Millbrook and The Old Mountain Road

Kittatinny Mountain begins at the place that is truly a water gap, thrusting its granite shoulder to the sky just East of the spot where the slim ribbon of interstate 80 skips across the Delaware River and enters the state of Pennsylvania. For many people this is perhaps all of the mountain that they see, as they speed across and over to the outlet stores of Stroudsburg, or the great expanse of the nation beyond. But the hill stretches more than forty miles Northeastward, well into southern New York’s Orange County, and is but one stony promontory of many in the long range that runs from New England deep into the south. Atop Kittatinny’s knife-edge summit runs the famed Appalachian trail, while at its feet the river lies like a sleepy snake, seeming in places to lap right up against the long ridge, marking New Jersey’s northwestern border in white-flecked silver.

Whether the mountain made the river or the river the mountain would take a geologist to say, but water has long been a determinant factor in the life of the hill and the people who have lived and worked on it. The upper reaches of the Kittatinny are pocked with lakes, ponds, and wetlands whose heavy discharge falls nearly one thousand vertical feet to reach the Delaware. The slopes that overlook these waters are heavily forested, and in the early 1600’s Dutch settlers from Esopus discovered that below them lay bright copper and red iron. Here were the things that brought the early explorers south from the stockaded towns along the Hudson, and bade them chop a road from the raw rock nearly one hundred miles to the Gap: the Holy Trinity of colonial commerce; wood, metal, and water power.

About fifteen miles north of the water gap Long Pine Pond and its surrounding wetlands give rise to the stream known as Vancampen’s Brook, which tumbles southward down the mountain’s steep face to enter the Delaware near Poxono Island. Not far away the family that gave the stream its name had a farm and a mill, located along its banks on the Pahaquarry Flat by Depuy Island. The Van Campen name is common all along the river, and Van Campens were among the earliest European settlers in the 17th century, progenitors of those who built the mill and farm, and the house that was never an Inn, but later became regionally famous as one. For a number of years the Van Campen grist mill was the primary market for the grain produced by Highlands farmers, and there is mention of John Van Campen transporting flour from the mill to Philadelphia in flat-bottomed Durham boats as early as 1758.

For whatever reason one Abraham or Abram Van Campen ceased working the mill sometime in the early 1800’s. With the grindstone silent the nearest market for farmers in the Wallpack region was now in Flatbrookville on the Wallpack Bend. This opened an opportunity into which Abram Garis was pleased to step. Around 1830 or so when the Columbia-Wallpack Turnpike was built it crossed Vancampens Brook near the Garis farm, about a mile and a half northwest of Sand Pond. Mr. Garis built a gristmill on this location, and quickly attracted neighbors including a Methodist congregation and school, a blacksmith, and a store. By 1875 the little community boasted 75 inhabitants and 19 or 20 buildings stretched out along the Wallpack Turnpike which ran roughly north to south and formed the town’s main street. The stream that had been Van Campen’s Mill Brook was now just Vancampen’s Brook, and the little village athwart the water was Millbrook.

When I went looking for Millbrook I was drawn by a road, or the promise of one. It was just a thin line on a satellite image; some ghostly remnant in the billions of rows in a database. Ever since I was a boy and my father took the family on Sunday drives for no other reason than to explore, I have been unable to pass a narrow country road without wondering where it leads. Those were the 1960s, when people explored in their cars, before the land was papered with no trespassing signs, and the parks were all gated. These days it is often easier to explore from a chair, at least initially. With the advent of Google Earth and online topographical maps I can pass by a dozen, or a hundred roads a day, and yearn to poke my nose down them all. For me it is not just the road itself, as it is, but the road as it was. I live in a part of the country where the roads are like ancient bones on which new flesh is continually hung. The road that passes by the front of the development in which I live has been there for over 200 years. It used to run by the farm of a family named Flock, but I doubt many people around here know that anymore.

