The Whippany River

A Stealth River in Morris County

By Ken Branson. All photos, except where noted by Phil Reynolds for the Passaic River Coalition

If ever there was a river that expresses New Jerseyans' attitude toward their state's natural resources, the Whippany River is it. The Whippany rises in privacy in Mendham Township, and ends in obscurity amid a maze of highways in the Meadows of East Hanover, Hanover, and Parsippany, at the confluence of the Passaic, Rockaway, and Whippany Rivers. On the way, it provides us with some pretty views and some good fishing, and slices right through our lives. Mostly we drive, walk, work and live near it, never knowing it's there.

Opening day of fishing season on the Whippany at Speedwell Dam in Morristown

The Private Source

If you look on the Hagstrom map for Morris County, you'll see a small lake ­ labeled simply Lake ­ about a quarter mile south of Route 24 and a few hundred yards west of Corey Lane in Mendham Township. The lake is on private property, and there is no public access to it. But stand on Corey Lane and you can see the Whippany, bubbling down the hill, all of one foot wide, tumbling into a culvert and under the road. It emerges on the other side of Corey Lane in a small, maybe three feet across and a foot deep.

From there, the river slices across a backyard and into some reeds, from which it flows past houses and businesses in Mendham Township. You can't really follow the river now; the best you can do is get back on Route 24 and head east, knowing that the river is flowing roughly alongside the highway to your right.

Eventually, it passes under Route 24, and flows alongside you on the left. When you get to Sunrise Lake, in Lewis Morris Park, you'll notice a stream sluicing down out of the lake and under the highway. That stream joins the Whippany right across the road, and right nearby is a parking lot for the Patriot's Path.

The Patriots Path crosses the river near Mendham Road

The Patriot's Path, created to protect the Whippany River, as well as to provide recreation, snakes through the woods and across highways and streams all over Morris County, and is maintained by the Morris County Parks Commission. It offers easy walking, off-road biking and horseback riding, and is carried across the Whippany here by a wooden footbridge. At this point, the river is about fifteen feet wide and three feet deep, and it looks as pristine as any river in New Jersey can look.

The river bends to the north here, and to catch up with it, you have to drive east on Route 24 to Washington Valley Road. Here, you turn left, and soon find another small parking lot for the Patriots' Path. If you dismount here and follow the path, you climb a small wooded hill, through thick hardwoods, and down the hill to the river. Here the river runs in a northerly direction, and you'll be walking more or less south. If it's early spring, and the woods aren't fully greened up, you may well run into groups of whitetail deer, visible through the trees. The path drops you off on Washington Valley Road, maybe a quarter mile from your car, and you can walk back on pavement. Watch out, though. The road is narrow and winding, but people drive on it as if they were competing in a sports car rally. As you walk back south on Washington Valley Road, you can see the Whippany, now 20 feet wide and running fast, disappearing to the north under a modern, concrete bridge. Washington Valley's Gillespie Hill Tributary -- a state "Category One" trout production stream -- sends the Whippany River its purest water.

Danger Zone

The river flows through Morristown at Center Street.

This is where the river enters its own riparian danger zone. It snakes around the northwest corner of the Town of Morristown, enters Speedwell Lake, and then drains the lake on the lake's eastern end. Here, the river passes through, and drains, some of the most intensely developed watershed in the state. It passes through Morristown, Morris Plains, Hanover and East Hanover Townships, and sloshes through the Troy Meadows before flowing into the Rockaway River, less than a mile upstream from where the Rockaway flows into the Passaic.

"The difficulty with the Whippany is that the contaminants that get into it get flushed out very quickly and end up in the bottom of Troy Meadows and the Passaic River," said Ella Fillipone, former executive administrator of the Passaic River Coalition. "It has a very fast flow. It's not a mountain stream, but it's close."

What the Whippany carries into Troy Meadows are nutrients deposited by human beings and their animals, then treated by any of the four sewage treatment plants along the river. Phosphorus is a particular problem, Fillipone said. "You need nutrients in the water to feed the aquatic critters, but when you have too much, you have...algae growth, and different kinds of algae that choke out everything else. When you see that green scum on a pond in the summer, that's algae and it means you have nutrient overload. You need phosphorus, but you need light and warmth, too."

