Nestled in the hilly Watchung Mountains in Central New Jersey, this tight knit community of Watchung offers more amenities than you might think. In addition to parks (Mobus Field, Philips Field, Watchung Lake Park), valleys and waterways, an arts center offers monthly art exhibitions, music performances and art, photography, yoga and dance classes for both adults and children, and there is an array of fine cuisine in which to partake.
The area is quite picturesque. The Watchung Mountains are known for their numerous scenic vistas overlooking the New York City and New Jersey skylines, as well as their isolated ecosystems containing rare plants, endangered wildlife, rich minerals, and globally-imperiled trap rock glade communities.
In Watchung, there’s something for everyone from foodies (expect to find top-notch Thai, Italian, Japanese eateries) to the horsey set, as the town plays host to numerous horse shows each year. Families and businessmen/women, are attracted to the town because of its above average schools, low crime rate (there hasn’t been a murder in Watchung in over a decade) and a relatively-short 40 minute commute to New York City.
What's In a Name
The name “Watchung’ comes from the Lenni Lenape Native Americans, meaning “high hills.” It is from the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains (appropriately named the First, Second and Third Watchung mountains) that George Washington surveyed the British troops in Perth Amboy. The eastern reach of these ridges is to the Oranges in the direction of Newark. The name “Washingtonville” was used in early times but rejected as the name for the area by the United States Postal Service because New Jersey already had too many places named Washington.
Around 1670, a group of Dutch settlers under the leadership of Captain Michaelson was traveling from the Amboys up an Indian trail at the same time The Watchung tribe of Lenni Lanape Indians was traveling for their annual summer trip to the ocean to fish and collect shells for wampum.
During the night Deer Prong, an advance scout for Chief One Feather’s tribe was shot and killed when he surprised a sentry. During the skirmish Captain Michaelson was captured and was to be burned at the stake when Princess Wetumpka who was traveling with the Dutch intervened and saved the captain’s life. The Indians eventually befriended the Dutch and allowed them to settle in the Valley. The legend ends with the full tribal ceremony marriage of the Princess and Chief.
In the 1900s, Watchung was a semi-rural community of about 3,000 inhabitants. This was an extremely small number in comparison of the larger New Jersey cities of Plainfield and Somerville.
Watchung was incorporated as a borough by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on May 23, 1926, from portions of North Plainfield Township (now Green Brook Township) based on the results of a referendum held on April 20, 1926.
Rumor has it that after the 1938 radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel “War of The Worlds” when many listeners took the reading of the war drama as fact. During the radio show a wave of mass hysteria swept through the country, including Watchung, causing many residents to flee their homes to escape a ‘gas raid from Mars.” As a precaution, National Guard troops were stationed around the hills in Watchung to protect its citizens from space invaders.
More Local History and the Not So Quiet Riot
Watchung, from the 1900s was a semi-rural small community of about 3,200 people in comparison with the relatively much larger cities of nearby Plainfield and Somerville. The first mayor of the town was Henry Baldwin Macdonald, who served from 1926 to 1928. Even as late as the 1960s, it was common for residents to know one another by name, with few moving in or out of the town.
On Friday July 14, 1967 disorder erupted in nearby Plainfield at the White Star Diner. Afterward, a group of 40 young, black men left the eatery and vented their anger by smashing store windows, looting and throwing rocks at police cars sparking the Plainfield riots.
City police were caught off guard by the unexpected violence and didn’t respond quickly enough. The mayhem lasted several days. During the height of the riots a white police officer manning a checkpoint, was overtaken by an angry, hostile mob and beaten with a steel grocery cart, stomped and eventually brutally shot and killed with his own gun.
The riots sparked a mass exodus of the large upper-middle class population from the nearby cities and many moved to the Watchung Hills area. It was at this time Watchung became a bedroom community and the average income and median house prices soared.
There have been quite a few of notable personalities who have called Watchung home. James Maxine Dupont, the founder and chairman of Thermoplastics Inc. was a longtime resident of Watchung up until his death in 1991 at the age of 79. Dupont was an avid collector of meteorites. His collection was formed from the mid-1950s until 1991. It was acknowledged at the time to be the largest and most important private meteorite collection worldwide, containing over 1,700 specimens. After his death his collection was transferred to the Planetary Studies Foundation in Illinois.
Other notables include Watchung native and current resident William Donovan “Billy” Ard, who played professional football with the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, winning a Super Bowl with the Giants in 1987. Carl Banks is another Giant Super Bowl champ and resident, along with actress Laura Prepon, who has appeared in numerous television shows including That 70s Show, How I Met Your Mother and Are You There Chelsea? A baseball sports notable is Bobby Thomson, who hit the legendary shot heard ‘round the world to win the pennant for the 1951 N.Y. Giants.
Given its easy commute to New York City, its rich history and its sense of community, Watchung is a delightful place to live and raise a family. The borough offers two public schools for grades K-8, while those in grades 9-12 have attend Watching Hills Regional High School in neighboring Warren Township. Additionally, Mount Saint Mary Academy, a private parochial school offers education to grades 9-12. As of 2009, median real estate property taxes paid for housing units were $10,001 or 1.3 percent.
So if you’re looking for a quiet, nice place to raise a family with great recreation and panoramic vistas, consider the hills of Watchung, New Jersey.
Christy Smith-Sloman is a staff writer at The New Jersey Cooperator.