Everything happens for a reason – my first attempt to find the town of Changewater was no exception. If you missed last month’s article on Grand Touring, you should be told that the Changewater post office was one of my selected destinations in the 2005 H2O Grand Tour.
The first time I tried to find Changewater I used the U.S. Postal Service web site to locate the Changewater post office. One summer Sunday after a Spokes-Women club meeting, Judy led a small group on a ride to the Long Valley Brewing Company in – where else – Long Valley. She had a nice but fairly brief route chosen that would have us arriving a bit too early for lunch, so she offered to detour to any neighboring town that would satisfy my H2O Grand Tour requirements. I showed her on a map where I thought the Changewater post office was located and what roads should take us there. We set out and enjoyed a nice ride on some back roads that eventually took us into Morris County and then Hunterdon County. When we traveled down the road where the post office should have been according to the maps, the post office was nowhere to be found. We stopped to look at a map and regroup, and everyone agreed that while we hadn’t found the post office we certainly discovered a terrific new back road to ride – a narrow, hilly one that snaked through a dense evergreen forest. Had I not seen the maps and ridden there myself, I would have sworn that we couldn’t possibly still be in the state of New Jersey.
As with all good Grand Tour plans this one was made to be changed. We decided to swing down another road and head back to our original destination – if we saw the post office we would stop, and if not, well, those are the breaks. We didn’t find it, but fortunately everyone enjoyed the great little back road we had ridden.
Now for the reason I couldn’t find Changewater the first time: I needed to phone the post office and ask them for directions (you’ll see why shortly). That Monday I called the post office from my workplace. I had the Google map program (maps.google.com) up showing the general area of Changewater and I was displaying the view that shows a hybrid of a satellite image and map with street names when I called. I spoke with a very charming lady who was directing me down the streets I would need to travel to reach the post office. As I followed her direction on the map/satellite photo, I spotted the post office building from her directions and shouted “I SEE you!” Of course I explained that I was looking at a satellite image, so I hope she didn’t think I was too strange. I also explained to her my reasons for wanting to come and take a photo of the post office sign, and how the whole H2O Grand Tour worked. She responded by saying “Well, this is a very historic area, too, you know.” I asked her for details, which she was quite willing to supply.
It turns out that the Village of Changewater, while a bucolic little place, has a quite gruesome bit of history. It was the location of the famed Castner murders of 1843. On the night of May first, John Castner, his wife, their three-year-old daughter, and Mrs. Castner’s father were all murdered – bludgeoned to death in an apparent robbery. A farm hand who lived in the house was also beaten severely but survived. Several people including two of the father-in-law’s sons were tried for the crime at the Warren County courthouse. The trial was so sensational that the Newark Morning Post sent a reporter there to cover it. As he finished each day’s report on the trial it was sent by pony express back to Newark, some 60 miles away. A fresh pony would be waiting in Morristown for the rider to complete the journey. A local author, Ruth Trask Farrow, wrote about the murders in a book entitled Murder Along the Musconetcong: A Tale of Jersey Justice. Years later it was widely believed that the two men who were convicted and hanged for the murders could not have been the perpetrators. Nonetheless, the executed men could not be buried in a graveyard because of their heinous crime. Instead they were buried at a nearby crossroads. It was believed that by doing this their souls would be condemned to wander the earth forever, never finding peace.
You see, had we found Changewater on the first attempt, I never would have known why the house across the street from the post office gave me such an uncomfortable feeling – it was in fact the Castner house, where the quadruple murder took place. Let me tell you about the day I visited Changewater and several other H2O Grand Tour destinations.
Last summer I had been having fun finding my Grand Tour sites, but my husband didn’t always enjoy the rides as much as I did. Let’s face it – some of the destinations were in fairly urban areas and not terribly scenic. My work and personal schedule had been pretty hectic, and I needed to go out for a long ride. So I decided to take a day off work and ride alone. I mapped out an ambitious six H2O Grand Tour destinations and set out on a nice August weekday morning after the rush hour traffic had subsided.
