We cannot begin our discussion of the role Chester played in the Civil War without touching upon the town’s beginnings. Modern day Chester Township is ideally located astride Route 206, providing day trippers from New York City and urban New Jersey easy access to the township’s quaint downtown business district and farms where families spend many a cool fall afternoon pumpkin and apple picking. Visitors are also treated to some of the most idyllic hiking trails in the country within the Black River Wildlife Management Area. Ironically, it was Chester’s location with regards to ease of transportation that first drew English settlers to the Black River.
European settlers arrived in the area that would become Chester in 1720 after it became a Royal Colony in 1702. Within the context of New Jersey’s tortured colonial history, Chester would have been located in West New Jersey.The location made for an excellent settlement due to the fact that Lenape trails intersected there and provided easy access to settlers making the journey from Long Island on the Grate Road that connected Morristown with Phillipsburg. With land grants from King George I in hand, the settlers began setting up the farms for which the area is still famous for. The many area streams and rivers allowed a proliferation of mills to be constructed in town, many of which still stand as private residences and popular restaurants today.
Chester’s raisons d’être in the early years was transportation and agriculture. One of it’s most popular restaurants, the Publik House, is a testament to the township’s pivotal role in the region’s transportation system. Today it sits on Main Street in the center of Chester’s business district, a bustling thoroughfare that runs from Randolph all the way into Warren County. In 1810, however, it was an important stop for coaches traveling to Morristown. A slew of other taverns, inns and hotels were built in the area to accommodate travelers. Like the modern day township, Chester of the late 1700s and early 1800s cultivated a culture of small businesses that thrived upon out-of-towners staying for the day. Similarly, the area’s farms utilized the roads to export their various crops to the population centers of Bergen County and New York City.
Even during it’s earliest years, Chester was an important place with regards to the development of New Jersey. As a transportation hub it helped to foster the growth of Morristown and other area townships. As an agricultural center the promise of work and land ownership brought thousands of settlers from various socioeconomic spheres into Northern New Jersey, as well as sustaining the major population centers emerging in Newark and Elizabeth. It would not be long, however, before the quaint town would be changed forever by what lay beneath it’s residents feet.