The Beauty and the Wealth of a Land of Desolation

In the Pine Barrens: The Beauty and the Wealth of a Land of Desolation

Originally published in the New York Tribune, August 6, 1893.

You may still call it, as of old, the province of Camden and Amboy; the realm of the Duke of Gloster; or yet you may resuscitate the antique joke about it’s being a foreign land out of the Union. Under any of these names the southern part of New Jersey still remains, in great measure, an unknown land. There is, it is true, outposts of exploration at Lakewood. Hardy fisherman, well armed with bottled bait, have skirted the coast and made landings here and there. There is, moreover, a well marked “trek” straight through the wilderness from Philadelphia to Atlantic City, and another to Cape May. There are prosperous towns and cities, too, well-known to fame: Millville and Bridgeton and Vineland and Hammonton and others. But if the great expensive territory that makes a southern half of the state, what man has knowledge? What ideas conveyed to a New Yorkers mind by such names as Lower Bank, or Tulpehocken, or Martha’s Furnace, or Repaupo, or Blue Anchor? Now and then an item appears in the papers, as several times in the last few weeks, about forest fires in New Jersey. We hear fires and burn thousands of acres, that rage for many miles, and that threaten and sometimes sweep away whole villages, and one wonders that such things can be, so close to the metropolis. It is true that right here, between New York and Philadelphia, lie many hundreds of miles of wilderness, almost as free from civilizing touch as a wildest parts of the wild West.

From the car window of the railroad train one looks hour after hour at a panorama of almost utter desolation. Meeting the sky on every hand spreads an almost level expanse of stunted woodland, dark green and gray. Much of it reaches in height scarce to the windowsill; but here and there arises to goodly forest standards. The ground, as you see it near the track, where not covered thickly with leaves, is snowy white, the wake of bleached and glittering beach sand. Where the road run through a cut you see that this white sand is one, two, sometimes three feet deep, gradually blending into a pale yellow mixture of sand and loam and gravel. For miles the woodland is absolutely unbroken. Then you come to a narrow wagon road winding through, gleaming white as the wake of a steamboat. Again you pass unpainted pine cabin with a small clear field about it, in the white soil which some stunted corn and a few hills of sweet potatoes are growing. Often the eye is gladdened by the sight of a brook or river of the clearest imaginable water flowing over a bed of sand, perhaps white, perhaps ruddy with iron ore. For all this dreary wilderness is well watered by perfect network of unfailing streams. And then you ride for other miles through ashes and blackness, where forest fires have raged, licking up all before them save the charred trunks of the larger trees.

A hundred years ago an American geographer wrote this region in these terms: “as much as five eights of most of the southern counties, or one fourth of the whole state, is almost a sandy barren, unfit in many parts for cultivation. The land on the seacoast in this, like in that of the more southern states, has every appearance of made ground. The soil is generally a light sand, and by digging on average about 50 feet below the surface (which can be done even if the distance of 20 or 30 miles from the sea without any impediment from rocks or stones) you come to salt-marsh. The gentleman who gave this information adds: ‘I have seen an oyster shell that would hold a pint, which was dug out of the marsh at fifty feet deep in digging a well.’

… the barrens produce little else but scrub oaks and yellow pines. These sandy lands yield an immense quantity of bog iron ore, which is worked up to great advantage in the ironworks in these counties.” This iron industry is now a thing of the past, but it is left it’s mark upon the country. What is now Lakewood was originally a great center of iron manufacture, and other settlements, the names of which are compounded with Forge or Furnace, bear witness to the same former fact. Other industries, however, have here and there sprung up to take its place. In one district the sand is well fitted for making glass; in another clay beds make possible great potteries; in the third the culture of small fruits is profitably pursued; and lumbering and charcoal burning are widespread industries. Yet it remains true that a vast proportion of this area is still an unimproved wilderness.

