By Peter Zablocki
Josiah Hall stood motionless, darkness around him. From atop Beacon Mountain he could see for miles. He knew this land. The hills, the plains, and the farms with homes resembling dark specs on an otherwise flawless canvas. It was the night of June 23rd, 1780, and around him was his hometown, Denville. He strained his eyes but did not see what he was looking for. News of a battle waging in nearby Springfield had arrived in the town that morning. Below the hill upon which Mr. Hall and his compatriots labored, many locals anxiously awaited his signal. As Josiah looked towards distant Springfield, he was startled by an excited dispatch rider galloping his horse up the hill towards him. And then he saw it himself. A dull red glare lighting the sky in the distance. He instantly ordered the prepared stack of brush in the shape of a pyramid to be set ablaze. As young men hurried around him throwing wet leaves on the fire to facilitate bigger smoke, Mr. Hall resumed his watch. Only the presence of two fires meant victory, and to his dismay, Josiah was still merely seeing one.
“Morris County’s proudest boast is that no redcoat ever stepped on her soil except as a prisoner of war,” said one-time Supreme Court Justice, Mahlon Pitney. That does not mean that the British never tried. In fact, the inhabitants of this area had a good reason to worry. In Denville Township alone, there were four known forges before the Revolutionary War, one each at Shongum, Ninkey Pond, Cold-Rain and Franklin, all on the Den Brook. Most of the iron ore also came from nearby Mine Hill and Rockaway’s Hibernia. This supply of iron essential for cannon balls, together with the powder plants at Chatham and Mt. Tabor, were all very tempting for the British. As such, and because of the lack of proper means of communication, the Colonists devised a plan in which they used the old Native American system of fire and smoke beacons to transmit information. When British forces advanced towards the area, twenty-three mountain peaks would light up one by one all across the state in warning. Their smoke and fire would be seen for miles.
On that June night, the citizens of Denville were frightened. It was well known that the British and Hessian forces advancing towards them through Springfield were quick to steal, plunder, and burn wherever they went after the conclusion of each battle. Following an established protocol, Denville’s hogs, sheep, cows – and even women and children – were transported to a place designed to hide them safely until the threat had passed. The “Hog Rock,” or “Hog Pen” was located near “Rockaway Valley,” with many kids still finding corn cobs, dishes, and pieces of iron in the area nearly two centuries later. Once moved to the secret location, the people and animals would stay there for several days until a dispatcher would arrive with the news that it was safe to return. The Beacon Mountain (today “Hill”) managed throughout the war by Captain Josiah Hall – a Denville resident and an officer in the American Revolution – was selected as one of the 23 beacons for its easy visibility. This was regardless of it not being the tallest peak in the vicinity.
Josiah’s men lit the beacon and waited, staring at the sole light coming from a distant mountain. Then a second glimmer grew and flamed on the peak. A big smile lit up Mr. Hall’s face. He did not need to give the order to light the second beacon, his assistants were already at it. Down below, many people exhaled. Their homes would be safe after all. But it was not time to celebrate just yet. The fires at Beacon Hill grew bigger and bigger. As the smoke filled the night sky, Josiah and his men strained their eyes to see if their signal was picked up miles away by the next mountain. Only then would their mission be complete. And then it appeared; faint at first, but unmistakable. The signal of joy and victory was carried on, just as it had after the more famous battles of Trenton, Princeton, and Monmouth. The job was done, on the Springfield battlefield, and here in the small villages of Rockaway and Denville.
Following the latest battle, and with the war continuing for another year, Captain Josiah Hall spent the following few months assisting the NJ State Militia in transferring British and Hessian prisoners of war to Morris County. Once there, the men worked in the iron mines that flourished in Mt. Hope and nearby Hibernia. The fruits of their labor would then be turned into cannon balls in Boonton. And then, albeit ironically, used against their own troops in the defense of the Garden State. As for Beacon Hill, it still stands today. And although it is now surrounded by streets and homes, it still proudly displays its rich history. Thanks to the efforts of Claude Dickerson in the 1970s (he conducted the initial research of Denville’s beacons), and the Denville Rotary Club, a park and a replica of the beacon was dedicated in July of 1976. Due to the fact that Lord Sterling – commissioned by George Washington to design the uniform system of beacon lights to extend from the Hudson River to Flemington and Princeton – left such precise instructions on how to build the beacons, the Denville Rotary had no trouble recreating the signal fire beacon in honor of the opening of the historic site. So next time you drive past the Beacon Hill sign when you are in town, try to imagine what it might have been like living here two hundred years ago, when the British were coming! Until next time…
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and vice-president of the Denville Historical Society. He is also a co-host of a weekly podcast, “History Teachers Talking.”