Famed South Jersey Estate is a Romantic Area

Now that the vast Wharton estate, tri-county treasure trove of many of these stories, is back in the news, I feel impelled to refresh your memory concerning it. I do that knowing that there will be as many exaggerations as there may be fantastic tales concerning its places and people before, if enabling action follows Gov. Driscoll’s budgetary proposal, the area becomes a state park.

It was the governor’s idea that the tract variously estimated upward and downward of 100,000 acres be taken over as a park, water reservation, and wildlife preserve, with $2,000,000 set aside in the 1952 New Jersey budget for that purpose. However, the motive in giving you a clearer picture of what there is and what there was springs from current rumors of what there is to be. Beyond all that, I would eliminate, even before they are re-confected, those silly notions about the people called “Pineys.”

Perhaps it is that I am unduly alarmed by the reports that are already rampant among my Down Jersey friends, some of them those very people. It is common gossip that even before the Legislature can act to preserve this primitive woodland, with a colorful history reaching back to Colonial days, competitive bids are in from government agencies as well as from commercial organizations in search of additional sources of wood pulp. There can be little doubt but what government men are interested in at least an area bordering what always has been familiar to me as the old Washington Turnpike for here, as well as in adjacent lands, test borings and surveys have been made. I would not fear the invasion of these forces as much as I would the pulp people who, even now, on land outside the Wharton estate, have taken what they wanted and left many neighborhoods desolate.

The governor’s proposal seems to be a popular one and even the editorial writers who come equipped with scratchy pens have commended It. One of them waxed unusually poetic in recent days, ruminating with incredible accuracy In this strain:

‘Wild’ territory abounds in area

Those who know this territory can testify to its fascination. Take winding roads north either from Atco or Hammonton, turning off the White Horse Pikes and one soon enters what some would call ‘wild’ territory. For miles there will be only woodland and then, suddenly, lovely lakes and streams. In this region the Mullica begins as a tiny creek to become the broad river along which boats once traveled to Batsto and Pleasant Mills to get cannon bails, made of bog iron, for our Revolutionary armies.

Two other rivers – the Wading and Great Egg Harbor – run through the tract, and it was this broad watershed which led Joseph Wharton, founder of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, to begin buying up these tracts about 1876, with the idea of providing potable water for Philadelphia.

I think I know who it was who swerved from the main highway of ordinary commentary to the sequestered byways among some of my favorite forgotten towns. If I am correct in my conclusions, he once was a music critic and so it would be easy for him to drift off into these lyric cadences too often eliminated from pages assigned to commentators. Boiling down the chain of events from 1876 to the present, at least from his point of view, the writer went on:

“It was a great idea. There were two drawbacks: Philadelphia politicians preferred Delaware River water, and the New Jersey Legislature banned piping of water outside the state. The idea died. Before Wharton bought the properties they had known the feudal barony of Jesse Richards, who had mansions In Batsto and Atco and who operated two bog iron furnaces, a glassworks, a paper mill, farms, and minor industries. These had largely gone, leaving ghost towns behind them, by the time Wharton took over. Since then the great tract has known little activity save that of workers on cranberry bogs, cottages dotting the lake at Atsion, explorations of naturalists and historians, and the rustle and tempo of abundant wildlife.”

“It is a great preserve which the State of New Jersey would acquire, less some 10,000 acres which the Navy is reported to want for an air training field, and the cottage sites which would be sold to their occupants.”

The writer concluded by commending the purchase so that New Jersey might boast an area comparable to Fairmount Park, as meaningful in other ways to Philadelphia – but I must reassure you quickly, as one who picknicked as a boy in all sections of Fairmount Park, that the comparison is unfortunate. To transform the Wharton tract into another Fairmount Park would be a nightmare to those who love the wilds and, even if it were part of the plan, would require many more dollars than those set aside as presumably sufficient purchase price. However, it is at this point that I catch my breath a little for unless some provision is made for maintenance of the park in the years to come, with guards and caretakers and those who will tell its wonderful story, the dream will indeed be empty. I say this parenthetically with considerable concern in knowing what could have been done long ago in smaller state parks but, as you know, has not been for lack of funds.

