Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ball's Bluff

It was nice day today, Sunday, so we went wandering in the woods in South Mountain Reservation in search of two places. There was a place called Ball's or Balls Bluff that I had never been able to find, and not far from it is Hemlock Falls, our own local natural wonder, which we've found many times but not approaching from the south.

According to the local journal Matters Magazine (originally Maplewood Matters, which was a nice pun, but hard to adapt when they decided to cover South Orange too),
On March 18, 1896, Philander Ball, who lived in Maplewood at 172 Parker Avenue, sold three and a half acres of nearby wooded property to the recently created Essex County Parks Commission. This transaction is remarkable because Ball's parcel of land was the first to be acquired for what would become South Mountain Reservation.
He was of the same family as Timothy Ball, whose colonial-era house I've mentioned in posts about stone houses and the Crooked Brook.

Here's a quick awful map of where we walked. Like many local maps the county's park map follows Dutch tradition and has west at the top.

We parked in a small lot with only two cars in it, the one where the red lines touch the solid black automobile road.

We struck off through the woods following vaguely the so-called trail shown by a dashed line on the map, and found the "bridle path" shown as Overlook Trail. The bridle paths are wide, unpaved, and well eroded. No one rides horses on them.

As shown the bridle path divides at "Balls Bluff". The location is a high knob overlooking the valley to the west, through which flows the West Branch of the Rahway River. It was probably a fine overlook 200 years ago when all the trees had been cut down for lumber.

Here's the same area on the 1902 map, when the reservation was new. The so-called bridle paths are shown by solid lines, which the legend calls "Temporary Drives / Old Woods Roads Improved". The double lines are "Proposed Drives" that were never built.

On the 1902 map, Balls Bluff is called Overlook Point, which matches nicely with the name Overlook Trail on the county's park map.

We started down the Lenape Trail, shown by a dotted line on the map, and found the remains of the Balls Bluff shelter. There's probably an old photograph of it somewhere but I can't find it. (By the way it is hard to search the web for Balls Bluff because there was a Civil War battle of the same name.)

Although we failed to bring a camera with us, all is not lost. Last September the blog Gone Hikin' ran photographs of scenes from a pretty long hike in the res including where we walked today. Before I send you there, let me describe the ruins. Pillars of rounded stones cemented together form a circle around sloping ground. The pillars on the uphill side are very short while those on the downhill side (seen in the photograph) are the tallest. After a moment we realized the tops of the pillars, or at least the unbroken ones, are all level. They must be supports for a wooden floor that is now gone.

Now go look. About halfway down is a photograph of the ruins at Balls Bluff, and right below it is also a photograph of Hemlock Falls.

That's about it. We took the Lenape Trail over hill and through dale and reached the falls. It hasn't rained a lot lately so it was less impressive than it could be. There are new benches. We went back up the grade on the bridle path, past Balls Bluff again, and again had to make our own way from there to the parking lot. We saw a pileated woodpecker working a hole in a tree, a warbler, and some chickadees. It was good.


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