Wild Montclair: Two rivers run through, and under, town
by Elizabeth Oguss
Two rivers run through Montclair, two thin blue lines on the map called Second River and Third River.
Both rivers flow, in their discontinuous way, to the Passaic River, and along the way are joined by other streams. Yantacaw Brook, in Montclair’s “upper east side,” flows into Third River, and Nishuane Brook in the South End passes behind Montclair Kimberley Academy’s Brookside Campus and flows alongside Orange Road, crossing under it near Draper Terrace, and on into the Second River.
Most of us know Second River as Toney’s Brook. An 1894 book called “History of Montclair Township” says that Toney’s Brook was the source of Montclair’s “manufactories.” Its author, Henry Whittemore, wrote:
“Two rivulets rise in the northern part of the present township which flow southward and eastward to form in Bloomfield the little stream anciently known as Second River. The first of these known as ‘Tony’s Brook’ (named probably from Anthony Oliff, one of the early settlers at the mountain), though now an insignificant stream was early utilized for manufacturing purposes, and furnished sufficient power to run two or three mills, which gave this part of the township its first impetus.”
It’s hard to imagine mills on a stream that is indeed insignificant in many places. Here it’s paved, there it’s underground, sometimes it scarcely moves. That’s all because of us humans, who impose our borders and lines on the natural world.
Whenever I’m on Walnut Street to buy bread, I stop to ponder the brick riverbed of Toney’s as it passes under the road between two restaurants.
I asked Joshua Galster, professor of earth and environmental studies at MSU, about paved and buried rivers, and we spoke by phone and email. He described what probably happened to Toney’s Brook.
“Sometimes a stream is channelized where both banks are lined with concrete/rocks and then anchored in place,” he wrote. “What happened a lot was that streams were buried completely when sewers were built. This was done for a variety of reasons, but since these small streams were the original sewers where people disposed of their waste it made some sense from a health standpoint to just bury the streams.”
Galster said that some rivers covered by development are being reclaimed in a process known as daylighting. According to an article on Curbed New York, parts of the Saw Mill River in Yonkers have once again become a place where a muskrat could live. Obviously that won’t happen at Walnut Street, but how thrilling to think of a river sparkling in the sun again after years stuck in culverts and under concrete.
I walk in Edgemont Park most mornings, and occasionally the stream that feeds the pond appears utterly motionless, but water is moving at spillway at the southeastern side of the pond. Galster says that if water is flowing from upstream and flowing somewhere downstream, there is indeed a current, even if you can’t see it.
The Third River, which is a bit bigger than Second River, flows through town at the Alonzo F. Bonsal Preserve, a wonderful in-town escape where you can almost forget you’re in busy New Jersey. Professor Galster takes his students to Bonsal early in the semester to study the river.
The entrance to the preserve is down a paved path that runs between two houses on Riverview Drive. Walk down a flight of concrete steps and you’ll see an arched bridge that crosses the stream.
Stop halfway across the bridge. Where your feet are standing is how high the water rose during Hurricane Irene in 2011, Galster said. That’s how much water was flowing down the valley.
On the far side of the bridge, follow the path till you get to a sort of grassy road. You can walk in either direction to reach the river again. If you go to the left, you’ll come to a place where two tributaries meet that drain the north and south ends of MSU’s campus. Here is where Galster has his students measure the river. They measure the flow, the size of the rocks themselves (a pebble count, it’s called), the slope of the river.
Walk the other way and you get to a part of the river that invites wading. I asked Professor Galster if that was something he did professionally.
“Oh sure, I love being in streams,” he said. “It’s Tuesday afternoon and here I am standing in a stream and I’m working.”