History Mystery: Circling AroundPosted: December 29, 2009
Today’s post is about one of those minor local history mysteries. Simply put: What is this thing?
It is located in the Mills Reservation, a nature preserve in my hometown of Montclair, NJ. Sitting at the top of a scenic ridge, the cement circle commands a breathtaking view of the surrounding area, including parts of the Manhattan skyline.
I had never really thought much about the circle until I took my kids there for the first time. Naturally, the first thing they asked was: “What is it?”
Good question, as it turns out. An online hiking path reference calls it the remains of a World War II antiaircraft gun emplacement. But is it?
Maybe not, as my friend Helen Fallon found out while researching a walking tour of the area. Helen is not the sort to be satisfied with a mere Google search, and her investigations turned up three possibilities. The cement circle could be:
(A) An anti-aircraft gun emplacement, as I’d heard.
(B) The remains of a high-powered searchlight, one of many set up during WWII overlooking New York City. This is the opinion of a local historian in Cedar Grove, another town adjoining the nature preserve.
(C) The remains of an old water tower. A lifelong area resident who grew up down the road in the 1920s and ‘30s told Helen that her mother always referred to the circle as “the water tower.”
In poking around old newspapers at our local library, I did find a clipping that lends credence to Theory (B):
Dec. 9, 1941: “Air raid patrols went on duty at 6 o’clock last night on the top floor of Essex Mountain Sanatorium, at the request of State Defense Council Chairman H. Audley Stephan that such patrols be established all over the State. As it was requested that patrols be established at six-mile intervals, Verona [another neighboring town] is ready to establish another one on the ridge of the First Mountain, if Montclair does not do so.”
So maybe the cement circle was something to do with air defense, although I haven’t yet found a news item about anything actually being built on the Mills mountain ridge.
Funny – we’re not excavating a Paleolithic site here. Yet it feels a bit like that. It’s an excellent example of how quickly memorable events and landmarks can blur into an uncertain past. And it’s why old photos of neighborhoods where my ancestors lived are just pure gold to me — even if some of their details remain as mysterious as this cement circle.