The oldest settlers in Chester Township came in 1640 when “Black River” established itself as a settlement primarily because of the intersection of two Lenape Indian trails. These old trails, used for hundreds of years by the native Americans were traversed by the early settlers to go to all regions of New Jersey.
The first permanent European settlers arrived in Black River around 1720. They came mostly from Long Island to “the Landing” in New Brunswick and then overland on the “Grate Road” west to Roxbury. By 1740, the area of Black River was well established with settlers who had land grants from the King of England. The first residents farmed, operated mills, and distilled whisky from apples and peaches. The native Americans began to disappear, although evidence of their activities and settlements can still be found on various hillsides near the River.
The “Grate Roads,” one from New Brunswick to the “Suckasunny Plains” and the other from Morristown to Phillipsburg crossed where in the center of Town where the Publik House now stands. These roads influenced the early growth of Chester Township as an agricultural community. Flax, wool, cattle, applejack, and peach whisky where important “exports” from Chester Township, and the two “Grate Roads” were the means to move goods out, as well as to bring staples back to Chester. Inns and Taverns were built to accommodate the drovers, notably the Hull-Brown Tavern at Furnace and Pleasant Hill Roads (private residence) and Jacob Drakes Union Hotel at the Crossroads which flourished from 1779 to 1962 when it burned. Fairclo’s Tavern was established in the village across from the present location of the Publik House.
In the years leading to the revolution and on into the early 1800’s, Chester Township was an important stagecoach stop on the trip from New York, New Brunswick, and Morristown to Phillipsburg. In 1799, Chester Township with 30 square miles, incorporated and separated from Roxbury Township. The Publik House was built in 1810 as a place of “fancy” public accommodations, although there were still many Inns and Taverns that took in drovers and itinerants. Main Street grew around these village Inns, and businesses were established. The smooth Washington Turnpike replaced the bumpy old Indian trail west from Morristown. Transportation in red, gold trimmed coaches was provided from Paulus Hook (Jersey City) through Chester, however the improved roads meant that more travelers went right through Chester Township without stopping. In 1844, Barbour and Howe described Chester as “Eight miles west of Morristown. The Washington Turnpike passes through it. There are one Presbyterian and one Congregational Church, three mercantile stores, two academies, three grain mills, and seven schools. The inhabitants are mostly farmers who have replaced growing apples with peaches. The village area is about twelve miles west of Morristown and contains about fifty dwellings.”
Mechanical devices were required to process and transport the peach crops to distant markets. The Van Doren brothers opened a threshing machine manufacturing business in the village and introduced the first steam engine into Morris County. There were blacksmiths making hardware and nails and repairing wagons and carriages. There was a brick yard near Cooper Lane. Distilleries were everywhere. Gristmills appeared on “every corner.” At one time there were seven water powered mills on the Black River between the Cooper Mill and the lower Hacklebarney Mill. The Civil War was brewing, and it would begin a profound change in Chester Township from agriculture to mining and manufacturing. While Chester Township hosted no fighting during the Civil War, it did provide a stop on the underground railroad used by freed or escaping slaves. Before the War, slaves were common in Chester Township. The barred cellar windows in the Publik House and in the Nathan Cooper Mansion are testimony to this. In 1875, iron ore in huge quantities was discovered behind a house on Main Street by a man digging for an ice House foundation. Chester Township was about to undergo a major upheaval.
For fifteen years following 1875, Chester Township witnessed the opening of thirty-five iron mines or groups of mines. In 1878 a furnace was built on Furnace Road to make pig iron for shipment to Dover and then by Morris Canal to manufacturing facilities in Jersey City and Newark. The population swelled to numbers which were not realized again until 1960. Large and comfortable homes were built, many staffed by servants. Private schools and academies opened. Public Schools were improved. More businesses and services came to town… and then, disaster! Cheaply accessible iron was discovered lying on top of the ground in Minnesota. The mines gradually shut down, followed in 1888 by the closing of the Chester Furnace. Residents who had retained their farms returned to raising crops and animals. Chester Township once again became quiet and relaxed, with beautiful homes and little money. Through this local depression, Chester remained a crossroads center. Traffic flowed through on its way to the springs at Schooley’s Mountain or the other way to visit the cultural centers at Newark and New York. The road south led to Princeton and Trenton. As the 100th anniversary of Chester Township arrived in 1899, there were “pleasant sites, beautiful homes, a congenial environment, superb views, three churches, a three-division school, cordial business oriented merchants, six general stores and a fine embroidery mill.” Five roads came together in the center of the village. The old Indian trails, with different names and smoother rides were still in use. Chester Township was beginning to become a summer resort.
