Captain James Gray: Ironmaster at Little Falls

From the Bulletin of the Passaic County Historical Society, May 1962,
reprinted in The Historic County, September 2002

This gentleman, prior to the war of the Revolution, was a distinguished man in the Province of New Jersey and one of the industrial pioneers of Passaic County.  But from the early days of the war, he was regarded as one of the county’s infamous citizens; he lost his citizenship as well as his valuable property along the upper Passaic.

Before coming to the Little Falls area, James Gray resided upon a goodly estate, near the Second River (later known as Belleville), “about one mile from the church at Newark.”  A good idea of the extent and nature of Captain Gray’s property may be obtained from a  “For Sale” advertisement which appeared in the New York Gazette, or Weekly Post-Boy on April 18, 1768, which states:

     The pleasantly situated house and a lot of Captain James Gray, at Newark, on the Banks of the Passaic River, opposite the Estate of Capt. Kennedy, at Petersborough2; the House is extremely convenient and comfortable, there is a good Stable, Coach-House, Barn and every other appendage proper for a Gentlemen’s Country Seat, there are 20 Acres of excellent good land adjoining, 6 Acres in Grass, and fit for the Scythe, the whole is now in good Fence; and an Orchard of upwards of 300 Apple-Trees with a well chosen Collection of other Fruit; there is belonging to the Premises, a Dock very convenient and well calculated for Ship-Building particularly; a Ship of 300 Tons Burthen, was not long since launched from it.
The above house commands a fine Prospect of the River Passaic, for a long Distance up and down the same, it overlooks a great part of Captain Kennedy’s Farm, especially his Deer Park, etc….
Enquire of Captain James Gray, at the Little Falls or Isaac Ogden, esq. in Newark.

That James Gray was a man of distinction is further attested by his appointment by Governor William Franklin, in company with Lord Stirling of Basking Ridge, Theunis Dey of Lower Preakness and John Schuyler, one of the proprietors of the copper mines at Second River, as a commission to investigate the activities of Hasenclever and the American Iron Company in order to determine their credit.  This commission made its report to Governor Franklin on July 8, 1768.

Gray came to the Little Falls area before 1763. Mr. Cruikshank relates that the lands lying on the north side of the river at Little Falls were purchased by George Willocks in 1703 from the Council of Proprietors of East Jersey; and in 1733, the Proprietor sold 230 acres of heavily timbered land on the south side of the river, in the vicinity of the Little Falls to Cornelius Board.  And three years later Cornelius Board with Timothy Ward purchased from the Proprietors the bed of the river, extending from the upper reef to the foot of the perpendicular falls.

Cruikshank concludes that James Gray purchased the riverbeds and lands on the south of the river from Board and Ward for the purpose of establishing an iron foundry on the south bank.  He cites a mortgage, registered in Essex County in 1772 in which James Gray mortgages lands granted by the Proprietors to Board in 1733 lying on the south bank of the river Passaic.  Here Gray erected and operated an iron foundry, casting mill and a grist mill (or saw mill) utilizing the waters of the Passaic for power.

In certain months the water was unusually low.  In order to maintain constant power, Gray erected a dam across the Passaic at the head of the falls.  When the river waters rose, they spilled over the low banks along the north side into farm lands lying nearby and in the high-water season, frequently overran the farmlands to the Pompton and other tributaries.  After the flooding of many acres of corn and grasslands for a period of several years thus destroying the crops of the farmers, the owners remonstrated to Mr. Gray and asked him to either remove the dam or at least lower it that they might be spared their annual crop losses.  Personal entreaty and group persuasion made no impression upon Gray.  The farmers formed the opinion that Captain Gray had but little use for the “natives.” He had been granted a Captain’s commission in the British army (prior to the outbreak of the Revolution), was highly regarded as a gentleman of consequence by the Governor, and had resided on an estate for many years.  “When he walked about Little Falls,” says Cruikshank, “he did so as a gentleman in authority.  He felt himself to be in a position, by virtue of his military rank, to put down by force any attempts to damage his property.”

Feeling there was no other course of action, the farmers gathered and tore down the dam that waters of the river might be set free and their farms be saved from more flooding.  To this action, Captain Gray petitioned the legislature for remuneration due him for the damage done to his dam.  As the result of Gray’s petition, the legislature of New Jersey on September 26, 1772, passed an act stating:

And whereas the pulling down of the mill dam erected by Captain James Gray and others on our said Passaic River above and near said Little Falls, and for removing the obstruction of the waters in said river without consent of the owners thereof, may have been unlawful and unjustifiable and the further taking up and removing the rift of rocks in said river about 40 rods above said mill dam, as well as the rift on which the said mill was erected, etc….

This act calls for a full hearing of the parties concerned before an impartial commission.  By the authority of the Governor and the General Assembly, John Chetwood of Elizabethtown, Isaac Pearson of Nottingham and John Schurman of New Brunswick were appointed judges to adjudicate the matter.  This commission met at James Banks’ inn at Newark on July 8, 1772.

