This is the final article in a three part series looking at the history of the ghost town of Atsion. You can find part one of the series at this link, and part two at this link.
In 1862, the future looked bleak for Atsion. Competition from iron furnaces in Pennsylvania, fueled by cheaper and more efficient anthracite coal, meant that furnace towns like Atsion were no longer able to compete. Fleming’s paper mill, the next industrial venture for the town, never got off the ground – the building having been long abandoned by the time Colonel William Patterson purchased the Atsion tract.
Patterson envisioned the rebirth of Atsion based around agriculture rather than industry. He planned to clear several large tracts of land to grow crops and bring them to market in New York and Philadelphia via the newly constructed Raritan & Delaware Bay Railroad. He renamed the town “Fruitland” and, according to the F.W. Beers map of 1870, planned to lay out the streets in his new town in a grid pattern.
The main crop was to be sugar beets, however the experiment ended in failure when the beets would not grow in the sandy, acidic soil. The real estate venture was also a flop – Patterson sold less than a handful of lots across the lake along Atsion Road. Like so many of the town’s previous owners, he overextended his finances and was forced into bankruptcy.
On May 10, 1871 Maurice Raleigh purchased the town. One of his first orders of business was to rename the town back to Atsion. He then rebuilt and enlarged the paper mill building – long abandoned and empty – and converted it to a cotton factory. He also erected a carpenter’s shop, blacksmith, public school, and rebuilt the Richards-era church. He also moved into the Richards’ mansion as it’s last permanent resident.
Under Raleigh’s ownership, Atsion was again a success. The cotton factory was a moneymaker and the promise of steady employment brought people back to the area. By 1882 Atsion boasted over 300 residents – nearly as many as when the iron furnace was in operation.
This newfound prosperity did not last. Raleigh died on January 10, 1882 and ownership passed to his heir, who had a different vision for the town. They formed the Raleigh Land Improvement Company and planned to rename the community “Raleigh.” They offered lots for sale for $25 an acre, but there were few takers. The houses that stand near the intersection of Route 206 and Atsion Road are the only remnants of this real estate venture. Within a year the cotton factory closed and residents moved away.
Reverting back to a ghost town, Atsion was mostly unoccupied until Joseph Wharton bought it in 1892. Wharton purchased large tracts of land as part of a plan to bring fresh water from the lakes and streams of the Pine Barrens to Philadelphia. When the New Jersey Legislature caught wind of this plan and passed legislation banning the export of water from the state, Wharton turned his attention to agriculture. He built a number of large cranberry bogs near Atsion and entrusted the management of the town to Andrew Etheridge of Batsto.
Wharton did not invest much money in the maintenance of the buildings at Atsion. To him, the Richards’ mansion was superfluous; he was living in the newly renovated mansion at Batsto and had no desire to modernize a second expensive house. He put it to use as a storehouse and erected a large concrete barn nearby. The cotton factory was converted to a packing house for the his cranberry bogs.
Wharton died in 1909 but his estate still carried on with the management of his properties. In 1954 the State of New Jersey purchased the Atsion tract along with much of Wharton’s other holdings in the Pine Barrens. One of the first things the state did was a quick exterior restoration on the long neglected Richards’ mansion. Another was to build a recreational facility on the southern shore of Atsion lake.
The stewardship of Atsion under the State of New Jersey has been somewhat controversial. A number of railroad-era buildings near the cotton factory were bulldozed after the state gained ownership. The school, converted into a private residence in 1922, fell into disrepair after the residents were forced to leave. The final ignominy happened in 1977 when the cotton mill building was destroyed in a fire. While officially labeled as arson, there are many who feel that the state was complicit in letting the unsafe and tumbledown building burn down.
Recently, things seem to be turning around. In 2001 a new roof was put on the long empty schoolhouse. Between 2008-2009 the Atsion Mansion was carefully restored after years of neglect at a cost of over one million dollars. The porch on the north side of the mansion was rebuilt, cleverly hiding a handicap access ramp. The interior walls were patched and repainted, with each room having a square or two of wall unrestored so that visitors could see the original state of the plaster and woodwork prior to the restoration. Long shuttered to the public, tours are now held allowing people to view the interior of the impressive old house.
For over two centuries, Atsion has found success and suffered decline. Each time the town bounces back and has a revival. With the newly restored mansion as a centerpiece it’s likely that the village will continue to grow in popularity and remain for future generations to enjoy.
For Further Reading:
Atsion: A Town of Four Faces by Sarah W.R. Ewing. Batsto Citizens Committee, 1979.
Ploughs and Politics: Charles Read of New Jersey & His Notes on Agriculture – 1715-1744 by Carl Raymond Woodward. Rutgers University Press, 1941.
Iron in the Pines by Arthur Pierce. Rutgers University Press, 1957.
Family Empire in Jersey Iron: The Richards Enterprises in the Pine Barrens by Arthur Pierce. Rutgers University Press, 1964.
Heart of the Pines: Ghostly Voices of the Pine Barrens by John Pearce. Batsto Citizens Committee, 2000.
Many thanks to Jerseyman and Terry Schmidt for their invaluable assistance in this article series.
Samuel Richards, good-looking and enormously successful, was the only member of the family to surpass his father’s success in business. He was born on May 8, 1769 near Warwick Furnace in Pennsylvania where his father was apprenticed into the iron trade. The year prior to Samuel’s birth, William Richards began working at the newly constructed Batsto Furnace.
Samuel was fifteen years old when his father acquired ownership of Batsto. There he quickly learned the iron trade and, in six or seven years, was representing the furnace at the family store in Philadelphia. He often wrote to his father offering advice and making observations about the quality of the iron when it wasn’t up to his standards. In October of 1794 he wrote, “the old Iron that is upon hand is very rusty which hurts the sale… I have mixed a good deal of it with the new and worked it off that way.”
He was to marry twice, both times to attractive, rich widows. His first wife was Mary Smith Morgan. They were married on November 18, 1797 at the home of her father, the wealthy Philadelphia merchant William T. Smith, also known as “Old Silver Heels.” The Richards had four children, all of which died between 1799 and 1803. They had four more children, three of which survived to adulthood: Thomas Smith, Sarah Ball, and Elizabeth Ann Richards. Their mother passed away on May 3, 1820 at the age of 50. The marriage, which lasted 23 years, is said to have been congenial and happy, despite the loss of so many children.
Samuel purchased a half interest in Atsion in 1819. With this purchase he controlled a network of ironworks that would have made Charles Read envious. Besides his interest in Atsion he also owned Weymouth Furnace, Speedwell Furnace, and had a partnership in Martha Furnace with Joseph Ball. On June 19, 1819 the old furnace at Atsion went back into blast under the management of John Richards, Samuel’s cousin, to fill an order for water pipes for the city of Philadelphia. The furnace was allowed to go out of blast after the pipes were finished and Richards put his share of Atsion up for sale shortly afterwards, perhaps due to a lack of orders or difficulties in the partnership with Henry Drinker. The buildings slowly deteriorated as the furnace sat idle and the workmen departed for opportunities elsewhere.
On October 8, 1822 Richards married his second wife, Anna Maria Martin Witherspoon. By all accounts the charming woman was a perfect compliment to her new husband’s personality. They made their home at 347 Arch Street in Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from the house Samuel had shared with his widow. They had three children, two of which survived to adulthood: Maria Lawrence and William Henry.
Perhaps showing his tenacity or business acumen, Richards purchased Drinker’s half share of Atsion in 1824. Now the sole owner, he embarked on a massive project to rebuild the town. One of the first buildings he built was a modern blast furnace that utilized the latest improvements in iron making technology – the hot blast method. By pre-heating the air that would be blasted into the furnace (hence the name) it was found that fuel consumption would be considerably reduced. This led to a reduction in the cost to produce iron as there was less charcoal required per ton of production, as well as a reduction in the number of trees needing to be felled by the colliers.
In 1826 the Richards built a large and expensive mansion at Atsion, replacing the old dilapidated Lawrence Saltar mansion. This fourteen-roomed house, built in the Greek revival style, still stands today as a testament to the past importance of this furnace town. Iron products adorned the exterior of the building: drain spouts, emblazoned 1826, hang at each corner of the building; cast iron windowsills; and thirteen cast iron columns (manufactured at Weymouth Furnace originally as water pipe for the city of Philadelphia) support the roof of the porch that wraps around two sides of the building. Inside there are two main stories, a ground level basement kitchen with a brick stove and oven, and an attic where the domestic servants resided.
