Rocks and Sprawl

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017


The NJ Highlands are our own little stretch of the Crystaline Appalachian Mountains. Their bedrock comes from the real bowels of the earth, originating as sediments in a billion year old ocean, and subsequently buried, melted, folded, faulted and intruded in every imaginable way during the rise and fall of three subsequent mountain ranges. A legacy of this geologic history, the region's mineral richness is evident in the historical significance of mining to its economy. Colonial era iron mines produced artillery for the Revolution, and later modern facilities such as Sterling Hill zinc mine, a massive Zinc operation which lasted until the 1980's in Ogsdenberg (and now gives amazing tours). An incredible diversity of minerals are found at Sterling Hill.

The geography is rugged, although the relief is too low to really consider the area mountainous. The glaciers made it about halfway down, and as a general rule areas north of Route 80 were glaciated, while areas south escaped. Bedrock is hella exposed on some glaciated ridgetops and hilltops. It is no coincidence that the majority of NJ's good hiking destinations are in the northern part of the highlands.

Most of the region is too rocky and steep to be well-suited for agriculture, but there are a few fertile valleys. These are areas of Cambrian age limestone and dolomite, interspersed with the Precambrian highlands along a series of faults. Many of these valleys are extensively planted with corn at present. The valleys are concentrated in the southern portion of the region, just north of Route 78, with the ruggedness and elevation of the uplands increasing as one travels north.


Many of New Jersey's main rivers drain the Highlands. The Passaic and its main tributaries, the Whippany, Rockaway, Pequannock, Wanaque and Ramapo, drain the Highlands to the east, some cutting impressive gorges through the bedrock.

The Raritan and its tributaries including the Black and Lamington Rivers drain the gentler slopes of the southeastern Highlands.

In Western NJ, three parallel rivers flow southwest down the long narrow valleys that open up between the ridges of the Highlands and empty in to the Delaware. These are the Musconnetcong, starting in Lake Hopatcong, the Pequest, and the Paulus Kill. All of these are very pretty streams, well known for trout fishing, and worthy of exploration.

The Walkill river drains some of the northwestern corners of the Highlands. It flows north into the Hudson not too far south of the Catskills.


Hard to generalize. According to legend, west of Morristown, in Morris County, is "horse country," an affluent WASP stronghold spoken of with awe by newer-money folks, in particular white ethnic suburbanites. Philip Roth's American Pastoral is a literary illustration of the cultural barrier between the immigrant hustle of the lowlands and the affected quaintness and social capital of the highlands. Even though the geographic element of this distinction was always exaggerated and and has become especially insignificant due to 1980's era suburban sprawl, I always felt a powerful longing growing up, when at a westward vantage point somewhere in the roads of my local Watchung Mountains, I would glimpse the slopes of the Highlands. Those hills seemed to hold the promise of a more meaningful life than I could have within Essex County, or maybe even in New York City. Perhaps I still labor under those delusions of social advancement.

I also get the impression of a humbler existence traditionally taking place in rockier, more marginal portions of the Highlands. A feature of the intricate and rugged topography is that, similar to New England uplands, remoteness can be achieved in a short distance. I always imagine that the best Weird New Jersey phenomena are located somewhere in the Highlands.

A long history of industry reveals itself in the presence of mill towns throughout the highlands, such as Dover and Butler. I've heard that Dover supports a Colombian immigrant community.

The Highlands are rich in small lakes. Many of these have vacation houses on them. I would DIE for one of these houses.

Of course, sprawl has urbanized the character of Highlands culture. There are many examples of formerly out-of-the-way rural roads now lined with fairly conventional suburban houses. McMansions are everywhere - and who can blame all of these urbanites for wanting a nice house in the woods, in a convenient location? A characteristic feature of travel in the region is the sudden transition from a familiar suburban landscape to a relic of an older and weirder past - a purple corrugated metal house on a back road with a purple minivan in the driveway, old mining equipment in the woods, and things like that. Driving around Lake Hopatcong for example, one notices typical suburban houses perched on boulders, and with bare rock instead of grass in their yards.

Rock quarries
Jesse Fried
Feb. 20, 2017, 6:36 p.m.

Though mining for ores and minerals no longer occurs in the Highlands, some thriving rock quarrying businesses are located there.

Franklin Mines
Jon Fried
March 14, 2017, 9:31 p.m.

I think it was at Franklin Mines in NJ that I learned that NJ has more varied types of rocks and minerals than just about any place on earth. Or maybe it was the U.S.


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