One of the best sources of information about roads and towns in the 19th century are the lithographs of the 1886 topographical survey maps of New Jersey, produced by State Geographer George Cook. These are huge, 100 megapixel plates with deep, gorgeous details. Open up the highlands plate, map #1, find Millbrook almost due south of Flatbroookville, and you see two roads heading north out of the village. From the crossing of Vancampen Brook the Wallpack Turnpike runs a little west of due north, crossing the ridge at 832 feet above sea level and then falling past the old site of Camp Pokano-Ramona to the bridge at Flatbrookville. This is another road in which I have some interest, and about which many stories have been told. They call it the Old Mine Road today, and say it is the oldest commercial road in the United States. But that is for another time. For now I will wish only to prove that where it crosses the Vancampen Brook this road was the “Columbia Wallpack Turnpike” of 1832. But I will return to that in a moment.

For now there is the other road that runs a little bit more to the east out of Millbrook, following the stream north. What is this road’s name? You have to be careful about old roads on old maps. The ancient cartographers often put what they wanted into their work, or what their patrons wanted, and ignored what they didn’t. Perhaps even more often they relied on what people told them, and people could be notoriously inaccurate. Their memories shift and truth evolves. In the Southern part of the state there is a very old road built by a man called Hazelton, that once was named Hazleton’s Crossway, but over time became Haze’s Crossway, and then finally just Hays Crossway on all the modern maps. Thus was its builder’s name erased. Old roads are sometimes like having just a few of the edge pieces of a jigsaw, and trying to guess what the interior might look like. Often you don’t even know what to call them, or have to choose from different names used at different times. For various reasons made clear later I’ve been calling this one the Mountain Road, but it might be Samuel’s Lane, or nothing at all.

A half century earlier another man, Thomas Gordon, made a survey of the state of New Jersey at the request of her legislature. On his map, made in 1833, you can see the brook, the mill, and the newly-constructed Columbia-Wallpack Turnpike, but this other track is nowhere to be found. On face of it this suggests that the road was built after the mill, and if so it very likely had no other purpose than to fetch up at some likely stands of timber, and maybe a farm or two up the hill. This is how towns grow, after all: by putting out feeders off of main roads. But it is also possible that the road had been cut out much earlier, and had then fallen into disuse until Mr. Garis came along and built his mill. Once the little village began expanding it would have made sense to use the old road along the Vancampen stream to get up at the timber, and as a way to get to plantable land in the high dales. Looking at a fairly recent topographical map of the area we can see that there were a number of structures along the road, and also that it passed by one named place north of Millbrook: Donkey’s Corners. Was this why the road was built?

No such town named Donkeys Corners shows up on any other map or annal of the area that I have been able to find, although calling a place “the Corners” is quite common. Corners, of course, did not have to be, and in many cases probably were not, inhabited places. If they had been inhabited they might have had other memorable names, and would not have been referred to in terms of “that roadway feature out there.” There are a great many reasons why such a feature as an intersection might come by a certain name. This one might be due to nothing more than an unfortunate incident with a couple of asses. Then again, more than a century ago, in a time that seems very distant to us, the town of Millbrook was already in decline, and the area had become primarily a destination for early Victorian urban tourists come to see the Gap, and places like Lake of the Mountain and Lover’s Leap. In that context Donkey’s Corners might be only a fancifully-named rest and barbecue location on an afternoon promenade.

After the Civil War land values dropped steeply, largely due to the impact of industrialization on farming and production, and by the 1880’s many rural towns and villages in the U.S. had begin the long slide into irrelevancy. The railroad became prominent as a means of shipping agricultural products to market, and no rails ever came close enough to Millbrook to matter. Without easy access to markets the rocky hillsides of the highlands no longer seemed as attractive a place to grow food. The metal that had been dug from below them was replaced by better sources further west, in Minnesota and Wisconsin, a story that was repeated in the pinelands that covered the southern part of the state, where iron from bog ore had helped to arm the rebellion. The timber was cut down and sawed up or sent off to New York to be burnt for heat. Even now the forests of the hillsides are obviously young, with few great survivor trees. The Garis mill closed in 1900, and by 1950 only the blacksmith was left.