The first story had four rooms flanking a center hall with doors at each end. Two large parlors are on the west side of the house, facing Atsion Lake, and are connected by a large sliding door that could be opened to create a large ballroom. Contemporaries noted that the Richards held a lavish party to celebrate the construction of the mansion and this ballroom would certainly have been the hub of social activity in the house. Across the hall was a formal dining room and preparation kitchen, with meals being cooked in the stove and ovens in the basement, and brought up by servants via a special staircase. The second floor contained four bedrooms for the Richards family. Special slatted doors offered ventilation – important in the blustery summer months – although the house was built four fireplaces – each with a cast iron fireback and marble mantle – for heat in the colder months.
The next year a company store was built adjacent to the mansion. This store not only offered foodstuffs and other products for Atsion’s employees but also, by 1832, housed the post office that had moved back from Sooy’s Inn at Washington. Samuel Richards himself held the title of postmaster for many years. This store stayed open, through a succession of owners, until 1946. Today it serves as a ranger station for Wharton State Forest. The final building from the Richards era, a church, was erected in 1828. The deed for it states that “Samuel Richards, with a view and desire to promote Christian Knowledge, has erected a house for religious worship at Atsion… and, in order that the said house may at all times hereafter be held for that purpose and the lot of ground on which the same is built and erected may forever be held as a side for a house of religious worship and for a burial place.”
Times were prosperous in Atsion. Thomas Gordon, in his Gazetteer of the State of New Jersey, tells of the size and scope of the works at Atsion in 1834:
Atsion, post-town and furnace, on the Atsion River, partly in Galloway Township, Gloucester County, probably in Washington Township, Burlington County, 9 miles above the head of navigation, 12 miles from Medford, 17 from Mount Holly, on the road leading to Tuckerton, and 57 from Trenton. Besides the furnace, there are here, a forge, gristmill, and three sawmills. The furnace makes from 800 to 900 tons of casting, and the forge from 150 to 200 tons of bar iron annually. This estate, belonging to Samuel Richards, Esq., embraces what was formerly called Hampton furnace and forge, and West’s Mills, and contains about 60,000 acres of land. There are about 100 men employed here, and between 6 and 700 persons depending for sustenance upon the works.
Considering that Atsion was nearly in ruins fifteen years earlier, it’s clear that the town prospered under Samuel’s leadership. Compared to Batsto and Martha Furnace that each, according to Gordon, employed 60-70 men and had only 400 people living there, Atsion was one of the largest iron enterprises in South Jersey at the time.
During Samuel’s later years he began to turn the day-to-day operation of Weymouth Furnace to his son-in-law Stephen Colwell, a Philadelphia attorney who married Sarah, his daughter from his first marriage. It appears that Samuel managed Atsion until his death on January 4, 1842. He died an incredibly wealthy man, and his children and widow were well taken care of in his will. Weymouth was divided equally between Sarah and Elizabeth Ann, and Atsion between Maria and William. Martha Furnace was sold to its long time manager Jesse Evans.
Ironworks in Pennsylvania began experimenting with fuelling their furnaces with anthracite coal around the time of Samuel’s death. Anthracite coal was easier to obtain, cheap to purchase, and was located close to the iron mines in Pennsylvania. By the end of the 1840’s the bog iron furnaces in south Jersey were hopelessly outclassed by their Pennsylvanian rivals and it is doubtful that even an ironmaster as skilled as Samuel Richards, much less his inexperienced children, could have kept a charcoal fuelled furnace profitable.
Maria met William Walton Fleming, owner of the W.W. Fleming Cobalt and Nickel Works in Camden, at a party at Weymouth in 1848. On June 14, 1849 they married and took up residence in the Atsion mansion as well as the Richards’ family home on Arch Street in Philadelphia. Perhaps encouraged by the successful paper mill at nearby McCartyville (later known as Harrisville) he and two business partners, Walter Dwight Bell and Albert W. Markley constructed a paper mill at Atsion on or near the site of the furnace. The mill was described in a legal complaint dated April 1855:
The said building is a stone mill erected for the manufacture of paper. The main building is two stories high about sixty feet long by fifty feet deep, and attached thereto and making a part thereof are a boiler and bleach house, forty-two feet by thirty-two, a machine house eighty feet by twenty-four, a water wheel and a wheel house, twenty-eight feet by twenty-four.
It appears that the mill only operated for a short time, or perhaps not even at all. Fleming, like many other businessmen in the northeast in the mid 1850’s, was in dire financial straits. He lost a considerable amount of money on an investment in the Camden & Atlantic City Railroad, which by virtue of him being a member of the board of directors, allowed him to borrow heavily. On September 11, 1854 he assigned his assets to trustees “for the protection of his creditors.” He named his partners in the paper mill venture, Bell and Markley, as well as his father, Thomas Fleming and brother-in-law Stephen Cowell as his trustees. Interestingly neither the senior Fleming nor Cowell wanted nothing to do with the mess and refused to serve.
Facing a long list of creditors, legal charges filed by his father, and over a half-million dollars in debt, Fleming took a page from Charles Read’s playbook and fled the country. For over a year nobody in the family knew where he had gone. Left alone to face his angry creditors, his wife Maria dipped into her own inheritance to repay Thomas Fleming. Amazingly enough she was able to locate Fleming in Brussels, Belgium where, after a reconciliation, she and their son reunited and made a house at 15 Boulevard du Regent. Shortly thereafter Samuel Richards’ widow Anna Maria joined them. There in Europe they were able to live out their rest of their lives in comfort and happiness, supported by the money left by Samuel Richards.
William Henry Richards, brother of Mary, was fourteen when his father died. Surrounded by so much wealth, he never had to work and never developed any of the business sense that his father and grandfather had been famous for. The Atsion record books show him to have been married to Mary Thorne on April 29, 1850, although other sources show that he was unmarried. The union seemed to be a rocky one and Mary Thorne eventually left and settled in nearby Vincentown. The two had a daughter, Anna Maria, named after William’s mother. By age two she was living with, and being cared for, by her grandmother, eventually moving to Belgium to be with the her grandmother and the Flemings. After the auction of the Atsion property William spent his remaining years tilling soil on a farm he purchased along the Tuckerton Stage Road.
The Atsion property went to auction on April 7, 1859. According to the West Jerseyman, this “was the largest public sale of Real Estate which has probably ever been made in this section of New Jersey.” The account of the auction continued:
The extent and value the property, the widespread and diversified interests involved by the transactions of its late owner, served to draw together a concourse of Brokers, Bankers, Real Estate Operators, Lawyers, Speculators and Capitalists, more in keeping with the Rotunda of the Exchange than the quiet parlors of a Country hotel. [The auction was held at the West Jersey Hotel.] Presently the “frosty pow” of Mr. Thomas, whose head is silvered o’er in the service of the fatal hammer, was observed to ride amid the crowd, and announce that “Atsion”, its mansion, its mills, its buildings and broad acres, were positively to be sold, without reserve, to the highest bidder. The terms of payment were stated, the same to be made subject to a mortgage of seventy-five thousand dollars. An awful pause ensued, during which the good looking company looked around for the brave man who would bventure a bid upon it. He turned up in good time, however, with a bid of $5000, when the bidding went on spiritedly, at $1000 a bid, between two gentlemen only, till it reached the sum of $33,000 when the veteran auctioneer took a breath, and resumed, with a little professional expatiation, which produced another bid, when the property was knocked down to M. NEWKIRK, Esq. for the sum of $33,500 which, including the cost of the mortgage of $75,000, will bring the cost of the whole 28,000 acres to the round sum of $111,500. [The math reported here is obviously wrong – the total cost of the Atsion property would have been $108,500, still not a particular bargain.]
No deed is recorded to Newkirk who likely realized that he had overpaid and found some way to extricate himself from the deal, legally or otherwise. Atsion was unsuccessfully auctioned on January 3, 1860 and again on January 31. Finally, on April 13, 1861, the property was sold to Jarvis Mason, of Philadelphia for $66,000. Mason held the property for one year before selling it to Colonel William Patterson of Philadelphia, for $82,500, on July 11, 1862.
In the final installment of this series, we’ll trace the history of Atsion through a name change, the coming of the railroad, another mill, and on to modern times.
Henry Drinker, a wealthy Quaker merchant in Philadelphia, wrote: “I expect it will be nothing new to hear that we Iron Masters are in general a sett of Hungry, needy beings, frequently bare of Money and straining our credit.” The quote dates from 1790, when Drinker held a majority share of the Atsion works. Drinker likely penned these words after observing the founder of the ironworks and his business partner, Charles Read, rendered financially devastated due to his iron enterprises.
