Morris County, Past and Present

Morris County, among the fastest growing counties in the New Jersey, New York, Connecticut metropolitan region, nestles amid rolling hills, broad valleys and glittering lakes approximately 30 miles northwest of New York City.

Rich in historic lore and tradition, Morris County was created by an Act of the State Legislature on March 15, 1738/39 separating it from Hunterdon County, one of the state’s largest counties of the period. Named after Colonel Lewis Morris, then Governor of the Province of New Jersey, it originally included what are now the counties of Morris, Sussex and Warren.

The county, first visited by Europeans in 1700, today combines natural beauty and pleasant suburban living with proximity to metropolitan surroundings. Its rolling landscape is dotted with lakes and rivers which form most of its boundaries with the adjacent counties of Essex, Union, Somerset, Warren, Sussex and Passaic.

Much of its beauty has been protected and preserved by the Board of County Commissioners through its Park Commission, formed by referendum in 1955 to set aside and develop land for leisure time and recreational use. Over 20,000 acres make up the system, one of New Jersey’s finest. Included are outdoor education centers, a marina, golf courses, a riding stable, indoor ice skating arena, cultural center, arboretums, and numerous types of hiking, cycling, wildflower and nature trails.

At its most distant points, the county stretches 30 miles from east to west and 30 miles from north to south. Its temperatures vary widely from area to area, averaging in the middle 20’s in the winter months and the low 70’s in the summer. About 50 inches of rain and 35 inches of snow fall each year.

Hills and valleys that run east-west, with rocky out-croppings as high as 1,000 feet above sea level, have long hindered transportation from north to south. Major interstate highways (80, 10, 46, 287, 280) connect many municipalities.

There are 39 municipalities in the 477.8 square mile county, varying in size from tiny Victory Gardens Borough with 1,314 residents to Parsippany-Troy Hills Township, with almost 48,500 residents. All together more than 421,000 persons reside in Morris County.

During the Revolutionary War, Morris County was known as The Military Capital of the American Revolution , because of its strategic location, which prompted Gen. George Washington and his Continental Army to make their winter encampments near Morristown on two different winters. Much of the historic lore of these encampments is preserved today in Morristown National Historical Park.

In the years following the Revolution, Morris County was a leader in the iron ore industry, a fact made possible by the abundance of iron ore, timber to fuel the forges, and swiftly flowing streams to provide power. By 1880 Morris was the third county in the nation in the amount of iron ore mined, with 568,420 tons.

To process the iron ore, works and mills were built at several locations, including Morristown, Boonton and Dover. It was in Morristown that the steam boiler and some of the machinery for the Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and parts of the first American locomotive were manufactured and the telegraph perfected by Samuel F. B. Morse and Alfred Vail. The old barn in which the two men conducted their experiments and sent the first message ” A patient waiter is no loser “, is still standing.

The Morris iron dynasty faced ruin, when in 1882 the iron industry discovered that iron ore could almost literally be picked off the surface in the Meabi region near Lake Superior. The Dickerson mine became one of the most prominent of the 1880’s after giving up more than one million tons of iron ore. Another famous mine, Hurdtown, closed down in 1898 after shafts had been sunk more than 2,600 feet into the earth in search of the elusive ore. Some of the last mines in Hibernia closed in 1913.

As the population grew and the methods of transportation improved, industries sprang up throughout the county, many of them using the iron ore as raw materials for their finished products. Boonton’s iron processors gained fame from nail production; Wharton attracted the tremendous foundry of the Replogle Steel Company, which closed in 1919; Kenvil, the giant Powder Company of California, later the Hercules Powder Company, and Dover, an extensive plant for making mine equipment.

In 1831 the Morris Canal, conceived and developed by a Morristown resident, George F. MacCulloch, was completed through the county. Crossing the state from Phillipsburg to Newark, a distance of 90 miles, it played a major role in movement of iron ore, coal and freight until, after many years of service, it fell into disuse and was dismantled in the 1920’s.

