Recent news reports that 45-acre Washington Rock State Park, shamefully neglected by the State Division of Parks and Forestry, might become part of the Somerset County Park system, has focused renewed interest in what was once one of New Jersey's most popular parks.
In l940 the state took a survey of residents asking what state parks they had visited. A staggering 98% said they had visited the rock overlooking the Central Jersey lowlands.
The view from Washington Rock was breathtaking in the days before smog and air pollution. Even today, on the clearest of days, the view is awesome; and the park, though not as popular as it once was, is a gem worth visiting.
Although located in Green Brook Township now, Washington Rock was once within the bounds of Warren Township. From l806, when Warren was carved from the southern half of Bernards and the eastern portion of Bridgewater, until l872 when the lower portion of Warren Township became North Plainfield, the Rock was in Warren. Historian George Bebbington, who has devoted several years to a study of the Rock's history, relates its story:
The rock for which the park is named is one of a number of lookouts strung along the top of the Watchung Mountains which all share claims that George Washington once stood on them, spyglass in hand, seeking a glimpse of the redcoats. There is one rock outcrop above Montclair College, another is Eagle Rock in West Orange and the South Mountain Reservation counts two.
Benson J. Lossing traveled about after the Revolution gathering descriptions of events and historic sites for his Field-Book Of The Revolution (1851). His drawing of "Washington Rock" is actually a rock located near today's Hillcrest Road in Bridgewater. This "Rock" can be located on several early maps and would have been part of the Middlebrook Encampment. Unfortunately it was not preserved and now sports a swimming pool on top of it.
In truth, Washington probably stood on many high parts of these mountains for they were his main line of defense in New Jersey. As Jack Rushing has explained, Washington's "Fortress Watchung" protected and fed his army: numerous encampments, training schools, supply depots, hospitals and burial grounds have been located. The Pluckamin Archaeological Project uncovered and recorded a large artillery park that was the forerunner of West Point.
A string of signal beacons were located along the tops of the mountains. The passes through the Blue Hills were guarded by the Militia which trained and assembled at Vermuele's, a site at the base of First Mountain, along the Green Brook and next to the big Stoney Brook/Green Valley notch. The Rock on the mountain above the camp would have been an obvious lookout for the assembled troops. The earliest reference to the rock is in Barber and Howe's Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey (l844):
"At an elevation of about 400 feet on the brow of the mountain in the rear of Plainfield stands Washington's Rock. It is one of very large size -- being about 25 feet in height and from 30 to 40 in circumference. The bold projection which nature has given it from the surface of the eminence, renders it a fine position for taking an extensive view of the country below."
"In the summer of l777 the American Army was stationed at various places on the plain below .... After the retreat of Sir William Howe from New Brunswick...Washington retreated to the heights in face[?] of the enemy. The advance guard of Howe's army fell in with Lord Stirling's Division. A skirmish ensued, and, upon the approach of the column under Cornwallis, Stirling was obliged to retreat. Howe pursued him to Westfield .... Washington was at this time on the Rock, inspecting the operations of the armies on the plain."
"At various times he resorted to this place to ascertain the movements of the enemy. This circumstance has given the Rock a sacred character to the people of the present day, which, in connection with the beautiful prospect it affords. has made it a place of resort for parties of pleasure."
"The scene is one of uncommon beauty. The whole country, apparently, lies as level as a map at the feet of the spectator, for a circuit of 60 miles. On the left appear the spires of New York city, part of the bay, Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway and New Brighton. Directly in front are Amboy and Raritan Bays. To the right New Brunswick and the heights of Princeton and Trenton; and far to the southeast the eye stretches over the plains of Monmouth to the heights of Navesink. Beautiful villages bedeck the plain; and cultivated fields, farm houses and numerous groves of verdant trees are spread around in pleasant profusion."