Charles Read III fit the definition of a renaissance man. Born in 1715, Read began his career as a merchant, working as a clerk for his father, before he departed for an education in England. Returning to Philadelphia by way of Antigua, where he had married, he assumed control of the family business left to him by his recently deceased father. He soon developed an interest in the lands of New Jersey, and shortly thereafter moved to Burlington where he soon entered political life. He progressed through a number of posts including: the offices of Deputy Secretary of the Province of East Jersey; Member of the Assembly, later, Member of the Council; Judge, and later Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court . Read acquired several vast tracts of land throughout southern and central New Jersey and became one of the first people to recognize the potential for iron production in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, based on the resources available there.
Iron production started in New Jersey with the construction of the Tinton Falls furnace in 1674. Entrepreneurs subsequently established furnaces in North Jersey, smelting ore mined in nearby mountains. The land in South Jersey, largely pine and cedar forests, could not sustain subsistence agriculture. The trees, however, offered their owners a good return on their investment, and, soon sawmills and sawyers reduced the timber to dimensional lumber and cordwood for market in Philadelphia.
Read realized that the Pine Barrens had the perfect mix of ingredients to produce iron. Bog iron, or iron deposits created by the chemical reaction of bacteria with oxidized iron rich water that flowed through the bogs, was plentiful. Numerous streams in the Pines could be dammed to provide power to machinery that would operate within the ironworks. The extensive forests seemed to promise a limitless source of wood for charcoal production to fuel the furnaces. The final ingredient— limestone—was available in the form of oyster shells, easily transported in from the bayshore. Read planned to build three iron furnaces: Batsto; Taunton; and Etna; and forges at Atsion and Taunton. The forge at Atsion would further refine pig iron brought in from Batsto—only a few miles away—into bar iron that could be sold or further worked into wrought iron products.
Parliament repealed the Iron Act in 1757 and Read wasted no time engaging in his first transaction for land that would eventually make up the Atsion property on September 10, of that same year when he signed a 999-year lease for 1,128 acres of land in Gloucester County from Thomas Gardiner and Daniel Ellis. Annual rent for this property amounted to four pounds, ten shillings. In 1765 he signed a number of deals in quick succession that would ultimately lead to the founding of Atsion, beginning with an agreement to cut all of the coal wood on John Estell’s land between the Batsto and Atsion rivers on May 23. On June 29 Estell, most likely acting as an agent for Read, obtained permission from the legislature to erect a dam across the Atsion River. On July 19 Read signed an agreement with John Inskeep, owner of the nearby Goshen sawmill, to purchase the 50-acre tract of land on which the Atsion forge would be built, with a restriction on the deed that stated that the land was to be used “for the erecting of an ironworks only and not to erect a saw-mill thereon.” Read also obtained permission to raise all of the ore within a mile and a half of Inskeep’s sawmill.
Having acquired the necessary land, Read found himself in need of money to build the furnaces. He sought financial backers in an advertisement he placed in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1765:
“Charles Read of Burlington, gives notice to the public, that he is possessed of several tracts of land, having in them streams of water, as constant and governable as can be wished… There is at all these places, plenty of food for the cattle from the middle of May to the middle of October.” The advertisement continued: “As Mr. Read’s situation renders it inconvenient to him to take upon himself the expense or care of works so extensive, he notifies to the public that it will be agreeable to him to let the conveniences to any gentleman of credit reserving a share of the produce, or to enter into a partnership with any persons a good dispositions, fortune and integrity.” The advertisement ended with a tantalizing summary: “The goodness of the iron, the visible quantity of the ore, the extraordinary situation, joined to the very easy land and water carriage, and its vicinity to Philadelphia, and easy carriage from two last mentioned works to New York, give works erected here preference to any on the continent.”
Read finished the construction of Batsto furnace in 1766. On January 26, 1768 he formed a partnership with David Ogden Jr. and Lawrence Saltar. Ogden purchased a one-quarter share of Atsion, and Saltar obtained a 24.9 percent share, leaving Read as the majority shareholder at 50.1 percent. Flush with cash, construction began on Atsion between 1767 and 1768. At the time of the completion, the forge comprised one of the largest in the area with four fires and two hammers. Read had some ore raised from nearby and sent it out for analysis—a sign that he either intended to construct a blast furnace on the site or ship the ore down the river to Batsto. The ore at Atsion was of exceptionally high quality: most samples contained 45-47 percent metallic iron and some samples contained between 53-56 percent.
Read soon found himself in financial trouble. He became overextended in his finances, his health started to fail, and his creditors began to demand money. In October of 1770, two years after the forge hammers at Atsion began tripping, he advertised his share of the works for sale. No buyers stepped forward. Another three years elapsed before Read got out from under Atsion by selling it to two business acquaintances, Abel James and Henry Drinker. Read signed over his remaining properties to his creditors and, in June or July of 1773, fled New Jersey for Antigua. There he unsuccessfully attempted to settle his late wife’s estate. He eventually settled in Martinburg, North Carolina. He opened a small store and, on December 27, 1774, died penniless and alone.
Back at Atsion, the new partnership flourished. David Ogden sold his share to Lawrence Saltar on April 2, 1773, and the remaining partners—Saltar, James, and Drinker—constructed a blast furnace at Atsion during 1774. This now made the Atsion works a direct competitor of Batsto, which John Cox Jr. had acquired from Read. Tensions ran high between the owners of the competing works as shown by several lawsuits that tied up the courts for years.
Workers dug a canal between the Mechescatauxin Creek and the Atsion River to increase the head of water flowing over the dam to accommodate the forge and new furnace at Atsion. This canal became known as Saltar’s Ditch. When the furnace went out of blast during the winter, workers would open up the floodgates of the dam to lower the level of water in the lake so that ore could be raised. The resulting flow of water flooded the downstream bogs that supplied ore to Batsto, limiting the amount of iron that Batsto could recover preparatory for when their furnace went back into blast. A second suit was filed regarding timber rights for the charcoal hungry furnaces and the use of the Atsion river for transporting material to the furnaces.
The outbreak of the Revolutionary War proved to be an economic boon to many of the furnaces in the Pine Barrens as orders for iron products to support the military increased. The management at Atsion was at odds with what to do, however, since Henry Drinker—a Quaker—was a pacifist while the other partners expressed eagerness to profit from providing iron products for the troops. The partners reached a compromise: the furnace was allowed to go out of blast while the forge continued to operate under Lawrence Saltar’s management. Atsion forge produced a number of evaporating pans for the Pennsylvania Salt Works in Toms River as well as a quantity of iron— the exact products unknown—for the Pennsylvania Navy.
Saltar died in 1783 and left his share of the works to his heirs. The following year, Abel James declared bankruptcy and sold his shares to Henry Drinker, giving him majority control of the works. Ten years later, a fire broke out, causing extensive damage to the furnace and stopping production until repairs could be completed. Drinker estimated that the losses would be at least £1,000. Disaster struck again when a scow laden with 26 tons of finished iron bound for Philadelphia sank somewhere in the Rancocas during a storm.
In 1805, the now 71-year-old Henry Drinker advertised the Atsion property for sale for £15,000 and asked £12,000 for his share. No purchasers stepped forward. He later auctioned the property at the Merchant Coffee House in Philadelphia. Jacob Downing, Henry Drinker’s son-in-law, proffered the winning bid. It is likely that Drinker either loaned him part of the money to buy the works or only collected a partial payment as Downing related in an agreement dated December 30, 1808:
“notwithstanding the whole of the “Atsion Estate” was conveyed to me… I claim one half of the said estate only, the other half remaining to be the property of Henry Drinker, the elder, and I hereby bind myself, my heirs, executors, and administrators… that whenever I shall be discharged from all responsibility regarding my endorsements… of certain notes negotiated at banks in this city [Philadelphia] and that I will execute a good and sufficient deed, vesting in the aforesaid Henry Drinker… the aforesaid one-half of the premises above described.”
For the next ten years Atsion prospered, but 1815 marked the beginning of trouble for Downing. The post office, established there in 1798, was moved to Sooy’s Inn in Washington, eight miles distant along the Tuckerton Stage road, indicating that the works were either closed or the amount of mail passing through had decreased. Two years later, Downing took out a mortgage on the “West Mills Tract” (southeast of Atsion) from the Bank of North America, but, in 1819, he defaulted on the loan. On July 10, 1822, Samuel Richards purchased the property from the bank. Downing borrowed more money and consequently fell further into debt. By 1823, the ironworks were completely deserted and Downing died within a year. With Downing’s death, Samuel Richards obtained full ownership of the abandoned ironworks and its village.