Legacies often present problem

Too often an agency, be it, state or a diocese or even a family, accept as a gift or purchase reasonably an estate or a big house only to discover that moving in is one thing and staying on is something else. Even if no major improvements are undertaken for some time to come, guards and guides will have to be provided – guards to prevent ravishment of pulp lands such as has been experienced already even on private property adjacent to the Wharton tract, guides who will know and be able to tell the colorful story of the park in a way that will take history out of its moth balls.

Custodians of historic sites are in most instances earnest people but time and again they affect an air of boredom or show themselves to be annoyed by questions they cannot answer. All of It gets back to the same thing – funds were provided for acquisition of this site and that park but funds for maintenance with suitable personnel have not been forthcoming.

I say this almost in a whisper for I have long advocated the purchase of the Wharton lands by the state, if for no other reason than to preserve what remains as compared to what there used to be when I first began wandering across and through and around the Wharton lands more than 20 years ago. Some of my most memorable adventures have had their background there, along the little rivers – and there are more than the two named in the commendable editorial along the unsung roads that preceded ribbons of concrete in days when shovels and axes were taken along for safe passage, and along the swamps and cedar water that give a strange and clinging perfume to every season of the year.

It has been given to me to talk with men and women who knew Joe Wharton and I have written down recurrently what other men and women have told me about the forges and furnaces of the Richards empire which before that was the empire of Charles Read, intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin, collector of the Port of Burlington, secretary of the province, speaker of the Assembly, member of the council, justice of the Supreme Court, colonel of the militia and commissioner to treat with the Indians – Mrs. Read was a Creole, daughter of a planter in Antigua.

I have listened, time and again, beside the potbellied stoves of country stores where history is passed around verbally, generation to generation, and have heard of Joe Wharton’s fragrant “fish factories” along the coast. And so, in the land of Joe Mulliner, the Refugee who was hanged in Burlington and taken to property of his wife now in the Wharton holdings, I have been steeped in the atmosphere of Atsayunk of the Atsiyonks (now Atsion) and the Mordecai Swamp where a pile of cannon balls are said to have sunk to China by now.

One of the books that ought to be read for greater appreciation of the probable Wharton or Richards or Read state park is Carl Raymond Woodward’s “Ploughs and Politicks: Charles Read of New Jersey and His Notes on Agriculture,” published by the Rutgers University Press In 1941 and never fully appreciated. Charlie Boyer, to whom you have been introduced already, also gives many pages of his “New Jersey Forges and Furnaces,” published by the University of Pennsylvania Press 10 years before, to what he calls the Charles Read Enterprises. Carl Woodward’s book the by-product of a search for Benjamin Franklin’s New Jersey farm near Burlington where both Ben and Read experimented in agriculture and where Read may have taken for his studies in farming which were included in “Ploughs and Politics.”

Burlington had a customs man

The Wharton land, then, covers much of the territory where Charles Read, In the years from 1715 to 1774, spent his youth, became a customs collector when Burlington was a port, speculated in pinelands as did his successors, set up the operation of bog ore furnaces and forges on a chain-store basis, became a leading politician of the Jersey provinces and died in exile in North Carolina. And if you would like to compare what I have called the things that were with the things that are in the area of the proposed park, you have only a glance at some of the illustrations in Carl’s book, then those that appear in “Jersey Genesis and finally, what you will see with your own eyes today.

Reproductions of scenes in the Burlington of Charles Read’s day make me wonder why Burlington, celebrating its anniversary, made little effort to become another Williamsburg, unless It was that the foundations organized for such purposes let officials down. The magnificent old houses assigned to the forge masters at Taunton, Atsion and Batsto, as well as the old store, long closed among its Batsto memories of merchant craft that dared the river, have lost a little more than face. At Atsion the mansion whose portico is supported by pillars of Jersey iron is used for storing materials of the Wharton Estate, inasmuch as the estate manager lives nearby.

The mansion at Pleasant Mills, not far from the little Methodist Church dedicated by Francis Asbury, is maintained in good order inasmuch as the Lippincotts of Philadelphia publishing fame, use it as a sylvan retreat – they, you see, are descendants of the Whartons. If you would concentrate on forges and furnaces, Martha, Taunton, Etna, Batsto and all the rest, you had better pore over Charlie Bowyer’s notes.

