Religions and Spirituality

Pilgrim's Cross A Testament to Early Religious Travelers In West Orange

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A view of the Pilgrim Cross as seen in a early 20th century postcard. Credits: Joe Fagan
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The Pilgrim Cross in its current location at the St. Cloud Presbyterian Church.  Credits: Joe Fagan
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WEST ORANGE, NJ - The progress of several centuries has all but eroded away any evidence of the first settlers to the Orange Mountains. The ridges of the first and second mountain of the Watchung Mountain Range encompassing West Orange are known as the Orange Mountains. These were known as the Newark Mountains to early settlers dating back to at least 1782. Sadly, these landmarks have faded into oblivion and disappeared. Old colonial homes, ponds, brooks, paths, and more have all passed away without any formal eulogy. Few, if any, have been marked or designated in any manner for the benefit of future generations. But one important artifact, long ago blended into the suburban landscape, waits to be rediscovered along one of the oldest routes through West Orange.
 
Until the 1930s, Pleasant Valley Way only went as far south as what today is Old Indian Road. At that time it was known as Mountain Avenue and provided a narrow winding route up the mountain to connect with Prospect Avenue. As the name suggests, Old Indian Road was actually part of an old Indian trail. Even today, travel along one section of Old Indian Road can be a bit rugged.
 
 
This route over the first Orange Mountain was originally used by local Indians (probably the Winacksop and Shenacktos) and then by early settlers. It began as a path in the 1720s through the forest that gradually widened by continuous use. The path was well used as a shortcut by worshipers traveling from outlying districts throughout western Essex County and beyond in the mid 1800s. Many of those worshippers attended services at the meeting house in Orange, which became the forerunner of The First Presbyterian Church of Orange.  Others continued on to St. John's in Newark. For this reason the route soon took on the name of The Christian Path.
 
The path continued up Old Indian Road towards Prospect Avenue. As it made its way past the intersection opposite Ridgeway Avenue, it passed by what could be the oldest house in West Orange, which dates to about 1740. Many a weary traveler would have known this exact house and property. The route then passed present day St. Cloud Presbyterian Church before directly crossing Prospect Avenue and continuing straight up to what is now the driveway of 670 Prospect Avenue. From there it crossed the top of the mountain at the Ridge Road and headed down the steep mountainside. It entered Northfield Avenue below the old quarry at what was known as Bluebirds Bend, and is now the site of Ronjolyn Apartments. 
 
During the Revolutionary War, two men seen coming down The Christian Path were taken by British soldiers for questioning. The men, their identities forever lost to history, stated that the American army was lying wait in the woods. This statement was intended to mislead the British who believed the Americans to be close by. The British, fearing an ambush, ended their pursuit. A detachment of American soldiers ill-equipped to fight the British were not hiding in the woods but actually making their way to Morristown.

 
Several years later during the War of 1812, Stephen Day raised a company of militia primarily composed of farmers from the second mountain. The recruits would march daily along the Christian Path down the mountain on their way to drills in Orange. Day ordered his men to construct steps for ease in descending the rugged steep grade. These rickety wooden steps actually survived until the 1930s.
 
In the 1870s, prominent New York banker John Crosby Brown built a sprawling 40 acre estate and home named Brighthurst on top of the mountain between Ridge Road and Prospect Avenue. One of two original stone pillars marking the rear entrance to the Brown property still stands at 670 Prospect Avenue. When Brown realized the Christian Path crossed his property, he constructed a stone cross in 1878 as a remembrance to those who passed along the Christian Path. The stone cross was quarried from the same mountainside where it sat, just below the Ridge Road, and became known as the Pilgrim Cross. After John Crosby Brown passed away in 1909, a florist by the name of John Schroll purchased the land where the stone cross was located between Northfield Avenue and Ridge Road from the Brown estate. Sometime during the 1930s, the cross was damaged when it fell over in a storm. It was cemented back together by Schroll and William Robertson, then the gardener for the Delano Family. When John Schroll passed away his son Ditlow moved the cross to his home in St. Cloud. Several years later, Ditlow once again moved the cross, but closer to the original Christian Path where it now sits at the entrance to St. Cloud Presbyterian Church. The inscription on the original plaque at the base of the Pilgrim Cross bears the date 1878 and still reads: " The Christian pilgrims who this pathway trod, are now in Heaven and walk with God."
 
Traveling up Old Indian Road today one can only imagine what the traveler of yesteryear might have experienced. Their journey, however, was full of many hardships.  Legend has it that they walked barefoot until reaching Northfield Avenue in order to save shoe leather. The Christian Path has now vanished, but the Pilgrim Cross still casts its shadow upon footprints left in time. It survives today, neatly tucked away, and waiting to be rediscovered, bearing silent witness to West Orange's glorious past and the generosity of John Crosby Brown.
 
To learn more about local history go to:
 
 
Joseph Fagan is  the Official Historian of  the Township of West Orange and has written two books on the subject. He can be reached by e-mail at JosephFagan@WestOrangeHistory.com.
 
 
 
 

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