We can never know whether General Washington actually stood on Washington Rock, although the tradition is an ancient one and most likely true. In l897 George W. Fitz-Randolph, a descendant of the Vail family, wrote that:
"In the year 1777 or '78 Washington, with 6,000 men was encamped on the Ridge at Middlebrook near and west of Bound Brook. The British army were encamped at New Brunswick, Rahway and Perth Amboy, making incursions into the surrounding country. Doubtless with an intent of guarding against a serious incursion or surprise, Washington was on his way to the top of the mountain back of Green Brook. Be that as it may, he, with an aide-de-camp, mounted, rode in the gateway and up to a group of men standing between the house and the barn on the farm, now known as the Jonah Vail farm. Washington said: 'Can any of you gentlemen guide me to some spot on the mountains from whence a good view of the plain below can be obtained?' Edward Fitz-Randolph, one of the group, said: 'I know of the best point on the mountains for that purpose' and added that, if he had his horse, he would take him to it. Thereupon the General requested his aide to dismount and await his return. Fitz-Randolph, mounted upon the aide's horse, piloted the General to the Rock, which to-day bears the historic name of 'Washington's Rock.' I have given the above nearly word for word, as given to me by Ephraim Vail, who died a few years since aged 90 and over, on the farm where he was born and raised. Josiah Vail gave me the same version of the incident; indeed any of the old residents of Green Brook would corroborate the same, were they alive. All these Vails were Quakers, owning adjoining farms, and their word is ... reliable ...." Dr. Philip Rakin, who married Sarah Vail, noted that in 1830 he met with Edward Fitz-Randolph shortly before he died and Edward confirmed the story. Looking through his glass, Washington was said to have rejoiced "at finally watching the British fleet of 270 transports leave Amboy bay heading to sea and leaving Jersey forever". Many incidents occurred on the plains below and within a radius of ten miles between January 5, 1777 and the end of June that year that were well worth watching. In fact, there were almost daily skirmishes, including the encounter at Spanktown (Rahway) on Jan. 5 and the one at the Millstone River on the 20th. On Feb. 1 and 20th, April 23d and May 10th there was fighting near Amboy and Piscataway. There were engagements at the confluence of the streams forming the Rahway River and on the roads from Elizabeth to Morristown near Springfield as well as at Scotch Plains and the Short Hills. "From the 15th to the 27th of June, Gen. Howe and his officers," wrote the Central N.J. Times in its Centennial issue, July 13, l876, "by marching and countermarching, feints and circuitous movements attempted to draw Washington from these heights, but to no purpose."
"Washington's tactical positioning was masterful," add Martin and Lender in their book, A Respectable Army (1982). "Not only did Howe not dare attack him, but with the Continental army intact and with militia units working actively in support, Sir William perceived that there would be many risks in marching overland to Philadelphia. The rebels could nip at his flanks or, worse yet, beat him to the Delaware and cause havoc in any attempted crossing. Also, the patriots might choose to slip behind the British forces and disrupt communications and supply lines back to New York." Brigadier General William Winds had charge of the troops at the Blue Hills Fort on Vermeule's plantation. Captains McCoy's and Laing's Companies of the lst Somerset Militia were stationed there, and many Warren militiamen knew the site well. General Washington in the fall of 1776 had ordered the three main gaps through the Watchung hills guarded. These were at the Middlebrook, Stoney Brook and Scotch Plains. Many of the battles in Central Jersey were attempts by the British to get through a number of these difficult passes and penetrate Washington's defenses. None were successful, but small raiding parties, like the one that captured Gen. Lee, did slip through.
In 1779 Col. James Abeel and Gen. Nathaniel Greene exchanged letters describing suitable sites in the rear of the mountains for camp grounds, and suggestions for three or four block houses to be built defending each gap with a regiment or company stationed at each. The remains of some stone defenses can still be found on the heights of these passes where they have not been disturbed by housing developments. Washington Rock Park actually contains two large rock outcrops about 80 feet apart; the smaller one to the east is called "Lafayette Rock" because the French general reportedly sat on it swinging his "neatly leather clad feet" over the edge. The main rock has long been a landmark and site for day trips for Central Jersey residents. Barber and Howe called it "a place of resort for parties of pleasure" as early as 1844, and no doubt it was popular long before that. Rebecca Vail records in her 1847 diary the picnic trip she took there. One of Gladys Whitehead's memory books [Recollections 2 (1986)] also tells about picnic trips to the Rock from Rahway and she illustrates it with a copy of a turn-of-the-century post card of the Rock before the stone walls were built.
Westley H. Ott's 1 Mile X 1 Mile X 100 Years = Dunellen, N.J., reports that the Rock was a popular spot for political rallies as early as 1840. "On the 75th anniversary of Independence in 1851 more than 2,500 spectators visited the Rock". He describes the Washington Rock Mountain House (built in 1852) as a "large three-story building" and he shows an 1883 picture of the enlarged structure with a full length porch. In a spectacular fire on May 27, 1883, just before it was to be sold, the hotel burned to the ground. In the years after the Civil War, "old" John W. Laing climbed the mountain to give the Rock its annual coat of whitewash. After his death, public subscriptions covered the cost of doing the work. According to The Constitutionalist of July 16, 1896, painting the Rock had become a notable annual event. On May 5, l898, during the midst of the Spanish American War, The Constitutionalist reported that: "Washington Rock is to be defended. Not against the assaults of a Spanish Army but against the ravages of time. It is really but right that that historical spot should be looked after especially at such a time as this. Constable William N. Pangborn and Edward Conshee are now at the head of the movement which they have fathered for several years. It is to see that the Rock receives a coat of whitewash and that the brush about it is cut away."