Pine Barrens the land is called. It is not, however, wholly covered with pine. Perhaps nearly half the trees are oaks. There are bound for kinds of oak and four conifers. The former are the Q. prinoides or dwarf chestnut oak, Q. prinus; blackjack, Q. nigra; the black scrub oak, Q. ilicifolia; and Spanish oak, Q. falcata. The conifers are the Jersey or scrub pine, P. inops; here and there the pitch pine, P. rigida; occasionally the handsome and stately yellow pine, P. mitis; and the juniper or red cedar, with is by no means common. Besides these one finds the rex or American holly, growing almost to treelike size, and everywhere the bushes of huckleberry and bilberry. The vast bulk of arboreal vegetation belongs, therefore, to the pine, oak and heath families, and the last named family is most widely represented of all. These are three huckleberries, Gaylussacia dumosa, frondosa, and resinosa, and three bilberries of the cranberry tribe, Vaccinium Pennsylvanicum, vacillans and corymbosum, all called huckleberries: besides the two true cranberries, V. oxycoccus and macrocarpon. Then there are the aromatic wintergreen, the trailing arbutus, the kalmia or American laurel, the rhododendron, the azalea, the sand myrtle, and various others, a full dozen of the heath family; so that it is not inappropriate to dream of some resemblance between these gray green plains and the heather-clad moors of the old country.

It is evident, then, that such a country, despite its desolation, cannot be altogether unbeautiful, nor destitute of value. Perhaps if some of the fierce and persistent energy that has been expended in the far West had found its object here, this wilderness might now be blossoming as the rose, and the New Yorker might regard with a practical interest apart from fishing, gunning, and deer-chasing. There is scarcely a spot that does not betray some beauty to the observing visitor and offer some promise of development. Especially is such the case along and near the watercourses and lakes, which everywhere abound. These are in the pine barren country but no region this side of the tropics to be less barren or more luxuriantly clad with worthy vegetation.

One stream, familiar through the virtue of one hundred unhurried visits, may be taken as a type of all. It’s navigable course is not long in proportion to its volume; a couple of miles at most. Where one enters it from the lake into which it empties it is a dozen yards wide and a dozen feet deep. And at that death you can see not only the pebbles, but the very sand grains at the bottom, and almost count the scales on the pike that float below you half hidden in the waving grasses. Three feet from the shore it is as deep as in midstream, and from the waters edge to the cypress and arborvitae — both called cedar here — rise sheer, a dark green, moss-hung hedge, twice as high as the stream is wide, and so dense that it shuts out the light of the declining sun as utterly as would a wall of stone. For that hedge is not only dense with clustered needles and heavy festoons of moss at the margin of the stream. It is itself only the margin of an unbroken forest of noble cypresses, extending perhaps for miles. And now and then, as you float along on the crystal current, you catch through random hedge-rifts vistas of dim aisles and clustered pillar-courts, where the great gray shafts rise fifty feet without a branch or twig, straight as a Doric column. From the lofty roof hang mossy banners and streamers of green and gray and silver, while here and there like graceful candelabra, stand laurel magnolias, with blossoms whiter than the purest wax and sweeter than the perfume of cathedral incense. The very stream itself has now become an aisle, with crystal pavement, for the cypress branches meet and intermingle far above your head, and only let through here and there a shattered sunbeam at noonday, to make aerial mosaics on the liquid floor. From bank to bank is little more than a strongman’s leap. You can no longer wield your oars as oars, but only as paddles. But with the same oars you vainly try to fathom the depths below, where silvery grasses wave and quartz pebbles glitter like snow, or glow blood red with the iron that impregnates these sands.

Nor does the scene lack the minor accessories of decorative art. Here and there are floating in the waxen blossoms of the sweet-scented water lily, now all purest white, now with the outer petals tinged with pink, and now, very rarely, with all the petals blushing like a rose. Every foot of the bank is friends with pitcher plants, or monkey cup, or side-saddle flowers, which ever you may call the purple sarracenia, their leaves ranging from an inch to six or eight inches in height, and from the palest golden green to deep crimson and dusky purple in hue. Here, too, the heath family abounds, chiefly represented by the aromatic wintergreen (Gaultheria) here called teaberry, and praised for both fruit and leaves; by the gaylussacia, or true huckleberry, with it’s racemes of glossy black berries – rarely snow-white; by two of the vaccinium, the oxycoccus, or cranberry and the cyanococcus, or blueberry, here, as elsewhere, not distinguished from the huckleberry; by the umbellata, or prince’s pine, which seems to defy the moisture and to flourish in the swamp as well as in the uplands; by the kalmia, or pale laurel; by the white and purple azaleas, and by the rhododendron, or great laurel; and if you look aright you will find in the drier spots the spicy epigaea, or trailing arbutus, which one calls mayflower and another maypink, and elsewhere shrubs of fragrant clethra, and yet again, in some dense shade, the waxen bells of indian pipe. Indeed, the heath tribe seems, as on the upland barrens, to outnumber all others, and to vie for dominance even with the overshadowing conifers.

