...a group of forward-thinking businessmen from Newark, Orange and surrounding municipalities met to discuss the possibility of establishing a park system for Essex County. As a result of this meeting, legislation was introduced in Trenton authorizing Essex County to organize a Commission to prepare a report on the “advisability of laying out ample open spaces for use of the public.” The Commission hired five firms of landscape architects to develop preliminary plans for a county-wide park system. All of the architects agreed that the cornerstone of any county park system should be a large reservation on the first and second ridges of the Watchung Mountains.
...the state legislature authorized the creation of a permanent Essex County Park Commission as an autonomous body. From the very beginning, the permanent Commission recognized that the creation of a mountain reservation was of paramount importance to its mandate. Park Commissioner Frederick Kelsey stated, “There was but one location which in size, relative convenience, varied topography and natural and wooded features, seemed to meet the requirements.” The tract Kelsey referred to would become the South Mountain Reservation, located in the municipalities of West Orange, Millburn and Maplewood.
As stated in an 1896 Report, the Commission assumed that “South Mountain Reservation, by reason of its huge topographical features and extensive woods…will become, in due time, the especial pride of the citizens of Essex County….”
Prior to the Commission’s establishment in 1895, the approximately 2,100 acres that comprise the Reservation were privately owned and primarily used for woodlots. The Commission spent its first few years acquiring this land and clearing all existing buildings, stone walls, fences and other structures. In April, 1902, the New York Times reported that the last remaining houses had been removed and that the mountain top at the Reservation was now “unbroken by any signs of human habitation or human life.”
...the Commission retained as its landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers firm. Frederick Law Olmsted, a pioneer in the profession of landscape architecture, was responsible for the planning and design of many of the country’s most famous parks, including Central Park in New York City. He visited the Reservation in 1895, describing it as some of the most beautiful and promising terrain he had ever seen.
Because he was in ill health, the design of the Reservation was largely carried out by Frederick’s son and stepson, both of whom were among the most influential landscape architects in America. The Olmsted Brothers firm was engaged in the planning and design of the Reservation from 1889 until 1934, and its vision shaped the Reservation as it exists today. Maps prepared by the Olmsted Brothers in 1899 and 1901 are largely consistent with the Reservation’s current features and boundaries. Many of the scenic vistas, hiking trails, roads and picnic areas enjoyed by today’s visitors to the Reservation are products of Olmsted’s design.
...President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that proved to be one of the most successful programs in battling the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s goal was to improve the physical and financial condition of young men by putting them to work developing America’s public lands, forests and parks. In 1933, two CCC camps, employing 400 men, were established in the Reservation at the current site of the Turtle Back Picnic Area. The CCC men were, to a great extent, engaged in implementing the Olmsted Bothers’ plans. Miles of trails, roads and bridges were constructed or improved, additional scenic vistas were opened and picnic areas were constructed or upgraded. Those who hike, drive or picnic in the Reservation today owe a debt of gratitude to the young men of the CCC.
...the Commission converted the Hickory Springs Picnic Area, abutting Northfield Avenue in West Orange, into the Turtle Back Zoo, originally a fifteen-acre children’s zoo. In 1963, the South Mountain Arena, now known as the Richard J. Codey Arena, was constructed adjacent to the zoo. In 1979, the Essex County Park Commission was disbanded, and management of the Reservation was transferred to the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Unlike the Park Commission, the Department of Parks is not an autonomous body but is part of the Essex County government.
...Essex County proposed to clear cut hundreds of mature trees and destroy 2.5 acres of woodland in order to construct a 500-seat amphitheater at the zoo. In the face of a public protest organized by the Coalition to Save the South Mountain Reservation and legal action, and faced with budgetary restraints imposed by the COVID pandemic, the County has announced that the amphitheater project is now “on hold.”
The amphitheater project was merely the latest part of the county’s continued program to encroach upon the Reservation. Although it added 11 acres to the May Apple Hill area in 2009 after destroying acres of land to widen South Orange Ave, since 2003 Essex County has destroyed approximately 25 acres of the Reservation’s woodlands in order to expand the Turtle Back Zoo and to construct the South Mountain Recreation Complex, consisting of McLoone’s Boat House Restaurant, the MiniGolf Safari Course, the TreeTop Adventure Course, the Regatta Playground and associated parking areas. The County’s Master Plan for the zoo contemplates the destruction of an additional 10 acres of the Reservation’s dedicated woodlands. Recently 2.2 acres of the reservation were disturbed to expand the zoo’s children’s train ride.
One can imagine that the early Park Commissioners would be appalled by the county’s cavalier disregard of their intention to permanently preserve the Reservation’s scenic beauty in its original state for the enjoyment of the public. You can fight back against further development of the Reservation’s natural beauty by supporting the Coalition to Save the South Mountain Reservation.