Troy Meadows

The Troy Meadows are a 3,100-acre wetland in Parsippany-Troy Hills and East Hanover Township, sandwiched between Interstate 80 and Interstate 280, and bisected by Beverwyck Road. Road maps are generally unreliable when following rivers; the rivers disappear under clearly marked highways, never to emerge again. However, it is possible to visit Troy Meadows. Take Interstate 80 to exit 47 (the Route 46 exit). Turn left onto South Beverwyck Road; drive .8 of a mile to Troy Meadow Road and turn left onto it; drive .8 of a mile to the end of the road where there is a parking area.

The Troy Meadows are a legacy of the last glacier to leave its mark on New Jersey. When the last glacier retreated, a large chunk of it broke off and sat where the Troy Meadows are now, forming a big bowl. The glacier melted and formed a large lake, which covered much of Morris, Essex and Passaic counties. When the water level fell, the present Troy Meadows remained ­ a swamp for us to drive around, and for the Whippany River to drop whatever it has picked up since leaving that lake in Mendham Township.

Richard Gulick, a former town planner in Randolph Township (in whose James Andrews Park he insists the Whippany has its ultimate source), is trying to ease the strain on the Whippany. He is the acting conservation director of the Whippany River Watershed Action Committee, which tries to educate people about the effect they and their waste have on the river. "We're working with people in our watershed to try to bring information to them so that those communities can adopt new ordinances relating to pet waste disposal," he says. "We're also concerned about goose management."

Goose management? Yes, as anyone who has ever watched a patch of open ground in New Jersey for very long can testify, we have a permanently resident population of Canada geese that gets larger every year, and whose waste ends up in the region's rivers. Excess fecal pollution from goose droppings and pet waste caused US EPA and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to give the Whippany River the state's first Total Maximum Daily Load -- a 58% reduction in fecal coliform. Folks downstream in Wallington and other communities that drink water provided by the Passaic Valley Water Authority have been warned that their drinking water from the Passaic River contains a cancer-causing chemical that is a by-product of the chlorination process necessitated in part by this fecal pollution.

The Whippany River Watershed Action Committee constructs a vegetated buffer around the perimeter of the the East Lake at Burnham Park in Morristown to filter pollutants (e.g., sediment, goose droppings laden with nutrients and bacteria) from storm water before they enter the lake. They rototilled the existing turf, placed biologs on the shoreline, put up goose fencing to keep them out of the new plantings, put down native wildflower and warm weather grasses seeds suitable for a wetland area, covered the seeds with coconut fiber blankets, pounded lawn staples into the blankets to hold them down, overseeded on top of the blankets, placed straw on top of the seeds, and finished the planting off with a goose netting we created by pounding masonry lathe into the ground and stringing sisal twine around the lathing in a diamond pattern (meant to discourage geese from landing and eating the seeds and new, sprouting plantings).

To bring fecal pollution down, the Whippany River Watershed Action Committee obtained state funds to establish a model goose management project in Morristown's Burnham Park. Hundreds of community volunteers planted a lakeside buffer to discourage geese and filter pollution before it reaches the Whippany River. With permission from federal and state officials, volunteers from the Humane Society of the United States have oiled eggs. The result has been no new goslings in the park for two years.

Asked about one thing he would change about the watershed by snapping his fingers, however, Gulick doesn't talk about geese or phosphorus. He talks about attitudes. "I'd change people's attitudes and their practices," he says. "I'd change their practice dealing with how water, running off on the ground, impacts our watersheds. It might...carry soapsuds into storm drain system. Or water running off the lawn might carry fertilizer into storm water system, which creates a buildup of phosphorus."

Gulick, Fillipone and their friends have a lot of work ahead of them. "We're dealing with hundreds of thousands of families, hundreds of developers and public officials," Gulick says.

There's Lots to See Along the Way

Here's the thing about following a river in New Jersey: It's always disappearing below, behind, or around things. Some of these things are on private property or otherwise not worth bothering with. But some of these things are worth a look. The Whippany leads you to many such possibilities.

