Sourland Mountain. A Brief History.
The Mountain, which runs for 17 miles from Lambertville to a point just beyond the village of Neshanic, is divided among three counties and five townships. The chief reason why it became so chopped up was the water power provided by its many streams, some of which run into the Delaware, others the Raritan and others the Millstone Rivers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mills were built along them everywhere, sometimes only an eighth of a mile apart.
Everyone in those days wanted a share of the Mountain's water power. It was also a valuable source of lumber: by the time of the Civil War much of the Mountain had been logged off. Farms sprang up where the trees had once stood: a complex network of roads and footpaths developed among the farms. In order to supply the farmers with basic needs, general stores and post offices, one-room schools, churches and specialty shops, like those of the blacksmith, were concentrated at crossroads and hamlets. Small potteries and rock quarries were established at suitable spots.
The Mountain also proved to be a good place to grow fruit as a cash crop, especially peaches. But when a disastrous blight struck in the last years of the nineteenth century, peach farming collapsed. At the same time, the small marginal farms were struggling to survive as New Jersey began to move from an agricultural to and industrial economy. In consequence, the Mountain quickly became a backwater: many people moved away, general stores and post offices closed, schools and some churches were abandoned. Forests began to spring up in what had been open fields. The Mountain then took on the reputation of being a refuge for the poor and the backward-even a dangerous place for strangers who would venture into it. In March of 1932 the Mountain was the scene of the notorious kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby: the Lindberghs had chosen the Mountain for their new home precisely because of its isolation and inaccessibility.
Since the Second World War, paved roads have made the Mountain easier to reach and traverse. In recent years, the valleys around the Mountain have been filling up with housing developments and business centers: suburbia has arrived. The rural character of the Mountain is now under siege, with an increasing number of new houses - even sprawling McMansions - being built. But the scarcity of water and poor percolation of the soil make such development problematic. A strong effort is now underway to preserve as much undeveloped land as possible for parks, wildlife refuges and open space.
By Jim Luce