Saturday, June 23, 2012

Baldpate Mountain, New Jersey

My old friend, Ryan Romano, had wanted to go hiking for a few weekends when he had finally decided on this location named “Baldpate Mountain.” He had found trail guides and such online and was excited for our trip. But, at the last moment, I asked him if I could drag a few of my other friends into our trip, for a day out and to get some video for our project at the time. This is the part where we can plug in “and the rest is history.”

Unfortunately, as seen in videos from that fateful day, we failed to follow the thoroughfare path and ended up seeing the entirety of the mountain, via the trails that circled to-and-from the base of the hills. We did not know what to expect and were pleasantly surprised by the abundance of historical buildings and dilapidated structures that dot the mountainsides. We decided that we wanted to find “the top” and somehow failed to follow the one-and-only road from the parking lot to our destination. Instead, we broke off from said path and wandered around the surrounding forests for a few hours. By far, it was not a fatal error, as the trail system was beautiful and provided for a wonderful hike. A terribly exhausting and taxing walk, however, considering that a majority of our party were prepared for the walk in Converse sneakers.

Stumbling upon the properties that formerly made up the Kuser Estate would eventually give us the perfect setting for a favorite location in our current project, time and time again. It is funny how these sorts of places creep up on you: an innocuous day in the woods provides a beautiful backdrop for a decades-old tale. Happens only in New Jersey, I promise. That first day ended in us being home relatively early, before five pm, and having a barbeque at the Koval residence. Little did we know that we'd frequent this place on countless occasions over the next two years.

It appears that the featured properties (what would be considered the “visitor’s center”) are currently undergoing vast renovations. I assume (by the looks of the remodeling) that the largest building will eventually be used for private functions, like birthdays and weddings, much like the Marina Pavilion at Mercer County Park. On recent visits, it is incredible to see the broken ground and freshly-laid masonry: a far cry from the overgrown fields and abandoned gardens from a mere two summers ago. The other nearby buildings are used for maintenance and equipment storage. All you need to do is peek in through the numerous windows to see the trail guides and farm-like machinery to know that that is all these treasure holds contain (at least in the main lot). This collection of buildings, on the relatively clear summit of the mountain, is known as “Strawberry Hill” – named by the Kusers, one of Trenton’s oldest families. The origin of “Baldpate” itself, remains a mystery, but has a variety of hypotheses, such as the barren nature of the peak, a potentially planned landing strip, etc. But the history of Baldpate that most intrigues my friends and I lies beyond this charming “Strawberry Hill.”

Old localized publications on the area references an old copper mine that is somewhere in the proximity (or under) the mountain. In the 1939 book, Fair to Midlands, by Henry C. Beck, the author details his adventures around the area, calling the eastern portion of the park “Honey Hollow,” and included a picture of the supposed copper mine. The locals also told tales of bootleggers and farmers from decades past. Consider that: a book from the 1930s detailing the “forgotten towns of New Jersey” -- raising eyebrows and dropping jaws in fascination, much as we are doing today. Historians repeating history.

The story of Honey Hollow is not nearly as fantastic as some of Beck’s assertions, considering the numerous other properties (and ruins) that are found around the park. Some of the most prominent and easily accessible houses that still stand today were inhabited as late as the early 80s, having been sold to a company (the Trap Rock Industries) in 1986, and then acquired by the Mercer County Park system in 1998. The park is known as both Baldpate Mountain and the Ted Stiles Preserve, named after the recently deceased Rutgers professor of biological sciences, who campaigned for nine years for the park to become a reality. Mr. Stiles was also responsible for more than 9,000 other acres of preserved land across our beautiful state of New Jersey. Thank you, professor.

Attached is a video exploration of one of most alluring properties on Baldpate (one that I fear will soon be demolished) with a few familiar faces. For scenes including this park, I will link to our project’s respective wiki-page.

Baldpate Mountain holds some cherished memories with some of my best friends and I look forward to what the County plans to do for the property. I just dearly hope that they maintain the historical whimsy that the Mountain provides.