Photos credited to Steve Sears
By Steve Sears
Waterloo Village is a cornucopia of many different things. Yes, the 70-acre site, which was founded in 1820 and was named to both the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1977, has a lot of history. But it’s much more than that.
The coldest day of the young new year has arrived. So frigid is the air, in fact, that the water in the canal behind old Smith’s Store is partly frozen, while behind it the waters of the Musconetcong flow rapidly, a tiny waterfall sending gushing water downward to the lower level with continuous, resounding thuds.
Except for the occasional car or SUV entering the historic village via Waterloo Valley Road, the before-mentioned rapids are the only noise heard, it echoing throughout the park.
“Waterloo Village Historic Site is a popular school field trip destination,” says Andrea Proctor, whose official title is
Resource Interpretive Specialist 2, Historic Resources, Waterloo Village Historic Site, New Jersey State Park Service. She focuses much on education, and there’s a lot here to learn about. “Teachers can choose to reserve guided programs of either the Morris Canal Village of Waterloo or Winakung, the re-created Lenape Village. A third option is to book a field trip on Free Choice Fridays where all the exhibits available are open in the Canal Village as well as the Lenape Village. This program allows groups to guide themselves through the site for the day and customize the visit to their liking.”
A brief history. The original owners of the property, the Smith family, first purchased land in the Musconetcong Valley in the early 1800s. “They were farming the area we know today as Waterloo Village,” says Proctor. As you look around at the area, you can close your eyes and envision farming activity on the open fields two centuries ago as boats pulled halted in the canal area. It was an advantageous location, about halfway along the 100-mile canal, which opened in 1831 and stretched across the state from Jersey City to Phillipsburg. Waterloo Village had at that time what was necessary for a canal village operation and was the perfect rest stop during the trip along the waterway.
Canal traffic peaked at the end of the 1860s, when the nearby Sussex Branch and Morris and Essex Lines of the nearby Lackawanna Railroads, were found to be faster and, especially in the winter, easier than the frozen canal waters to travel in. Waterloo then saw a decline, and by the Great Depression, the property was abandoned. It was slightly inhabited in the 1940s and 1950s, and in the 1960s had a rebirth. By the 1980s, Waterloo had become a performing arts venue (the tent for this has since been closed), and in 2014, through an agreement with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Division of Parks and Forestry, group tours and programs are now available.
Walking along Waterloo Valley Road from the parking area, you come upon the Waterloo Village United Methodist Church. A privately-owned-church, it has a tiny congregation that continues worship to this day. From the road it is a somewhat majestic, it sitting prominently, peering out over the Musconetcong, almost as if to say, “I mean so much to this area and village.” It does. Peter Smith owned the general store, and he donated $500 and land for a church to be built and cemetery to adjoin it. The total cost to build the church was $2,993.22, and in that price was included an 800-pound bell. The church cornerstone was set on August 9, 1859, the building dedicated on February 9, 1860, although the first service held was on December 22, 1859. The bell rang for the first time during General John Smith’s funeral service, he the first to be buried in the churchyard cemetery. After climbing the front steps and being at ground level with the church, a walk around the right side will lead you to the General’s burial spot. The monument at his plot stands chest-height.
“There are approximately 25 buildings, not including Native American homes, smaller structures and outbuildings,” says Proctor of the property. “In the Morris Canal Village of Waterloo there are 19 buildings including a church, store, blacksmith, gristmill, sawmill, Hotel Tavern, 9 residential buildings of varied sizes and architectural styles and 4 carriage houses. There is a log cabin built circa 1790 that was moved to the site in 1980 from the Branchville area. There is also a horse stable and several outbuildings near the cabin. Additionally, there is a large barn near the picnic area, which is used as a facility support space for programming, staff training, meetings, and indoor lunches for field trips during inclement weather. There is a large comfort station with approximately 10 stalls on each side and two banquet style buildings that are leased to Jeffrey Miller Catering for Weddings and other special events.”
Proctor describes much activity above, but Waterloo Village is also about peace and basking in nature, and a stroll anywhere in the village opens one to serenity in spots. It all starts with the drive to the location along Route 604, trees on your right, while forest and ponds of the Waterloo Lakes area populate the area to the left. It all builds the anticipation of where you are headed. Easily accessible from Route 46, but even better from Routes 80 and 206, Waterloo is located nearby the International Trade Zone. Follow the signs and you will soon reach the destination. Walking along the currently quiet, dirt roads of Waterloo yields occasional flora, the kind that only survives in the harshness of winter, like red berries. Even though they are very tiny, the contrast between the deep red color of the berries, and the brown, leafless branches that populates the atmosphere, is very noticeable – and welcoming.
Proctor agrees. “Waterloo Village means something to everyone who visits. It holds a special place in the hearts of
many. Some remember fondly their class trip, others remember festivals or concerts they attended, some come to walk daily for exercise or enjoy nature. Some are fascinated by the Morris Canal History, others by learning about New Jersey’s original people, the Lenape.”
Proctor encourages those interested in visiting Waterloo Village to check out the official state park service sponsored Facebook page (Waterloo Village Historic Site) for information on upcoming events including hikes, tours, programming, trips, concerts, festivals and more.
Waterloo Village is located at 525 Waterloo Road in Byram Township. The grounds are open daily, dawn to dusk. For Visitor Center hours and more information, call (973) 347-1835.