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The Historic Sand Pit in Basking Ridge, New Jersey

The lore of Basking Ridge’s Sand Pit – The History

NOTE:

STILL LOOKING FOR ANY PHOTOS!!!! As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our community. We will continue to expand this piece as information becomes available. The story is expanding as we learn more about the family.

Mr. Local History Project

It’s been talked about over the years in hushed circles down at Brush’s deli. It’s been talked about as a racing playground, a car junkyard, and a playground for kids over the decades. Now it’s time to tell what happened to what might just be a geological remnant of the ice age, or simply a car dumping ground for debaucherious youths. While the spot was known as “the sand pit”, the destination was actually what we’re calling “Sand Pit Hill.”

A geological phenomenon – The sand pit has been referenced as a silt remnant from the Passaic glacier pushing south during the ice age. Many would think this is Bernardsville, but it’s actually still the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township.

The Mr. Local History Project is actively searching for stories and the history of what has become known as the “sand pit” in Basking Ridge. If you know anything, or remember it, please get in touch with us. Or at least post a comment. Let’s see where this takes us.

Sand Pit Hill

The area we’re talking about was up behind what is now Bellgrove Court, a development in the north west corner of the Basking Ridge section of Bernards Township. French for grand grove, the development was named for the area feature known for its beautiful wooded grove of trees and shrubs. If it were up to us, we would have recommended it be called Sand Pit Drive! Now the area to over a dozen million dollar 3,000 sq. ft homes each on a 1/2 acre, this place was once the playground for thrill seekers, dirt bikers, BMXers and car joy riders.

Sand Pit Origins – The Ice Age

Generally speaking, if you see a sandpit it’s a good bet there may have been a giant pool of melted glacier water in that spot tens of thousands of years ago. Lake Passaic is the name given by Professor Cook in 1880 to an extinct glacial lake supposed to have existed in northern New Jersey during the last glacial epoch (ice age). That glacial lake ran from the rocks of Buck Garden over to the Great Swamp and then up to Parsippany, New Jersey. The remnants of this glacial phenomenon is all around us as the Passaic river and the Watchung Mountains are also remnants from the same period. But it was these sand pits that sprinkled New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire and other states as the silt was pushed southward by these glaciers.

Read more about the history of sand pits due to the evaporation of Lake Passaic – Click Here
Also check out the New Jersey Geology report.
1893 report of the New Jersey State Geologist

20th Century

Fast forward from the ice age to the early 1900s when there was some action on the hill. Bernards Township was expanding and Bernardsville wanted to separate and start its own official borough. As with any community growth, discussions focused on two infrastructure staples; schools and cemeteries. With the strategic location of the sand pit situated between Bernardsville and Basking Ridge, there were discussions in the early 1900s to develop a school on the property. There was almost 10 acres to play with and the roads were already nearby. As objections were raised, the school project got bogged down in the details and never happened.

So far, this has been the only map where the famed “Sand Pit Hill” has been identified in the early 1900s.
Look at Conkling Street before 287 cut it forever. Source: John Charles Smith.

While the sand pit remained undeveloped, population growth continued in the two towns. You had the 1872 railroad built that cut right next to the sand pit, and road development began around as well. Nearby harness racing was held on the Boulevard in front of the pit in 1907, and yes even the Klan found time to use the height of the pit in 1923.

1923 – The Sand Pit in the News – Bernardsville News
Arial view of the Basking Ridge sand pit area c.1930. Source: Lee

In the late 1930s, with the sand pit sitting idle there came an idea to expand either the St. Bernards cemetery or the nearby Evergreen cemetery. A group called Ridgeland Cemetery Association sought Bernards Township approval to convert the area to a cemetery. After back and forth in 1939, the board approved the cemetery permit. But it didn’t end there. Local residents took Ridgeland Cemetery all the way to the New Jersey state supreme court to block the effort. While the residents lost that case, for whatever reason the Ridgeland cemetery was never built.

It wasn’t until the 1950s until the sand pit hill area change forever. It was President Eisenhower who signed the federal highway act and US Route 287 became a reality. The highway cut nearby Washington Street from Washington Avenue and obliterated Conkling Avenue from North Finley to Mount Airy Road. The highway, which was actually bulldozed almost twenty feet below the current street level, there was no doubt that the area was changing. Now the sand pit had four distinct boundaries; the railroad to the north, Route 287 to the east, Washington Ave to the South and St. Bernards Cemetery to the west.

Daredevils and Car Racers

From the 60s to the 90s the sand pit hill area became the unofficial playground for the area’s youth. Bike trails, car racing, bonfires, and youth gatherings were all part of the sand pit culture during the period. As you can see from the comments below, kids that grew up in the two towns had great admiration and great memories of their time at the sand pit. And the parents didn’t enjoy the unsupervised play area.

Car and bike trails, fire pits, dirt jumps and walking trails from the railroad up the back of the hill were all part of the sand pit hill’s life until the developer came knocking in the late 1990s. Photo is from another sand pit in New Hampshire.
Plenty of stories circulated that the sand pit became known as an unofficial junk yard for abandoned cars that young joyriders didn’t want found.

We used to go to the sand pit to visit with men who rode the tracks. They often slept there and had a fire for cooking. They told us stories. Of course, we never told our parents because it was forbidden territory.

Judith Pasnic – Basking Ridge

Fast Forward to 2022 – Sand Pit Hill Today

Here’s Sand Pit Hill today. Just a bunch of houses with lots of memories. While each home is on about a 1/2 acre lot, there still is a full 10 acres on the map behind the homes and in front of the railroad.