The editorial used the word “fasting.” It is wholly accurate. No matter how many times you have wandered through the Wharton estate and it’s wonderful neighborhoods, and no matter how long you have been away, something calls you back to again look upon the unbroken expanse of scrub oak and stunted pines as they can be seen from Jemima Mount or Bear Swamp Hill; to dig into the ruins of a tavern at Washington Field, where Joe Mulliner was caught at a dance; to await the harbingers of spring, herring in the Mullica River whose story took a whole book to tell, and to listen for new stories at Aunt Hattie’s store at Green Bank, now ably carrying on its traditions under the direction of her nephew, Rod Koster. Aunt Hattie, God rest her sweet soul, taught school at Harrisville where there was a town, now recalled in broken walls and cellar holes on the road down from Chatsworth, a road I like to travel late in May or early in June when the Jersey cactus or prickly pear decks the Indian grass with yellow bell like flowers.

I was thinking of that in Aunt Hattie’ store the other day, just after the announcement had been made to buy the Wharton lands. I have thought aloud for Arthur Sooy of Green Bank, spoke up. “I remember Joe Wharton” he said. “I was here in the day he came down this way to buy Harrisville.” I told him that I was old enough to recall a time when the Wharton estate men had to employ a watchman to live beside the Harrisville ruins to prevent theft of the native stone from the crumbling walls.

Roasted oysters on store ledge

“Billy Sooy owned the store, then,” said Rod. ‘He used to roast oysters right there on the ledge that goes all the way around the stove. Once he fell asleep in the chair and some of those who were in the store pried the oyster shells and ate the oysters inside. When Billy woke up and reached for what he thought he was going to enjoy, he found the oyster shells empty. I’m getting worse,’ he said. ‘I open oysters in my sleep and can’t remember eating them.’”

“Jackie” Ford, who still lives up the road, not far from the banks of the Mullica, is one of many still living in the neighborhood who worked for Joe Wharton when Joe ran a fleet of boats that supplied “fish factories” with mossbunkers, sometimes called greentails as the mainstay of early glue and fertilizer. Jackie told me long ago that Joe, once a mayor of Philadelphia, operated boats that plied from the Virginia Capes to Rhode Island.

“Most people know mossbunkers as menhaden, minnies to you maybe” said Jackie. “Joe Wharton’s factories were at Lewes, Delaware; Tiverton, Rhode Island, and a place called Promised Land which was out at the mouth of the Mullica. Steamers loaded up and brought fish to the factories for whatever factory men were paying. We could bring in about a million in a load,” said Jackie Ford.

Leon Koster, Rod’s father, also worked at the fish factories. Now Leon Is part of the Green Bank tree farm of the state which, already state property, will concentrate its routines nearer Trenton. The nursery once was Sooy land and was taken over by the state in a mixup that involved debts and politics. Joe Wharton bought the vast estate in foreclosure proceedings and, writing “Jersey Genesis” almost 10 years ago, I said, “There are always recurrent expressions of belief that the dreads of the Wharton Estate as a watershed will come true.”

The land is as plentiful in water as it is in legend and history, with the most colorful legends centered at what used to be “The Forks” – now Batsto and Pleasant Mills. “It is surely ironical,” I wrote elsewhere, “that of all the landings up and down the Mullica, The Forks, signally celebrated in every record of the countryside, should have gone so fast asleep, its kings and captains departed for so long.”

Now, quite obviously, the glorious wilderness in which some of the richest lore of New Jersey is concentrated, will awaken and some of us must guard against a rude awakening.

There must be those who will guard the placid lives who always have lived in the woodlands – the mossies who gather sphagnum, the little mills that make shingles in old-fashioned ways, the berry pickers never at a loss to find ways to make a modest living at any season of the year, the men and women and children who gather and color pine-cones, and all the rest. New Jersey, buying a place, cannot, buy a people and beyond the people a way of life that is New Jersey’s own in what I have called a never-never land. Later on, when, more details of the prospective park purchase are more certain, I will tell you of the descendants of titans of early industries who, as resourceful giants of the forest themselves, will he memorialized in a new and seemingly limitless state park.

First published in the Newark Sunday Star Ledger, Feb. 24, 1952. Reprinted with permission. Transcribed by Ben Ruset. The Star Ledger requests that you do not copy, retransmit, or link directly to this article. Please link to our homepage at http://www.njpinebarrens.com

Atsion: Part 3 – To the Modern Day

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.

Fruitland, as it appeared on the 1870 Beers Atlas of Burlington County. Planned, but never built.
Fruitland, as it appeared on the 1870 Beers Atlas of Burlington County. Planned, but never built. (From the Rutgers Historical Map Collection.)