"For years it has been the custom of some patriotic citizens to whitewash the Rock so that it can be seen for miles around. This year Mr. Pangborn and Mr. Conshee have started a subscription to raise sufficient funds to whitewash the Rock ...." The coming of the railroad spurred development below the Rock. A real estate map at the Cannon Ball House in Scotch Plains, titled "From Washington Rock to Newark Bay" (1860) by M. Hughes, shows two large hotels at the site. Development around Plainfield mushroomed after 1843 when the railroad was extended to Bound Brook. By the 1870s, a stage coach operated by Samuel Merrill regularly ran between the Dunellen Station and the Rock. A person on excursion could ride the train from Plainfield to Dunellen for 10 cents and take the stage to the Mountain House for 25 cents more. Proprietors of the hotel were the Staats brothers, sons of Cornelius. Their property included both Washington Rock and Lafayette Rock.
The county's oldest roads had given access to the Rock from earliest times. The Somerset County Road Book for 1761 lists Daniel Vail as one of the commissioners laying out a road that ran up the south side of the mountain between the Cox and Cattaline properties.
The old Quibbletown (New Market) Gap Road passed by the Mount Bethel Meeting House when the church was located behind today's O'Connors Restaurant, then passed Cattaline's Tavern and up the mountain through the Gap located to the east of the Rock. Beers 1872 Map of Somerset County shows that J.M.Stiger operated a hotel on the Rock at that time. With the approach of the Centennial, a group of citizens gathered to suitably mark the occasion, forming the Washington Monument and Historical State Association on Jan. 25, 1867. The association was incorporated by the Legislature on July 4, 1867, at the behest of Assemblyman E.W.Runyon, Esq. The organizing group was made up of many members of Jerusalem Lodge, No. 26, a Masonic order that had proudly counted Washington as a member. They had been raising funds to build a 100-foot observation tower on the mountain behind the Rock. A copy of their plan supplied by Lewis E. Barkalew of Lincoln Park shows a stairway within the tower that extended to a lookout at the top. The tower, according to The Constitutionalist of Feb. 27,1868, was to be "a monumental shaft dedicated to immortal Washington (which) greets the rising sun from yonder mountain brow, and enduringly inscribed with the motto - New Jersey gratefully remembers her defenders in the dark and bloody days of the Revolution." The memorial's foundation was laid on July 4, 1867, with an elaborate ceremony: Grand Master Silas Whitehead of the Grand Lodge of the Masonic Order placed the cornerstone. The Memorial Association held its first annual meeting at Laing's Hotel on Washington's Birthday, Feb. 22, 1868. Its president, Nathan Harper, Esq., later mayor of Plainfield, stated that "A plot of ground suitable for the erection and preservation of the proposed monument and including both rocks, was deeded to the Asso. by James M. Frazee for such purpose." On account of two mortgages held by the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of Newark, N.J., which it refused to release, the project faltered. Although the Masons had raised $482.68 and the foundation and cornerstone had already been laid, "the promoters of this scheme were unable to secure a clear title" and the monument proposal came to a standstill.
In June 1876, anticipating the coming celebration, Edward Higgs offered for sale his farm on top of the mountain, "next to the Washington Rock property". Preparing for the nation's centennial in l876, the Staats brothers advertised their huge outdoor dance floor, "an extensive high observatory", with "Central Park Swings", a croquet lawn and the hotel with a music hall and ballroom. While the proposed tower monument wasn't built as planned, the ceremonies, parades, speeches, fireworks and displays held on July 4, l876, were extensive. Dodsworth's Band played all day at the huge dancing platform constructed at the Rock and diners were served from 1 to 4 o'clock. In the evening, the grove and hotel were brilliantly illuminated, music was provided for dancing and a grand Centennial supper was served to 6,000 people from 9 til midnight.
Although the tower project had died, interest in creating some sort of Washington Memorial hadn't. Eventually the Daughters of the American Revolution took on the challenge when the Continental Chapter started raising funds in 1879. With the close of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chandler W. Riker of Newark, president of the Plainfield Street Railroad Company, tried to purchase the model of Washington's headquarters at Morristown which had been displayed at the Fair's New Jersey State Pavilion. It was his intention to bring the building here, reported The Constitutionalist on May 7, l898, place it near Washington Rock and run the trolley from Plainfield to the Rock, making a summer resort of that part of the mountain. The State refused to part with the model.
