When people think of historic landmarks, the first things to come to mind are old homes, churches, and government buildings. But the Orange Reservoir, one of the oldest in the county, tells the story of a growing region during the Victorian era.
The mere act of turning on the faucet and seeing clean water fill up a glass is a magic act that includes hundreds of technicians and a tangle of infrastructure. This unseen architecture was a marvel in a time known for deadly epidemics, many of which, like typhoid and cholera, were waterborne. (Llewellyn Haskell, developer of Llewellyn Park, lost his wife and three children to epidemics.)
Beginning in the late 19th century, the question of how to supply New Jersey’s growing townships and cities began to vex locals officials. The surging populations, and the factories where they worked, needed water, as did the newly installed sewer systems. Fires were becoming more common and needed water to extinguish them. But many nearby sources were too polluted.
Initially, the state sought to have one source of water for Newark, Jersey City and the towns along the Watchung Mountains, including the Oranges. In the end, Newark decided to buy and manage its own water supply from the Pequannock River. To achieve this, the city built a 20-plus mile steel pipe, an impressive engineering feat at the time.
By the 1880s, Orange had more than 13,000 residents and a world-famous hat-making industry. “Freshwater from streams and ponds and little rivers couldn’t satisfy that many people,” said Michael Brick, chair of West Orange’s environmental commission. “The other towns like South Orange and East Orange were developing their own water sources, so they couldn’t turn to their neighbors.”
The East Branch of the Rahway River passes through Orange, but it was used as an industrial sewer. The next closest waterway was the West Branch that travels through the South Mountain Reservation. In the 1880s, Orange bought the land and built dams, creating the Orange Reservoir and Campbell’s Pond in Millburn.
West Orange Nearly Merges with Orange
The next question was what its neighbor, home of the Edison factories, should do. West Orange’s earliest history as a resort town was centered around its spring water. “Prior to 1892 West Orange residents and business relied on their own individual water supply systems,” said Joe Fagan, township historian.
Most residents had wells or pumps, Fagan said, until 1892, when the township signed a contract with the West Orange Water Company, which sourced its water from Little Falls. But in only two decades, the water supply was strained and concerns arose about its quality. In fact, the bath water in Llewellyn Park homes was causing residents to itch.
In 1915, the decision came to a head. Town engineers had a few offers to choose from. Orange and South Orange, both had an overflow. The East Jersey Water Company, which supplied Jersey City, made a sales pitch to the township. The State Water Commission offered water from the Wanaque watershed (which is now owned by Newark.)
The most imaginative option was merging together the townships of Orange and West Orange and combining their water supply.
“If the cities of West Orange and Orange voted to join together at the coming election, we would of course be provided with a water supply from the Orange reservoirs,” Councilman John Kenney told the Newark Star-Eagle in 1915.
Ultimately, the question of what to do next was put to a referendum, and locals voted for the municipal government to buy its own system. But the town council couldn’t find enough funds, “so the town is yet supplied under the former arrangement,” wrote historian David Lawrence Pierson in the History of the Oranges to 1920.
Eventually, the township signed a contract with the Commonwealth Water Company, which furnished water from the plant at the Canoe Brook, according to Pierson’s book. These water sources in the Oranges remained the same until 1998, when new regulations came out that the Orange Reservoir didn’t comply with, spelling the end of its use as a reservoir, according to Scott Brezinski, manager at New Jersey American Water, which descended from Commonwealth after a series of sales and mergers.
“It was a financial decision to not use the reservoir anymore,” Brezinski said, noting that NJAM invested $80 million in its system at the time. “A lot of time municipalities don’t have that money.”
The county’s transformation of the Orange Reservoir, which had been closed off for decades, into a park is more so a restoration. Reservoirs used to be places for recreation, fishing, even bathing. In 1914, the New York Times included it in a scenic tour of the region, saying it “resembles one of the lakes of the Adirondacks.”
Today, the county leases the land. Rental boats glide along on the surface, fishermen hunch over their rods, and walkers count laps for exercise. The paths connect to trails through a pine forests ending at the Hemlock Falls, a Victorian-era scenic route that locals are rediscovering.
Sharee Harrison, a project manager for the Orange HUUB, chaperones a twice-monthly guided hike through the South Mountain Reservation called Trail Mix, in tandem with Brick. “That’s why we started this,” Harrison said. “We want people to know what they have.”
Many Orange residents aren’t aware it even exists — let alone that they can access the amenities, like boat rentals, for free. “I go up and down this road every day and I never knew this was here,” said Shakina Hill, one of the hikers in Harrison’s group, as she stood near the trailhead.