Where Did All the Streams Go? Hidden waters of Metuchen

Article and photos by William Baumle, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2019 Environmental Communications course

Waterways possess an essential ecological value, providing a wide range of ecosystem services.  Ecosystem services are benefits the natural world provides to humans. For waterways, these benefits are the result of a combination of a waterway’s hydrology, vegetation, fauna, and micro-organisms.  Together, these natural structures and organisms provide beneficial outcomes for people, animals, and other ecosystems.

What is hydrology?
Hydrology is the branch of science
concerned with the properties of the Earth’s water
and especially it’s movement in
relation to land.

Unfortunately, human development has often resulted in waterways being diverted underground to make way for the construction of roads and buildings.  Do you know a “River Road” or “Water Street” near you, but not near water?  It may be that sometime in the past, there was a waterway there that was diverted underground to make way for people.

Hidden waters of Metuchen

Did you know?
The name “Metuchen” first appeared in 1688/1689, and its name was derived from the name of a Native American chief, known as Matouchin or Matochshegan.

The Borough of Metuchen, located within Middlesex County and wholly surrounded by Edison Township, has quite an interesting history of hidden waterways. While burying and/or paving over historic streams and tributaries is not unique, the vast number of waterways which have been covered for the sole purpose of development within the Borough of Metuchen is notable.

Metuchen, 1876
Source: Rutgers MapMaker

Due to development, few waterways or bodies of water exist within the Borough today.  By comparison, a map from 1876 indicates the presence of multiple waterways around modern-day Amboy Avenue and Main Street, with one exiting to a pond located on Lake Avenue.  The map also shows that Metuchen had several notable ponds and lakes, nearly all of which have been filled in or covered.  There were a number of ponds along what we now know as High Street but all those ponds have been buried and now lie beneath rows of houses.  Only Tommy’s Pond remains.

Tommy’s Pond in Metuchen, 1950s
Skating on Tommy’s pond in Metuchen

Today, a number of unnamed streams run through the Borough of Metuchen, which, in addition to the recently manmade waterway which accompanies the Middlesex Greenway, drain into the Raritan Watershed.  Interestingly, Metuchen is distinctive among New Jersey communities in that it is comprised of not even three-square miles and yet drains into three separate sub-watersheds.  Three headwater tributaries which originate in the Borough, drain into Bound Brook.  The southwestern areas of the town drain into the Mill Brook, located within Edison Township. The northeastern areas of the town drain into the South Branch of the Rahway Watershed.

Directly outside of Metuchen lies a 500-year flood zone, which simply means that in any given year, there is a 1/500 chance a significant flood will affect the area. While Metuchen does not have any significant sources of flooding, there are a few minor areas of the floodplain associated with the Dismal Swamp Preserve and a channelized portion of the Middlesex Greenway. Unsurprisingly, the areas indicated as being the greatest risk of flooding are located along historical streams and tributaries, which have been largely filled in. Notably, however, this area of the Borough has not historically regularly flooded – only in rare instances, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Irene (2011) and Hurricane Sandy (2012).


The Changing Landscape of Metuchen, Rutgers Special Collections. Retrieved from: https://mapmaker.rutgers.edu/METUCHEN/oldMetuchen.html

The Metuchen-Edison Historical Society. Retrieved from: http://www.jhalpin.com/metuchen/met-ed.htm

Spies, Stacey E. (2000) Images of America: Metuchen. Mount Pleasant, SC. Arcadia

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

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