With over 67,000 acres of land covering a 40-mile stretch of the East’s longest undammed river, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area takes a lot of maintenance.
So the group of people working industriously at Millbrook Village on Saturday, September 16th might be expected. Their work cleaning historical buildings, cutting back weeds, and repairing 1800s-style split rail fencing kept this historic site on the New Jersey side of the river looking sharp, despite its centuries of age.
One surprising detail: none of them were park staff. They were volunteers celebrating National Public Lands Day with several hours of manual labor, enough to work up a sweat even in the morning chill.
“Established in 1994 and held annually on the fourth Saturday in September, National Public Lands Day is traditionally the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort,” said Partnership & Volunteer Program Manager Jenn Kavanaugh in her welcoming remarks. “It celebrates the connection between people and green space in their community, inspires environmental stewardship, and encourages use of open space for education, recreation, and health benefits.”
The National Park Service works with existing partners and volunteer groups to tackle maintenance projects at a different park location every year. Previous years have focused on the Ramirez Solar House, Milford Beach, the Mohican Outdoor Center, the Park Headquarters building, and a cleanup of the Delaware River.
In 2022, volunteers and park partners contributed 93,117 hours to projects ranging from trail and building maintenance to education programs and language translation.
This year’s National Public Lands Day event occurred a week early so as not to interfere with the National Recreation Area’s annual volunteer appreciation event.
The work focused on the preserved historic site of Millbrook Village, a town originally founded in 1832.
Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area receives over 4 million visitors a year, more than Yellowstone National Park. Its location near the population centers of Philadelphia, New York City, and New Jersey’s densely populated suburbs makes it an accessible spot for city dwellers in search of nature.
Maintaining parklands is a sizable job, but the size of the volunteer group matched the scope of the work.
“This is a big crew,” said Park Ranger Stephen Denman. “It’s just amazing how many people show up ready to work and who show obvious care to the Recreation Area.”
For most volunteers, that sense of care stemmed from two sources: a connection to the specific landscape of the Delaware Water Gap and to the National Park System as a whole.
One volunteer group has previously traveled around the country visiting national parks, camping in a trailer at night and hiking during the day. Now, they volunteer regularly at Delaware Water Gap as well as Pocono Environmental Education Center, an organization situated within the National
“We’re hikers. We use the trail a lot,” said one member of the group, jokingly nicknamed “The A-Team” as all of the members are Asian. “So we think it’s important to pay it back.”
Volunteer Antonette Paccione has also visited several national parks. She’s lived a ten-minute drive from the National Recreation Area for the past 23 years.
“It’s almost like home,” she said. “Because I come through here a lot. I hike here with friends. I bring my dogs, and they love being here… so I don’t want to see this deteriorate the way sometimes it looks like it is.”
Some of the buildings at Millbrook Village are situated in their original placement, though several are not original.
The original grist mill was destroyed by arson in the early 1920s in a failed attempt at insurance fraud. The National Park Service built a recreated version of the mill in the 1980s as an interpretive feature, using parts from another decommissioned grist mill in Pennsylvania.
Other buildings were relocated to the Millbrook Village site in order to concentrate historic preservation and interpretive resources in a single location. This stems from a complicated piece of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area’s history: originally, the land on both sides of the river was acquired via eminent domain by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps intended to build a dam at Tocks Island across the Delaware River, which would have flooded the river valley under a 40-mile-long reservoir.
The “Tocks Island” dam proposal was ultimately defeated, and the Army Corps turned over its acquired lands to the National Park Service as a newly formed National Recreation Area.
But the process of eminent domain created resentment that’s remembered to this day.
Wilson Bullivant, president of the Millbrook Village Society, remembers the area’s history well. Not only has he worked with the historical society for over 30 years, but it’s personal history, as well.
His family owned a cabin off of Old Mine Road dating back to the 1930s– land that the Army Corps acquired for the doomed dam project in the late 1960s. “You had no option,” he said.
After his family lost the cabin, Bullivant continued to spend time in the area. “I watched the park grow, watched it build,” he said.
“Despite some of the bitter feelings about having lost the land and so on, the good part of it is, this area’s preserved, and as long as we have a good government, it will remain preserved. Long after we’re gone, they’ll still be able to come here. Had it not happened, this area would have been developed.”
The properties around the National Recreation Area attest to Bullivant’s vision of an alternative future: golf courses and resorts, condos and tourist attractions. They’re easy to find up and down the Delaware River on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides except within the boundaries of the National Recreation Area, where development gives way to trees.
This is what the volunteers at National Public Lands Day have come to preserve.
They hope that others will join them, too. “I mostly would like them to appreciate what’s here and not destroy it and trash it, you know?” Volunteer Antonette Paccione said. “It’d be great if more people would come and volunteer and help keep it going as best they can… Just take care of it. It’s an awesome place.”
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.