Somerset County Park Commission History
“The recreation crisis in Somerset has reached the critical stage. Almost weekly, newspaper stories carry reports of large areas of land within the county being sold to developers. We cannot sit complacently while vacant acreage in woodlands, farms, and even swamps, in areas best suited for county parks, are falling under the developer’s bulldozer in a continuous and spreading pattern. While a majority of this growth is sound and attractive, the trend could be dangerous if bold action is not quickly taken to preserve some of these areas for public parks.”
A Report on County Recreation - Somerset County 1956
In the fall of 1956, members of the Somerville Junior Chamber of Commerce, a group of young Somerset County executives, foresaw the critical need for a county park system. With a month before the November election, at which time a referendum to establish a county park system would be placed on the ballot, the group went into action.
The activities were spearheaded by Frank Torpey, ultimately a long-time member and president of the Park Commission, and Bill Anderson, former Commissioner and recently retired head of the Golf Division of the Park Commission. Their main initiative was to organize a speakers’ bureau to publicize the need and build consensus. The members scheduled over 50 speaking engagements with service, civic, and community groups in every corner of the county. The intense effort culminated with a motorcade tour of the county urging voters to approve the referendum.
On Tuesday, November 6, 1956, Somerset voters authorized the formation of a nine member county park commission to be appointed by the Freeholders, funding of up to $46,000, and an option to float bond issues of up to $1 million per year.
The organizational meeting of the Somerset County Park Commission was called to order on Monday, January 14, 1957 by Freeholder Henry L. Fetherston, who called upon County Judge Samuel Chiaravalli for the swearing-in ceremonies for the following Commissioners who had been appointed by the Board of Chosen Freeholders at a meeting on December 21, 1956. Richard Sellars, president of Ethicon, Inc., was named chairman; W.R. Fischer, vice chairman; and Frank Torpey, secretary. The remaining Commissioners were Joseph I. Bedell, William H. Cunningham Sr., H.O.H. Frelinghuysen, Anne Lusardi, Stephen Paliska, and J. William Pierce.
With this simple act, the Board of Chosen Freeholders set in motion a series of events that have succeeded in keeping Somerset County green while providing world class active and passive recreation opportunities for 50 years. Though neither the Junior Chamber, the Freeholders, nor the first Commissioners realized the importance of their actions, they had initiated a process that would help make Somerset County one of the most desirable locations in New Jersey in which to live and to work. These first Commissioners, and the 32 who have followed for the next 50 years, have maintained a balance between open space and development, protecting the quality life for generations to come.
The Somerset County Park Commission held its first meeting on Thursday, March 7, 1957, beginning to establish the foundation for a county park system. At that time, the county's 305 square miles had a population approaching 130,000, with estimates forecasting 225,000 citizens by 1975. The "Race for Space," a campaign to beat the bulldozers, was being touted by the newspapers, proclaiming that Somerset had no desirable picnic grounds, nature trails or public golf courses.
In November, the Commission hired Austin C. Palmer, a planning engineer with experience in other New Jersey counties, as the first director and full time employee, working out of an office on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building. Later that month, Russell VanNest Black, a well-known professional planner, was hired on a consultant basis to develop a county park master plan.
Released in March of 1958, the master plan provided an analysis of population projections for the county; inventoried all existing recreational areas including school and community facilities; created a detailed map of all streams and water areas, areas of concentrated development, and existing recreational areas; developed an overall park and parkway plan; recommended jurisdiction over all facilities; and advocated an acquisition goal of 3,000 acres within ten years and 10,500 acres as a final goal. The plan also specified the inclusion of public golf courses. With modifications due to subsequent events, such as acquisition of Lord Stirling Park and Sourland Mountain Preserve, the parkland areas specified on this original plan are in accordance with the locations of our present parks.
In June of 1958, the first Park Commission bond issue was passed by the Freeholders, authorizing the expenditure of $300,000, designated for acquiring the Raritan River Area Park (now Duke Island Park) and Watchung Mountain Area Park. A second bond in the amount of $350,000 was designated for the purchase of a Bridgewater property owned by George V. N. Davis and the subsequent construction of Green Knoll Golf Course. The construction cost for Green Knoll was $178,760. Somerset County’s first public golf course and the first major project completed by the Park Commission, opened in April of 1959, managed by Somerset County’s first golf pro, John L. Grace.
Green Knoll Golf Course was officially dedicated on July 1, 1960. Director Austin C. Palmer presided. President Richard B. Sellars introduced State Senator William E. Ozzard who delivered the dedicatory address, praising the Commission for the rapid progress made in its short existence and commending the Board of Freeholders and the Somerville Junior Chamber of Commerce for their efforts in establishing a park commission. Afterward, Ozzard and Sellars were joined by Assemblyman Ray Bateman and Wilber F. Fischer, vice president of the Somerset County Park Commission, as they teed off into a driving rain and managed to play nine wet holes of golf.
