The History of Chester

The Early Days

The colorful roots of Historic Chester, NJ were planted some 200 years ago, when its earliest settlers followed the Indian trails that weave through the dense forests of New Jersey. Two of these trails crossed in an area called “Alamatunk” by the Minisink Indians, which meant “black earth bottom” for Black River. As the pioneers nestled into the rolling hills of Morris County, they dubbed their new territory “Black River.”

Eventually, “Black River” was replaced by “Chester,” as Chester, England was the ancestral home of many of Black River’s residents. On January 29, 1779, the residents were granted their request to create their own township, and the Township of Chester was born.

During the late 1700s, Chester began to emerge as a hub of business activity, thanks to the two major roads that brought in daily droves of tired, hungry travelers. By 1806, the Washington Turnpike (Route 24) was chartered, sparking rapid development in Chester’s center. Taverns, inns, blacksmith shops and other businesses soon cropped up throughout the town. The apple orchards that graced the Chester landscape—many of which are still active today—gave rise to several distilleries that specialized in applejack and apple brandy.

Chester’s Industrial Revolution

While agriculture and small business were the backbone of Chester, it didn’t take long for residents to realize the town’s industrial potential. The fast-moving streams that flowed through the region made Chester a prime setting for water-powered grist and saw mills. These streams also served as power sources for the early charcoal-burning forges and furnaces, which were used to process the iron ore taken from local mines.

When the Civil War inflated the demand for iron, Chester’s mines flourished. By the late 1800s, the township had 28 active mines, six of which were located on Main Street alone. However, once larger and richer iron ore deposits were discovered in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range, Chester’s iron industry quickly waned, and by the 1890s, all of its mines were shut down.

Back to Basics

With the demise of mining, Chester returned to farming—sheep, dairy and fruits and vegetables—as its primary livelihood. The town also welcomed some rather uncommon industries, including Sturzenegger’s Swiss Embroidery Factory and the Davidson Handkerchief Factory.

As the nineteenth century unfolded, Chester became a popular haven for New Yorkers and other visitors who sought respite from the frenzied pace of the city. At the time, Chester was about a small town with a bustling Main Street that was the heart and soul of the community. Main Street was where residents came to shop, worship, learn, and work. Local taverns not only served as watering holes; they were destinations where people gathered to exchange the latest news and town gossip. Many of the original buildings and country roads still remain around Main Street, helping to preserve the rustic, timeworn beauty that is the very essence of the town.

Modern-Day Chester

In the 1970s, Chester underwent an exciting evolution with the establishment of a major retail shopping area, which featured unique antique and collectible shops. Throughout the 1990s, this retail ‘Antique Mecca’ was expanded to offer residents and visitors an even greater selection of specialty merchandise. Today, you’ll find over 80 shops in Historic Chester, selling everything from one-of-a-kind gifts, mouthwatering confections and stunning jewelry to trendy clothing and accessories. And let’s not forget the town’s vast selection of eateries that offer something to please every palate.

Although Chester is in many ways a contemporary suburban town, its streets and storefronts still exude a quiet country ‘home town’ charm that’s reminiscent of the past. In fact, you might say Chester offers the “best of both worlds” – a rich and fascinating historical heritage combined with the comforts and innovations of the modern world!