John Fanning Watson, the noted antiquarian and historian of Philadelphia passed through the pines on his way to Long Beach Island. He recounts his visit to Atsion in his book, The Annals of Philadelphia:
Was much interested to see the formidable ruins of Atsion iron works… They looked as picturesque as the ruins of abbeys, etc., in pictures. There were dams, forges, furnaces, storehouses, a dozen houses and lots for the men, and the whole comprising a town; a place once overwhelming the ear with the din of unceasing ponderous hammers, or alarming the sight with fire and smoke, and smutty and sweating Vulcans. Now, all is hushed; no wheels turn, no fires blaze, the houses are unroofed, and the frames etc., have fallen down, and not a foot of the busy workmen is seen.
In the next installment, Samuel Richards will breathe new life to Atsion, rebuilding and expanding the works and marking a new era of prosperity to the town.
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.
Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, formerly known as Lebanon State Forest, is located in the northern part of the New Jersey Pinelands. It’s location and convenient access to State Route 70 make it convenient to reach from North Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The park is made up of 34,725 acres of pine, oak, and cedar forest stretching through parts of Ocean and Burlington Counties. The park is named for Brendan Byrne, former governor of New Jersey, and the signatory of the Pinelands Preservation Act of 1979, which created the Pinelands National Reserve.
The forest was originally named after the Lebanon Glassworks, which operated here between 1851-1867. The name came from Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, a place famous for its cedar trees, which are also plentiful in the swamps of the Pine Barrens. The factory chiefly made windowpanes, although bottles and a few decorative pieces were also produced. The factory shut down when the supply of wood for the furnace was exhausted. All that remains of Lebanon Glassworks today are a scattering of concrete foundations.
Nearby Whitesbog village is another attraction. Whitesbog has been a major cranberry farm for over one hundred and twenty years. At the turn of the 20th century, Whitesbog was the largest cranberry farm in the United States. In 1916 Elizabeth C. White, in collaboration with Dr. Frederick A. Coville successfully developed the first cultivated blueberry. Today the village has been preserved by the efforts of the Whitesbog Village Trust, and the cranberry bogs and blueberry fields still produce a bountiful harvest each year. Visitors can come and see the semi-restored company town and walk out among the bogs. The Whitesbog General Store is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from February through December, and carries various food items such as blueberry and cranberry preserves, marmalades, honey, and assorted candies. The store also carries a number of handmade craft items as well as a selection of Pine Barrens themed books. An annual Blueberry Festival is celebrated here during the summer.
Getting around Brendan Byrne State Forest is relatively easy. Many of the major roads through the forest, especially those leading to the campgrounds, are paved. The unpaved roads are best left to people with four wheel drive vehicles, although even with four wheel drive it is possible to get your vehicle stuck. Care should be taken driving as the rangers are not able to help pull a stuck vehicle, and calling for a tow truck is expensive.
New Jersey state law states that off-road vehicles such as quads and dirt bikes are prohibited on state land. Motorized recreation in Brendan Byrne State Forest is allowed with special conditions. A vehicle that is properly licensed and insured for on-road use in the State of New Jersey is permitted within the bounds of the forest. This includes cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, Jeeps, and dual-sport motorcycles. All vehicles must stick to “designated roads” – the definition of which can be up to the ranger’s discretion, although a safe bet that you’re allowed on any road or trail that is marked on a street or topographic map. Topographic maps for the area are available online. The rangers have no tolerance for people leaving roads, making new trails, or disturbing or destroying wildlife in bogs or wet areas. Be wary of parking alongside a road – the hot exhaust system of a vehicle may ignite the tall, dry grasses that sometimes line the dirt roads.
Brendan Byrne State Forest is probably best known for its excellent campgrounds. Unlike in Wharton State Forest, all campsites are easily reached by car. There are eighty two tent and trailer sites, all located a convenient distance from restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. There are three furnished cabins on the shore of Pakim Pond featuring a pair of bunk beds (accommodating a total of four people) as well as half-baths with a toilet and basin sink. The cabins are wired for electricity. Additionally there are three yurts available, featuring a lockable wooden door, and a pair of bunk beds (accommodating a total of four people.) The yurts are all handicap accessible. Cabins and yurts book fast, so those interested in them should plan to reserve them early.
93% of the land within Brendan Byrne State Forest is open for hunting and trapping. Hunting is allowed during specific seasons according to the schedule posted by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Bow hunting for deer is one of the most popular sports. During hunting season it’s advisable to wear blaze orange or other brightly colored clothing to make yourself visible.
Hiking is also a popular activity in Byrne. The famous Batona Trail is a fifty mile tail that connects Wharton, Brendan T. Byrne, and Bass River State Forests. A typical through-hike along the trail will take approximately three days. There are over 25 miles of marked trails throughout the forest. The Mount Misery trail also allows visitors the option of mountain biking. The Cranberry Trail is also wheelchair accessible. Two other trails intersect with the Batona and provide loops of about six and fourteen miles for shorter day hikes. Trail maps are available at the Ranger Station near the main entrance to the forest.
Wharton State Forest is the largest, and perhaps the best, place to begin a Pine Barrens adventure. With over 115,000 acres of land spread between Burlington and Atlantic Counties there are plenty of places to explore, and lots of things to do.
The best place to start your visit is at Batsto Village located in the southern extent of the park near Hammonton. Batsto Village, a nationally recognized historical site, was the home to extensive iron and glass making industries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Batsto’s importance to providing munitions for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War was such that its ironworkers were exempt from military service. Over sixty years later, after the Pine Barrens iron industry collapsed, a glass factory was built in the village that operated for another twenty years. After the glass factory closed the village site was purchased by the industrialist Joseph Wharton for use as a country manor. Much of the land preserved in Wharton State Forest comes from land that he purchased. While neither the iron or glass factories remain, Batsto Village today contains many restored historic buildings as well as a small museum and visitors center.
There are a number of ghost towns within a reasonable driving distance from Batsto. The closest is the town of Washington, located a short drive away. This place was noted for being a tavern stop along the famous Tuckerton Stage Road which ran from Camden to Tuckerton. Also close by are the ruins of the paper factory at Harrisville as well as the iron furnace town of Atsion. While not as well preserved as the buildings at Batsto, the village of Atsion is notable for it’s unique Greek Revival style mansion, built in 1826, and is sometimes open for guided tours.
Many Pine Barrens ghost towns are only reachable by dirt roads. While the state occasionally grades some of the more prominent roads, they may be impassible at times. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended while exploring the Pine Barrens, and it’s urged that you be alert and cautious while driving in the woods. Topographic maps are available for sale at the visitor’s center at Batsto and the ranger station at Atsion. Due to liability reasons, the State Park Police will not pull a stuck vehicle from the mud.
New Jersey state law states that off-road vehicles such as quads and dirt bikes are prohibited on state land. Motorized recreation in Wharton State Forest is allowed with special conditions. A vehicle that is properly licensed and insured for on-road use in the State of New Jersey is permitted within the bounds of Wharton State Forest. This includes cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, Jeeps, and dual-sport motorcycles. All vehicles must stick to “designated roads” – the definition of which can be up to the ranger’s discretion, although a safe bet that you’re allowed on any road or trail that is marked on a street or topographic map. Topographic maps are available for sale at the Batsto and Atsion ranger stations or available online. The rangers have no tolerance for people leaving roads, making new trails, or disturbing or destroying wildlife in bogs or wet areas. Be wary of parking alongside a road – the hot exhaust system of a vehicle may ignite the tall, dry grasses that sometimes line the dirt roads.
Camping is a popular activity year-round in Wharton State Forest. There are a number of state-run as well as private campgrounds in the area. The major state-run campsites are located at Atsion, Hawkin’s Bridge, and Godfrey Bridge. These campsites offer a varying range of amenities, with Atsion being the only one to offer showers. Several primitive or wilderness camping areas exist – Bodine Field, Goshen Pond, Buttonwood Hill, Batona, Lower Forge, and the Mullica River camp area. Most are reachable by car, with the Mullica and Lower Forge campsites only accessible by hiking, canoeing, or horseback. Private campgrounds tend to have more amenities, trailer hookups, and waste management facilities. During the busy summer camping season it is recommended to call ahead to ensure space for your tent or trailer.
One of the best ways to experience the nature of the Pine Barrens is by water. The Mullica, Batsto, Wading, and Oswego Rivers all cut through Wharton State Forest and provide a scenic, relaxing way to spend a day. The Pine Barrens rivers are largely calm and slow moving. The lack of rapids and white water make it an excellent place for a novice to begin to learn how to handle a kayak. Several companies in the area offer rentals and day trips with pickup and dropoff services available. You’re also free to bring your own canoe or kayak. If you’re interested in just a swim there are lifeguarded facilities at Atsion Lake as well as an un-guarded beach at Harrisville Lake.
89% of the land within Wharton State Forest is open for hunting and trapping. Hunting is allowed during specific seasons according to the schedule posted by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Bow hunting for deer is one of the most popular sports. During hunting season it’s advisable to wear blaze orange or other brightly colored clothing to make yourself visible.