50 Years of Meeting the Needs of Our Citizens
In the early years, the availability of capital to purchase and develop parkland was the principle limiting factor in the realization of the master plan. In almost every area of the county, donations of land, equipment, money, and materials by municipal, state and federal governments, organizations, companies, and individuals have helped the Commission immeasurably in creating the county park system that we enjoy today.
Early in 1959, plans for the canal boating facility at the Raritan River Area Park, between the river and the power canal, were jeopardized when the 1836 vintage dam on the Raritan used to furnish water to the canal washed out, and the canal was left dry. Doris Duke owned the dam and canal, using its water to supply ponds on her estate while the Somerville Water Company used the canal as its primary source. After some negotiation, Miss Duke donated $30,500 toward the dam repairs in addition to the surrounding property, while the water company donated 69 acres of contiguous land, both retaining rights to use the canal water. Further negotiations ultimately resulted in the Commission’s purchase of the dam site.
The 200-acre Raritan River Area Park was renamed in honor of Doris Duke and was dedicated Duke Island Park on August 13, 1960; the county's first picnic and recreation facility. Nearly 1,000 people attended the ceremony, enjoying the boathouse, complete with canoes and rowboats, and the numerous picnic facilities. To assure public safety, former state trooper Louis Nickolopoulus was appointed as the Commission's first full-time park policeman, providing oversight to the growing Park Commission facilities.
During the months that followed, the "Race for Parkland Space" intensified in Somerset County; a rapidly growing county with steadily rising land prices. Parks were considered a necessity in the face of rapid development, and terms like "suburbicide" appeared in the press, creating concern about overdevelopment. With newly opened parks, Somerset and several other New Jersey counties found funding inadequate to cover operating costs for their rapidly expanding park systems. Toward the end of 1960, a bill was passed by the New Jersey State Legislature that effectively increased funding for park operating costs and alleviated the financial growing pains faced by many New Jersey park commissions.
In the election of November 1961, passage of referenda to increase the Park Commission's limit of bond issue indebtedness from $1 million to $3 million, and a Green Acres bond issue, part of which would provide matching funds for new park acquisitions, considerably brightened the Commission's prospects for moving ahead with master plan land acquisitions. In order to legally validate the $3 million referendum, a bill was signed by Governor Hughes in July of 1962. Shortly thereafter, the Park Commission requested $600,000 for new parklands and capital improvements, but was again delayed by the unavailability of Green Acres matching funds until 1963.
The annual 4-H Fair, which for its first dozen years had been held at the Far Hills Fairgrounds, moved in 1962 to Park Commission land located on Milltown Road (now North Branch Park) in Bridgewater. The move was prompted by the centralized location of the Bridgewater site and its better drainage. In its first year at the new location, the previous year's record attendance of 12,000 was more than doubled, with 26,000 visitors to the new county park site.
Growth of the Commission staff resulted in the April 1963 move from its headquarters of two rooms and a closet in the County Administration Building to a renovated 1737 farmhouse at North Branch Park.
Park usage soared at Duke Island Park in the summers of 1962 and 1963, and on at least one occasion the gates had to be closed when 16,000 visitors filled the park. A Fourth of July Jazz Festival at the park attracted 10,000 visitors.
To relieve the pressure on Duke Island Park, the Commission embarked on plans for "park number 2" with the financial support of the recently approved Green Acre program. Late in December of 1963, the state approved the matching grant funds and by March of 1964, a consultant was contracted for a park master plan in Franklin Township.
"Park number 2" opened in 1966, named Colonial Park, commemorating events that had occurred in proximity to the area that dated back to the 1700s. The Commission’s second general purpose park was destined to become the most popular with extensive picnic areas, playgrounds, paddle boats, a nature trail, tennis courts, and ultimately, an 18-hole championship golf course. Additional amenities added to park facilities over the next decade included sledding, ice skating, skiing, model airplane flying, concerts, plays, fireworks, fairs and festivals, a fire school training center, and horse shows.
In l965, the driving range at Green Knoll was converted to a pitch and putt course, which soon became one of the park system's most popular attractions. In l968, a bandshell was erected at Duke Island Park, initiating the annual concert series that continues today.
During the first decade of the Park Commission, attention was focused on the Northern part of the county, where the 10,000 acre Great Swamp wetlands were threatened by Port Authority's plans for a new jetport. In 1967, the federal Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge was established as a result of grass roots efforts on the east side of the Passaic River in Morris County, an initiative with which the Park Commission was directly involved. During this time, the Park Commission purchased a major segment of this area on the eastern side of the river in Somerset County.