 

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.

Public School Number 94, built by Raleigh in 1872. It was rebuilt in 1916 and has fallen into ruin today.
Public School Number 94, built by Raleigh in 1872. It was rebuilt in 1916 and has fallen into ruin today.

 

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.

The Richards' mansion after the 2009 restoration.
The Richards’ mansion after the 2009 restoration.

 

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.

This chimney is all that remains of the Fleming paper mill / Raleigh cotton factory / Wharton cranberry packing house.
This chimney is all that remains of the Fleming paper mill / Raleigh cotton factory / Wharton cranberry packing house.

 

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.

Atsion: Part 2 – Prosperity and Decline

This is part two of a three part series looking at the history of the ghost town of Atsion. You can find part one at this link.

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.

The Richards' mansion at Atsion, during the 2009 restoration.
The Richards’ mansion at Atsion, during the 2009 restoration.

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 oven and stove fireplace in the ground level basement kitchen.
The oven and stove fireplace in the ground level basement kitchen.

 

A marble mantle surrounds this fireplace featuring a cast iron fireback.
A marble mantle surrounds this fireplace featuring a cast iron fireback.

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.

Photographs courtesy of Terry Schmidt. 

 

Atsion: Part 1 – The Charles Read Era

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.

Sunset over the Atsion Lake. Photo courtesy of Scott Smith.
Sunset over the Atsion Lake. Photo courtesy of Scott Smith.

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.

Saltar's Ditch, the canal that caused a 7 year long legal battle with the owners of Batsto. Photo courtesy of Guy Thompson.
Saltar’s Ditch, the canal that caused a protracted legal battle with the owners of Batsto. Photo courtesy of Guy Thompson.

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.

A view of Quaker Bridge Road looking towards Atsion. Photo by the author.
A view of Quaker Bridge Road looking towards Atsion. Photo by the author.

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.

A Hat, a Hut, or a Tavern: The Tale of Ong’s Hat

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.[1] 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.[2] Members of the Society of Friends, the Ongs left England seeking religious tolerance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] Sometime after 1699 he left Mansfield, following his sister Sarah and her new husband, Edward Andrews, to Egg Harbor.[6]

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.[7] 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.

The Magnolia Road Tavern, just north of Ong's Hat.

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[13]

Apanay's Cafe at Ong's Hat

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.[14] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.

Continue reading “A Hat, a Hut, or a Tavern: The Tale of Ong’s Hat”

The Gun Club Near Buckingham

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.

The ruins, baking under a July sun.
The 'fridge, not so cool anymore.
Metal beams which proved to be too tempting a target for some scrapper.

The metal shed.

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.

The posts marking the entrance to the gun club.
The ruins on a snowy day.
The shed, two years later.
Inside the shed.

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.

All that remains now are the cinderblock ruins.
Ruins by the tree.

From Crosswicks to Walnford

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.”

The Quaker Meetinghouse at Crosswicks

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.

The cannonball embedded in the north wall of the Crosswicks Meetinghouse

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.

The Crosswicks Library
Crosswicks Post Office
Houses in Crosswicks
Bend in the road, Crosswicks.

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.

Crosswicks Inn

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.

Hamilton Uniforms Factory
Hamilton Uniforms Factory

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.

Chesterfield Inn Sign
The Chesterfield Inn
The Chesterfield Inn

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 old Arneytown Tavern, now a private home
Arneytown Graveyard
Arneytown Graveyard
Arneytown Graveyard

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 Waln Mansion at Walnford
Mary Ann Furnace Fireback from the Walnford Mansion

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.

Walnford Gristmill
Walnford Gristmill
Walnford Gristmill
Looking out at the Walnford Mansion from the Gristmill
The Walnford Gristmill

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.

The Hunt for Red Oak Grove

The name Red Oak Grove, for many, may be unheard of, but for Pine Barrens enthusiasts, it is an enigma bound within Pandora’s Box.  Its only evidence is the remains of several foundation pits, and a name listed on nineteenth century maps.  It is as elusive as it is intriguing.  Chatter abounds on Pine Barrens list-serves about it, and many seem to be the one who knows its full tale.  Often, these are the very same people who have placed their faith in Henry Beck’s accounts of the small village.

