The Somerset Hills in northern Somerset County is a quiet, majestic area that includes Bedminster, Bernards Township, Bernardsville, Far Hills, Peapack and Gladstone. Finding history is quite easy as the area played a prominent role during the Revolutionary War, serving as what historians call the “cockpit of the American Revolution.” Today, however, we’re on a new history trail in the Somerset Hills.
While Basking Ridge and Bedminster formed their communities quietly as immigrants migrated from Scotland and Amsterdam in the 1600s, it remained a quiet place until the railroad brought the masses to the area in the 1870s. Bernardsville quickly became known as the place for the rich and famous, rivaling Lenox, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island.
Known prominently in the area with the Basking Ridge church that bears his name, Bishop Edmund Janes’ story actually began in Bernardsville in the 1850s when the mountain area was known as Mine Mount. In addition to preaching, Janes was also a mining prospector in search of iron ore. Janes decided to build his home and began prospecting along the Mine Brook just off today’s Mendham Road. Janes is often referred to as the “Father of the Bernardsville Mountain” as he was one of the first to colonize what became known as the “Mountain Colony” during the gilded age of the late 1800s.
As Bishop Janes’ religious obligations took priority in nearby Basking Ridge, he sold his home on the mountain in 1870 to Francis Oliver, the founder of Brooks Brothers clothiers. Francis Oliver turned his home into an Airbnb-like summer boarding house where wealthy New Yorkers would come via the 5 o’clock train—later coined the “Millionaire’s Express”—to enjoy the cooler summer atmosphere and country living. Some of his early guests included banker George Ingraham Seney and renowned architect George Post, who would later build grand estates nearby. Seney liked the area so much, that he made Francis Oliver a generous offer and purchased Oliver’s guest house.
As president of the Metropolitan Bank in New York City, Seney financed railroads. Bernardsville grew quickly starting in 1870 when the Bernardsville train station opened. A little-known fact is the wealthy often purchased large tracts of land around the last train destination. This is why Bernardsville started growing in 1870 and the Peapack/Gladstone area expanded in the 1890s.
Seney redesigned the former Janes/Oliver estate, constructing the glorious Somerset Inn—one of the grandest hotels on the eastern seaboard. At the turn of the century, the Inn served as the unofficial tourist bureau for New Jersey as the wealthy came to Bernardsville—the perfect destination without having to travel to Newport, Rhode Island, or the Hamptons.
With plenty of space for equestrian activities and golf, the Bernardsville mountain and the Somerset Inn quickly became a favorite as a natural fit for activities with ties to those from nearby Llewelyn Park (Oranges). The Essex Hunt Club had recently been purchased by Charles Pfizer, who relocated the club adjacent to the Inn. Seney was also instrumental in the creation of the nearby Somerset Hills Country Club and the equestrian Somerset Hills Bridal Path Association.
Then, sadly on May 6, 1908, at about 1:30 a.m., the Somerset Inn burnt to the ground. It was never rebuilt. The only remnants today are the stone pillars along Mendham Road. Now you know a little more about the grand history of the Somerset Hills.
For additional information and research on the Somerset Inn, visit www.mrlocalhistory.org and search for “Somerset Inn.”
Learn more about Somerset County’s unique history during the “Journey Through the Past” weekend on October 8 and 9. See participating sites at co.somerset.nj.us/government/public-works/cultural-heritage/weekend-journey.
Brooks Betz is the founder and researcher for the Mr. Local History Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting local history with a social twist. Visit them online at www.mrlocalhistory.org. Betz also serves as the Bernards Township historian.