Another major county park was proposed in 1968 by Russell VanNest Black. In a 16-page report contracted by the Commission, he recommended acquisition of over 1,500 acres of land in the Sourland Mountain area of Hillsborough, describing it as the "only large area of outstanding natural quality remaining in the county.”
The Passaic River Great Swamp parklands became Lord Stirling Park in 1970. The adjacent Riding Stable had begun operation a year earlier, and a fund drive was well underway for construction of the Environmental Education Center building on the perimeter of the park. Little Brook Sanctuary in Bernardsville was donated in 1970 and proclaimed a natural area to be considered part of the Environmental Education Center, though not physically connected. A trailer installed in Lord Stirling Park was used by Naturalists to begin environmental education programming, both outdoors and in the schools by 1971.
In 1970, Spooky Brook Golf Course, adjacent to Colonial Park, was dedicated, becoming the county's second public course. Green Knoll and Colonial Park Tennis Centers also commenced operating that year.
Colonial Park continued to add features popular with the public. The highly acclaimed Rose Garden was dedicated in 1972, and the Bridal Garden was begun in 1976. After many construction delays, the solar heated and cooled Environmental Education Center building in Lord Stirling Park opened its doors to the public in 1977.
Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills first opened to visitors in 1977, on land that had been carved out of a 30-mile long glacial lake that emptied through rapids and waterfalls into the Raritan River through a place known today as Moggy Hollow near Far Hills. The icy waters carved out cliffs and other interesting rock work, which, with man-made devices, was further sculpted and planted to become a beautiful series of rock gardens and ponds.
The following year, Warrenbrook Park and Senior Citizen Center, having been purchased earlier by the Park Commission, became the third county golf course in Somerset, and the first county swimming pool.
In 1979, the Commissioners made a formal resolution to officially name 34.6 acres of donated land with structures in the North Branch section of Branchburg Township as the Ralph T. Reeve Culture Center, as a "result of the interest, dedication, and foresight of Ralph T. Reeve." In December of 1980, work on a building to house the site's first occupant, the Printmaking Council of New Jersey, was completed and opened for that organization to occupy. The site is dedicated to promoting the cultural arts.
Somerset County Park Commission's 25th anniversary year of 1981 was keynoted by the dedication and opening of Quail Brook Golf Course and Senior Citizen Center (operated by the County Office of Aging) in the Somerset section of Franklin Township. Further enhancement of the attractions at the Environmental Education Center was realized with the construction of a special use, one-quarter mile long boardwalk trail provided by the Bell Telephone Pioneers Club.
Also in 1981, after 12 years with the Park Commission, Rudolf W. van der Goot retired as Chief Horticulturist. Among his accomplishments were the design and creation of the Colonial Park Rose Garden, named after him in "fitting tribute to a life-long labor of love," creation of the Fragrance and Sensory Garden at Colonial Park, the transformation and expansion of Buck Garden, the master plan and initial plantings for the Colonial Park arboretum, and serving as the inspiration for the organization of the Friends of Horticulture support group.
In 1982, the nonprofit Environmental Montessori School was established at the Environmental Education Center. The following year, Therapeutic Recreation, providing programs for persons with developmental disabilities and creating awareness for the disabled through the Kids on the Block puppet shows, was transferred from direct Freeholder control to the Park Commission.
At the close of the year the Park Police department was abolished, and replaced in 1984 by a "new form of uniformed, on-site personnel to service and educate county park system users." Modeled after park rangers in the National Park System, the new Park Ranger department was to "work with the public for purposes of promoting public understanding of and respect for the varied natural resources and facilities which comprise the county park system."
Other major accomplishments in 1984 included completion of the renovations at the Leonard J. Buck Garden Visitor Center, the 4-H Fair visitor count topped 50,000, and annual park visitors exceeded 1.6 million.
A major transition in focus of Park Commission activities occurred in 1989, when county voters approved a public referendum that established an annual assessment for the Open Space Trust Fund; a program which soon would furnish the Commission with additional funds for land acquisition purposes. In 1990, $3 million in state Green Acres Trust funds was used to acquire 77 acres adjacent to Colonial Park. Additional lands were also purchased as the Commission launched an aggressive land acquisition program.
As the 1990’s arrived, an updating of the Open Space Master Plan was in development to incorporate tax fund use for land acquisition that was approved by the Freeholders in 1992. The Somerset County Park Commission and Somerset County Planning Board's Park, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan was adopted in 1994.
Additional attractions for park visitors continued to be developed, with the opening of the Colonial Park Putting Course in 1994 and opening of the Washington Valley Park Chimney Rock Overlook and the Sourland Mountain Preserve trail system in 1995. These passive recreation opportunities were the result of the addition of critical land parcels through use of the Open Space Trust Fund. The Secrets of the Great Swamp, a permanent exhibition on the evolution of the Great Swamp located at the Environmental Education Center, was also opened for the public during this period.