Now, I am not one to claim that I know everything there is to know about Red Oak Grove, but I have come a long way in piecing together much of its tale.  There is much still unknown about this area, but first let us begin with those common notions that are accepted and held as fact.

Part of the reason for scant information about Red Oak Grove, is that it disappeared.  Its inhabitants either moved away or died out for one reason or another.  Next, it was not a major hotbed of excitement, but rather a small, quiet rural village situated well away from larger towns.  Further, since it was never incorporated as its own municipal entity, there are few public documents pertaining to its existence.  And finally, since it disappeared more than a century ago, few living inhabitants of this region know anything about the area.

The hunt for this little village has been exhausting, in the sense that it has nearly exhausted every research venue that exists.  However, the search has also been somewhat fruitful.  What follows is incomplete, but is also the most comprehensive and detailed history of this elusive village.

The exact origins of Red Oak Grove are hard to pin down.  The village came into existence sometime around the early to mid 1840s.  It was originally a village of Pemberton Township, Burlington County, New Jersey.  Two of its early inhabitants were a man by the name of Samuel Bryant and his wife Leann.  In 1846 Bryant purchased a large parcel of timber land in Burlington County with a mortgage, built a house and lived there with his wife, this was in the vicinity now known as Red Oak Grove. [1] Whether there were many others living nearby is unknown as there are few documents pertaining to this area.  However, this was not Bryant’s only property; he also owned several acres of a development on the Pole Bridge Stream, near Mt. Misery. [2]

A cellar hole at Red Oak Grove
Old bricks in a cellar hole at Red Oak Gove

April 10, 1851 marked the earliest known “official” record for Red Oak Grove as Samuel Bryant applied to establish a Post Office at his home. [3] This post office was listed in several National and State gazetteers as located in Burlington County, New Jersey.[4]  On March 26, 1855 the Red Oak Grove post office of Burlington County was officially closed;[5.] and, in 1856 Bryant’s mortgage for Red Oak Grove was foreclosed upon.[6]  He died in 1857 and his property was divided and sold to several individuals.  One portion was sold to William Irick[7], a founding executive of the Medford Bank and owner of numerous sawmills and lumber tracts; another portion was sold to Lewis Neill,[8] a fire-brick maker from Philadelphia, and later a portion of the same estate was sold to Andrew McCall,[9] Methodist Minister and manager of Neill’s brick works.

Samuel Bryant Property Marker - Photo by Guy Thompson

William Irick held the deed to the lion’s share of Red Oak Grove, but the land was still being used for lumber.  Christopher Estlow, a Burlington County farmer, began to operate the mill on Irick’s behalf.  He moved to the region from Hanover Township[10], farther to the north and west.  In 1858, Estlow re-established the Red Oak Grove post office, situating it in Lacey Township, Ocean County[11] and, by 1859 he purchased the Red Oak Grove tract and launched headlong into the lumber industry.[12.]

In 1856 Lewis Neill began a fire-brick and pottery factory on a small part of the property that was known as Red Oak Grove.[13] However, Neill’s property was not located in Pemberton Township, Burlington County, but in Lacey Township, Ocean County.  Red Oak Grove crossed both township and county borders, but still consisted of adjoining properties.  His brick works, commonly known today as the “Union Clay Works,” was becoming more successful and soon he took on three business partners under the trade name of “Lewis Neill and Company.”[14] Neill began to buy more adjacent properties and expand the size of his land holdings at the factory, and in 1858 an article appeared in the New Jersey Courier, a local newspaper, telling about the new clay industry that was operating in the area.[15]

In 1858, a tobacconist and Methodist Minister from Philadelphia named Andrew McCall bought a parcel adjacent to the clay works and moved there.  The deed to his parcel listed the property as Red Oak Grove.[16]  McCall soon began working as the manager of the clay works[17] and probably also provided for the spiritual development of its workers as well.

1858 was a banner year for the area.  By this time, it was becoming necessary that a school be established for educating the local children.  Christopher Estlow, Lewis Neill, and Samuel Webb applied to the Ocean County Freeholders to establish a school district at an area they called “Plainville.”[18]  This “Plainville” was essentially the area situated around Neill’s factory, and was comprised of portions of what used to be Red Oak Grove.

