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Monday, May 27, 2024

Warren County History Trail Connects the Dots Across the Centuries

A map of Warren County inside the Hope Museum. It includes an 1850 census. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023

History buffs, architecture enthusiasts and families out to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather hit the trail this weekend– the Warren County History Trail, that is. Fifteen historic sites across Warren County participated in the self-guided driving tour, now in its third year.

On Saturday, November 4, eight sites hosted family activities and tours across northern Warren County, from Millbrook Village at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area at the northernmost point, to Belvidere at the southernmost point.

Sunday, November 5 was southern Warren County’s time to shine as visitors ventured from Shippen Manor in Oxford Township to Shimer Mansion in Pohatcong Township.

Together, the sites of the Warren County History Trail presented an album of snapshots from Warren County’s history. The event was funded through a grant from the County History Partnership Program (CHPP), the Board of County Commissioners, and the New Jersey Historic Commission (NJHC).

The trail has been a hit since its inception three years ago.

“We got a great reception,” said Tom Drake, one of the event organizers. “We had 12 sites on board immediately the first year, and we were astounded at the turnout. We just had hundreds of people come through the door.”

The crowds confirmed that people wanted to participate in the trail. At the same time, the logistical work of managing that many people at that many places proved overwhelming for the largely volunteer-run historical societies managing the sites.

In 2022, the trail’s second year, organizers split the event into two days separated into a northern region and a southern region. This year the trail continued that division with a total of 15 sites, the event’s largest count yet.

On Saturday, event organizers greeted a steady stream of visitors at the Ramsaysburg Homestead, site no. 7 on the history trail map. The site was originally settled by James and Adam Ramsay in 1795 and soon evolved into a self-sustaining hamlet that was powered by a watermill on its Delaware tributary, a feature that also brought in funds thanks to steady
riverboat traffic.

A display including historic photographs and explanations of Knowlton’s faceted history as a transportation hub. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023

Alas, one historic figure’s millionaire breakthrough is another’s ruin. In the 1850s, John I. Blair of Blairstown fame extended the Warren Railroad to the town of Delaware. The greater speed and efficiency of the railroad soon eclipsed riverboats as the primary means of commercial transportation, and Ramsaysburg sank into decline.

The homestead had a second life as Spring Brook Farm Hotel resort starting in 1901, though this business also declined and its main building, the Springbrook Inn, burned down in 1997.

That was seven years after Hal Bromm moved to the area with his husband. An art gallery owner and preservationist, Bromm noticed the striking architecture of Ramsaysburg’s remaining buildings– as well as their derelict condition.

“So I thought, I’ve got to do something about this,” he said. “What can we do to save all these buildings? Because it’s for sale. Who’s going to buy it? Everything’s falling apart.”

Bromm worked with the town committee to buy the property through the Green Acres program, the first of many programs involved in Ramsaysburg’s restoration. Next came the Delaware River Greenway with an emergency grant that allowed Bromm and his helpers to save the roofs on the remaining buildings. The site has received grants from several sources since then, including NJHC, Warren County’s Municipal and Charitable Conservancy Trust Fund, the National Park Service and the Department of Transportation.

Eventually, Bromm, Drake and the other members of the Knowlton Township Historic Commission hope to see Ramsaysburg become self-sustaining. Plans include bringing in running water, building a commercial kitchen and sprucing up the buildings and landscape for a new life as a performance and wedding venue.

Ramsaysburg already hosts its fair share of crowds in its current state. Over the summer, hundreds of people fill the natural amphitheater behind the barn, where a bright green pasture gives way to a thin boundary of trees that have been cleared to present a view of the river beyond. It’s a view that would have been familiar to the Ramsays over 200 years ago.

There was no shortage of visitors on Saturday, either. They had a buffet of historical offerings on display: the chance to make a traditional corn husk doll, or view and touch tatting (a traditional technique for handcrafting lace) or taste a variety of heirloom apple varieties supplied by Ken Metcalf. Metcalf was particularly enthusiastic about the Cox’s Orange Pippin, a variety first grown in 1825. It tastes like a combination of pear, apple and citrus, more complex than any apple sold in grocery stores today.

Karen Lund of Knowlton Township demonstrates how to make a traditional corn husk doll. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023
An heirloom apple tasting at the Ramsaysburg Homestead, site no. 7 of the Warren County History Trail. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023
Barbara Quinn, vice president of the Hope Historical Society, wearing a traditional Moravian outfit inside the Hope Museum. Photo by C. O’Chang, 11/2023

To the history enthusiasts managing the Warren County History Trail, every site contains centuries of stories. Drake’s eyes lit up as he explained the surrounding topography– the three railroads that once ran near Knowlton, and the manmade fill made with steam shovels to make way for the Lackawanna Cutoff.

“They built it all the way from Lake Hopatcong to the water gap,” he said, extending his hand in the direction of the Delaware River. “It’s like a manmade mountain. They did all that work, but that’s how much money and commerce was in this. Railroad was the thing, right?”

His stories and the photographic exhibition inside the barn brought Ramsaysburg’s history to life – its centuries-long evolution from a stop for river boats to a fading hamlet in the time of the railroad, leading to its present-day incarnation as a rural riverside spot off of Route 46. The railroad in particular caught his imagination, with the colossal size of its projects: the viaducts, the massive bridges crossing the Delaware.

“I mean, imagine the work that went into the project,” Drake said.

Along the steps of the Warren County History Trail, you can almost see it.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
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.