Hiking is also a popular activity in Wharton. The famous Batona Trail is a fifty mile tail that connects Wharton, Brendan T. Byrne, and Bass River State Forests. A typical through-hike along the trail will take approximately three days. The trail passes near several of the state run wilderness campsites at convenient locations for stopping. For those looking for a shorter hike the Batona is accessible at a number of trailheads along its route. Additionally, there are several shorter trails in the Batsto area ranging from one to ten miles in length. Trail maps are usually available at the visitors center at Batsto Village, near trailheads, and can also be found online.
For More Information:
Wharton State Forest:
Batsto Ranger Station: 609-561-0024
Atsion Ranger Station: 609-268-0444 Official Website
(Note that between Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day, there is a fee to park at Batsto. As of 2012 the fee is only charged on weekends and is $5 for NJ residents and $7 for out of state visitors.)
It all started with a road map of New Jersey. A little north of the Red Lion Circle, in the heart of the Burlington County Pine Barrens, the map depicted a tiny hamlet marked with the unusual name of “Ongs Hat.” In the early 1930s, Henry Charlton Beck, a reporter with the Camden Courier Post, became curious. After convincing his editor that a story could be found there, he and a photographer packed up a car and set off to investigate. Little did he know that his explorations at Ongs Hat, and a succession of later voyages to mysterious places in the hinterlands of New Jersey, would inspire generations of other “lost town hunters” –pouring over ancient maps, exploring dismal cellar holes in the middle of nowhere, and sharing their discoveries with one another – first by telephone and letter and presently through online forums.
In Beck’s time, the best way to Ong’s Hat was the rough tarred road out of Pemberton. Little travelled, the long, slow road passed through miles of bleak forest, cranberry bogs, and forlorn cedars where scarce a human foot had trod. Only a dusty clearing betrayed the location of where the town once stood. Today, the road still follows the same route, but it is now well-maintained asphalt. Want to go? Just travel south from Pemberton, past the old Magnolia Road Tavern, until you come across a restaurant on your right hand side. You’ve arrived in Ong’s Hat – miles away from anywhere. Blink and you’ll miss it.
The story of Ong’s Hat begins long before the birth of our nation. On February 5, 1631 the ship Lyon arrived in Boston Harbor from Bristol, England. The settlers on board included Francis Ong, of Suffolk County, England; his wife Francis; and children Simon, Jacob, and Isaac. Members of the Society of Friends, the Ongs left England seeking religious tolerance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Isaac and his wife, Mary, moved to Burlington County around 1688, eventually settling on a plantation in Mansfield Township. They had five children: Jacob, Jeremiah, Isaac Jr., Sarah, and Elizabeth. On June 13, 1696 Jacob Sr. died, leaving his plantation and other property to his second wife, Sarah.
Jacob Ong was born on his father’s plantation around 1672, and followed in his footsteps as a farmer. An early court case in 1698 tells of Jacob being accused of riding his horse at a gallop “in the fair time Betwixt the Market house and the water side” in Burlington City – charges that were eventually dropped when nobody appeared in court to prosecute. Sometime after 1699 he left Mansfield, following his sister Sarah and her new husband, Edward Andrews, to Egg Harbor.
The forlorn cedar swamps along the Stop the Jade Creek called to Jacob, and in 1700 he purchased 100 acres of land in Northampton Township, encompassing the area that would later be known as Ong’s Hat. There is no evidence that he ever intended to build a home there. It’s more likely he realized that he could make good money harvesting the cedars on his land.
So what about the hat? The oldest maps simply show the location as “Ongs.” Thomas Gordon’s Gazetteer of 1834 seems to be the first published source in which the town gains its puzzling surname.
Several theories abound explaining the unusual name. The most famous recounts Jacob Ong as a type of dandy, as best as the eighteenth century could produce, that regularly visited the local tavern. Jacob was quite the charmer and known for wearing a fine silk hat. One night he seems to have gotten on the wrong side of his dance partner who, in a fit of anger, snatched the hat from Jacob’s head and stomped on it in the middle of the dance floor. This story can be discounted, as a tavern was not located here until the early 1800s. Another story is that Ong’s Hat is a misspelling of Ong’s Hut, and that the Ong family built a hut or some other structure as a convenient stopping-over point between Egg Harbor and Burlington or Mansfield.
I find the most plausible theory to be one concerning the tavern at Ong’s Hat. Isaac Haines was one of the first recorded tavern keepers in the area, establishing his business circa 1800. In the days where many people could not read, an identifying mark was more valuable than words. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to picture the tavern keeper painting a large hat on a crude pine board and hanging it from a pole to announce to passersby that they had reached the “Ong’s Hat Tavern.”
The town of Ong’s Hat soldiered on in relative anonymity until tragedy struck. About 1917, a pine hawker named John Zimbacke and his wife mysteriously disappeared from their small cabin. Nine years later, brothers Orville and Joseph Carpenter came across the skull of the woman while hunting for deer along the fringes of a cranberry bog north of Ong’s Hat. Arriving on the scene, Burlington County detectives, led by Ellis Parker, found the bones of John scattered by buzzards across nearly two miles. Suspicion fell to the couple’s son, who disappeared shortly before his parents went missing. The trail led Parker to New York City where, unfortunately, it went cold. It has been said that Parker kept the skull of the woman in his office as a reminder of the case he was unable to solve.
Eight years later, another crime brought Ong’s Hat back to the headlines. Farmer Ellwood Anderson was driving from Mount Holly to his home near Reed’s Bogs when he found the road blocked. It was shortly before 8 PM and the dim light of the moon illuminated the vehicle that had halted his progress. Anderson stopped his car and walked towards the vehicle, whose doors stood open. Inside, the bodies of two men slumped over to the side. Peering out into the dimly lit woods, he saw another body. Horrified, he ran back to his car and phoned the State Police barracks in Columbus.
When the police arrived, they found that the men had all been shot at least twice at close range with a double-barrel shotgun. Once again, Ellis Parker made his way out to Ong’s Hat to investigate. Details on the victims came first – Edward Reihl, Stanley Zimmer, and William Schwar, all from Easton, Pennsylvania. Prohibition had just started, and the three young men were known to be members of a gang that would follow molasses trucks to clandestine stills in Pennsylvania and Western Jersey. They would burst out after the truck had arrived and shake the owners of the still down for money with a threat to report their operations. The men frequently ran afoul of Pennsylvania mobsters, and it was reported that they had been “beaten up” several times prior. The detectives were tipped off that the trio had planned to raid a still in Trenton before the mobsters got to them. “They tried to burn somebody up once too often,” Detective Parker said to a Trenton Evening Times reporter, “and they got burned up themselves.” Parker surmised that the perpetrators rounded up the men and drove to a predetermined spot in the backwoods near Ong’s Hat. The men were removed from the car, lined up, executed, and haphazardly returned to the vehicle. Nearby residents reported hearing the retorts from the shotgun, but assumed that it was blasting being done nearby.
When Henry Charlton Beck visited in the late 1920s, he found the hamlet to be little more than a clearing with bits of broken brick, pieces of roofing, cast-off shoes, and long, straggly Indian grass to mark where the town once stood. He found one last resident, Eli Freed, trying to make a living there. Freed, then seventy-nine years old, had moved there from Chicago. At Ong’s hat, Freed said, he had cleared twenty acres by hand and built a house with the help of a man called Amer. He was having a rough time of it – the deer and rabbits kept eating the produce he attempted to grow, despite the high fences constructed to keep them out. By the time Beck came back to revisit, Freed had departed and Ongs Hat was deserted.
Ultimately, the strangest tale about Ong’s Hat has to be about the Incunabula Papers. In the papers, it’s claimed, Wali Fard, an American expatriate and follower of tantric and shamanistic magic, returned to America after the fall of Afghanistan to the Soviets. He laundered his savings by buying 200 acres of land near Ong’s Hat, including the former Ong’s Hat Rod and Gun Club. There, with several other people who had followed him from New York, he founded the Moorish Science Ashram.
Ten years later, the ashram became a place of refuge for other Moors and outcasts. Among the new residents, by then living in a scattering of weather-gray shacks, Airstream trailers, recycled chicken coops, and mail-order yurts, were Frank and Althea Dobbs, siblings and scientists. Joseph Matheney, one of the authors of the Incunabula Papers, claims that the Dobbs were scientists who lost their positions at Princeton University when they attempted to submit a thesis based on “cognitive chaos” – a scientific and philosophical system that stated that patterns of thought could affect autonomic functions like tissue repair and aging, unlock the brains unused potential, or perhaps even control matter itself.
