The Palisades Interstate Park is a National Historic Landmark.
Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey

Hidden on the Mountain

WPA crew, 1935 Saddle horses on the Palisades, 1938 Saddle horses on the Palisades, 1938 Page from the 1876 Walker Atlas

“Hidden on the Mountain” was first published in the January-February 2013 issue of “Cliff Notes.”

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When the first word of snow is in the forecast, we know some of our visitors are already getting their cross-country skis out and downloading our online map of the ski trails at State Line Lookout. About a minute after the entrance road is plowed, they’ll be out gliding among tree trunks and rock outcrops.

Most of the ski trails at State Line were built by men in the Works Progress Administration, who in 1935 were given the task of building seven miles of “bridle trails” — trails for horseback riding — between the Lookout and the site of the former Ringling estate, two miles south. (Whether horseback riding was ever offered by the park is a perplexing little mystery, however: we haven’t found any reference to it in the Annual Reports or other park documents; yet two negatives dated from 1938 show “horses at lookout” — one with a sign for “Saddle Horses For Hire.”)

Here and there the ski trails crisscross walls of stone that slump through the woods, their straight courses bulged by trees that have pushed up against them: clues this place has a story predating the WPA, a story hidden on the mountain.

In 1981 Joan Geismar, a doctoral candidate at Columbia, wrote her dissertation on Skunk Hollow: Archaeological Perspectives on Social Disintegration in a 19th Century Rural Black Community. In 1984 the Bergen County Historical Society published Jack Was Earnest, a short book by local historian Reginald McMahon, also about the “Skunk Hollow” settlement that once thrived on the “Closter Mountain.” (Both works are available in area libraries.) Each author made good use of primary source materials, maps and property deeds, tax and census returns, to shed light on this unique community of black men and women, some born into freedom, others born as slaves, who built their homes and raised their children in this lonely locale — and who built a church and worshipped here.

For both authors, the research trail began with a diary entry of a single day. The diarist was Nicholas Gesner, a white man, descended from Dutch settlers who first built farms in the valleys south of Tappan in the early eighteenth century. Nicholas Gesner grew up on his father’s farm, in what would become present-day Rockleigh. On Thursday, November 18, 1841, Gesner, then seventy-six, wrote in his diary*:

Last night Jack Earnest at home laid himself before the fire. Probably in his sleep, his clothes took fire; he got outdoors, and before he could get his clothes off, was mortally burnt. It is said one ear was roasted—Being alone, in the house, and awfully burnt, he put on his great coat and went in the night, to the house where John Cartwright lived (a coloured man) a quarter of a mile distan[t] … This afternoon he died; what an awful death! He was about 71 years old and was born in my fathers house, a slave. I bought him of my father (John Gisner) when he was about 23 year old for 80£ [which] is 200 dollars. As I ever was opposed to slavery, I told him after he had served me 7 or 8 years I would set him free; this was my true and real intention. …

Gesner recounted how about a year after he bought Jack — strange to think that these two had grown up on the same farm, about the same age as each other — Jack approached him with a wish to work for another master, Jacob Concklin. Gesner advised Jack not to trust Concklin — Concklin was Gesner’s brother-in-law, and there was some bad blood between them — but Jack was adamant. He believed Concklin would not only provide his freedom in the same seven or eight years Gesner had promised him, but that Concklin would then provide some farmland to him as well. When Gesner remained against it, Jack and Concklin engaged in what Gesner called a “plot" against him, aided by another neighbor. Gesner consulted with his wife — who told him to “let the black devil go.” Gesner writes that all he warned Jack about would come to pass: that it would take almost twice the time to gain his freedom under Concklin than if Jack had stayed with Gesner — and then only “on condition Jack would secure him one hundred dollars!!!” Jack was by then in his mid-thirties. Another white neighbor, Peter Willsey, secured the hundred-dollar fee for Jack, allowing him to work it off “cutting cord …etc.” Concklin never gave Jack the land he’d promised, either. It would be up to Jack to get his own land — and his own name:

… After he left Concklin Jack acquired … a nice little property by hard industry. He was small light made, dark coloured man; he was the son of a coloured man belonging to Domine Verbrycke, who preached at Tappan, and of Yanache a Coloured woman of my father John Gesner — Jack Earnest was the youngest of 4, namely the oldest Dinah — next Flora next Sam — and lastly Jack — NB: the surname Earnest was attached to him because he was in great earnest when purchasing some land in the Mountain when about to get his deed — Jack’s 2 sisters and brother each died with the consumption when young. Diana and Flora were about 17 or 20 when they died, and Sam about 26 years old. The females died at my father’s, Sam at N.Y. etc.

On January 7, 1806, “Jack Earnest of Bergen County” purchased “five acres and thirty square roods” in Harrington Township for $87.50, a plot about 300 by 700 feet. McMahon was able to locate the plot “just east of Palisades Interstate Parkway and some eight hundred feet southeast of exit four at Route 9W,” west of ski trail C. Jack Earnest purchased the land from Peter Willsey, who allowed Jack and his wife, Susan, to take a hundred dollar mortgage on the property. Jack Earnest would acquire a few more acres in subsequent years (property now covered by the northbound Parkway).

James Oliver was a slave of Johannis Blauvelt; Blauvelt’s will set Oliver free upon the master’s death. Oliver bought property beside Jack Earnest’s. Other free black families lived nearby as tenants. By mid-century, there would be over sixty households in the community, which became known as Skunk Hollow. (The origin of the name is uncertain — some suggest it may derive from the skunk cabbage that grows abundantly in the area.) Most of the men of the Hollow worked as laborers on farms and in the little towns in the valley.

In the spring of 1841, Jack Earnest, in his seventies and a widower, sold several acres to William Thompson, a black man in his late twenties. Six months later, on his deathbed, Jack transferred the remainder of his property to Thompson. In 1856, Thompson and his wife, Elizabeth, deeded a fifty-by-fifty-foot plot to the trustees of the “Methodist Episcopal Church of Colored People of the Township of Harrington.” Later census records show Thompson as a “Methodist Preacher.” The Skunk Hollow community would fade from the mountaintop in the first decade of the twentieth century, as its men sought jobs in more distant towns and cities. And if the community had always gone largely unnoticed (an atlas of Bergen County published in 1876 shows only empty space where those dozens of families lived), the church founded on the mountain still worships at Sparkill, New York.



*The text of Gesner’s diary is from Geismar’s transcription, with her annotations. back