In 1997, a nine acre parcel of land along Milltown Road, Bridgewater was donated to the Commission, along with a state of the art in-line roller hockey rink, the county’s first basketball court, and access to fishing along the Raritan River. It was named North Branch Greenway Park, due to its proximity to North Branch Park and its contiguous nature to the developing Raritan River Greenway project, which seeks to connect open space land along river corridors throughout the county.
In 1999, the Commission opened a newly reconstructed Duke Island Park Visitor Center, replacing the facility that had been destroyed by fire in October of 1996. That same year, the Commission began hosting annual concerts at the new Commerce Bank Ballpark. Yearly performances have included a variety of artists, including Willie Nelson, Patti Labelle, The Temptations, Tony Bennett, and Jessica Simpson.
In 2000, the Commission completed an update of its Parks, Recreation, and Open Space Master Plan. The updated plan recommended doubling the County’s open space acquisition goal from 10,500 acres to 20,000 acres.
Two years after the flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, structural modifications and an addition were put on to the North Branch Headquarters Building. The new addition provided space for administrative functions and a large multi-purpose room and craft kitchen area for the Therapeutic Recreation Program.
In March of 2003, the County purchased the 491 acre Natirar Estate from the former King of Morocco. Plans for the property include passive recreation including hiking, horseback riding, and fishing. Approximately 80 acres have been leased to the Virgin Group for development as a world class spa hotel and restaurant complex. In that same year, Phase I construction of baseball and softball fields was completed at the Frank “Nap” Torpey Athletic Complex in the Finderne section of Bridgewater.
The crowning achievement of 2004 was the opening of Neshanic Valley Golf Course and its accompanying 9-hole Academy Course. The clubhouse, 18 of the 27 championship golf holes, and the Academy Course opened for play in September. The Ridge nine holes, the Learning Center, and the driving range opened in the spring of 2005. After the course was in operation for only one year, Golf Week, the nation’s most respected and widely circulated weekly golf publication, selected Somerset County Park Commission’s Neshanic Valley Golf Course as sixth in New Jersey on their 2006 list of “America’s Best Public-access Golf Courses.”
Also in 2005, the Park Commission partnered with Warren Township to develop a state-of-the-art synthetic turf athletic facility on Old Stirling Road in Warren Township. The East County Athletic Facility accommodates both soccer and football, and an existing residence and barn are being renovated for storage, meeting space, and concessions
In 2005 a Capital Facilities Study was commissioned to develop a long-term prioritized plan based on an assessment of maintenance needs of existing facilities and the future development of parks and recreation facilities to meet current and future demands. The 20-year Capital Improvement Plan includes improvements to existing parks and development of new special use facilities.
Recollections of the devastation of areas of Somerset County wrought by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, enhanced the need to provide assistance to the residents of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the two storms of 2005. The Gulf Coast Relief Concert at Duke Island Park was a cooperative effort of the Park Commission, the private sector, and area non-profits that resulted in a significant donation to the American Red Cross while providing a day of live entertainment for Somerset County residents.
The Park Commission celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. The year long celebration included a special designated event each month, and culminated with three events; a 50 Years of Rock and Roll concert at Commerce Bank Ballpark featuring legends Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis; a family golf clinic and tournament hosted by 2006 U.S. Women’s Open Champion Annika Sorenstam at the Neshanic Valley Learning Center; and a gala dinner dance. Other highlights of the year were Golf Week magazine rating Neshanic Valley Golf Course the sixth best course in New Jersey, the only government run course on the list; and the New Jersey Turfgrass Association bestowing a Recognition Award for the condition of the turf at all our County park facilities.
Commemorating 50 Years of Service to Somerset County
Since 1956, Somerset County's population has almost tripled, from less than 130,000 to over 310,000 residents. County parkland has grown from nothing to 10,000 acres, of which 6,500 are available for use by the more than 2 million park users each year.
These lands contain five golf courses, on which over four million rounds have been played, three driving ranges, a pitch and putt course, a recreational putting course, a riding stable, an environmental education center, two tennis facilities, an outdoor pool, paddle boating, a rock and rare plant garden, an award winning rose garden, an arboretum, a sensory and fragrance garden, six parks offering amenities including athletic fields, picnic facilities, bike paths, and fishing opportunities, and several natural areas offering solitude and pursuits including bird-watching, cross country skiing, and hiking.
Many special events, including concerts, fairs and festivals, golf tournaments, art shows, and summer camps occur throughout the year. Thanks to the continued support and enthusiasm of the residents of Somerset County, the park system should meet its 20,000-acre goal within the foreseeable future. The Park Commission anticipates a future that will continue stewardship of our lands and increased active and passive recreation opportunities to meet the growing demands of Somerset County citizens for the next 50 years.