Madison is located on a ridge formed 10,000 years ago by the terminal moraine remains of the Wisconsin Glacier. This ridge provides a natural route from the Short Hills gap in the Watchung Mountains to the higher country north and west of Morristown. Southwest of this ridge lies the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Lenape Indians, one of the oldest eastern tribal groups in this region, known locally as the Lowantica, lived in small villages along rivers and streams. Archaeological evidence of their settlements, discovered in 1966 in the Great Swamp, dated to 7000 B.C.
By the time the first settler of European decent, Barnabas Carter, arrived in Madison in 1715, the Lenape had left. Carter, as had many of Madison’s early settlers, came to Madison by way of Long Island and Elizabethtown. He purportedly set up a milling operation on the Spring Garden Brook and a home nearby the intersection of today’s Cross Street and Main Street, and Hillside Cemetery. Main Street had been a main thoroughfare of the Lenape, the Minisink Trail and later became the Morris Turnpike.
From its earliest beginnings, Madison was known as Bottle Hill. There are two schools of thought as to its name derivation; one referring to the shape of the original land granted to John Budd, a bottle lot, formed by two hills. The other, more plausible, refers to a tavern at the top of a hill at the intersection of Park and Ridgedale avenues, where a tavern with its pictogram sign, a bottle, hung from a pole advertising for the illiterate what was purveyed inside.
While nothing remains of Carter’s home, many of its contemporaries still stand along Ridgedale Avenue in the Bottle Hill National Historic District and several others on Rosedale Avenue, and Kings and Woodland roads.
A meetinghouse for the Presbyterian Church of South Hanover, of which Bottle Hill was then a part, was erected on land acquired from Barnabas Carter in 1747 on the top of the hill in present day Hillside Cemetery. A center of Presbyterianism, Bottle Hill grew around the church.
Although only some 20 families (British, French and African-American) were living in Bottle Hill at the time of the Revolutionary War’s outbreak, many joined the Morris County militia led by their Presbyterian minister Rev. Azariah Horton. The terrain of Bottle Hill created an artery along Kings Road from Morristown, capital of the Revolution, toward Springfield, where the War’s last northern battle was fought in 1780. The Great Swamp to the south and the Watchung Mountains provided natural fortifications for the Patriots.
During the winter of 1777, the War’s largest Continental Army encamped in the Loantaka Valley at the intersection of Woodland Road and Treadwell Avenue. Officers were quartered in Bottle Hill and General George Washington was known to be a guest of the Millers and General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, that of the Sayres, both whose homes still stand on Ridgedale Avenue.
In 1806, Bottle Hill, Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Florham Park joined together as Chatham Township. Bottle Hill remained the village’s unincorporated name nonetheless, until 1834, when by a one-vote margin the name of the town changed from Bottle Hill to Madison, giving tribute to the fourth U.S. President and framer of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison. A temperance movement in the community lobbied that this was a preferable name to one associated with drinking.
The 1830s proved a pivotal time in Madison’s history beyond a name change. In October 1837, Morris and Essex Railroad service began and Madison’s growth and rural image were forever changed. Farms along the “pike” gave way to businesses and today’s historic downtown center.
Wealthy families seeking a cool, fresh-air retreat from New York City began building country estates in Madison—the first being William Gibbons, a Southern millionaire who built Madison’s first mansion on the Morris Turnpike in 1836. This mansion stands today better known as Mead Hall, the centerpiece of the Drew University campus. Other notable families and their mansions appeared along the “pike,” creating a “Millionaires’ Row.”
These estate holders’ demand for daily, fresh flowers to adorn their homes was met modestly with individual greenhouses. Rose growing began in earnest in 1856 when estate owners began to not only produce flowers for themselves, but the commercial market as well. Madison became internationally known for its roses and rose shows, and by 1896, there were 45 growers in business in Madison employing some 200 workers. By 1950, the Watchung Rose Corporation alone had 100,000 plants producing three million roses yearly with over 8,000 roses harvested daily.
A nickname developed for Madison, “The Rose City.” While the last of the greenhouses ceased operation in 1986, the name still sticks today. What does remain of them are the descendants of the many Irish, German and Italian working-class people who were attracted here by jobs offered in the rose industry and on the large estates in the area.
Rapid population growth in the 20th century, especially in the 1920s and following World War II, created an almost fully-developed municipality. In 1996, the railroad, as in 1837, proved a silent developer of Madison with the advent of NJ Transit’s midtown-direct service to New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, and it continues to attract many commuting families and major corporations to the suburbs.
Today, Madison consists of an area of 4.2 square miles, has a population of approximately 16,000 and remains a diverse community, welcoming recent immigrants from Central and South America, Europe and Asia.