Coasting in Montclair

Barista Kids recently ran a list of some of the best sledding launches in Baristaville. Now historian, architect and curator Frank Gerard Godlewski gives us a history lesson on the best sledding launches of long ago.

This 1890’s photo illustrates a group of Montclairians begining a coasting descent from the intersection of South Mountain and Hillside Avenues, originally the site of a natural spring.

Defined by all old maps as a horseshoe-like configuration, this place served as a starting point for villagers’ sleigh riding meets. (On the pictured 1857 map, it looks like an amphitheater.) This spot was still a favorite public venue after the springs were closed; townspeople would meet there to go coasting. The springs site was replaced with a Second Empire French Mansion (pictured in the 1890’s photo) that was demolished to build the current Gates Mansion in 1902.

This charming account of coasting comes from the pages of “Reminiscences of Montclair by S.C.G. Watkins as He Remembers It From 1876,” published in 1929.

Along at that period there was not much ordinary traffic on Bloomfield Avenue. When the snow was well packed, or if it got very icy after a slight rain, not only the young school people, but the young married people, would all be out on Bloomfield Avenue with their sleds, coasting from the top of the mountain, generally starting a little above Upper Mountain Avenue. Many times they would start at the Mountain House and coast right down through the town to Elm Street. If the coasting was especially good, they would sometimes go fifty or one hundred feet past Elm Street, and we would hardly ever meet more than one or two sleighs on the road during the evening, and they were generally milk sleighs or farm produce sleighs going to or from the Newark market, so that we would practically have the street to ourselves. Mind you, those were the days of real sport! How I enjoyed them!

Union Street apparently was another important coasting venue. A dear neighbor of mine, Lib, recalls that as a child before the 1920’s, she lived with her family at the top of Union Street at the Eagle Rock Reservation. After snowfalls, people would meet in front of her house to begin the descent. Her father would even welcome people to use their steep driveway in order to gain more momentum for the start. Her house had a Victorian tower from where you could see, faintly in a crisp winter’s night, the Statue of Liberty and perhaps the few tall buildings that characterized the early New York City skyline.

Old photo courtesy of the Randall family of Montclair. Drawing of Gates Mansion by Frank Gerard Godlewski.

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