High on Watchung In the Mountains of Central New Jersey

High on Watchung

 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.  

 The Legend

 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.  

 Early History

 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.