Land Use History of the NJ Highlands

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

As explained on the Geomorphology of the Highlands page, the edge of the Wisconsin glaciation resulted in dramatically different surficial geology between the northern and southern Highlands.

In the southern Highlands, much less affected by the glaciers, soil is relatively deep. Most areas were cleared for agriculture or pasture land, including both the fertile valleys and the wide flat ridgetops. The only exceptions were the steepest slopes. In the 19th century, this area seemed to support a traditional agrarian economy and population. Towns such as Clinton, Hackettstown, and Washington grew and developed in the style of rural America. Much later, in the late 20th century, when developers became interested in the region, it was already cleared and in possession of decent infrastructure, so it was all ready for sprawl to be quickly and inexpensively built.

In the glacially scoured northern Highlands, however, thin and rocky soil, as well as rugged topography, made the area less attractive to settlers. A good portion of the land was probably never tilled, and some of the more mountainous areas may have never even been cleared for pasture. The land had other attractions, however, which brought in a different sort of folks, and disturbed the land in different ways.

The Highlands' mineral-rich bedrock has long been the objects of much capital investment and industrial development, with a large-scale iron mining industry dating back to colonial times. Iron mined here built munitions for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and later the Union army during the Civil War. Wealthy 19th century robber barron types controlled the mines and owned vast areas of rocky hills and forests around them. Mining towns sprang up, but these proved less permanent than the agrarian settlements elsewhere in the state. Today some are museums, others are just creepy old stuff in the woods. After America's iron mining industry moved to Minnesota, the robber barrons or their descendents gave their landholdings to the state: Abraham S. Hewitt State Forest, Norvin Green State Forest, etc. bear their names.

The Sterling Hill Mine, A huge Zinc mine in Ogdensberg, operated for 200 years, until the 1980's. It's now an incredibly cool museum and gives tours of the mine.

Forests were cleared for charcoal to fuel smelting furnaces, and other industrial uses, before the era of fossil fuels. However this was a long time ago. A commercial forest products industry never took hold in New Jersey in a major way, so a lot of the forest of the northern Highlands is very mature second-growth at this point.

The major tributaries of the Passaic became the sites of industrial mill towns: Dover, Rockaway and Boonton on the Rockaway River; Butler on the Pequannock. These towns survive today, especially since NJ Transit's Morris and Essex line goes up the Rockaway's valley.

35,000 acres of the Northern Highlands, almost 1% of the whole state by area, is owned by the City of Newark for its municipal water supply. The land can be hiked, hunted and fished with a permit. A very colorful, ongoing legal battle relating to mismanagement of this property threatens to implicate U.S. Senator and former Newark mayor Cory Booker. It's classic NJ politics.

The large proportion of public land in the Northern Highlands has impeded development of the region as sprawl. Another factor worth considering is the greater expense of building on steep, rocky, densely forested areas with thin soils, compared to flat former cropland and pasture already accessed by rural roads. You will see plenty of recent housing developments here, but they are localized.