Union Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey

A Brief History of Union Township
(Source: Union Township Open Space Plan, 2003)

Early Settlement

            Archeological evidence suggests that humans have lived in the area that is now New Jersey for thousands of years.  The most prominent Native American tribe in New Jersey was the Lenape, or Delaware (Delaware Tribe of Indians Homepage).  A survey conducted between 1912 and 1915 identified four hundred and sixty-two camps, villages, burial sites, and rock shelters within Hunterdon County (Hunterdon County Democrat 1976, p. 4).  The majority of sites within Union that contain Native American artifacts currently lie under the Spruce Run Reservoir.  An early Native American trail followed Mulhockaway Creek from West Portal, through Union Township, and up to High Bridge.  Another trail, called Malayelick Path, originated in the village of Assunpink (Trenton), and apparently crossed through Union Township’s southern border (Union Township Historical Society 1976; Hunterdon County Democrat 1976, pp. 4-6). 

 Hunterdon County provided rich hunting grounds to the Lenape, for most of the county was densely forested.  Hunterdon County also provided the Lenape with argillite, a hard rock formation used by to make various tools and weapons.  Because of its abundance, Native American tribes traveled from as far away as Port Jervis, New York, to acquire Argillite (Union Township Historical Society 1976; Herdan 1987).

The Lenape and the Delaware were among the first Native Americans to come in contact with the European settlers who arrived in Hunterdon County in the early 1700s.  At the turn of the 19th century, colonial settlements had become larger in size and number, which changed the political and social life of the Lenape.  The Lenape eventually were forced to relocate to Oklahoma (Hunterdon County Democrat 1976, pp. 4-6; Herdan 1987). 

An Agricultural Society

The movement of English, Scottish, and Irish settlers from Monmouth and Burlington counties in the 1730s prompted industrial development in Union Township.  The majority of industries revolved around the needs of the agricultural economy.  In the mid 1700’s, farmers specialized in grain, dairy products, and livestock such as cattle, pigs, and sheep.  Peaches, apples, and pears became prominent crops, reaching peak production in the early 1800s.  The fruit was sold to city merchants, and then shipped via railroad to New York City.  This was a very successful industry until a devastating blight struck the area around 1900.  The industry was leveled overnight (Union Township Historical Society 1976; Herdan 1987).

Union Township boasts a history of various industries, with a common link to agriculture.  The rapid growth in farming enhanced connected industries such as tanning, weaving, and fertilizing.  In the mid-18th century, grain was the major crop, and mills were grinding flour that was eventually shipped to major cities across New England.  Most farmers with a water source took part in ice manufacturing.  Sawmills were soon built along streams to create lumber for farm homes.  By the time of the American Revolution, successful mining operations had been implemented and were providing ammunition for the War and iron to produce tools and machinery.  

The Union Furnace, from which the Township got its name, was built in 1742 on Spruce Run, and was an iron slitting and rolling mill.  Cannon balls were forged there and transported to the Continental Army.  The furnace operated until the 1780s and stood until the creation of Spruce Run Reservoir in 1961 (Herdan 1987).

The industrial revolution introduced railroads to Union Township, providing a more comfortable mode of transportation than the stagecoach and a faster, more reliable method of transporting freight including livestock and iron ore.  The first rail line that ran through Union Township was known as the Easton & Amboy rail line.  The railroad was constructed to carry coal across New Jersey to the Amboys.  This railroad, built by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company and completed in 1875, enters the Township through the Musconetcong Tunnel, located near Pattenburg.  The first tunnel was used until 1928, when a second tunnel was constructed in order to permit larger trains to safely pass through.  The Easton & Amboy rail line was initially only used for freight transportation, however passenger trains were added shortly afterwards.  In the early 1900s railroad stations were built at Pattenburg and Jutland.  The towns of Pattenburg and Jutland were awakened by the completion of the tunnels and the services of the railroad.  Residences began popping up along the railroad throughout Union Township, as more people wanted to live within walking distance of the railroad stations (Union Township Historical Society 1976).   

Union Township consists of three historic communities: Pattenburg, Jutland and Norton.  The development of the first two coincides with the railroad.  Agricultural products were much more efficiently transported after the constriction of the railroad.  The stops on the rail line in Pattenburg and Jutland made the communities attractive for residential purposes as well.  Schools and other community facilities were constructed; commercial establishments also thrived in the villages. These three areas have all been designated historic districts.

Growth of Pattenburg

The Pattenburg Historic District, located in the western section of Union, was the center of commuter activity in Union Township.  The first school in Pattenburg was built in 1804.  The schoolhouse still standing in Pattenburg was built in 1898 and classes were held there until 1954.  The Pattenburg Methodist Church, erected in 1853, and the adjoining cemetery remain little changed to this day.  Pattenburg was home to the Supreme Milk & Cream Company, a hardware store, a peach basket factory, and the Pattenburg railroad station. 

A quiet street in Pattenburg  during the late Fall

Commercial activity in Pattenburg boomed in the early 1870s when the railroad was constructed through the community.  Several buildings were constructed near the site of the tracks.  The introduction of the railroad to Union Township increased the efficiency of mail service to both Pattenburg and Jutland and introduced Pattenburg as the gateway to Bellewood Park (Herdan 1987; Union Township Master Plan).

