BEFORE THE DAM
BY HUGH M. CAROLA
Before the dam, the Hackensack River flowed fresh almost to the bay. The saltwater came no further north than two miles up past Kearny Point, kept back by the river's steady current. It was there that the great cedar swamps began and spread northward. Called Achkinkeshacky by the Lenni Lenape, the river and its watershed lands gave them all the resources that they needed.
The Europeans that settled there found it much as the Lenape did; with waters full of fish, forests full of game and a navigable waterway that allowed the settlers to move easily between the new settlements on the harbor to the new farms upriver. As time went on, nearly all the forests were given over to farms, which were in turn given over to the towns and industries that followed. Although the cedars are long gone, you can still "see" some of them – as the wooden water towers that sit atop Manhattan apartment buildings.
By 1921, the watershed bore little resemblance to the place the Lenape knew. The river's strength was sapped by the new dam that impounded virtually all of its flow. Salt water intruded far inland, adversely affecting plant communities that had existed there for 20,000 years. Fisheries collapsed. Instead of being used for its natural resources, the watershed began being used as a place to dump the refuse of the Industrial Age. It seemed as though the river was dying. But it wasn't. It was birthing the Meadowlands.
As nature replaced the cedars with reeds and the fresh water with brackish water, the watershed below the dam began its evolution into a tidal estuary, offering habitat to creatures that it had never supported before – crabs, terrapins, bluefish and more. One by one the dumps and the factories closed. Birds returned. Perhaps the greatest evolution has been the way that people view this "accidental salt marsh." While threats new and old remain, we've come nearly full circle in the Meadowlands and we've rediscovered its life.
The Lenape and the cedars may be all but disappeared, but fortunately for us all, the river remains.