Old map of Red Oak Grove and the Surrounding Area - Courtesy of Guy Thompson

In 1860,  Christopher Estlow closed the Post Office at Red Oak Grove, and established one at Woodmansie, only about two miles to the north.[19]  Woodmansie was a better area for Estlow due to the fact that the Raritan and Delaware Bay Railroad was planned to (and eventually did) pass right through it.

In 1862, Lewis Neill began to sell off portions of his property.  His first major sale was to Charles Middleton – a Gloucester County iron master who, like Estlow and Irick, was active in the lumber industry – and consisted of a parcel just north of the clay works.[20] He changed directions with his business, and by 1864 was buying land along the Barnegat Bay to use for raising oysters and growing salt hay.[21] By 1865 his shift away from brick-making was complete when he sold his factory to a brick and terra-cotta making operation from Brooklyn, New York and moved to Monmouth County, New Jersey.[22] Joseph K. Brick, the new owner of Neill’s works got the factory up and operating rather quickly.  However, within two years of the sale Joseph Brick died and ownership of the company passed to his wife, Julia.  Amid scandal and intrigue, Brick’s company continued operating underneath the direction of Julia Brick and Edward D. White.[23]  By November of 1867 the factory was firing clay pipe again and ready for distribution.[24]  The company was renamed the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Company[25], and operated only a short while longer until law-suits over Joseph Brick’s estate made keeping this factory afloat too cumbersome.  The factory closed down sometime in the late 1860s.[26]

In 1873 Andrew McCall, unable to pay his mortgage, sold his property at Red Oak Grove.  The buyer was Charles Middleton, who undoubtedly needed the land for his growing lumber business.[27.]  McCall moved to Manchester Village, only several miles away, and served the community as a clergyman.[28]  Also in the 1870s, Christopher Estlow expanded his lumber operations and bought the old mill at Wells Mills, located near Waretown.  He later expanded this operation to include additional saw mills and ran a very successful lumber company.

The Red Oak Grove area saw a lull in activity after the 1870s.  With the exception of Middleton’s lumber industry nearby there was little happening in the region.  The clay works was dormant; abandoned with a full stock of wares and unfired kilns.  The only industry extensive enough to maintain a good population, cranberry growing, was situated up near Woodmansie.  Part of the reason for this lull could be directly related to the Panic of 1873, a major depression that nearly crippled the American economy.  As a result, many banks and small businesses closed their doors bankrupt.

Mining reemerged in this region, however, just before the turn of the century.  Near Woodmansie were the Old Half Way clay mines, the same that were used to supply Neill’s works.  The mines were purchased by Alfred A. Adams, a hotel owner in Woodmansie, who started mining and selling local clay again in 1896.[29]  Part of the impetus for this was talk of a new rail spur being laid through Woodmansie, Union Clay Works, Red Oak Grove, and all the way out to Tuckerton.  In 1895, the Brighton Land Company filed plans for a development called “Red Oak Park,” which was to be situated just north of the defunct “Union” clay works.[30] The development was quite large and spanned the Ocean County / Burlington County border.  When the railroad failed to go through, however, the development failed with it and was bankrupted by the early 1900s.[31]

As for the defunct clay works, it stayed dormant until 1897 when it was bequeathed to the Brooklyn Memorial Hospital in Julia Brick’s will.[32]  By this point, the majority of any settlement, or hope for settlement, in the Plainville / Red Oak Grove area was finished.  The villages of Red Oak Grove, Plainville, and “Union Clay Works” were abandoned.  And, with the exception of the occasional squatter, tenant, or local agricultural worker, these villages were uninhabited memories of places long forgotten.

On account of its pertinent role in the lumber trade, especially early in its existence, it is highly plausible that Red Oak Grove was named simply for that reason – it possessed a concentration of Red Oaks.  Red Oak is still today a highly coveted lumber for furniture, and decorative woodwork.  As millers were the first to name the region, perhaps their reason was very direct.  On the other hand, Red Oak Grove is a name that occurs throughout the United States.  There are Red Oak Groves, dating from the mid to late nineteenth century, in Iowa, Kentucky, Alabama, Michigan, and many other states.  So, it is also very possible that this was a popular name to use at that time.  However, I will leave that for future research, or the reader to decide.

This is the tale of Red Oak Grove as far as the documentary record will allow.  I am positive that more information exists somewhere, but as of yet it is unwilling to be found.  Perhaps in years to come, more information will be uncovered to further flesh out the life and times of this forgotten village.  But, for now, the tale is at an end.