In the middle of that decade the Wallpack turnpike was rerouted slightly, both to improve the curve through the village as well as accomodate some flood-control improvements to the south. The old intersection between the turnpike and the mountain road that had been the center of town was lost. You can still see it today in Google Earth, where the ghosts of old ways live in the satellite imagery and patterns of old pavement and disturbed vegetation. Today the village of Millbrook is more than preserved. In the 1960’s, with the population shrunken to just a few retirees and vacation homeowners, the federal government began envisioning a grand project to control the often-devastating floods of the Delaware, like the one in 1955 that had killed so many. The Tocks Island Dam project threatened many of the farms, villages, and homesteads along the river with innundation. In preparation for it the government aquired nearly all of the land by emminent domain and moved a number of structures to Millbrook for preservation. So today what is preserved is more than the town was. The acquired property in turn became the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Tiring of armchair exploration, I began a walk up the mountain one day in the village below, near the Spangenburg cabin. New Jersey’s premier folklorist and traveler of weed-choked ways, Henry Beck, reported visiting with an old fellow by the name of Len Spangenberg at this cabin back in the 1950’s. Today it is the information center for the village on the days when it is staffed. Across the way is the smithy, the last business to close and one of the operating anachronisms that is staffed by park service reenactors and volunteers in period costume on summer Saturdays. In fact there is evidence all around of the pursuit of education and cultural enlightenment, from the piles of fresh-sawn timber on the trail leading up the hill to the activity stations scattered in the woods. Every October, on the first weekend that is fully within the month, the village comes alive for Millbrook Days, and hundreds of visitors arrive in cars that line the roads for blocks on either side. Other than on these brief occasions of wakefulness, Millbrook sleeps, and it slept on the sunny Friday afternoon when I wandered its paths.

A little closer to the old crossroads is the store, which is actually one of the refugees from the dam project. The proposed Tocks Island Dam project had a huge effect on the entire Delaware River basin, and especially the highlands of Northwestern New Jersey and Northeastern Pennsylvania. Travel the old roads in this area and you will come upon many old farms, standing empty and boarded, paint peeling, windows gone, barns and outbuildings sagging. North of here the area is called “the Minisink,” a Lenape word meaning something like “the waters are gone”. Some say this is a reference to an ancient cataclysm in which the Delaware broke through the mountain to create the gap. Today most geologists discount the cataclysm theory, but back when the flood control engineers wanted to bring the waters back it was cataclysm enough. Whole towns were wiped out, and familes that had lived on farmsteads for two centuries evicted, the federal government acquiring their lands and turning their homes into spiderwebbed mausoleums.

A prominent feature of the preserved village is a 1990’s reproduction of the old Garis mill itself, sitting just downstream from the site of the old millpond. Vancampens is a lively stream, at least in the midst of a damp April when I visited, and one can easily imagine the considerable power produced by the waters that were retained behind the long-crumbled dam. The mill as it exists today boasts an overshot wheel of significant size, and would have been used to grind grain, as well as eventually run a sawmill. The road that held my interest ever since I spotted it on the old maps runs alongside the stream, climbing gently past the site of the mill pond before the ascent steepens as the mountain is fully engaged. Even while walking its sunlit reality the questions do not offer to answer themselves. If you immerse yourself in the details of the various maps of the region you quickly find that they are full of contradictions.

The official park service brochure for Millbrook Village shows the central footpath and trail to Donkeys Corners and labels it the old roadbed of the Wallpack Turnpike, now a footpath (as everything in the State Forest is a footpath unless you’re a Ranger). But it earlier states that Mr. Garis built his mill where the newly constructed turnpike crossed Vancampen’s Brook. That footpath never crosses the stream, anywhere between Millbrook and Donkeys Corners. It cannot be the turnpike associated with the town’s inception. The road that does cross is now known as NJ 602, or Millbrook Road, and it runs from Hardwick and Franklin Grove North. It is this road that I feel must have been the 1830’s turnpike. If you follow along to the South and West it is easy to see that a road from Columbia to Wallpack would take this route, not run along the river where it would pass no developed towns at all. What then was the road I am calling Mountain Road? Why do I give it that name? If you look at a wider satellite view of the area you can see that the road passes directly through the old center of the village. To the south it was Samuel’s Lane, while to the north it remains unlabelled on modern maps.