Such are the principal flora of this wilderness. The fauna are not less interesting, the less evident. But there are pikes and pickerel, and golden perch, and the forbiddingly looking but loathsome catfish, abundant in the grassy depths. If you are quiet of manner and quick of eyes, you may now and then see a wood duck, glide from shade to shade like the fugitive ray shop from a prism, and in season you may shoot, if you can duck, teal, brant and goose, as they fly seaward to the tidal meadows. Kingfishers, blazing with emerald and ruby dart about; hummingbirds rival in dainty grace the flowers they hover over, and hawks and now and then an osprey or an eagle glide above all with ominous calm.

There is something more than beauty, however, in such a region. There is much of commonplace, practical value. The timber, of course, is evident. Few soft woods are more valuable for building purposes than this cypress and arborvitae, so light, so strong, so workable and so durable are they; and even sticks of only six inches thickness have their commercial worth. So many of the swamps are already cleared, or partially cleared, and now present only a bald sun scorched expanse of hapless underbrush, through which the diminished stream winds a dreary way. Through others forest fires have swept, leaving behind leafless branches and blackened trunks. It is difficult to determine which more destroys the beauty of the place and makes the scene more dismal – axe or flame. Yet neither altogether robs the swamp of value. Perhaps its greatest wealth is still remaining. For if you leave your boat and force your path through the weeds afoot you will find it needful carefully to pick your way. Most of the ground seems quagmire. It yields to the pressure of the foot, and ere you are aware you will sink knee deep. Now, take your fishing-pole and thrust it downward. At three feet deep it strikes bottom. Try again, here, and it goes six feet without a check. Once more, here; and ten, twelve, fifteen feet, down it goes. What is it piercing? Nothing but muck, soil, black muck, the rotted vegetation of uncounted years. What if one should dig it out, cart it away, and spread it thickly upon the sandy, barren soil of the dry uplands? He would not need to plough it under; in that light soil a heavy wheelbarrow would do the work. Then he might plant what he would, and get a harvest of such abundance as a Western prairie might envy. It is worth ten times the weight of the fish and mussels that the farmers near the bayshore spread upon their fields. It has a possibility for production almost beyond estimate. Yet there it lies, neglected and ignored, while men say their sandy farms are well nigh worthless.

The stream flows into a small lake, of which the shores are bordered with acres of fragrant water-lilies. At the farther end from the stream the lake is bounded by a half natural, half artificial dam, through a gateway in which the water flows to turn a mill-wheel, and then to fall into a brackish tidal creek, that winds sluggishly across many miles of salt meadows, clad with coarse grass, and flaunting red and white rose-mallows, and green and crimson samphire, to the bay. The top of the dam is a roadway, hedged at the meadow, with a row of hedge willows, and here and there a maple. If you wander through the streets of the sleepy village you will find them densely shaded by great white willows, 50 to 70 feet high, with trunks two or three feet thick, and branches mingling over the broad roadway. Indeed you will scarcely find elsewhere, unless in some favored quarter of New England, villages surpassing in beauty some of those along the New Jersey shore. One might almost say that “on a narrow strip of land, ‘twixt two unbounded seas they stand.” For on one side the sand plains, and on the other the marshes and the sea. But on this narrow strip are charming villages, and farms that are by no means unfertile. It cannot be denied that a sort of social and industrial stagnation prevails. “The place is dead,” the villages themselves will tell you. Farming yields little profit; the oyster beads and fisheries of the great lagoon they call the bay are less productive than in former years, and the coasting trade in sloops and schooners that once flourished and made each village a busy mart of commerce, has become a thing of the past. Young man of enterprise leave home to seek a fortune elsewhere, while those who stay eke out a scanty livelihood fishing and gunning for the markets, or catering on hand or water to the wants of the big summer hotels that have been built at various points along the beach. Perhaps some day, in some effective fashion, they will turn their attention from the salt sea of the east to the sandy sea at the west, and make it something more than the home of the huckleberry, the land of scrub timber, and the playground of forest fires.

Ben Ruset

About Ben Ruset

Ben Ruset has been exploring, photographing, and writing about the New Jersey Pine Barrens for over 10 years. He's an award-worthy individual whose other hobbies include counting freckles and sampling craft beers. One of his goals is to take some of the hidden and forgotten history of South Jersey and share it on this website. Feel free to follow him on Twitter, @njpinebarrens.