For example, the Whippany flows past the George Griswold Frelinghuysen Arboretum. An arboretum is a sort of museum for trees and shrubs, and this one covers 127 acres in Morris and Hanover Townships. There are trails winding through the arboretum, and if you want to be sure of what you're looking at, you can pick up a self-guiding trail booklet at the information desk.

That information desk, by the way, is in the middle of a Gilded Age elegance built as a summer home by George G. Frelinghuysen, a wealthy patent attorney, in 1891. With the nostalgia for things rural that characterized such projects, Frehlinghuysen called his estate Whippany Farm. The mansion and carriage house are in colonial revival style, and the Morris County Parks Commission, which runs the arboretum, has worked hard to keep the warmth and spirit of the original home intact.

The river will also lead you to railroading ­ past and present. The Whippany Railway Museum is on Route 10 in Hanover Township, just east of I-287. You've probably seen it without knowing what it was, catching a glimpse of brightly painted old rail cars as you made the jughandle turn onto Whippany Road.

The museum is home to several vintage pieces of rolling stock, many of them linked to the Pennsylvania anthracite coal industry and the iron mining industry in New Jersey. The railroads were built, in large part, to haul coal and iron from Pennsylvania to New York, and nearly every river and every town in the region played an important part in that traffic. The museum also houses elaborate model railroads, and displays several pieces of ancillary railroad equipment, like signals and a huge water tank.

There is also a real railroad on the Whippany, based in Hanover Township. The Morristown & Erie Railroad is descended from the tiny Whippany River Railroad, which was built in 1895 to link the Erie and Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroads. After a shaky start, the railroad was acquired by new owners near the turn of the century, expanded, and by 1904 had begun regular passenger and freight service between Jersey City and Morristown. The passenger service ended in 1929, but freight service staggered on, despite the Depression, the shift from coal to oil for heating, and inroads of trucking. In 1977, the line went bankrupt. In 1982, still operating, it was acquired by its present owners -- Benjamin J. Friedland, Wesley Weis, Ed Wilczynski and David Mandelbaum ­ who slowly began to restore it to life. Today, the railroad switches tank cars and hauls freight for local businesses.

The River Lives!

The Whippany meets the Rockaway River

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Whippany River (or, for that matter, any river in New Jersey) is not that it's abused, but that it continues to live. Consider fish. Trout, the Whippany certainly has. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection stocks the Whippany at several locations. The best sites, reportedly, are just below the dams at Sunrise Lake and Speedwell Lake, but the river's upper reaches are full of small rapids and quiet pools where trout gather.

The Troy Meadows, where so much of the Whippany's bad news settles in, teems with wildlife, nonetheless. The Troy Meadows' swampy areas are a favorite habitat for wood ducks, for example. In addition, bog turtles, relatively rare in other parts of the state, are common in Troy Meadows. They require swampy land and a slow-moving river moving through.

In its upper reaches, the river flows through hardwood forests. In the Troy Meadows, you can find a naturalist's candy store of tree species: white ash, red ash, swamp white oak, black walnut, red cedar, sweetgum, and many others.

This river, beset as it is, lives.

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Fairview Farm Wildlife Preserve

    Paths of green, fields of gold!

    2121 Larger Cross Road, Bedminster

  • Cross Estate Gardens

    Part of the Morristown National Historic Park, the formal walled garden, 200-foot wisteria-covered pergola, mountain laurel allee and North American perennials garden was designed by local landscape architect Clarence Fowler.

    Old Jockey Hollow Rd. , Bernardsville

  • Whippany Railway Museum

    Dedicated to preserving the heritage and history of the railroads of New Jersey through the restoration, preservation, interpretation and operation of historic railroad equipment and artifacts, the museum is open Sundays, April thru October.

    1 Railroad Plaza, Whippany

  • Millstone Scenic Byway

    The Millstone Scenic Byway includes eight historic districts along the D&R Canal, an oasis of preserved land, outdoor recreation areas in southern Somerset County


  • Denville Detour: Jonathan’s Woods and More!

    Even today, if you needed a natural hideout—a really good one—Jonathan’s Woods could work.



This story was first published: Spring, 2003