Mills Reservation was home to WWII searchlight platform, site of cathedral
By Jaimie Julia Winters
In early spring, a group of bird enthusiasts stand with binoculars in hand on top of round cement slab about the size of a small swimming pool nestled atop a 500-foot basalt ledge on a ridge at First Watchung Mountain in Montclair. Since 1959, birders have used the stone-filled platform as the site of the Montclair Hawk Lookout, a sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon, to come face to beak with raptors that use the flyway on their migratory path, south for the winter and north for the summer. It is the first ridge west of the lower Hudson River Valley, and runs from northeast to southwest.
“For 59 years birders have stood there hanging out on the platform, in awe of these birds, but in the back of our heads we ask what the heck is this we are standing on?” said Evan Cutler, a Montclair resident and birder.
The sweeping views from the platform are spectacular: to the east the Verrazano Bridge, the Palisades and the New York City skyline including the Statue of Liberty are visible; and to the north and west, peaks from the Ramapo Mountains and the beginning of the Second Watchung Mountain. Watchung is Native American meaning “high hill.”
The point is where the New Jersey Audubon Hawk Watch came to be in 1959 and is the organization’s smallest sanctuary at just one acre and part of the 154-acre Mills Reservation. It is the second oldest continuous hawk watch in the nation.
In the spring and fall, the birders see hawks, osprey, Peregrine Falcons and sometimes a Bald Eagle. In September, migrating monarch butterflies add to the peaceful scene, said Cutler.
Mysterious cement platform
There are many urban rumors about the cement circle at the ridge. Some say it was used as a platform for anti-aircraft artillery, while others say it held a spotlight to identify enemy aircraft.
“It does drive everyone mad,” said Helen Fallon, Vice President of the board of trustees, Montclair’s History Center. She thinks the cement circle’s origins stem from the quarry located just across the way. Its purpose was the base of a water tower or some sort of water function.
“It makes sense, as we know that the quarry was operated on steam power and needed a water source,” Fallon said.
The quarry produced trap rock for roads and brownstone or sandstone that provided building material for many older Montclair homes, said Fallon.
As to the World War II connection, that too is true, she contends. In 2012, she received an email from Chris Werndly, the then-president of the Cedar Grove Historical Society, who had first-hand knowledge that the platform was home to searchlight No. 13, part of a large number of military lights that covered the metropolitan area during the war.
“Light 13 personnel were in an encampment located at the time on vacant land at the apex of Ridge Road and Pompton Avenue,” Werndly wrote.
Locals struck up friendships with the soldiers who were mainly from the south. They hosted dinners and dances and some married off their daughters to the men in uniform, according to Werndly.
“One Texan married a Cedar Grove girl and she relocated to her husband’s home state; a soldier from North Carolina married another young lady and remained in Cedar Grove and established a roofing business,” Werndly wrote.
In the 1950s, the 154-acre Mills Reservation, where Quarry Point and the cement platform are located, was created by a foundation set up by David Mills, who made his fortune by inventing the spark plug for General Motors. The foundation bought 118 acres in 1952 and donated it to the county to be set aside as parkland. Other acres were added through land swaps with the county, said Fallon.
Episcopal Church’s grand plans
But in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the reservation was almost lost to the Episcopal Church and a grand idea. Maps and newspaper articles reveal that the Episcopal Diocese of Newark owned 35 acres at the peak. Some said the Episcopalians wanted the land for retreats, but Fallon
discovered a grander plan that never made it to fruition.
“Records still held with the diocese speak of exploding population projections and the building of a massive cathedral to prepare for a growing denomination,” said Fallon who spent years researching the Episcopal connection to the land.
At the time, the congregation worshiped at what is now known as the Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral built in 1729 at Broad and Rector streets in Newark. Calling that structure a pro-cathedral or temporary, a bigger and grander structure was needed for the growing denomination, a newspaper article reads.
A photo reveals the bishop conducting a baptism in the woods at the reservation in 1932 and another shows a sign posted near the quarry stating “Cathedral Grounds.” Newspaper articles report of a massive structure planned by the church on the land at the reservation.
By 1944, plans for the grand cathedral were abandoned. Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral remains the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.
“It never happened. The population explosion predicted didn’t happen, and I guess they changed their minds,” said Fallon.
Early park planners asked area residents what they wanted for Mills Reservation: a more formal park plan similar to Brookdale or a more passive park with a natural setting.
“The old timers say the residents wanted a more passive park,” said Fallon.
Today the reservation has several walking/jogging trails, including four major trails and numerous smaller trails, with the one leading to the cliff that overlooks the New York skyline and home to the Montclair Hawk Watch.