Bellewood Park, located on the outskirts of Pattenburg, was one of the best-known amusement parks in New Jersey during the early 1900s.  The park officially opened on July 4, 1904, and welcomed a crowd of over 10,000 people.  Bellewood Park included a Ferris wheel, carousel, dancing pavilion, and a large Farmhouse Restaurant; it was “a weekend vacationer’s delight frequented by wealthy New Yorkers and local farm hands alike” (Herdan 1987, p. 245).  Lehigh Valley Railroad Officials conceived Bellewood Park and its name; Bellewood Park was easily accessed from the railroad through both the Pattenburg Station and a separate Bellewood Park Station.  The community of Pattenburg thrived on the tourism drawn to Bellewood Park.  The Park operated until World War I.  (Union Township Historical Society 1976; Herdan 1987, pp. 251-253). 

Jutland

Jutland is considered the civic center of Union Township.  This section of the Township is located around what is now the Jutland railroad crossing.  In the early 1900s, a railroad station was built in Jutland, thus creating the center for produce marketing.  Milk and fruit were among the most popular items transported from Jutland to New York City by train.  Jutland included a town hall, a Post Office, a blacksmith and farm equipment store, a large feed and fertilizer store, and a school (now a day-care center).  

The Douglass Farm barn and silo
Douglass Farm, within the Rockhill Agricultural Historic District

The Rockhill Agricultural Historic District, located to the south of Jutland, is recognized for its exceptional soils and agricultural heritage.  Rockhill boasts numerous outbuildings and structures spanning 200 years of farming history, including five farmhouses, which predate the American Revolution (Herdan 1987).  Rockhill was placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1984.  At the time, Rockhill was the largest designated Historic Agricultural District in New Jersey.  “This picturesque expanse of rolling hillsides, woodlands, and babbling brooks,” wrote Andy Herdan in 1987 (Rural Recollections, p.1), “remains virtually unchanged since the arrival of early settlers to the area in the 1700s.” 

In the past 15 years, however, there have been subdivisions in the District, which have resulted in an intrusion into the bucolic heritage of the area.  The preservation of agricultural land in the Rockhill District will help maintain the area’s important historical values.    

Development of Norton

 Norton is best known for being the home of the historic Union Furnace, which sparked the industrial growth in the Township.  In 1742 two Philadelphians, William Allen and Joseph Turner, established the Union Iron Works in what is now the Van Syckle National Historic District.  

At its peak, the Union Forge produced about 20 tons of iron per week, including horseshoes, wagon iron, nails, and farm equipment.  The forge became well known because of the support it gave to the Continental army.  The iron works became less active after the Revolution and eventually became the Taylor-Wharton Iron & Steel Company of High Bridge, which operated until 1971.  

The ruins of the Union Furnace at Spruce Run were lost when the Spruce Run reservoir was constructed in 1961.  However the forge master’s house still stands.  It is located north of Van Syckle Road, near the site of the original furnace.  In addition to the actual furnace, William Allen owned a summer home in Norton, that later became known as the Union Farm.  Martha Washington was a regular guest at the farm (Herdan 1987).

The Van Syckle Historic District, named to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, also includes the well-known Reynolds Tavern, which was built in 1763.  The tavern was renamed the Van Syckel Tavern in 1795; a general store and post office were added on the property.  

Van Syckel's Tavern
Van Syckel's Tavern

Van Syckle Corner was an important landmark to travelers and forge workers.  The tavern served as a meeting place for local farmers.  It was considered to be one of the most substantial structures in Hunterdon County.  The tavern, private home, and other buildings are now owned and maintained by the Van Syckel-Martin family and still stand as proud reminders of a departed era (Union Township Historical Society 1976; Hunterdon County Democrat 1976, p. 28; Union Township Master Plan).   

 In 1976, the Hunterdon County Cultural & Heritage Commission identified 125 properties of historic significance in Union Township.  Further, over 100 structures appearing on the 1860 Farm Map of Union Township remain standing as reminders of the Township’s historical legacy (Township of Union Master Plan).

Register of Historic Places

There are six areas in Union on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places (Township of Union Master Plan, p. A3B-1). 

Case Farmstead, early 1800s, on Little York-Pattenburg Road
Turner/Chew/Carhart Farm, 1800s, on Van Syckles Corner Road
Mechlin Tavern, 1830, County Routes 625 and 579
Perryville Tavern, 1813, Interstate 78 and County Route 625
Rockhill Agricultural Historic District, early 18th century
Van Syckle Corner District, 18th and 19th centuries

These areas provide exemplary evidence of Union’s heritage and rich history.  Although there are many other structures and locations in the Township that could be included on the list, they have not, to date, been included.

Additional Sources of information:

Union Township Historic Preservation Committee
Joseph Martin - Historian
Patricia Lingelbach - Member
Robert Everett - Member
Douglas Martin - Member
Susan M. Rochelle - AIA Architect

Union Township Historical Society of Hunterdon
(A private organization)
Pat Lingelbach - President


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