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County Boathouse Site Steeped in History

As the Orange Reservoir area near the South Mountain Reservation is renovated and repurposed, Essex County considers history

This week, Essex County began preliminary work to open a recreation area along the Orange Reservoir as part of the South Mountain Recreation Complex, along Northfield Avenue.

Plans are underway to open a boathouse and pavillion where visitors can rent paddle boats, walk, hike, fish and ice skate along the reservoir, which borders the South Mountain Reservation. The 2,047-acre reservation is located in parts of West Orange, Maplewood and Millburn. 

As its first step, Essex County razed an old house this week, and passersby had an unobstructed view of the water for the first time in decades. That view is familiar to Frank McEnerney, whose grandfather lived in the Cherry Lane house, serving as superintendent of the reservoir.

According to county officials, the old house, which was in poor repair, dated from the 1930s. However, the establishment of the reservoir dates from the late nineteenth century.

Documents that record the history of the Oranges, and provided by McEnerney, an Orange native, tell us that planning for the Reservoir began in the memorable fall of 1881. That September, the mercury reached 102 degrees in the shade. "Birds dropped dead...horses fell in the roadway overcome with the heat, and muzzled dogs suffered greatly," according to a history of the Oranges.

At the same time, vendors sold water for as much as 25 cents per barrel. It was time to establish a reliable water supply for the Oranges.

William Rider, known as the "Boy Engineer," was engaged to do the work of planning for water delivery from the reservoir into the city. The project was completed in 1883, and came in $11,000 under budget.

As to how the land remains public and available now, city elders chose to "safeguard the water for contamination." To do so, they bought as much land as they could that surrounded the water. Much of that remains public land today, now part of the South Mountain Recreation Complex.

The complex now includes the TurtleBack Zoo, Safari Mini-Golf, Codey Arena and other attractions.

Many of the town elders who saw the waterworks project through are remembered today through familiar, local street signs. Dodd, Spottiswoode, Beach, McCullough join Pierson in reminding locals who came before.

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