The Declaration of Independence had no effect on James Gray for he chose to remain loyal to the British and reported to Sir Henry Clinton at New York for duty in 1777.  He was given the command of a foraging troop of horses.  Now his time had come.  Captain Gray had not forgotten how the inhabitants of the upper Passaic Valley destroyed his property and ruined his business interests and rebuked him for joining His Majesty’s Army.  A time for retaliation and payment had come to Captain James Gray of the British army.

In the village of Little Falls, stone barracks were built for a part of Washington’s army, his headquarters being at Colonel Dey’s at Preakness.  General Lafayette was in command at Great Notch watching the movements of the British army in New York.  The stones of the barracks are still there and the ashes from the campfires are often turned up in the woods around great Notch.  From the heights north of the Notch gap, the British camp could be plainly seen.   Thus, when foraging parties were sent over the Hudson River into New Jersey to pillage the inhabitants in the Newark area and in the valley of the upper Passaic, they could be easily seen by the lookouts.  This averted surprise attacks.  These raiders were frequently defeated and driven back to the Hudson.

The British commander, Sir Henry Clinton, lived on lower Broadway, near the Battery.  According to tradition, he called Colonel Barkley to him and said, “How much longer shall the ‘boy’ (Lafayette) flaunt the rebel flag in our face?”  Colonel Barkley marched with two regiments toward the west, but when he reached Acquackanonk Landing, he found that John Post and his company of militia had destroyed the bridge over the Passaic.  This necessitated the British to follow the river’s east bank for about two miles to a ford.  The encamped for the night on a promontory, known in later years as “Barkley Point.”  After reconnoitering Lafayette’s position in the Great Notch, Barkley and his company returned to New York.

It was well known in the Notch Camp that a ravaging and foraging company led by Captain James Gray was operating in the area of what later became Passaic County and his raids about Acquackanonk were disastrous.  John Post, with his militia, hastened to Pine Brook, Chatham and to whatever place Gray might be found in order to interrupt the activities of the Loyalist and his raiders.

Somewhere between Chatham and Pine Brook says Cruikshank, Post’s militia ambushed Gray and his raiders who had gathered great quantities of plunder.  His method was to commandeer the farmers whose homes and farms he plundered, uses their teams and wagons and drive the plunder to the British camp.  But on this occasion, Gray gathered his men and fled leaving great quantities of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, fowl, household goods, and farm supplies to the patriots.  A guard was placed over the property and the men who had been robbed by the British were summoned to identify their property and to return it to their homes.

Gray’s property at the Little Falls, which he had purchased from Messrs. Board and Ward in 1772, was seized by the state.  And the court of Essex County (the precursor of present Passaic County) on April 26, 1784, ordered its agent, Samuel Hayes, to advertise and sell

……on or near the premises, all of the valuable farm at Little Falls in the County of Essex, being a part of the forfeited estate of James Gray.  The farm contains about 230 acres of land, a great part of which is meadow land, some plough land, with wood land sufficient for fuel and fencing the farm.  There is a saw mill, a large dwelling house, two stories high with four rooms on a floor, and a kitchen at one end also stables and other out houses.  There is also a garden with a variety of grafted fruit, etc.  The farm joins near a mill on the Passaic River, which is a commodious place for building almost any kind of water works, particularly a grist mill and saw mill on a never failing stream of water, which privileges will be also sold with the farm.  The entire sale to begin at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, the 8th of June 1784.

An interesting sidelight on the confiscation of the Gray property by the State of New Jersey is contained in a document in the possession of the Passaic County Historical Society.  This document appears to refute the ownership of the Little Falls property as being owned by one Robert Gray, a minor, and not owned by James Gray and therefore not subject to confiscation.   However, it is apparent that the court never acknowledged the property as belonging to young Robert Gray.

The document states:

Robert Gray (a minor) Sole Heir of James Gray, is proprietor of the Little Falls on the Passaick & his boundary extends to near the Great Falls – this property was by deed of gift transferred to the Above Minor, Robt. Gray, by his uncle of the island of Jamaica in the year 1772 which purchase was made by the said Robert Gray the Elder Sheriff Sale,……the deeds for which are not in the hands of Col. Richd. Dye of Preakness….James Gray is in Montreal.

The mills built and operated by James Gray before 1777, when he actively participated with the British army, passed through several owners.  One of these was Reverend John Duryea.  About the year 1825, the New Jersey and Little Falls Carpet Company purchased the mills where they manufactured carpets until 1842.  This company disposed of their holdings to Robert Beattie & Sons of New York.

The Beatties constructed a wooden building at the site of the Gray mills and they began here to manufacture carpets in 1846.  Within a short time, this building was found to be inadequate for the growing business and the Beattie Company erected a four-story building of brown stone in 1858.  This building was enlarged by the addition of a brick structure in 1878 and Beattie carpets were well known throughout America.

The above article is based upon a manuscript in the files of the Society given by the late Cornelius D. Vreeland of Totowa.  Mr. Vreeland compiled this from A Brief History of Little Falls, N.J., by the Rev. J. C. Cruikshank.