The Musconetcong Valley
A Cultural Landscape Still In The Making
By John P. Brunner

The Musconetcong River valley is not a place where great battles were fought or important treaties signed. No single historic feature found in the valley is by itself entirely unique to the history of the region, state, or nation.

Yet, few river valleys in New Jersey tell such a compelling story of the interrelationships between humans and the natural environment, none possess so many well-preserved historic features as those found along the Musconetcong River. Outstanding river-related historic features -- many of which are listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places -- can be found in Stanhope, Waterloo Village, Asbury, Finesville and several other Musconetcong River communities.

It is easy to overlook just how important the historic places and structures are to the scenic character the Musconetcong valley. As key components of regional tourism, the historic bridges, houses, and villages contribute to the local economy.

Fortunately, the valley's historic and archaeological features have been reasonably well documented. Human habitation in the Musconetcong valley has been traced back to as early as 12,000 years ago when Paleo-Indians occupied the region during the final retreat of the Wisconsin glacier. Evidence of their presence in the valley has been documented at the Plenge Site, which is located along the lower Musconetcong River in Warren County. The Plenge Site was the first of only two major Paleo-Indian archaeological site excavations in New Jersey, and it is considered to be one of the most important in the northeastern United States.

The pre-eminent source of information about human settlement along the Musconetcong River is "The Musconetcong Valley of New Jersey: A Historical Geography" by Peter O. Wacker, Rutgers University Press (1968). Wacker, who is a professor of Geography and Anthropology at Rutgers University, describes how the natural resources of the Musconetcong River valley determined - and were in turn transformed by - human settlement. Rutgers University Press described Wacker's book as "one of the first authoritative studies of its kind."

Wacker gave several reasons for choosing the Musconetcong River valley over any of several others in New Jersey. He stated in his book "A unique opportunity exists in New Jersey, especially in the southern Highlands of the state, to investigate the processes whereby distinct ethnic groups and varied economic interest have transformed the largely forested landscape of aboriginal days to the largely deforested agricultural landscape of today." Wacker was also drawn to the Musconetcong by the documentation of extensive prehistoric settlement, and by the diverse cultural landscapes and economic activities resulting from the occupation of the valley by various northwestern Europeans. He defined the significance of the Musconetcong River in terms of its economically strategic location relative to colonial America's two major commercial centers - New York and Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for making the Musconetcong the locus of his historical geography was an aesthetic one. Wacker wrote, "Despite its proximity to the sprawling ugliness of Megalopolis, the Musconetcong Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the Highlands. Much of this character remains in the twentieth century and makes field work all the more pleasant."

Wacker considered both natural and human alterations of the landscape beginning with the ice age 10-12,000 years ago) up to the end of the 19th century. The Paleo-Indians who settled along the Musconetcong lived in a sub-arctic climate that supported forests of spruce, pine, and birch. They hunted elk, caribou, and other mammals no longer found in the region. The river ran full and wide with waters from the melting ice sheets of the Wisconsin Glacier that spilled out into extensive wetlands ringing both sides of the river.

As the climate moderated over a period of several thousand years, the eastern deciduous forest evolved from the ice age boreal forests. With the retreat of the glacier, the Musconetcong River decreased to roughly its current size and, fed by small glacial lakes and mountain streams, it flowed through a sparsely inhabited wilderness to the lower Delaware River.

By the time European settlement came to the Musconetcong valley during the early 18th century, the Leni-Lenape Indians were already in a state of decline, and the several thousand-year-old aboriginal occupation was coming to an end. While the Lenape burned off significant areas of forest to plant crops and attract game, their only lasting imprint on the landscape were the major trails that European colonists eventually converted to roads. One of these was the Malayelick Path, which ran from the head of the tidal Delaware River to the Musconetcong River "gap" between Musconetcong and Schooley's Mountains. The path was the forerunner of State Highway 31, which begins in Trenton and crosses the Musconetcong River at Hampton Borough. Portions of State Highway 206 are part of the Minisink Trail, which linked the New Jersey coast with Minisink Island in the Upper Delaware River (a Lenape settlement was located nearby at what is now Lake Hopatcong.)

From an ecological perspective it is interesting to note that 12,000 years of Native American settlement along the Musconetcong River caused minimal impact on the river and its surrounding landscape.

In contrast, a mere 150 years of European settlement profoundly altered the river and surrounding landscape. Wacker's book relates how the parallel growth of agriculture, industry, and transportation rapidly transformed the natural landscape to a cultural landscape. Subsistence agriculture took root in the lower Musconetcong valley at the beginning of the 18th century. The fertile limestone valley was rapidly cleared for croplands, and subsistence agriculture gradually evolved into commercial grain and dairy farming. Villages sprang up around the many gristmills built along the Musconetcong River from Finesville to Hackettstown.

The charcoal iron industry was also established during the early 18th century on the lower Musconetcong River and eventually it spread all the way up the river valley to Stanhope. Abundant supplies of ore from the surrounding ridges supported iron making. The early iron industry needed charcoal to fuel its furnaces, and since charcoal was made by burning wood, intensive deforestation of the ridges surrounding the Musconetcong valley took place over a period of 100 years.

The iron industry faced a precipitous decline by the early 19th century because wood supplies were rapidly being depleted. However, the industry was rescued when one of early America's truly amazing engineering feats - the Morris Canal - was built to carry coal from the Pennsylvania coalfields to fuel the iron furnaces. The availability of coal all but eliminated the need for wood as fuel, and forests were allowed to regenerate, particularly in those areas too steep, rocky, or wet for cultivations or settlement.

The Morris Canal was a world-famous engineering marvel that required abundant supplies of water. Lake Hopatcong, which was originally a small natural glacial lake, was dammed to supply water to the entire canal system, but it was found to be an inadequate source. To augment the flow of water to the canal, several other dams were built on the Musconetcong River and Lubbers Run, its largest tributary.

Only a few remnants of the Morris Canal remain, yet its impact on the river can be see in the silted-in dam pools above Waterloo Village and Saxton Falls. The lakes that were created to serve the needs of the canal and iron industry also spawned a new "industry" - summer cottage recreation and tourism. Even as the iron industry and Morris Canal were dying out, passenger trains and automobiles were carrying people to the summer cottages that sprang up along several lakes of the upper Musconetcong River watershed. This historic land-use pattern in the upper valley continues today, although the summer cottages have since become permanent residences. The lower Musconetcong River valley where agriculture continues to dominate the landscape has undergone remarkably little change in the past 100 years.

The cultural landscape themes contained in Wacker's work help shed light on the current condition of the river and its surrounding landscape, and may even offer a glimpse into the future. Suburban sprawl, the major impetus for the alteration of the natural landscape in late 20th century America, was in its infancy when Wacker wrote A Historical Geography in 1968. One lesson that can be drawn from his book is that the opportunities and limitations presented by natural resources remain constant. People are still attracted to the Musconetcong valley because of its scenic beauty and abundant natural resources, just as they were thousands of years ago. Soil, water, forests, and wildlife are still vulnerable to degradation and depletion by those who would fail to understand and respect nature's limits.

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