At the ashram, the scientists resumed their aborted experiments. Through trial and error they found that by controlling thought patterns, especially with the use of sensory deprivation, that one might be able to cross over to another universe. They constructed a series of “vessels” they named “eggs” that would facilitate the journey. The legend continues that one night the compound was raided in a “black ops” operation and the buildings and experiments all destroyed. Elsewhere the papers say that groups of refugees left before the raid happened, settling in Ong’s Hat in a parallel universe – one just like our own but without human habitation.
While the events that they claim happened at Ong’s Hat are certainly fictional – there was never any Ong’s Hat Rod and Gun Club, for example – the story itself once again thrusts the tiny backwoods hamlet back into the spotlight. Joseph Matheny and others created the Incunabula story as an experiment in “culture jamming” – creating a fictional, yet somewhat plausible, story and weaving it into the social consciousness. He was successful – years of photocopied pamphlets, text files uploaded to pirate and fringe internet bulletin board systems, websites, blogs, radio interviews, and books have cemented the infamy of Ong’s Hat.
Whether it’s a hat, a hut, or a tavern, Ong’s Hat is certainly one of the most infamous of the Pine Barrens ghost towns.
Hidden back in the woods near Buckingham, the deserted station stop of the Pennsylvania Railroad that brought visitors from Philadelphia to Long Branch in the late 19th century, a scattering of cinderblock bricks forlornly marks the location where a hunting club once stood. Here, in country aptly described as “dismal even on a sunny day” by the late Henry Charlton Beck, scarcely a foot may tread.
I first explored the ruins, plainly marked out on the USGS topographic map of the area, sometime in the summer of 2006. I had explored the area near Buckingham several years prior, but never ventured off the wide, sandy road that follows the right of way of the defunct railroad. I had never ventured down the side roads that plunged deep into the foreboding woods that were fringed with ominous swamps.
The way to the ruins turned out to be easy enough – follow what the maps call “Lebanon State Forest Road” which cuts into the woods near St. Stephens Episcopal Church on Route 539 in Whiting to Butler Place Road. Make a right at the first sandy intersection and you’ll soon pass some small ruins on your right. These, to me, seem to be old sawmill that John Buckingham erected in the 1880’s. Handsomely built of concrete, they stand as testament to the quality of construction that Buckingham called for in his town. Shortly after that, to the left, will be a pair of old posts – presumably a fence or gate of some sort – and the tumbledown ruins of the gun club.
So what of the club? There’s scant clues at the ruins to tell what it is. The wooden posts at the front of the property are in relatively good order which, to me, would indicate that the ruins date to the latter part of the 20th century. This is confirmed by the cinderblock construction – anything older and it would be poured concrete, stone, or wood. Nothing appears here on the 1930 aerial photographs, although the 1963 aerials show what appears to be a building on the site. By 1970 the entire area is cleared and a building is onsite, but appears to be in ruins by 1986. Curiously it looks like the owners of the property dug a small pond in the back which still holds water today.
The day I visited the heat was oppressive, and swarms of biting flies were ever present as I surveyed the remains of the building that must have fallen down decades prior. The footprint of the structure was impressive, with a well-laid floor of stone and concrete. The walls were constructed with cinderblocks, the building material of choice for these types of hunting clubs that would generally only see seasonal habitation. An ancient refrigerator – most likely propane powered for there are no poles to carry electricity here – lay on its back baking in the hot July sun. Behind the ruins was a metal shed, peppered with buckshot and slug holes. I left, having been chased away by the flies.
I came back in February of 2008, taking my new Jeep out on its maiden run through the Pines. A light snow had fallen, and the ruins were dusted in picturesque patches of white powder. Gone was the refrigerator and some metal beams that had been set in the concrete floor – victim to a traveler who was more interested in the scrap value of the remains than keeping them intact for others to enjoy. The flies were gone, thankfully, but a chill wind and a desire to press on to explore the remains of a nearby cranberry bog made for a swift retreat.
Four years later finds me back at these ruins. The spring weather is enjoyable, and gone are the oppressive flies, replaced by dozens of young black dragonflies to keep me company. As always, time presses on and, at some point after I last visited, another vandal or scrapper came by and took down the metal shed. A pile of wood scattered around and left to rot is all that remains of it.
The tavern was a building that, in colonial America, was second in importance only to the meetinghouse. Here a person could hear the news, find the market prices of goods, conduct business, attend court, and enjoy a glass of beer, ale, wine, or other hard spirits.
The first tavern that historians can name is Lyons Ordinary, founded on the banks of the Passaic River in the new settlement of Newark around May of 1666. Henry Lyon was charged to “keep an Ordinary for the Entertainment of Travellers and Strangers.” While all traces of this early tavern have vanished under the tarmac and concrete of modern Newark, the idea upon which this this tavern was founded — so far as the legislature saw it: to provide comfort and accommodations for visitors—was the same as every other tavern in New Jersey.
The taverns that may predate Lyons have been lost to history. The British, having just defeated the Dutch and taken control over all of what would eventually become New Jersey in 1664, wasted no time in writing laws to govern the ordinaries. Over the course of the following centuries, laws would be enacted, repealed, enforced, and ignored. The first law regulating taverns appears in the Duke of York’s Laws in the Charter of William Penn on April 2, 1664:
No person or persons shall at any time under any pretence or Colour whatsoever undertake to be a Common Victuler, keeper of a Cookes shop, or House of Common entertainment, or publique seller of wine, Beare, Ale or strong waters by retail or a less quantity than a quarter Caske, without a certificate of his good behaviour from the constable and two Overseers at east of the parish wherein he dwelt and a Lycence first obtained under the hand of two Justices of the peace in the Sessions upon pain of forfeiting five pounds for every such offense, or Imprisonment at the discretion of the court.
Providing hospitality to strangers was of chief importance to the early settlers in America, and legislators enacted laws to ensure that taverns existed to provide entertainment and lodging to visitors. In East Jersey, a law enacted in 1688 provided for a fine of forty shillings per month for each town that did not have an ordinary. West Jersey generally left the matter up to the discretion of the local town. In either province, no one but the holder of a license could charge for giving lodging or meals to strangers. Furthermore, the law required the tavern keeper to maintain a register containing the names of all visitors for the local magistrates.
The earliest colonial taverns usually consisted of two rooms. One room contained a bar and tables for drinking and meals. The second served as residential quarters for the tavern keeper and his family. Like many early buildings the kitchen was usually just a lean-to connected to the back of the building and served double duty as a woodshed. Overnight guests would simply bunk down on the floor of the dining room once the last drinks were served and the night’s dishes were cleared away. The bar of an eighteenth-century tavern stood in a small alcove in the corner of the dining room, with a lockable door to one side and a short narrow ledge long enough for a few people to order drinks and bring them to their tables. At night a wooden barricade would swing down from the ceiling and close off the bar, keeping the proprietors valuable liquors secure from the strangers sleeping in the dining room. An example of this “cage bar” can still be found at the restored Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield.
The tavern building usually featured separate entrances for the bar and the private living quarters and a large covered porch ran across the front of the building. As the fortunes of the colonists improved and the taverns became larger and more elaborate, the builder maintained the tradition of a public and a private entrance. The presence of both doors under the continuous roof of a porch provides a valuable clue that helps differentiate an old tavern building from some farmhouses that also had multiple front doors.
Identifying the tavern would be a large wooden sign either attached to the building itself or hung from a nearby post. This custom began with English pubs and the law required a hanging sign to obtain a tavern license. The sign’s elaborate design directly reflected the fortunes and whims of the proprietor. In some cases the sign was just a simple board with the name of the establishment painted on it. Others might have elaborate carvings and/or surrounded with a wrought iron frame. Tavern keepers also changed locations, and, when leaving, they would often carry the sign to their new establishment. Thus, for example, the Kings Arms Tavern originated in Trenton and then relocated to Perth Amboy when the proprietor sold the original building.
Conversation and gossip served as the chief mode of entertainment at the tavern for the local gentry and travelers. The tavern keeper also occasionally held dances, although the larger of these gatherings, at least in the Pine Barrens, occurred in dedicated dance halls. The infamous pine robber, Joe Mulliner, had a penchant for the dances held at the Quaker Bridge tavern and the authorities finally apprehended the miscreant at a dance held in the tavern at Nesco.
The games played at taverns often drew the ire of the Legislature. Amusements such as dice, shuffleboard, quoits, long bullets, and ninepins— an ancestor to modern day bowling—provided entertainment at the tavern and many who would have normally worked in the fields or mills loitered around the tavern looking for a game. In 1739 the Legislature lamented in an act that the tavern was not “for the Encouragement of Gaming, Tipling, Drunkenness, and other Vices so much as of late practiced at such Places, to the great Scandal of Religion, and Dishonour of God, and the impoverishing of the Commonwealth.”