Walking upward along this ancient track we can observe a few details, correlate with that is known from old maps and stories, and approach something no more reliable than ordinary conjecture about the road and its origins. It is clear that a great deal of effort was expended to create it. Rather than a rough track suitable for dragging logs out of the woods what we have here is a wide, level road cut into the hillside, lined by a great number of stones that were cleared from its path. Similar stone structures snake through the forest in regular patterns, outlining fields long overgrown. This is exceedingly rocky ground, and to farm it took great labor, yet we know that it was farmed from the remnants of ancient clearings, old structures shown on topographical surveys, and descriptions of the town by Brodhead and others. The question we earlier toyed with was whether the road predated the town of Millbrook, and was perhaps a very early road along the Vancampen stream.

Possibly the most interesting clue to the puzzle lies just north of Donkey’s Corners. In the satellite imagery and modern map data the road appears to end there, and if that were true then we could safely conclude that it was built up the valley from Millbrook as a logging road and to connect with the Flatbrook road to the North. However, the 1886 Cook topographical maps show it continuing northward, and if you look carefully at satellite images and historical aerials you can see where it was. It passes Flatbrookville well to the East, curves Northeast, and joins up with or becomes a road called Mountain Road. It then continues to run Northeast through the valley of the Flat Brook. Somewhere in the vicinity of Bevins it becomes Brook Road, and in this form it passes that little town to the east and continues Northeastward, missing Layton and Tuttle’s Corners and then a little further on becoming Flatbrook Road, in which guise it peters out even further to the Northeast in High Point State Park.

These old roads are now forest trails that carry the DNA of the transportation network of an earlier era. They were difficult and expensive to make, and harder still to maintain. The one thing you can be certain of is that no road was ever built that didn’t have an important destination as its object; whether a town, a resource, or another important road. If you continue to cast the focus of your investigation Northeastward in the direction of Orange County, NY and the Hudson River you will see other Mountain Roads, and Old Mountain Roads, including one leading southwestward out of the old village of Esopus on the Hudson. It is to be expected that in a region as rough and broken as this one the name “Mountain Road” would occur in more than one place and time. Still it is fun to wonder about this faint remnant of a track that apparently heads northeast, passing by all those little towns that were founded in the 1800’s without bothering to touch at any of them; a literal road through a wilderness, headed somewhere.

Most modern scholarship puts the route of the Old Mine Road as running up the river to Port Jervis, and then onward to Esopus, but the fact is that the Old Mine Road was built in the early 1600’s if the tales are true, and we really have no idea exactly where it lay, or what route it followed. We know where people thought it was in the 1700’s, and in the 1800’s, and in the 1900’s up to today, but in the earliest of those records the road was already more than a century old. Might the “Old Mountain Road” that ran northeastward from Millbrook have been a part of “that ancient trail” as Amelia Decker called it? If the object of those very early settlers was to get from Pahaquarry to Esopus with loads of ore, then it is at least possible. The current Old Mine Road and the road we have been discussing cross in Millbrook, and there was no Flatbrookville to draw it down to the Wallpack Bend in the 1600s. They were alread on top of the hill: why go down to the river again?

We’ll probably never know for sure, but as always it’s fun to trace the fingerprints of past times using the modern tools of today. Earlier researchers did not have access to software like Google Earth and NASA Worldwind. They could not pull up topographical maps and historic aerial photos with the click of a mouse. If there is a pattern in the names of ancient roads between Pahaquarry and Esopus on the Hudson then the only way they could see it would be to gather up the necessary paper maps and review them one by one. No doubt this is what many or most of them did. Most human commerce in the New World followed the rivers inland, and it will probably always make more sense to assume that the Old Mine Road ran up the river to Port Jervis, and thence on to Esopus. But for my part I’ll continue to seek out the parted canopy of trees, the line of green across a cornfield, or the bit of crumbling pavement in a forest clearing that indicate humans once came this way, bearing their burdens of commerce.

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Millbrook Village – Plan Your Visit (PDF)

One thought on “Millbrook and The Old Mountain Road

  1. Greatly enjoyed your commentary on the Millbrook area. Thanks for posting. I’ll soon get down to the Donkeys Corners Trail myself. It sure looks interesting.

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