Richard Swain - The Summit Beacon Hill Cannon Master
by John F. Kieser
Early on the morning of June 6, 1780, there was an incredible explosion originating near the wagon trail that ultimately became Morris Turnpike/Rte 124, in Summit. The site of the explosion is currently on the property at 226 Hobart Ave., in Summit. The explosion came from the “Old Sow” cannon, fired by the cannon master, Richard Swain, a member of the New Jersey Militia. It was fired to alert George Washington’s Continental soldiers, bivouacked at Jockey Hollow, in Morristown, that New Jersey was being invaded by about 6,000 British and Hessian troops.
Richard Swain, the first Revolutionary War soldier to be honored (in May 2019) by Summit Hometown Heroes, was a member of the local Essex militia and responsible for firing the Old Sow in the event of an invasion when the local militia and/or Continental troops were needed. Richard Swain owned the farm where the Old Sow was located on what was ultimately to become Hobart Avenue, the property of the Beacon Hill Club, the Reeves-Reed Arboretum, and the private residence at 226 Hobart Ave. A year earlier, in 1779, Richard’s cannon partner, John Pike, was killed when the Old Sow cannon misfired while warning of a British raid seeking Richard Livingston, the Governor of New Jersey. Richard lost his thumb in this incident.
On June 6, 1780, the cannon’s warning was also issued to alert the local militia troops in the area, from Elizabethtown to Morristown, of the invasion. The invaders from New York City had just landed in Elizabethtown, on the waterfront (a place just south of where Newark Airport is today). The British troops and Hessians planned to invade Connecticut Farms (now Union) and Springfield, then march down what is today the Morris Turnpike/Rte 124 through the Hobart Gap in the Watchung Mountains, between what is now Summit and Short Hills, ultimately to attack Washington and his troops at Jockey Hollow, in Morristown.
The Old Sow cannon was accompanied by an 18-foot high pyramidal structure built of logs that when lit was visible from Elizabethtown to Morristown and was a further warning to George Washington’s Continental troops and the local militia. This log structure was called the Summit Beacon.
Richard Swain’s farm, the site of the Old Sow cannon and the Summit Beacon, was one of many strategic high points from Orange County, New York, to Hunterdon County, New Jersey on which George Washington, in 1777, had ordered a series of cannons and beacons to be installed. The purpose of this series of alarms was to warn the local militias and Continental troops of any British invasions of New Jersey, primarily from New York. The Summit Beacon Hill allowed the New Jersey patriots to keep an eye on the British and German troops who had taken possession of New York City and who might try to attack Washington’s troops by coming through the Hobart Gap.
During the initial invasion, on June 7, the British and German Hessian troops got as far as Connecticut Farms, to what is today the Springfield /Union border. The invaders burned down the town including the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church whose pastor was James Caldwell a very active patriot who had a bounty on his head. They murdered Hannah Caldwell, simply because she was the wife of the preacher James Caldwell. It was said that James Caldwell preached with two loaded pistols at his side. Despite such horror, the invaders were repulsed by the local militia and retreated to Elizabethtown, where they waited three weeks for reinforcements.
On June 23, reinforced by another 2,000 troops, the British and Hessian invaders started out again for Washington’s troops in Morristown. This time they made it as far as the center of Springfield before they were repulsed by the local militia and George Washington’s Continental troops. The invaders burnt down the Springfield Presbyterian Church and all the houses in Springfield but one. The only house left standing was a house on Morris Avenue that today is named the Springfield Cannonball House. The house was left standing only because it was a hospital for British soldiers. It is called the Springfield Cannonball House because it was hit by a cannon ball fired from by the American militia cannons from land in what is now Millburn.
When the invading troops were repulsed at Springfield, the British and German Hessian troops headed back to New York City, through Elizabethtown and Staten Island. This was the last major British invasion in the Northern Colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Editor’s note: John Kieser, a trustee of the Summit Historical Society, is active with the Sons of the American Revolution and has presented lectures on Revolutionary War-related topics to interested groups.