To accommodate the influx of travelers and vacationers who came to Chester in the summer, the Chester Telephone Company was formed and Western Union made connections in the village. Chester was fast touted as a “resort area” with good public schools, the Black River, the Central and DL&W railroads, healthful climate, pure air, good accommodations, and picturesque beauty. Chester was the highest…and coolest…spot in Morris County. For people who wanted to move to Chester permanently, there was “land for factories, available labor, and electric lights.” The Library, Fire Department and the Township Hall came into existence. Automobiles were becoming part of the scenery. Major roads were paved and the railroads gradually faded away. Then, World War I halted plans for industrial development in Chester which remained a comfortable community with an easy going way of life. The end of World War I saw Chester return to prominence as a summer resort. Inns and hotels enlarged and renovated. Hunters and fishermen came to town, along with traveling salesmen. Restaurants of note began to appear, the best being the Herb Farm on State Park Road and Fleming’s Chester House in the village center. Bell Laboratories built a research facility in the late 1920’s. Technology needed access and Route 31 (Route 206) was built to move vehicles from southern New Jersey all the way to the northern tip of the state. It followed the rough path of the old “Grate Road“ through Chester Township.
In the village area of Chester Township, drums of separation were heard for the first time in the 1920’s. Development had led to water supply problems that made the need for a public water system popular, a project not appealing to the surrounding farmers whose tax dollars would help pay for it. In 1930, the Borough of Chester incorporated as a separate municipality with its own water system. Much of that old system existed up until the 1990’s. The great depression helped close what was left of the railroads, aided by faster more comortable automobiles. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps affected many Chester lives during the 1930’s. Hacklebarney State Park was a depression era project and thousands of evergreen trees were planted in Chester Township just prior to World War II. The War would propel Chester back into a quiet rural community.
Chesterites worked hard at the War effort, at the Arsenal, the bomb factory, watching for enemy airplanes, the Red Cross and Civil defense. Rationing curtailed gasoline and automobile travel, so the first Catholic Church appeared in Chester to save driving to Mendham. Chester sent almost one hundred fifty men and women to fight, ten of whom never returned. As Chester prepared for its 150th birthday in 1949, there was a well organized fire company and first aid corps, a few good restaurants, many businesses, a couple of gasoline stations, and new families. Chester was growing again and the need for schools prompted the Chesters, Washington Township, the Mendhams and Mount Olive to form a regional high school district during the 1950’s. Students stopped attending Roxbury High School when West Morris Central High School opened in 1958. Today, Mount Olive has left the regional district and there are two high schools, Central and Mendham. Also, in the late 1950’s the Chester Township Planning Board was formed to “protect the natural beauty of Chester and the watershed resources.”
In 1962, the first of many future suburban housing developments began on Oakdale Road at the old Melrose poultry farm. Hundreds of homes have followed requiring more than just the Williamson School in Chester Borough. Dickerson and Bragg schools were built in the early development years, followed by Black River Middle School in 1973 . The seven old “one-room” schools became private residences. Real police departments were established. A Library was built and the village business area began to expand and improve. Chester Township, thanks in large part to the mission of its first Planning Board in the late 1950’s, has become a premier open space repository, setting aside over one-third of its thirty square miles in public ownership. The Borough and the Township, while separate communities, continue to enjoy a close relationship and still share schools, fire protection, first aid squad, athletic programs, a community pool, and service clubs. Development continues, mostly in large parcel single family homes. A few active farms attract local residents and visitors to purchase their wares. Chester Township remains an attractive community offering a “country” atmosphere together with good schools, excellent services, a downtown village business area, large parks, recreational facilities, and easy access to cultural centers.