Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Three Centuries of History in Roxbury

Three Centuries of History in Roxbury
Written by NJ Historian

Three centuries of history abound in the Drakesville Historic District in Ledgewood, New Jersey, a part of Roxbury Township. Three buildings, situated next to each other are interestingly interconnected and tell a cyclical tale of boom and bust. The Silas Riggs Saltbox House, the King Store, and the King Homestead are three protected properties that serve as museums and repositories of history for Roxbury and the nearby Morris Canal. Main Street in Ledgewood is part of the old Sussex Turnpike, a route originally carved by the Lenape Indians. Today, Main Street is quiet, as modern-day Routes 10 and 46 are nearby to carry heavy traffic. But only a few hundred yards from Route 10 on Main Street are these historic structures, which once served a very busy and bustling canal town.

The King Homestead circa 1917
The area now known as Roxbury was surveyed as early as 1715 by a man named John Reading. The abundance of iron ore in the region was noted in his early recordings. By the 1730s, settlers begin to establish homes and farms in the area. On December 24, 1740, Roxbury was incorporated as the fourth township in Morris County.

One of the early homes built in Ledgewood, circa 1740 according to architectural historians, was a saltbox house. Saltbox houses are flat in the front, with a central chimney set square in the middle of the roofline. The roofline of a saltbox house is asymmetrical, with a short, steep roof in front, and a much longer, sloping roof in the back which accommodates the one story extension of the home. While the original owners of the Silas Riggs Saltbox House are unknown, records indicate that by the early 1800s, the house was owned by Silas Riggs and his wife Harriet. Silas was a tanner and supplied the local mines with leather pouches used to transport iron ore. He also was a contractor for a section of the Morris Canal in 1830 and oversaw the operation of three barges. His son Albert ran the nearby canal store during the canal’s early years. In 1962, the Roxbury Township Historical Society acquired the house and had it moved to Drakesville Historic Park from its original location to prevent its impending demolition. Since then, it has been opened regularly and maintained by the society.

The King Canal Store is a unique, two and a half story rubble stone building constructed circa 1827. At the ground floor its walls are three feet thick. It was built by two men named Woodruff and Crane and operated as a general store until 1835. However, business in the area had not been very good, as the area was still very rural. After two years of abandonment, new owners took charge of the building, as the Morris Canal was now operational and Ledgewood had become an overnight stop for canal barges on their five day journey across northern New Jersey. The Morris Canal stretched from Jersey City to Phillipsburg. Work on the canal began in Ledgewood, right across from the general store in 1825. By 1831, the canal had been completed and opened, measuring 107 miles in length and was comprised of twenty-three locks and twenty-three inclined planes. The planes were short railways that allowed canal boats to be carried in open cars uphill and downhill. The plane cars were driven by a water-powered winch. The use of such devices had advantages over locks for large elevation changes in that they did not require the large amount of water needed by a "staircase" of locks and required less time to travel the vertical distance.

In 1847, Albert Riggs, son of Silas Riggs, acquired the store and opened it as a general store serving the community and the Morris Canal. The store also served as the area’s post office.

Theodore King, the son-in-law of Albert Riggs, took over the store in 1873. Theodore King was born November 14, 1843 on a family farm in Roxbury Township. He lived above the store on the second floor with his wife and daughter. In 1881, King built a home next to the store and in 1885 renovated the store, changing the d├ęcor to Greek Revival and changing the color scheme from white with green shutters to the current color of cream with brown trim. The exterior of the building was given a smooth coat of stucco and scored to resemble large blocks. The King’s store was successful and by 1900 the store was taking in $100 per day. King purchased vast amounts of property around Lake Hopatcong and started other profitable businesses in the area, such as a grocery store, confectionary, and a steamboat company. He also invested heavily in the ice-cutting operations on Lake Hopatcong, owning the Mountain Ice Company. King passed away in 1928 and in June of 1929, his daughter Louise closed the store and locked it as it was. The Morris Canal had closed in 1924 and the store was not as profitable by this time. The store remained closed until Louise’s death in 1975. In 1976, in celebration of the centennial of the United States, the store was reopened for one day, displaying all of the now-artifacts that remained inside since the store had closed in 1929. In 1983, the store and King homestead were acquired by Roxbury Township. The Roxbury Rotary Club took an interest in the store in 1989 and has worked tirelessly to restore it.

Late 1800s/1900s
In 1881, Theodore King constructed a homestead only a few hundred feet from his store. The home has had several additions with Italianate and Queen Ann influences. Architectural historians have conjectured that the original footprint of the house may have consisted of the current parlor, the two exhibit rooms on the first floor, the main staircase, and three bedrooms on the second floor. The kitchen would have been in the basement. King later built a dining room and dumb-waiter. The final addition to the home was a circular first floor office used by Mr. King and then later by Louise King. A beautiful pastoral mural fills the walls of the dining room. It was painted in 1936 by James Marland, in gratitude for the King’s hospitality. Marland was originally from England and came to the United States in 1919. Not much about his personal life is known nor his connection to the King family. There are also remnants of shadow birds painted by him in the second floor bathroom.

The Roxbury Rotary Club began rehabilitating the King homestead in 2000. Today the Roxbury Historic Trust, a group formed to continue preservation efforts of the King Store and Homestead, is concentrating on interior restoration and the presentation of educational exhibits.

Over three centuries of Roxbury history can be viewed today at Drakesville Historic Park. Collectively, the buildings tell one story of the development of Roxbury Township’s history, while separately each building tells a story of booms and busts. Hopefully, this last boom, in the preservation sense, lasts and continues to tell the story of Roxbury Township for at least another century. 

Additional photos of my trip to Drakesville Historic Park on Pinterest

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