In 1779 the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the playing of “Fives, Ninepins, Long Bullets, or similar Games at a Tavern or in the Highway or on the Grounds, or against the House of any Person, without Leave.” Lesgislators later amended the law to allow shuffleboard, bowls, quoits, and ninepins under local option.
The “sport” of Cockfighting became associated with these early taverns. Then, as much as now, officials would not tolerate the fights and the sponsors held the events clandestinely. Owners carried their birds to the tavern yard and men would assemble in a circle lit only by an oil lantern and the stars to watch the birds fight. Sometimes a particularly successful bird, famous at some other tavern, would be brought in to challenge the local champion. Usually the noise and crowd attracted attention, but, more often than not, the men, birds, and prize money would disappear by the time any constable arrived to investigate.
Taverns also attracted traveling shows and carnivals. These exhibitions drew crowds from far and wide to witness the “monstrous sights” of trained animals, slight of hand performances, puppet shows, and various fake mechanical devices. These shows grew in such number and frequency that, yet again, the Legislature felt the need to act and on March 16, 1798 enacted a law with a preamble that read:
“And whereas public shews and exhibitions of divers kinds have of late become very frequent and common within this State, whereby many strangers and worthless persons have unjustly gained and taken to themselves considerable sums of money, and it being found on experience that such shews and exhibitors tend to no good or useful purpose in society, but, on the contrary to collect together great numbers of idle and unwary spectators, as well as children and servants, to gratify vain and useless curiosity, loosen and corrupt the morale of youth, and straiten and impoverish many poor families.”
The type and quality of food served naturally depended on the location of the tavern. For taverns located in cities such as Burlington, Newark, and Princeton, the fare was quite lavish. Accommodations off the beaten path provided far less comfort. John Torrey, the famous New York botanist, traveled through the Pine Barrens in 1818 researching material for his publication Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York. After leaving the tavern at Quaker Bridge he continued on to the tavern at Ten-Mile Hollow in Berkley Township where he noted that:
“After we left Quaker bridge we fared pretty hard. Some places called taverns that we were put up at were not fit for an Arab. At a place called Ten Mile Hollow, or Hell Hollow, we expected to sleep in the woods, for it was with most difficulty that we persuaded them to take us in. This was the most miserable place we ever saw; they were too poor to use candles. No butter, sugar, etc. A little sour stuff which I believe they called rye bread, but which was half sawdust, and a little warm water and molasses were all we had for breakfast. For supper, I could not see what we had, for we ate in the dark.”
The courts set prices for food, drink, and lodging almost from the beginning. The Court in Burlington adopted a resolution on August 8, 1682:
“Ordered by ye Cort that no Person or Persons keeping or shall keep an Ordinary or Inne within ye Jurisdiction of this Cort shall from after ye Tenth day of August inst. take more than Two pence for an Ale quart of good wholesome Ale, or strong Beere, and Benj. West and Henry Grubb are by ye Cort appointed to be Ale Tasters and to see ye measures for Ale & Beere, according to ye order above, until next General Assembly, or further orders.”
These were the days before a la carte menus became the norm, and the food served at the tavern was usually whatever the proprietor felt like cooking at the time. Drinks consisted of beer, ale, cider, wine, or a limited selection of spirits, chiefly rum. Unlike today’s taverns that have a variety of different drinks available, the choices in the past were limited to whatever the tavern may have had on hand.
Drink prices also varied depending on whether you drank indoors or out. The authorities levied serious fines for those who overcharged, particularly during the Revolution. The May 2, 1778 Minutes of the Council of Safety record that the Council levied a heavy fine of six pounds per offense against tavern keeper Samuel Smith for overcharging. The Council also forced him to forfeit the charges for the food, drink, and lodging entirely, bringing his fine to £37.2.6. A schedule of the prices the Burlington Court established in 1739 can be found at the end of this article.
While drinking was tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the most conservative of Quakers , drunkenness proved to be a serious offense in New Jersey’s early days. As early as 1683, the General Assembly passed a law that provided for either a fine of three shillings and four pence per offense or confinement in the stocks for a period of not more than five hours. The courts summoned Peter Groom in 1694 and, having been fined five shillings for standing before the court with his hat on, unluckily had his fine raised to fifty pence once he admitted that “hee had got over much strong drink” and had appeared “before ye Court drunk.”
The law also prohibited the sale of liquor to the Indians. In 1680 the Burlington court decreed that:
“… if any psn or psons shall hereafter, directly or indirectly, sell any Rumme or other strong Liquors to any Indian or Indians, either by great or small measure without order from ye Cort then such pson or psons soe offending shall forfeit & pay for every such offense 50s And upon refusall neglect or non-payment of ye same it shall be Leviyed upon any of ye Goods & Chattles of ye pson or psons soe offending by Distress & sale of ye same. This is to continue until further order.”
The court modified the measure shortly thereafter to allow the sale of liquor to the Indians in small measure provided that the Indians depart “into ye Woods to drinke ye same there, yt [that] soe the people may be nee disturbed by them.”
Taverns in the cities tended to sprout up wherever a licensee may have a house or a plot of land on which to build one. Outside of population centers, however, taverns were constructed at convenient intervals along stagecoach lines and served as rest stops for both the horses and drivers as well as the passengers. Frequently the stages carried freight and mail as well, and the stage stop in Arneytown near the border of Burlington and Monmouth Counties served not only as a tavern but also as a post office and general store.
Before the Revolution, the county courts made it quite difficult to obtain a license for a tavern, yet, despite the population of West Jersey being 13,714 people in 1726, quite a number of taverns existed within the province. After the Revolution, returning veterans and widows of fallen soldiers created a flood of tavern license applications, and the courts were only too happy to oblige. By 1784, fifty-seven taverns existed in Burlington County, thirty in Gloucester, twenty-six in Salem, five in Cape May, forty-seven in Hunterdon, and ten in Cumberland. Just two years later, William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey, complained:
“I have seen four times as many taverns in the State as are necessary. These superabundant taverns in the State are continuously haunted by idlers. These taverns are confessedly so many nuisances – all well regulated governments abolish them, and yet I have not seen any of our courts that license them willing to retrench the supernumerary ones.”
Two years prior to Livingston’s lament, the residents of Greenwich Township in Gloucester County, perhaps fearing an explosion in the number of taverns operating nearby, filed a petition with the court protesting an increase in the number of tavern licenses. The petition stated “that the number [of taverns] now are Sufficent for the Uses for which they are instituted, that any more May be of Great Disadvantage to Sundry of the Near inhabitants Who are apt to frequent such Places to the Poverishment of Themselves and familys.”
The fears of idleness and drunkenness resulting from the growing number of taverns in New Jersey and beyond, coupled with changing social morals in the early nineteenth century likely provided an impetus for the Temperance movement, which urged the complete abstinence of alcoholic beverages. The closing of the iron furnaces in South Jersey and the migration of the workforce away from these now deserted villages starved the taverns for business. As the nineteenth century came to a close, most stage routes had ceased operations, the horses and carriages replaced by much faster automobiles and trucks and the taverns along the route often underwent conversion into homes. Although illicit distilleries operated in the Pine Barrens during Prohibition, the last of the old taverns had finally closed.
While the heyday of the old taverns is long gone, some of the old taverns and stagecoach stops once again serve alcohol and food. The Cassville Tavern in Jackson still retains much of the feel that an old stagecoach tavern must have had. In Chesterfield, the old Recklesstown Tavern, circa 1710, is again a bar and restaurant called the Chesterfield Inn and still hosts games of quoits. In these hallowed halls you can raise a glass of “good ale or beere” and join over three hundred years of drinking history in New Jersey’s taverns.
Appendix: 1739 Burlington Tavern Price Schedule
On August 19, 1739 the Burlington court set a schedule for the prices a tavern could charge for food, drink, and lodging. This list is an interesting example of the kinds of offerings these old taverns would have had. A tavern may have offered more or less than what this list shows, and should not be considered any sort of canonical “menu” for a contemporary tavern at the time. I have tried to clarify some of the language used in the schedule so it is not “as written” in 1739.
