Greater Pascack Valley Overview and History

Bergen County map highlighting towns in the greater Pascack Valley.
There are ten towns in the greater Pascack Valley including: Montvale, Park Ridge, Woodcliff Lake, Hillsdale, Westwood, River Vale, Washington Township, Oradell, Old Tappan and Emerson.

The Towns of the Greater Pascack Valley

The Pascack Valley is the name for a region in Bergen County, New Jersey and is named for the Pascack Brook, which runs down the valley from north to south before joining the Hillsdale Brook at the Oradell reservoir. The region officially consists of eight municipalities: Montvale, Park Ridge, Woodcliff Lake, Hillsdale, Westwood, River Vale, Washington Township, and Emerson.

The towns of Oradell and Old Tappan are included in the “greater” Pascack Valley due to their proximity and social-economic similarities to the other towns. For the official websites for each of these towns, please visit our page entitled, “Official Websites for the Pascack Valley Towns.”

The History of the Pascack Valley Towns

The towns in the greater Pascack Valley have a rich history. There were many factors that led to the boundary lines and names within the towns. From the native Americans that pre-date the European settlers, to the American Revolution and its players, to the economic boom caused by the railroad, you can read a summary of how the Valley and it’s towns were formed below.

Native Americans Were Original Inhabitants of the Valley But Ultimately Gave Way to the Europeans

Lenni Lenape Village
The Lenni Lenapes lived in villages of round houses called wigwams. Each usually included a rectangular council house and a sweat lodge.

The Pascack Valley region was originally settled by the Lenape “Indians” (native Americans). However, as the Europeans, particularly the Dutch, made early settlements in the region starting in the 1610’s, many of the Lenape were displaced. Most Lenape had left the region by the year 1700. With the signing of the Treaty of Easton in 1758,  the “treaty” officially forced the remaining Lenape to vacate their native lands and relocate westward into territory which is today known as Ohio.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to claim the greater Pascack Valley as their own as part of their colony called “New Netherland.” However, the Dutch lost control of the colony after the “Second Anglo-Dutch War” in 1664 to the British who renamed the colony the “Province of New Jersey.” Dutch settlements were throughout the Pascack Valley with some pre-revolutionary war structures still surviving such as the Wortendyke Barn built circa 1770 located on Pascack Road in Park Ridge.

The Wortendyke Barn Museum
The Wortendyke Barn Museum, a National Register landmark, is all that remains of the original 460-acre Wortendyke family farm. The barn, built circa 1770, is an outstanding example of the architecture referred to as a “New World Dutch Barn”

Interestingly enough, the border between the “Province of New York” and the “Province of New Jersey” (and hence the northern border of the Pascack Valley in what is today Montvale, River Vale and Old Tappan) was disputed and even fought over by early colonists before England’s King George decreed it on September, 1 1773 as is defined today (less than three years before the start of the American Revolutionary War).

The greater Pascack Valley area changed names several times under British rule. Initially the area was part of the township of “New Barbadoes” founded in 1710 (which later evolved today what is Hackensack). The greater Pascack Valley area was then included in “Harrington Township” which was formed by Royal Charter on June 22, 1775. The new township stretched from the Hudson River on the east to the Saddle River in the west, and north to the New York border. It was named after the Haring family, early settlers to the region. The entire Pascack Valley area remained named Harrington Township until 1840.

The American Revolutionary War Years

The American Revolutionary War had a big impact on the Pascack Valley region. General George Washington is reported to have often stayed in the region and, in particular, numerous time at a home known today as “Seven Chimneys” in Washington Township.

The Baylor Massacre Buriel Site Plaque
The Pascack Valley was involved in the Revolutionary War as General George Washington frequented the Valley and the British and Americans fought here.

