Lost to merger, a town vanished Tiny Pahaquarry Township gave up in 1997.

Posted: October 23, 2006

When Pahaquarry Township and its seven residents merged into adjacent Hardwick nearly a decade ago, it had nothing to do with consolidating services to save money.

"They simply had too few people to keep it going," said Wickliffe Mott, president of the Hardwick Historical Society. "It happened because it needed to happen. It was inevitable."

On June 30, 1997 - after 172 years of existence, the Warren County municipality ceased to exist because it lacked the ability to operate a government.

For three years, one of the seats on the three-person Township Committee had been vacant after the longtime illness and death of one member. Four of the residents - a federal park ranger and his family - were prohibited from holding office.

Pahaquarry, a Lenni-Lenape word that means "the place between the mountains beside the waters," rested between the Delaware River and the Kittatinny Ridge.

"It was bare-bones government," said Wayne Valentine, 57, who spent 12 years as a resident ranger with the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. "They plowed the roads and that was about it."

Municipalities have been sharing services for decades, but the Pahaquarry/Hardwick merger was the only one in New Jersey since 1952, when Vineland and Landis came together.

As politicians in Trenton consider whether taxes could be lowered by consolidating some of the state's 566 municipalities, the Pahaquarry/Hardwick unification is frequently mentioned as the last time two towns merged. But nobody is looking to it for guidance on future mergers.

"It is an unfair comparison to almost any other situation," Mott said. "The merger was vastly different than anything being discussed today."

For one, the land in Pahaquarry was owned entirely by the state and federal governments as part of Worthington State Forest and the Delaware Water Gap.

It had not been seen as a vibrant community for decades, since the federal government began buying land and tearing down homes to make way for a dam on the Delaware River.

Its population was always small. In 1950, it had just 67 residents. A popular misconception is that the proposed dam, six miles upstream at Tocks Island, was in response to a 1955 flood that killed nearly 100 people along the river.

But the idea began in the 1930s as a means of supplying water and providing hydroelectricity.

The project called for a 40-mile-long lake with depths of up to 140 feet. The dam would have been the largest on this side of the Mississippi River and provided a 250-billion-gallon reservoir.

It also would have eliminated Pahaquarry, and most of its 20 square miles.

There was massive opposition to the project, which was supposed to begin in 1967 and become fully operational by 1975. Construction was delayed by cost overruns and budget cuts because of the Vietnam War.

The project became entangled in new laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, which was signed by President Richard M. Nixon in 1970. It lost steam and funding and was finally deauthorized by Congress in 1992.

But the Delaware Water Gap remained, having been established in 1965 to manage the lands that would have surrounded the reservoir.

"The Tocks Island project would have permanently flooded Pahaquarry," said former Hardwick Mayor George Kopp, who helped engineer the merger. "Even though it was shelved, it still managed to wipe out the whole town."

Very little remains of the former municipality's spirit.

The small, white schoolhouse where the committee met still stands, but it's not in use. Pahaquarry's last elected officials, Mayor Jean Zipser and Committeeman Harold Van Campen, have since died.

Visitors to the park today do not get a sense of Pahaquarry, but can see what earlier life was like in its northern end by visiting the historic village of Millbrook, which housed about 100 people at the start of the 20th century.

Hardwick officials did not view the absorption of its neighbor as a significant event, Kopp said.

"It didn't mean any great thing to us other than we doubled our size," he said. "It was all parkland so we couldn't do anything with it anyway."

But the elimination of Pahaquarry greatly troubled Zipser, who was killed earlier this year in a car crash.

"I abhor was has happened to my community, Pahaquarry Township, which was forced out of existence," Zipser wrote in a 2002 National Park Service publication. "I have struggled to turn my bitterness and anger into something positive."

Contact staff writer Joel Bewley at 609-261-0900 or jbewley@phillynews.com.

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