THE MEADOWLANDS BEFORE THE COMMISSION:

THREE CENTURIES OF HUMAN USE AND MODIFICATION OF THE HACKENSACK MEADOWLANDS, 1670-1969.

Stephen Marshall,  Esq., gateur@aol.com

 

            The creation of the HMDC in 1969 occurred after 300 years of recorded human use and modification of the Meadowlands.  These three centuries can be divided into three over-lapping periods characterized by distinctive features: 1) extraction of natural resources; 2) degradation by inputs of sewerage and solid waste; and, 3) development via conversion to upland.  The adjacent Newark Meadows experienced this same pattern somewhat earlier, and were totally developed by the early 1970s.  Human use and modification of both wetlands interacted with two other sets of factors: the prevailing system of political economy, and public attitudes regarding wetlands in general and the Meadowlands in particular.  Modifications of the Hackensack Meadowlands prior to the mid-1900s occurred in a piece-meal and sporadic manner, and were strongly impacted by three causes: water diversion, land transportation facilities, and mosquito control.  The construction of the Morris Canal, and later the water supply systems of Newark and other north Jersey cities, diverted substantial amounts of water from the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, lowering their water table and altering their salinity gradient.  The construction of causeways and bridges (first for 19th Century turnpikes and railroads, later automotive highways) across the Meadows retarded the outflow of fresh surface water and the inflow of tidal water.  Construction of networks of drainage ditches for mosquito control also altered the wetland.  Initial government proposals for large-scale development of the Newark and Hackensack Meadowlands in the 1890s proposed diking and drainage technologies similar to those used in Holland and locations along the New Jersey shore, whereby the reclaimed land would remain lower than the high tide level.  Most 20th Century development, however, used more expensive dredging and filling technologies.  These transformed portions of the wetland into permanent upland, by raising the reclaimed land's elevation several feet above the high tide level.  The southern tip of the Hackensack Meadows, located between the mouths of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, was permanently elevated and excluded from the jurisdiction of the HMDC.