construct reservoirs and aqueducts capable of delivering 50 million gallons of water daily. Three reservoirs — Clinton, Macopin and Oak Ridge were completed by May 1892 and on Sept. 24, 1900, all reservoirs and pipelines were conveyed to the City of Newark.
Sounds neat, doesn’t it? According to newspaper reports of the day, 1,300 men were working on the project with an additional 60 men with teams of horses. The report noted that 1,000 of the workers were Italians while the other 300 men were whites. Newspaper accounts reported that the work continued 24 hours a day with electric lights providing the needed light. Also reported was that telephone lines were located along the way so that the supervisors could keep in direct contact with their offices.
Land sales were not always voluntary, and Ben Snyder made headlines with his encounter with the would-be land purchasers. A murder over an empty can also made news headlines. Not making the headlines though were all of the hamlets that disappeared and also the many persons and families that were displaced. Included among some of the villages and settlements effected were Brownsville, Canistear, Charlottesburg, Cherry Ridge, Clinton, Enterprise, Farbers, Kampe, Paradise, Stockholm, Uttertown, Willistine, Windham and Williamsville.
Homes, hotels, schools and churches disappeared. Only foundations and cemeteries remain. The now-Stockholm (formerly Snufftown) area was hit badly. As a result of the watershed acquisition, the nearby Booth Knife Factory that provided employment for about 53 area men moved to Sussex. Also, lost were about 60 dwellings and three hotels: the Kincaid House, Edsall House and Utter’s Hotel. All four general stores also closed down and the land buy-out almost forced the closure of the historic Stockholm Methodist Church.
But one problem that has existed since day one and continues with the six municipalities are the taxes paid. West Milford Township has been especially hard hit as Newark, in lengthy legal battles, challenges tax assessments and it seems like Newark is always the winner.
In 1972, Newark released a 183-page book, "A Revised Policy Concerning Newark’s Pequannock Watershed," followed by a 1995 "The Pequannock Watershed Conservation and Development Plan." The proposed plans released information on plans to develop, but not sell, 10 percent of its land holdings. As an example, proposed for the Canistear Reservoir area were: "the program for the Canistear planning District calls for a major hotel-recreational complex including golf courses, ski areas, marina and other sports facilities. A complex of vacation homes oriented toward year-round recreational facilities will also be situated here. A small number of primary homes adjacent to a similar existing development nearby is planned to help support the commercial establishments serving vacation and weekend residents. Incidentally, it was explained at meetings that people could own their own homes, but the land itself would remain in the watershed’s ownership.
Without explanation, zoning change applications submitted by Newark to West Milford Township were withdrawn but, prior to withdrawal, litigation had been initiated against West Milford charging that its zoning was discriminating and exclusionary.
In 1988, state legislators imposed a moratorium on development or sale of the watershed lands to allow the DEP to formulate regulations to protect the water. Once again Newark challenged the tax assessments.
In West Milford Township, the tax impact was intensified when on January 6, 1995, Newark sold 1,400-acres of its holdings to the Green Acres Program, followed by transferring a 5,553-acre easement to the state.
In January of 1996, West Milford Township settled a five-year old property tax litigation, from 1990-1995, with the City of Newark in which they agreed to refund $1.6 million in taxes and to lower the assessed valuation on Newark-owned property by 25 percent. The agreement also stipulated the 1996 tax assessment would be reduced by $12,237,200 from $49,207,500 to $36,970,300. There was to be a two-year freeze on any future litigation on tax assessments.
Incidentally, the City of Newark owned the Susquehanna Railroad’s right-of-way and if the Tocks Island Reservoir had become a reality, had planned to transfer water over this line.
A subsequent news article that appeared in the New Jersey Herald reported that "the Newark City Council has approved the $700,000 sale of the Paulinskill Valley Trail to the state for use as a recreational park."
It’s true that the City of Newark may not be located in the Sussex County area but history has a way of repeating itself and since 1892, any actions taken by the City of Newark’s Pequannock Watershed have had a dramatic impact on this area.
Jennie Sweetman is the history columnist for the New Jersey Herald. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.