In 1905, F.A.Nittinger, "a well to do New Yorker", purchased a large area of semi-wooded land surrounding Washington Rock, also planning to convert the historic spot into "a summer resort". It was his intention to "erect a large pavilion" with accommodations for the public. Eventually, reported The Courier-News on April 14, l905, he planned to erect summer cottages and probably another hotel. A.L.C.Marsh, of Plainfield, donated a memorial design plan to the DAR that called for building a rough stone cairn on the old foundation of the tower which had been laid there more than 40 years earlier by the Masons. An 80 foot long retaining wall was to be built of "the native stone" to hold the soil and unite the two rocks. However, by 1912 the DAR had only raised about $650 for their memorial project: They then went public, asking citizens to contribute the balance of the estimated $3,000 that would be needed, saying they wanted the funds to be "raised by the multitude and not just the Society."
"Within the cairn it is proposed to place an iron box, containing papers, records and more especially, a book, plainly and strongly bound, with the signatures of all who have contributed to the fund, but not the amounts subscribed. On the face of the monument there will be a bronze plate with a suitable inscription," said the DAR. The book was contributed by Mrs. A.V.D.Honeyman (wife of the historian), and when it was filled it was to be stored "temporarily" in the Plainfield Library. Curiously, the book can still be found there with its red leather binding turning to powder. Many Vail genealogy and revolutionary stories were included in it, several of which were reprinted in the Somerset County Historical Society Quarterly, edited by Mr. Honeyman. No record has been found of the iron box. Actually, a "cairn" is described in most dictionaries as a rock pile but what was finally constructed is a small stone cube-shaped one room building. A gold colored plaque doubles as the entrance door. Its inscription reads: "From this Rock General George Washington watched the movements of the British Forces during the anxious months of May and June 1777. Erected by the Continental Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution and the people of Plainfield and North Plainfield, 1912. Lest We Forget."
Charles W. and Mary I. S. McCutchen, of North Plainfield purchased the 10 acres containing the two rocks to "prevent it from becoming a crushed stone quarry," acquiring about 20 acres from Arlene F. Carpenter by deed on 5/10/1909 (Bk V-11, p. 463) and 7 acres from Henry and Barbara Pedeflous on 5/19/1909 (Bk W-11, p. 61) On Nov. 29, l913, they offered the state a total of 27 acres for $1 and conveyed it on Dec. 1, l913 (Bk Z-13, p. 322). The McCutchens' gift followed the creation of the Washington Rock Park Commission by the State Legislature in on March 27, 1913. The bill, introduced by Senator Smalley, empowered the governor to appoint a Commission and $5,000 to acquire adjoining lands up to 100 acres "to take over, care for, keep, improve, maintain and develop the said lands as a public park in commemoration and appreciation of the importance of the events transacted in said locality during the Revolutionary War."
The gift from the McCutchens plus land purchased by the Commission brought the tract to 97 acres. The latest New Jersey park literature lists the present park as containing 45 acres, something of a mystery since additional lands were acquired as late as 1966 from Henry and Marie Grapenthin and from Sherwin Drobner in 1976. For $4,600 the State erected a building known as "The Lodge" in 1914 for the use of the caretaker which also doubled as a public "tea room". The building is a picture book Dutch colonial country farm house and is supposed to have been built on the old Mountain House hotel site. The architect, Henry Keith White, donated the plans. The DAR's Continental Chapter donated antique furnishings for the tea room, which was open daily from 3 to 6pm. "As a matter of fact, if visitors give sufficient notice, by telephone or otherwise, to the care-taker or his wife, a more substantial luncheon will be prepared at any time," wrote the Historical Quarterly. How much the tea room was put to use is open to some question, but we do know that in more recent years the building had served only as the caretaker's residence. With the cut back in State funding, even that function has ceased and the park has fallen on hard times. Its supervision has now been assigned to the distant Liberty State Park Office, which sends an employee to the site irregularly. Most recently, Green Brook Township Committeeman John Koch has been trying to save the park by getting the Somerset County Park Commission to take over its maintenance. Its status and fate is yet to be decided. In the interim the Green Brook Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and students in the Social Service Club of the Green Brook Middle School have volunteered to clean up the litter.
[By George Bebbington with Alan A. Siegel. Ref: Warren History, 5/1, 7/23; Som. Cty. Hist. Qtrly, I/58, V/76.]