n the doldrums of late August 2005,
with freshman year of high school
looming, my friends and I set out on
one last summer adventure: to search
for the mysterious 300 Stone Steps.
Growing up in Morris Plains, one could
not help hearing tales of the steps, which
were said to ascend Watnong Mountain.
Below its 965-foot peak there is forest,
hiking trails, a children’s park, a paved
road and the housing development where
I grew up. Did the steps really exist?
Tucking the cuffs of our jeans into
our socks to ward off ticks, we packed
a portable radio and some granola, and
walked up the road, called Mountain
Way, to one of the hiking trails. In the
dense summer heat, we made our way
up the trail, looking on both sides for
signs of the steps. The mountain did not
give up its secret. We returned on a sec-
ond day. Still, no luck.
On the third day, we had hiked up the
trail less than 100 yards from Mountain
Way when one of my friends, wandering
off to the right, cried out, “Wait! Look at
this!” Camouflaged under dirt and leaves,
she had found the steps. Exhilarated, we
hurried over and began to climb.
The flat granite rocks snaked up the
hillside. Many of the stones were wobbly. We steadied ourselves by grabbing
onto birch saplings growing alongside
the trail. Some of the saplings proved too
whippy to be helpful. Others snapped as
we lunged for them. Vintage beer cans
were scattered in the surrounding woods.
The climb took only about 30 min- P H
Climbing Into the Past
The mystery behind the 300 Stone Steps is
revealed—yet the myths of its origins live on.
By Christina Colizza
utes. The steps ended well
below the peak. Nearby
we could see a water tow-
er, and giant high-tension
lines cut a wide swath
across the hill. Near where the woods
met the cleared area for the power lines
we spotted a junked car.
While we had conquered the steps,
we had not unravelled the mystery of
their origin. People in Morris Plains
have long debated who built the steps
and why. Some say they date back to
the area’s original residents, the Lenni-Lenape. Others credit George Washington’s soldiers. (The summit served as the
location of Beacon 13, a strategic lookout where bonfires were used to signal
Washington’s staff about British troop
movements.) Another theory says patients from nearby Greystone Psychiatric Hospital built the steps as part of a
work-based therapy program.
People in Morris Plains have been
looking for the steps probably for as long
as they have been arguing about who
built them. “I would search for the stones
with a friend, getting lost occasionally,”
says Virginia Dyer Vogt, a Morris County
historian who became a novelist after a
career in advertising. Vogt used the steps
in a key scene in her 2003 murder mystery, The Stone Steps. Her research left
her convinced that the steps were built to
provide access to Beacon 13.
But in 2008, Morris Plains history
buff Peter Owens stumbled upon the ultimate clue. Sifting through Greystone’s
archives, Owens found a frayed construction report indicating that the steps were
built in the 1870s by miners to provide access to Malley’s Quarry on the mountain.
Granite from the quarry was used to build
Greystone Hospital one mile away.
Owens’s discovery is not widely
known in Morris Plains, so people’s
imaginations still roam. But with
Greystone Psychiatric Hospital’s historic Kirkbride Building due to be demolished by year’s end, perhaps we should
start thinking of the stone stairway
as a monument to those who lived and
worked at Greystone.
History is muddled. Files are tossed.
People come and go. But the 300 Stone
Steps remain, an indestructible, if elusive, link to our past. ■
abound as to
who built the