Related History: Berry's Creek
Robert Sullivan has published an interesting account of the Meadowlands in a book entitled: The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City; 1998; Scribner. He is a very entertaining writer and the book is recommended.
Sullivan notes that the Hackensack Indians probably lived on a ridge overlooking the meadows that still surround Overpeck Creek. Some of the first white settlers of the Meadowlands were British merchants from Barbados, so for a long time during the 1700s, the Meadowlands were known as New Barbados. p 36
Farmers cut the salt hay twice a year, stacked it in heaps, and waited until the ground was frozen to collect the stacks. In 1805 Newark had to hire a salt marsh manager to keep order on the marshes (for the stakes that marked each farmer's land were easily moved). 38
A cedar forest covered a stretch of land as big as midtown Manhattan in Kearny, and a forest ran across the desertlike are where the Meadowlands Sports Complex is today. It is estimated that cedars once covered between a third and a half of the Meadowlands. A number of people mad a living as lumbermen in the Meadowlands. Peter Kalm toured the Meadowlands in 1750 and wrote "The inhabitants here are not only lessening the number of their trees, but are even expatriating them entirely. . . . By these means many swamps are already quite destitute of cedars. "
In the spring of 1819, John Torrey toured the Jersey meadows and reported patches of white, yellow, and purple violets. Torrey wrapped up his report by noting, "much remains to be discovered." Others reported yellow floating arum, blue veronica, and white saxifrage. In summers, botanists reported seeing blue iris, pink meadowsweet, pink marshmallow, pale purple wild hibiscus, white ladies' tress, purple snake's mouth, and green and purple orchids. 35-36
The clay that lies beneath everything in the Meadowlands made for a vibrant brick-making industry from 1870 until the 1950s. At its peak, in 1895, the brickyards in Little Ferry produced on hundred million bricks, which were used to make buildings in Newark, Paterson, New York City, and Providence, Rhode Island. The clays pits filled with water so that they began to look like ponds. Now the pits are fenced off. 39
Sullivan has a separate chapter on that part of the Meadowlands known as Walden Swamp, the northwestern portion of the Meadowlands located on a small river called Berry's Creek.
"Mercury is the key landscape ingredient in this area of the Meadowlands. Berry's Creek is sometimes called the Meadowlands most polluted waterway. In the headwaters of Berry's Creek, in a town called Wood-Ridge, there was once a mercury dump and as recently as 1980, it was possible to dig a hole in the ground and watch it fill with balls of shiny silvery stuff. Approximately three hundred tons of mercury filtered down into the meadows by 1980, covering a total of forty acres of land and filling the livers and kidneys of Meadowlands' fish."
Today, the headwater of Berry's Creek is a land of Superfund cleanup sites and state remediation areas. State officials no longer consider the mercury to be a threat as long as it stays settled deep in the swamp's sediments. 85-86
Looming over Walden Swamp was the Meadowlands Sports Complex -- at one time the area was a cedar forest.
Garbage hills are everywhere in the meadows . . . For a long time, the Meadowlands was the largest garbage dump in the world.
Whereas the Hudson River School of painters and poets could wax eloquent about the beauties of nature, Sullivan can wax "eloquent" on the "wonders" of the modern Meadowlands. "Soon we were in Walden Swamp . . . The stagnant water was brown & marbelized with green and white and dotted with tapioca bead-like bits of wading Styrofoam. We passed a small school of giant plastic soda bottles. At 11 a.m., we saw ahead of us the sole of a boot, floating ominously. On closer inspection, we could see that it was attached only to a desperate bit of algae the first sign of nonreed, photosynthetic life we'd seen." P. 87 What a sorrowful transformation from the days of Torrey.
The Hackensack was dammed upstream in 1902, increasing the salt water content in the Meadowlands. 40
Since 1968, the area has been under the state-chartered Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC). It has restricted the flow of pollutants into the Hackensack River.
In 1997 HMDC adopted Open Space Goals where they hope to save 8,400 acres, 80 percent of the undeveloped land remaining. New additions are planned for Hudson County Park at Laurel Hill in Secaucus, Losen Slote Park in Little Ferry, and this park in Lyndhurst and North Arlington.
If you want to learn more about the history of the Meadowlands visit the Meadowlands Museum (91 Crane Avenue, Rutherford 07070, (201) 935-1175; open Sunday 2-4, M-W 1-4). The museum is in a Dutch colonial farmhouse. The museum maintains files of historical photographs and documents. Also on display, on the second floor, are New Jersey minerals. (Scheller 1998:28)