A Breakfast of Tea or Coffee with Bread & Butter & loaf sugar
Ditto with Muscovado Sugar
Ditto of wth chocolate wth bread & butter
Ditto of cold or hashed meat
A Dinner ordered extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider
A common hot family dinner with a Pint of Beer or Cider
Cold Ditto with a pint of Beer or Cider
A Supper ordered Extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider
Ditto of cold or hashed meat
A Quart of Common Strong Beer indoors
A Quart of Double Beer indoors
A Quart of Cider indoors
A Pint of Cider Royall
A Pint of Metheglin
A Quart of Mimbo with Loaf Sugar
Ditto with Muscovado Sugar
A Quart of Punch with Fresh Lemons or Oranges & Loaf Sugar
A Quart of Lime juice punch
A Quart of Milk or Egg punch
A Pint of plain Rum outdoors
A half of a pint out of doors
A Gill of plain Rum
A Gill of Cherry Rum
Ar/a Gill ditto
A Quart of Tiff
A Quart of Wine
All & Every afsd Liquors to be sold by measures having the Standard mark thereon according to An Act of General Assembly of this Province under sd Pains and Penalties therein contained.
Provender for Horses
Pasturing one night or each 24 hours
Stabling one night or each 24 hours at Common Hay
Ditto at Clover hay
Two Quarts of Oats
A half peck of Oats
A Lodger requiring a Bed unto himself
The historian Charles Boyer, in his excellent book Old Inns and Taverns in West Jersey, from which this author copied this schedule, explains some of the words that would be unknown today. “Muscovado sugar” is simply raw, unrefined brown sugar. Boiling down cider to one fourth of its original volume made “Cider Royall.” “Metheglin” is a concoction of fermented honey, herbs, and water. A “mimbo” was a drink made from rum and loaf sugar. Boyer failed in his efforts to determine the consistency of a “tiff,” except he noted that it contained a considerable amount – usually about a pint – of rum.
Of special note is the section about lodging. It was quite the custom for an innkeeper to “pack them in” when he could, and friends and strangers of the same sex frequently found themselves sharing a bed. While someone could request a bed of their own, customs of the day would have made that person look quite obnoxious and fastidious.
I set off on todays adventure, as I have so many in the past, following the path of the late historian Henry Charlton Beck. Beck explored many of the “forgotten towns” of Southern New Jersey while writing for the Camden Courier Post in the 1930s and continued writing about them up to his death in 1965.
The trail today would take me through Crosswicks, home of the famous Quaker meeting house with a cannon ball from the Revolutionary War embedded in it. For Beck the journey along the old country lanes and byways must have taken forever, but the modern highways of Rt. 295 and Rt. 195 made short work of my trip from Princeton. The way to Crosswicks is through Yardville, and almost immediately after exiting the highway time seems to begin to turn back. Old houses line even older roads from a time before a committee or developer named them, but by virtue of what little hamlet they’d bring you to. The area is full of them: Crosswicks-Hamilton Square Road; Crosswicks-Chesterfield Road who’s name inverts once you get closer to Chesterfield; Georgetown-Chesterfield Road – they go on and on.
The description Thomas Gordon gives of Crosswicks in his New Jersey Gazetteer of 1834 still seems a good description of the town:
“… contains from 40-50 dwellings, a very large Quaker meeting house and school, 4 taverns, 5 or 6 stores, a saw mill and grost mill; the village is pleasantly situated in a fertile country, who’s soil is sandy loam; near the town is a bed of iron ore, from which considerable quantities are taken to the furnaces in the lower part of the county.”
Dominating the village green of Crosswicks for the last two hundred and thirty years is a large brick Quaker meetinghouse, built in 1773 at a cost of $3750. This is the third meetinghouse located on the site since the congregation began meeting in 1693. During the Revolutionary War both the British and the Colonials used the meetinghouse as barracks, which proved to be difficult for the pacifist Quakers who still continued to hold meetings there during the conflict. Within the meetinghouse is an old bog iron stove from Atsion, one of three known to still exist.
Crosswicks was the scene of a skirmish between the British and the Americans during the Revolution. In 1778, as General Clinton and his troops were retreating back towards New York the militia destroyed the bridge over Crosswicks Creek. There were several exchanges of fire including some of the British field pieces, with one wayward British cannonball embedding itself in the side of the meetinghouse. At some point in time a caretaker dug the cannon ball out of the wall and kept it at his house for safekeeping. After his death, sometime in the early 20th century, the ball was returned and a mason hired to plaster it back into place. The ball is still there today, visible between two windows on the upper story.
Walking through the town is like stepping back in time. The Crosswicks Library is located in the building formerly occupied by the Union Fire Company. The old post office, further down the road, is quaint in its red siding. Old houses line the street perilously close to the road, old “wavey glass” still in many of their windowpanes.
At the end of the town is the Crosswicks Inn, the latest name for a structure that served as a stagecoach stop throughout the 18th century. Across from there is the old Hamilton Uniforms Factory, originally the Edgar Brick & Sons Mince Meat Factory. The rambling weathered building is from 1874 and appears all but abandoned.
The road from Crosswicks led on to Chesterfield, once Recklesstown, passing along picturesque farms and a mix of new and old houses. Recklesstown, they say, comes from the Reckless family, one of whom died trying to apprehend John Bacon at the Battle of Cedar Bridge in 1782. In 1834 Gordon found the town to contain “a tavern, store, and 10 or 12 dwellings…” Today the tavern and store are still in operation and not many more dwellings line the ancient roads. It’s a quiet, tranquil place although my presence photographing a tree in the general store parking lot seemed to annoy one person who sneered at me as he drove past in his truck.
The trip to Arneytown from Chesterfield continued on through this historic area. Old houses, some clapboard, some brick, mixed in here and there along tree-lined roads that all of a sudden opened up alongside vast farm fields. Province Line Road cuts right into Arneytown, along the old Arneytown Inn that has recently been purchased by a history-minded couple intent on restoring and preserving it. Here, too, historic homes line the street and, at the bend of the road opposite the tavern, lays a little known graveyard said to contain the bones of the notorious Pine Robber John Bacon.
The cemetery is a small, unkempt affair. It’s not marked with any signs and the headstones are perilously close to the road. They stretch back into the undergrowth in what seem to be three rows. Doubtless many more stones than just the one that marked Bacon’s grave have been lost to time. Here lie the Harrises, Blacks, Tiltons, Schooleys and Lawries. Nearly forgotten as time – and the road nearby – passes on.
From there, Province Line Road takes you up near Walnford in Upper Freehold Township. Crossing a picturesque single lane bridge you arrive at the back of Historic Walnford Village, now part of the Monmouth County Park System.
The mansion there is similar to the ones at Batsto and Atsion – grandiose country manors that housed masters of industry that the towns centered upon. At Batsto it was iron. At Walnford it was a gristmill, sawmill, fulling mill, blacksmith and cooper ships, tenant homes, farm buildings, and an orchard. Richard Waln, a Philadelphia Quaker, purchased the mills and surrounding land to build a country estate in 1772. He built a beautiful 7 bedroom, five thousand square foot home overlooking the millpond across from the gristmill. It is said that Richard sympathized with the British, which makes sense given the amount of sympathy the British had in old Monmouth County. His political leanings put him at risk to have his property confiscated, but he seems to have dodged that particular bullet when he was arrested. The property stayed in the Waln family until 1973 when it passed to the Mullen family, who still operate a farm nearby. They deeded what is now Historic Walnford Village to the county in 1985.
The mansion is open to visitors, and the similarities to the old Atsion mansion are striking. The kitchen, with its giant brick hearth and ovens, is roughly the same size as Atsion. Some of the mantles around the fireplaces are marble, and all of them have cast iron firebacks. Though the inscriptions are worn over time most seem to be from Pennsylvania furnaces, notably one from Mary Ann Furnace near Hanover, Pennsylvania. Unlike Atsion, however, there are very un-Quaker decorative flourishes throughout the house. In the family room off the formal parlor there are two closets with beautiful scalloped woodwork above decorative flourished wooden shelves. Each bedroom has its own closet, a sign of wealth and prestige back in the 18th century.
The house once housed a post office. Kept by “Aunt” Sally Waln, who was widowed after only two years of marriage. By all accounts she was a strong woman, simultaneously tending the post office, managing the gristmill operation, and taking care of her elderly mother. The room that the post office was housed in eventually became a kitchen in the 1970s and, while there are no appliances in it anymore, the color and style of cabinetry harks back to that brown and gold era.
In 1822 the gristmill, which had been doing less and less business in the face of neighboring competitors, burnt down. Other Walns who had moved away argued against rebuilding it, but Sally was determined since the mill had been so important to the Waln family in the past. Today the mill is much as it was back then. Leather belts cross overhead, connecting the driving power of the mill turbine to various machines located on the three floors. A pulley elevator, guarded by a sleeping cat when I visited, is in the front of the building, still ready to lower milled corn and grain down to a waiting wagon that will never come again.
Here, then, is the picturesque land where Burlington and Monmouth County meet. A land of slow, narrow country lanes bordered by historic houses, inns, and farms. A land steeped in the time and tradition of bygone days of the past.