Lay of the Land: Goffle Brook

Lay of the Land is a series examining the history of Hawthorne’s geography and landmarks. Up for inclusion are historic homes and places, parks, roads, railways, waterways, and hills. Suggest a topic on Facebook or Twitter.

"Goffle brook of a May day blossoms in the manner of antiquity." William Carlos Williams opened a 1949 poem with the line, an apt description given this year’s late Spring bloom, which saw an explosion of flowers along Hawthorne’s centerpiece waterway deep into May.

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From a geological perspective, however, ‘antiquity’ is maybe a bit misleading. Goffle Brook is a youthful stream, initially formed as the Wisconsin Glacier melted back 18,000 years ago. The great glacier, which deposited the namesake boulder of Glen Rock, retreated from southwest to northeast across the area, leaving huge pools of glacial meltwater in its wake. Goffle Brook, and its tributary Deep Voll Brook, initially drained one of these prehistoric waterbodies, Lake Hohokus.

At the southern end of Hawthorne, Goffle Brook met the shores of Lake Paramus, another vast glacial lake which inundated the modern valleys of the middle Passaic River and Saddle River. Some of the great lake’s bottom is still preserved as marshland in Paramus, and can be seen where A&S Drive meets Route 17. Closer to home, in the area of the Boys and Girls Club south to the former Rag Shop Center, Goffle Brook laid down a sandy delta that has since been largely excavated, though portions still survive beneath Franklin Field. Ultimately, the ancient lakes disappeared with the glacier, but Goffle Brook survived, its course serving to drain the lands flanking the eastern slopes of First Watchung Mountain a.k.a. Goffle Hill in these parts.

Modern Goffle Brook has probably existed almost as long as humans have inhabited New Jersey, the ancestors of the Lenape reaching the area about 12,000 years ago on the heels of mammoths and mastodons. The natives eventually used streams and rivers as thoroughfares to connect settlements, and Goffle Brook was no exception. A half dozen Lenape camps are known to have existed along the brook’s course, following a trail that branched off the larger Wagaraw Trail hugging the north/east bank of the Passaic River.  Appropriately, the name ‘Goffle’ is derived from this historical geography.  A ‘gaffel’ (Dutch) is a two-pronged pitchfork or hayfork, and in this case refers to the place near the mouth of the brook where the Totowa Trail split from the Wagaraw Trail, a literal fork in the road. 

With the arrival of Europeans, Goffle Brook’s gradation was harnessed to power gristmills and sawmills. In Hawthorne, one of these was part of the homestead of John Ryerson, where the Marquis de Lafayette was encamped during the Revolutionary War. Others came to exist near the mouth of the brook, and where Rea Ave crosses the waterway (the western of the two culverts is a remnant of a former millrun). Perhaps the most prominent relict from the mill age is the dam at Arnold’s Pond, which was used to power the gristmill formerly operated by the Van Winkle family.

Fast forwarding the 20th century, Goffle Brook became the centerpiece of Hawthorne when the county established its park system in 1929. Olmsted Associates, the firm overseen by the son of Frederick Law Olmstead—he was one of the designers of Central Park—was commissioned to build out the county’s public parkland, and Goffle Brook Park was designed and constructed from 1930 to 1932. The park initially included bridle paths, although these disappeared as Hawthorne rapidly shifted from a rural town to a true suburban community.

For a time, some of the parkland surrounding the brook assumed a more wild appearance, that is, until the county renovated the park in 2013 to reflect its original design. While some residents mourn the loss of Goffle Brook’s more natural setting, it is possible to see the brook in a less domesticated form just over the border in Ridgewood, as Hawthornites living around Rock Road can attest. Even in Hawthorne, it is not Goffle Brook that had really changed, but rather, the landscape around it.  Pick up one of the many rounded stones from the channel, and consider that it may have once held up the dam of a mill pond two hundred years ago—maybe, if you’re really lucky, it was skipped across the water by a hunter dreaming of bagging a mastodon.   

Daniel J. Ciarletta is a PhD candidate in Environmental Management at Montclair State University, with a research focus on sedimentology and coastal geomorphology.  He has more than a passing interest in the geology, geography, and history of New Jersey, and is also an avid hiker.

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