Rockaway Township is a township located in northwestern Morris County. The
township is comprised of 42.8 square miles of land and 3.2 square miles of
water for a total area of 46.0 square miles. Within the geographic confines
of this area currently dwell 25,438 full time residents.
The earliest people to call this area home were Native American members of
the Lenni Lenape tribe. These people, who spoke the Algonkuin language,
lived in clearings along the rivers and natural lakes of the region where
they hunted, fished, and grew small plots of sustenance crops. These
original inhabitants knew this area as the “place of the wild turkeys” or in
the Algonkuin tongue, “rockawa”, due to the large flocks of the
birds that inhabited the local valleys. The early colonial settlers
corrupted this native term into the area’s current name, Rockaway.
At the height of their occupancy of the region, it is estimated that about
2,500 Native Americans resided in the Rockaway area. By 1750, most of these
original inhabitants had moved west due to the encroachment of European
settlement. The last known tribal members left the area at the conclusion of
the American Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, these people had remained
loyal to the British crown during the war and
were no longer welcomed by their victorious Patriot neighbors.
The first European residents in the Rockaway area arrived around 1715. These
settlers, mainly from the Netherlands and the British Isles, established
small farms in the clearings originally occupied by the former Native
American residents. Like the earlier people, these new farmers raise small
sustenance crops to feed their families throughout the year.
It was while occupying these former Native American campsites that the new
settlers discovered pieces of iron ore lying about the ground. Deposits of
the mineral were also found on the surface of the area. It was from these
early surface discoveries that the beginnings of the area’s numerous iron
mines and related forging businesses grew. This industry began around 1740
and continued within the township until the last mine, the Mt. Hope Mine,
closed for the final time in 1977.
The Rockaway iron ore mines and forge industry resulted in the area becoming
a vital link in the supplying of munitions and other iron equipment to
General Washington’s Continental Army during the American Revolution.
Cannonballs, grapeshot, and other items were mined and forged at the Mt.
Hope, Hibernia, Middle Forge, and other area mines. The famous iron chain
which spanned the Hudson River at West Point to prevent the British Royal
Navy from sailing up the river was mined and forged at Rockaway.
An indication of the importance the local iron industry was to the birth of
this nation is underscored by the fact that General Washington exempted the
iron workers from military service during the Revolution. This was so that
they could remain on the job mining and forging the iron implements needed
by the Continental Army. This continued production was so important that
Washington detailed a number of Hessian prisoners of war to work at the
mines. These “home front” workers were in addition to the area residents who
served in the Continental Army and those who served in the militia, which
was the National Guard of its day.
General Washington himself inspected the local mines several times during
the war. He also made Rockaway his army headquarters for a time when he and
his army encamped here in 1780. Several written orders and letters to the
Continental Congress from Washington survive to this day with the heading of
…”Army Headquarters in Rockaway”.
After the Revolution, the Rockaway area continued to be a major center for
the iron industry. The area mines continued to supply the iron needs of the
growing nation as the nation continued to expand west toward the Pacific
coast. To facilitate the transit of these goods, first canals, such as the
Morris Canal, and later railroads were built to move the products of
Rockaway to distant markets.
It was on April 8, 1844 that Rockaway Township was incorporated as a
township by an Act of the N.J. Legislature. Prior to that date, the area was
considered to be a part of Pequannock Township with other sections lying
within Hanover Township. Later, portions of Rockaway Township were
appropriated to form the political entities of Rockaway Borough in 1894,
Port Oram, later Wharton, in 1895, and Denville Township in 1913.
With the arrival of the Civil War in 1861, the young men of Rockaway flocked
to the colors to join the Federal forces in preserving the Union. These
recruits provided men to several companies of infantry and cavalry in the
various state regiments that were formed during the war. Unfortunately, the
conflict was particularly devastating to the families of Rockaway in both
men lost and families torn apart.
Out of all the men from Rockaway who answered their country’s call in
1861-1865, one in three of them died either on the battlefield or in camp
from disease. In one particularly deadly case, 39 Rockaway men were drowned
when their regiment was attempting to cross the Cumberland River in Kentucky
by raft. Their raft began to come apart and the men were dragged down by
their heavy equipment and weapons.
One family, the Halseys, had their sons fighting in the 15th NJ Infantry
regiment for the Union while another son, who had moved south before the
war, was serving in the 1st S.C. Infantry for the Confederacy. There were
several times when both of these regiments faced each other on the field of
battle. Fortunately, all of the sons survived the war, unlike many of their
Once again, the iron industry in Rockaway churned out munitions and
equipment for the U.S. government during this war. This tradition of
supplying our nation’s armed forces was reinforced on September 6, 1880 when
the federal government established Picatinny Arsenal in Rockaway Township.
The arsenal originally started out as a powder storage area. However, over
the years and throughout the various wars, it eventually became a weapons
and munitions research and development facility. It continues today to be in
the forefront of supplying our armed forces with the latest equipment and
weapons to combat the current War on Terror.
Rockaway Township has not only been a national leader in the area of
research and development of munitions, but it has also made major
contributions to the aviation and space arenas. Reaction Motors, which had
facilities in Rockaway and offices in nearby Denville, designed and
developed the early jet engines which resulted in aviation’s conversion from
piston engine airplanes to the jet aircraft of today.
Reaction Motors developed the rocket engines that powered Chuck Yeagers’ X-1
aircraft, which was the first to break the sound barrier. They also
developed the rocket engines for the Saturn V which launched the Gemini and
Apollo spacecraft during the space race with the Soviets to put a man on the
Rockaway Township today is a diverse community with a mixture of bedroom
communities and light industry in the southern part of the township with
rural/wilderness areas surrounding the Newark Watershed and Jersey City
Reservoirs in the northern section. With the closing of the last iron mine
in 1977 coinciding with the opening of the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, one of
the largest in the state, the main commerce of the
township was switched to the retail arena.