As you read this, try to imagine what life was like over 200 years ago. In the early 1700s, the trails across New Jersey were Indian trails through densely wooded areas, and wide enough only for a man on horseback. It was by these trails that a band of settlers from Southold and Easthampton, Long Island, came to the rolling green hills of Morris County. Two of these trails crossed in the area that the Minisink Indians called “Alamatunk,” which meant “black earth bottom” for Black River. And “Black River” was the original name for Chester. Most long-time “Chester-ites” say that no one knows why the name “Black River” was dropped and “Chester” was adopted. Some of the residents had been calling their community “Chester” for a good while, and it has been noted that it probably was because Chester, England was the home of their ancestors. These English ancestors migrated to New England and then to Southhold and the Hamptons in Long Island; their grandsons came to Black River in New Jersey. The people of Black River must have felt great satisfaction when they received notice from the state that their wish to create their own township was granted! Thus, on January 29th, 1779 the business of running the new Township Of Chester began. Because of the two great roads which intersected in Chester, taverns, inns, blacksmith shops and other travel-related businesses flourished during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Distilleries also did a thriving business in applejack and apple brandy (known as “Jersey Lightening”) produced from apples grown in the many local orchards, a few of which still operate today. Not only were the rolling hills of the area dotted with orchards of peaches and apples, but dairy and sheep farming were very widespread as well. During early settlement, agriculture was a mainstay of the area; however, industrial potential was soon to be realized. Numerous swift-flowing streams provided ideal settings for water-powered grist and saw mills. These streams also served as sources of power for the early charcoal burning forges and furnaces, which were used to work the iron ore taken from local mines. The Civil War brought more demands for iron and the mines began to flourish. During the period from the late 1860s to the late 1880s, Chester had 28 active mines. In 1880 six mines were operating on Main Street alone. Several hundred thousand tons of iron ore were taken from 25 to 30 different mines at this time. In 1868 the Lackawanna Railroad built its branch in Chester, and in 1872-73 tracks were laid to connect it with the Hedges and Hacklebarney mines. These tracks were later purchased by the Central Railroad and carried through to High Bridge. Sometime later, the DL&W Railroad took over the tracks alongside Chester’s “Muskrat” Station that ran to Dover. The Chester iron industry suffered with the mining of much larger and richer iron ore deposits found in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range, and by the 1890s all of the Chester mines were shut down. Residents who could not return to farming soon moved away. Even though Chester died as a mill and mining town, some unusual light industry soon moved in to support the town. Two of these industries were Sturzenegger’s Swiss Embroidery Factory from New York and the Davidson Handkerchief Factory. Also, in the early 1900s Chester became a very popular retreat for city-weary New Yorkers. Local hotels charged reasonable rates and visitors were drawn by the famous springs with their health-giving waters on top of Schooley’s Mountain. Small towns during this time utilized their main streets for almost all of the local businesses, schools, churches and homes. Local taverns were not only stopping-off places for visitors to “wet their whistles,” but they were where much of the news of the area was passed on. Many of these original buildings still remain on Chester’s Main Street and country roads today.
A booklet entitled “A Stroll Through The Old Village Of Chester, NJ,” published by the Chester Historical Society, assists those interested in a historic walk or ride through Chester in finding various historical sites. Please refer to this web site's section, "Publications," to learn more about the availability of "A Stroll Through the Old Village of Chester, NJ" and other publications by the Chester Historical Society.
Chester Historical Society PO Box 376 ~ Chester, NJ07930