Local Memories

Anything to add? Share your story by posting your comment below:

We used to bring cars up to the sandpit off Washington Ave, that were on their last legs, and run them around the track at the top, till they died, and then leave them there. Before they developed it there were probably 20-30 junks up there. If you needed a part that was the first place to go. The rumor was there were even some stolen cars up there.

Jimmy Vilade

In the late 80’s my boys and their cousins from Bridgewater used to ride their bikes over there and have a blast on the trails! They referred to the place as “the sand pits”.

Mona Shaw

Way back when, they cut through the sand pits “mountain” to build 287, that winter we snow winged down the hill, from the top, down to the bottom of where the road bed was. It was an incredible angle and a long ride. The speed was beyond belief and extremely dangerous. It really is something of a miracle nobody was killed. But, “what a ride!” When we were kids we used to pull the radios out of those old rusted junkers to see if we could get them to work. They had tubes in them.

Ed Trowbridge

If you walked the tracks toward Bernardsville there was a path on the left that went up the hill and led to the sand pit, We were too young to drive and/or deposit any beaters up there. We did come up with a couple of grand plans to get one running.

Michael Allen

Used to ride bikes there. Everyone did.

Andrew Fowler

We lived up the street, and by the late 80s, early 90s, I don’t remember any junked cars. But there were extensive BMX bike trails and a few fire pits. It was definitely a cool place to hang out for teenagers.

Caroline Ruth Weaver

Other Sand Pits from around New Jersey

Live like the kids did on the Basking Ridge sand pit hill. It may be gone, but it sure looked like fun.

Another Jersey sand pit still in use today in Stafford and Jackson, New Jersey. Now just go back in time and here’s what you had in Basking Ridge.
Another New Jersey Sand Pit similar to what was in Basking Ridge, New Jersey
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9 thoughts on “The Historic Sand Pit in Basking Ridge, New Jersey”

  1. Spent so many days up there on my bicycle. The place was unreal. Fueled my passion for cycling and ended up making a career out of racing mountain bikes, in a VERY large part,due to the Sand Pit.

  2. Willie Dade

    Many old junk cars rusting away on the hill. Our access was from Washington Av. After 287 was done we would walk to the top of the embankment that was built for the highway and sit there enjoying the view of the Great Swamp and the Watchung Mts. We could watch the commercial jets from
    Newark Airport just after they took off until they flew over Basking Ridge. Plus once in a while watch a biplane doing aerobatics over the swamp.

  3. John Raue

    Grew up on North Finley right across from the ‘sand pits’ as we called it. I would walk up the hill right across from my house. A group of us kids would meet up to play paint ball on the weekends in the summer in the late 90’s. Also ride bikes on the trails and in the green acres property on the other end of Conkling St too. Fun times.

  4. Carol Tiger Todd
    My girlfriend Donna, had a boyfriend that lived very close by. We snuck out and met at the “Sand Pit”, where his Dad caught us at 2:00 in the morning! Don’t think that makes history but it sure was a memory!!!!

  5. Like Lars said, the “Sand Pits” as they were called in the early 80’s were epic! I remember walking our BMX bikes up the main trail and moving out of the way when we heard the older kids flying up on their dirt bikes. Once you got close to the top there was an awesome area what we called ” the U jump” that we would ride back and forth all day long. Not sure how deep it was but if my teenage mind serves me correctly it was like 15-20 feet deep. Then when we all got a little older and bought dirt bikes that could handle the “Hill Climb” we all worked our skills on that. You had to get a running start next to the tracks just to keep traction and make the climb. The older kids with more powerful dirt bikes would fly up this and hit the strategically grown tree root that would at as a lip of the jump and catapult them very high in the air! Very fond memories of the Sand Pits!

  6. I am so happy someone finally made an article about the “Sand Pits!” MAN does this bring back memories! The climb up to them from Washington (and having to move over for dirt bikes), The “U” jump and log…The place was basically like a giant figure “8” with two 15-20 ft deep half pipes with “tabletops” so you could just fly up and onto/over one, make a loop around some trees and dive down into the second pipe, rinse and repeat. I had my first kiss at the Pits in 7th grade! Wrote a girl I liked a note and passed it to her in class (remember passing notes?!) at William Annin (which my brother and I rode to school from Manchester Drive most days, because we wanted to hit the Pits as soon as dismissal bell rang out) and set up the whole romantic gesture with her. When the bell ring, we both biked over to the sand pits and my nerves were tested with every step up the hill to the jumps. We kissed, and it was a moment forever etched in my mind. A few seconds later I thought I heard paintball guns going off, and went to investigate…or maybe I just used that as an excuse to congratulate and compose myself LOL. The Sand Pits was the type of place that kids just knew about, experienced and closely guarded. It was the type of place we need more of in today’s world of overdevelopment. It was our version of The Sandlot.

  7. Ed Trowbridge
    Way back when, they cut through the sand pits “mountain” to build 287, that winter we snow winged down the hill, from the top, down to the bottom of where the road bed was. It was an incredible angle and a long ride.
    The speed was beyond belief and extremely dangerous. It really is something of a miracle nobody was killed.
    But, “what a ride!”

  8. Michael Allen
    If you walked the tracks toward Bernardsville there was a path on the left that went up the hill and led to the sand pit, We were too young to drive and/or deposit any beaters up there. We did come up with a couple of grand plans to get one running.

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