“First Mountain” is the name the earliest European settlers gave to what would eventually be called Montclair.
It was also called “First Watchung Mountain.” Watchung means “high hill” in the language of the local indigenous Lenape people. Revolutionary War soldiers positioned themselves on the great height this mountain range offered for a clear view of the movement of British troops in New York City.
So, from the start there was a mountain and a clear view in what would become the township of Montclair.
Millenia before that, 200-million-year-old volcanic lava hardened into basalt forming the mountain’s ridge. You can find out all about these and other telling facts at the Montclair History Center, housed in a museum that is a period house transported from what grew to become the center of town.
The history of Montclair will transport you. It is the history of America.
As Erin Benz, Collections Manager at Montclair History, is careful to point out, with enthusiasm, the story Montclair has to tell is not only about the industrialists and rich landowners who inhabited its mansions, but the everyday people who came to the town seeking opportunity in a place made attractive by its proximity to New York City.
As in every other part of America, the train was a game-changer. As early as 1856, it was taking business owners and office workers back and forth to NYC. This transformed Montclair into a bedroom community, but it also offered populations the chance to work in the town and create businesses. The train also enabled the Great Migration which brought African-Americans north, as well as later waves of immigrants – Irish, Italian and others.
Understanding history is all about walking in the footsteps of those who came before us. In this blog series we talk about Montclair as a walkable city. Here is your opportunity to go on two types of walking tours – guided, including private tours, and self-guided. Check the website Upcoming Programs & Events — Montclair History Center for upcoming guided tours of different neighborhoods like Upper Montclair first settled by the Dutch, Upper Bloomfield Avenue, largely inhabited by the English, South Mountain where the large mansions have a stunning view of the city, the Watchung Plaza business district, plus three different tours of Rosedale Cemetery. Self-guided tours include the historical Montclair Art Community.
The indoor tour of the museum, originally the home of Israel Crane, built in 1796 on 86 acres of farmland, in itself tells the history of Montclair. It remained in the Crane family for more than 100 years, until it was purchased by African-American women to become the home of the YWCA, a safe space for these women in the community where they were encouraged to do well in school, sometimes becoming the first in their families to go to college, and to create close knit friendships.
Montclair has been home to many historical figures, including spacewalker Buzz Aldrin, actress Olympia Dukakis, and sports legend Yogi Berra – the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center is located on the campus of Montclair State University Home – Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center. Check out its calendar of events. The well-known autobiographical book “Cheaper by the Dozen” is about a family with 12 children growing up in Montclair; it has been turned a movie three times, and a musical.
As in all things, Montclair is unique and representative. It’s your home or it’s nearby, a car or train ride away. Spend a day. Spend several days learning how the past informs the present and enriches our lives.