The tracks of the then fledgling Morris & Essex Railroad reached Morristown in 1838, and 10 years later were extended to Dover, where the railroad’s car shops were a major industry at the turn of the century.

By 1900 the nation’s business and financial leaders, seeking escape from New York City, the financial capital of the nation, discovered Morris County, its isolation, ideal climate and unspoiled countryside, and started the construction of large country estates. Within a few years it was claimed that more millionaires lived within a one mile radius of the Morristown Green than elsewhere in the world.

The fabulous estates were numerous enough to fill the pages of a pre-World War I vintage picture book entitled Beautiful Homes of Morris County . Possibly the most opulent were those of Otto H. Kahn, Hamilton McK. Twombly, Charles Mellon, Eugene Higgins, the Frelinghuysens, Claflins, James, Allens, Wolffs and Kountzes.

The introduction of the Income Tax sounded the death knell for the large estates and the society style of living they bred. Slowly, through the 1930’s and the 1940’s the large mansions that lined Madison Avenue, for years known as “Millionaires Row”, were demolished to avoid rising property taxes, increased cost of domestic help and the rising cost of living.

Within two years of Morris County’s creation, the Townships of Hanover, Pequannock and Morris were formed, followed in 1740 by Roxbury Township and in 1749 by Mendham Township. Several years after its founding the community of West Hanover was renamed “Morristown” and designated the county seat of government.

At first, governing Morris County was a function of the judiciary. As the judges’ court responsibilities grew, however, the need for help increased and two Freeholders were elected from each municipality. They were called “Freeholders” because they were men who owned land free and clear of debt. In 2020, the New Jersey state legislature voted to change the name to “County Commissioners.”

As the number of municipalities in the county increased, the Freeholder Board grew in size to 25 to 30 members. The appropriate number was a subject of controversy for many years. Eventually the State Legislature passed a “Small Board Law” limiting the number of Freeholders in each county. In Morris, the number originally was five, a figure that was maintained until 1972 when the board’s size was increased to seven. All are elected at large.

Since the turn of the century, the character of industry in Morris County has changed from iron mining to research, pharmaceuticals and light manufacturing. In the same period, the character of the land itself has changed from agricultural to residential. Beautiful homes and gardens predominate, both in housing developments, many of them located on the estates of former millionaires, to small country estates. New construction, both residential, commercial and industrial, is constant. There are large numbers of garden type apartments and condominiums, both in the towns and the countryside.

Today, Morris County is New Jersey’s seventh largest county. Multi-million dollar shopping centers and highway merchandising malls have combined with construction of world headquarters of name brand firms, discount houses, chain stores and food markets.

New Jersey Transit, the former Erie Lackawanna Railroad, serves thousands of county commuters daily. In addition, the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Morristown & Erie Railroad and the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad cross the county. Bus service links the 39 municipalities to the metropolitan region. Two airports are located within Morris County. The county is bisected by a fine network of approximately 2,000 miles of federal interstate freeways, and state, county and municipal roads.

The area work force exceeds 240,000. More than 50,000 are employed within the county at world headquarters and numerous research centers, and laboratories. The Morris County Chamber of Commerce reports there are 1,139 non-retail employers in the county with 10 or more employees.

Morris County is the home of three universities, a two-year County College, and a County Vocational Technical School. One of every four high school graduates in Morris County attend the County College of Morris which reports a capacity attendance both for full-time and part-time courses. The high registration reflects the fine academic standings of the college, the wide appeal of its varied curriculum, and the relative cost-value of its programs in comparison to other institutions.

The Morris County Vocational School District located in Denville provides vocational and enrichment programs, for high school students and continuing adult education, that inspire and prepare students to succeed in today’s world and pursue tomorrow’s opportunities. Museums and cultural facilities abound in Morris County to augment those in the nearby metropolitan area.