For years, Montclair residents have loved walking their dogs, going for hikes or biking through the trails of the 157-acre Mills Reservation Park that runs through Montclair and Cedar Grove.
It’s even home to the Montclair Hawk Watch – the second-oldest hawk watch in the country – and is a frequent spot for locals to set up their scopes for birdwatching.
But one trail in particular ends with a stunning view of the New York City skyline and a large circular cement platform, whose creation has eluded both local New Jersey historians and regular visitors to the park for years.
The platform has been the subject of several rumors regarding its purpose and possible involvement in World War II as a platform for anti-artillery guns.
For Montclair resident and avid birdwatcher Evan Cutler, the mystery of Mills Reservation’s involvement in World War II has sent him into a whirlwind of research that eventually connected him with Helen Fallon, vice president of the Montclair History Center, and an avid historian of the Mills Reservation herself.
Together the duo will present at the monthly Montclair Bird Club where Fallon will demonstrate her well-regarded presentation, “The History and Mysteries of Mills Reservation” and Cutler will join in with discussions of his own research on Wednesday, March 14 at the Union Congregational Church at 7:30 p.m. on 176 Cooper Avenue.
Admission to the event is free and open to the public.
An Answer at Last?
The Mills Reservation was a gift to the Essex County Park Commission in 1954 from the Davella Mills Foundation with the stipulation for the land to remain undeveloped and in its natural state forever.
“It’s this amazing thing we have here in town and people go up there and everybody gets to this point at the end of the trail and (there’s) this cement platform that overlooks New York City with this killer view and everyone always wonders, ‘what is this thing?’ and no one knows,” Cutler said.
Cutler frequents Mills Reservation just about every morning to walk his dog and regularly goes birding there. Naturally, his curiosity and interest led him to search high and low for an answer. He even went so far as to go through every single issue of The Montclair Times through World War II, but to no avail.
“There’s not one mention of it,” Cutler said. “I reached out to every history expert about the military and New Jersey’s role and found nothing, nobody knows, so I kept hitting dead end after dead end.”
Finally, in all of his research, Cutler was able to discover that at least at one point, the platform was used as a water source when the quarry was in existence.
Fallon came even closer to solving the mystery when she received a letter in 2012 from Chris Werndly, President of the Cedar Grove Historical Society, who revealed that the cement circle had actually secured a searchlight.
“The searchlight was number 13 of a large number of military lights that covered the metropolitan area,” Werndly wrote in a letter to Fallon. “Light 13 personnel were in an encampment located on (at that time) vacant land at the apex of Ridge Road and Pompton Avenue.”
Werndly also noted that the local residents would try to entertain the troops assigned to Mills Reservation by hosting dances and other activities.
“To me the coolest thing is… the same thing we are looking at, standing up there with our spotting scopes looking for birds, to think that in World War II, the same spot was used for people to watch to see if Nazi planes were coming their way,” Cutler said.
However, Cutler remains haunted by the fact that he cannot track down any actual photographic proof that finally confirms the mysterious cement platform was a searchlight used by the military for 24-hour surveillance of New York City during World War II.
“The jury is still out,” Cutler said. “The Holy Grail is to find proof that this actually happened, but I think inevitably it’s because this was all kind of top secret when it was going on so there’s no documentation.”
Still, Cutler urges anyone who might have any knowledge about searchlight No. 13 and the soldiers who were said to be stationed at Mills Reservation to contact the Montclair History Center.