My first destination was to be the furthest – Stillwater Township in Sussex County. I would then work my way back toward home through the other five destinations. The first part of the journey was slab – Garden State Parkway to I-280 to I-80, then north on Route 206, then onto county and local roads. As I turned onto the first county road I felt myself relax somewhat. It was a beautiful sunny day, not very hot or humid, and my Joe Rocket mesh jacket kept me warm enough but not too toasty. As I progressed north and west through Andover Township, Fredon Township and into Stillwater Township the scenery grew ever more beautiful. The terrain became hillier and the trees both deciduous and evergreen towered taller. I did not find a post office in Stillwater Township (at least not with the name of Stillwater), but I did find the Stillwater volunteer fire company so I stopped there. I paused long enough to call home and assure Mom that I had reached my first destination safely and told her that I would be home late in the afternoon. I snapped a picture and had a drink of water, all the while glancing over my shoulder to check for the 700 pound black bear that had been rumored to be spotted in the township. I didn’t see him, but I had my first (and furthest) destination of the day completed. Next stop: Changewater. I was certain I could find it now that I had actually seen the post office in a satellite photo.
I left Stillwater Township and headed south into Warren County. This leg of the trip took me through Hackettstown where I stopped for a quick lunch consisting of an Atkin’s meal bar and a diet Coke from McDonald’s which I enjoyed in their parking lot perched on my bike. Not the greatest lunch, but quick and cheap.
Next I headed south through some very tiny and very old towns: Beattystown, Stephensburg, Penwell. Beautiful old buildings were built very close to the street, and large shade trees provided some relief from the summer sun. I finally approached Changewater and verified how we had missed Changewater on the first try: every mapping software package that I used to try and pinpoint the post office (including the one on the U.S. Postal Service’s web site) showed it on the wrong (east) side of the Musconetcong River. Aha!
I pulled into the parking lot of the small post office just under the sign and got off the bike. As I did I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – just my imagination, I’m sure, but I turned around to see what was obviously a very old house – very well kept up with fresh paint and a tidy garden. The windows were open to take advantage of any summer breezes and a small child played in the yard. Yes, it was the Castner house, as I would verify later. I was looking at the part of the house that had been added much later, but I could still make out the original portion of the house in the background. I took a picture with the bike, the entry placard and the post office sign then went inside to try and find the lady I had spoken with on the phone.
As I went inside I saw that the single window was closed for lunch for a few more minutes. However, once the lady inside saw me she opened up, assuring me that I was not intruding on her lunch hour. I asked if she was the lady I spoke to on the phone, and it turned out she was not – this lady was the postmaster. I explained to her the purpose of my trip – that I needed a picture of the post office sign, and that I wanted to verify whether the house that had creeped me out was in fact the Castner house. She verified that it was and gave me some newspaper clippings (recent ones that detailed the history) to look through while she took care of phone calls and one or two customers. When I handed the articles back to her I asked if she thought anyone would mind if I took a picture of the house itself. She told me that people came by all the time to see the house and photograph it, and she was sure they wouldn’t mind. I thanked her for her time and valuable information, then went outside and photographed the Castner house – from across the street, thank you very much. I also didn’t want to invade the current residents’ privacy. Once again I had that uncomfortable feeling and decided it was time to leave. Next stop: Bridgewater.
The next several stops took me out of the very scenic and very historic areas and back to reality. These four stops were fairly near my place of work so I had been to them on other occasions. That did not mean I knew where the post offices were, so I was glad I had done my homework with local maps and mapping software, as imperfect as they may be.
I crossed the Musconetcong River and headed south to Route 31. This took me to Clinton where I picked up Route 22 and headed east toward Bridgewater. I found the post office – a very busy one, by the way – and fortunately found a place to park within view of the post office sign. I asked a stranger to hold my entry placard so I could get the right angle to fit the post office sign, a bit of the bike and the placard in the same picture. Most folks I’ve met while participating in Grand Tours are curious about what I’m doing and are more than happy to hold a sign or sometimes even pose for a picture.
The next three destinations were taken care of in short order: South Bound Brook, Bound Brook and Green Brook. However, I could not find the Green Brook post office and settled for a sign next to a dangerously narrow shoulder. After that I headed home to beat the afternoon rush hour traffic. got home a bit tired but happy, having
completed all six Grand Tour destinations I had planned, logging about four and a half hours in the saddle (not counting stops) and covering about 225 miles, much of it through some beautiful and historic countryside.
Wait a minute – I couldn’t find the Green Brook post office? Who knows, perhaps there’s another story there!
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