Besides the British and Americans traversing and skirmishing in the area, one notable war incident known as the “Baylor Massacre” occurred in what is now River Vale. In 1778, four battalions of British infantry launched a surprise attack on about 100 Dragoons (a “light cavalry” unit primarily used for scouting, patrolling, covering missions, and for courier service). The Dragoons were silently attacked with bayonets while they slept in various houses and barns in the area which resulted in at least 69 of the Americans killed, injured or taken prisoner. A county park now marks the site where 6 members of the 3rd Continental Light Dragoons (a mounted regiment of the Continental Army) were were buried in three abandoned tanning vats.

In the late summer of 1780, Continental Army General Lafayette encamped the Continental Army across the area now known as “Soldier Hill” in Oradell. The large encampment was created to partially to monitor British activities and partially as a bluff to invade New York City which was held by the British. This was designed to tie up British resources while most of the remaining war was primarily fought in the southern colonies. George Washington was also concerned about an attack on West Point where Benedict Arnold just gave up command with his defection to the British. After the encampment, the troops headed up to Hartford, Connecticut.

Washington Township is Founded and Area Flourishes with New Railroad

Park Ridge Railroad Station 1910 and 2015
Many of the original train stations built in the 1870’s are still used in the Pascack Valley like this one located in Park Ridge shown in circa 1910 and 2015

Named after George Washington, Washington Township was formed on April 13, 1840. It was ceded from Harrington Township, including all territory from the New York state line to Soldier Hill Road in Oradell. Washington Township originally encompassed more than 30 square miles and included most of what is the Pascack Valley today; however, it was not densely populated. In fact, an 1840 map shows only about a half dozen houses in the area, made up of mostly farmers who settled along Pascack Road running north and south and along Ridgewood Road running east and west.

The railroad had a profound effect on the area known as Washington Township and the ultimate development of the Pascack Valley. Built in the 1860’s, the New Jersey and New York Railroad had completed its rail expansion from Carltstadt, New Jersey all the way to Havestraw, New York. Routing through the relatively level Pascack Valley also provide easy access to water for steam engines from the Pascack Brook. Immediately after the Civil War, the rail line led to economic prosperity in the Pascack Valley when multiple train stations were built every mile or so. Many of the original train station buildings erected in the 1870’s still are in use today throughout the Pascack Valley. The Hillsdale station, built in 1869, served at the railroad’s headquarters with a large rail yard in what is now the Kings supermarket shopping center.

Boroughs Are Established Through the Pascack Valley in the 1890’s

Closeup of Towns in the Greater Pascack Valley
There are now ten towns that make up the greater Pascack Valley in the north central part of Bergen County. Most towns were carved out of what was once a much larger Washington Township.

The last major event that led to the formation of the towns in the greater Pascack Valley actually came out of Trenton. In 1878, the New Jersey legislature passed the “Borough Act of 1878.” This legislature allowed any township (or portion thereof) with a land area of *no more than* four square miles and a population *not exceeding* 5,000, to establish itself as an independent borough. By the late 1890’s, with the prosperity brought by the railroad, the region had enough population to start breaking up Washington Township into “Boroughs.”

In 1894 the boroughs of Westwood, Park Ridge, Woodcliff Lake, Montvale, and Old Tappan were carved out of the original Washington Township. Oradell was also incorporated as a borough in 1894 formed from three separate townships of the day. Four years later, in 1898, River Vale, Emerson, and Hillsdale were formed from a further shrinking Washington Township. The remaining geographical area became Washington Township as we know the borders today.

Of note, the location of the train stations and the legislated limitations of borough size directly led to the size and shapes of the town boarders as they are today. Subsequently, the boroughs along the Pascack Valley rail line are only about a mile tall from north to south (corresponding with the placement of the train stations) but are wider east to west as they each carved out their sections of what was Washington Township.

More History about the Pascack Valley

Each town located in the greater Pascack Valley has an official town website and has town specific history on their respective sites.  For even more history about the Pascack Valley, please visit the website of The Pascack Historical Society which is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization incorporated on October 13, 1942 and promotes and preserves the early history of the Pascack Valley and its peoples.