This article was first published on NJPineBarrens.com in 2006.

Notes:

1 Ocean County.  Deed Book 17 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1856), 102.
2 Ocean County.  Deed Book 23 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1856), 382.
3 Jennifer Lynch.  Personal Correspondence.  4 Richard S. Fisher.  A New and Complete Statistical Gazetteer of the United States of America (XX:XXXXX 1853), 714.  See also J. Calvin Smith.  Harper’s Statistical Gazetteer of the World (XX: Harper’s 1855), 1458; and, United States Postal Service.  List of Post Offices in the United States (Washington, D.C.: United States Postal Service 1859), A031.
5 Lynch, Personal Correspondence.
6 Ocean County, Deed Book 17, 102.
7 Ibid.
8 Ocean County.  Deed Book 11 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1856), 73.
9 Ocean County.  Deed Book 15 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1858), 265.
10 United States Census Bureau.  1840 Census of Burlington County (Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau 1840).
11 Lynch, Personal Correspondence.
12 Ocean County.  Deed Book 17 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1856), 107.
13 United States Census.  1860 Census of Dover Township, Ocean County, New Jersey (Toms River: Ocean County Historical Society); see also George H. Cook.  Annual Report of the State Geologist for the Year 1878 (New Brunswick: Geological Survey of New Jersey 1878), 55-6.
14 One of these partners, as a matter of fact, was Lewis C. Cassidy – a well-known Philadelphia attorney who lobbied the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1872 to extend suffrage to women.  Interestingly, one person he used as an example for his argument happened to be Margery McManus, wife of another partner in the clay works.
15 New Jersey Courier.  November 21, 1867.
16 Ocean County.  Deed Book 15 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1858), 265.
17 Cook, Annual Report, 55.
18 Ocean County.  Miscellaneous Records Book 1 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1858), 74.
19 Lynch, Personal Correspondence; see also, Major E. M. Woodward and John F. Hageman.  History of Burlington and Mercer Counties, New Jersey, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Their Prominent Men (Philadelphia: Everts and Peck 1883), 508.
20 Ocean County. Deed Book 25 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1862), 101.
21 Ocean County. Deed Book 29 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1864), 359; see also, Ocean County. Deed Book 37 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1866), 230.
22 Ocean County. Deed Book 35 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1865), 5,8; see also, Ocean County. Deed Book 55 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1865), 141.
23 Ocean County, Deed Book 35; Ocean County, Deed Book 55; Ocean County Wills Book 3 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks), 36; Ocean County Wills Book 9 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks) 341, 346; see also, Brooklyn Landmarks Preservation Commission [BLPC].  Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Landmarks Preservation Commission), 4.
24 NJ Courier, November 21, 1867.
25 BLPC, Storehouse, 4.
26 Cook, Annual Report, 55-6.
27 Ocean County.  Deed Book 70 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1873), 304.
28 United States Census Bureau.  1870 Census of Manchester Township, Ocean County, New Jersey (Toms River: Ocean County Historical Society).
29 George H. Cook.  Annual Report of the State Geologist for the Year 1897 (New Brunswick: Geological Survey of New Jersey 1897), 331.
30 Ocean County.  Map A-18 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1895).
31 State of New Jersey. Corporate Records (Trenton: Division of Commercial Recording).
32 Ocean County.  Deed Book 357 (Toms River: Ocean County Clerks 1897), 190.

Exploring the Lost Lake at Colliers Mills

About a week or so ago I posted a thread on the NJPineBarrens.com forums asking for people’s opinions on what they believed to be the most remote place in the Pine Barrens. When I had first thought of the question, the place that came to mind was the Great Swamp near Batsto. Roads don’t penetrate far into the swamp before they are swallowed up in murky black water, and unless the adventurer feels like slogging through neck high water, or jumping from hummock to hummock it’s almost impossible to cross. With so much featureless, nearly impassible, swampland that it’s likely that there are places there that no human being has ever been to.

I was planning to explore some place unusual – some place that really off the beaten path. I poured over USA Photomaps to try to find a place to explore that fairly inaccessible but wouldn’t require more than a few hours of hiking to get to. I also wanted to actually go to a “place.” A long, difficult hike is no fun unless the destination is something interesting. I wouldn’t have been happy to trek through briars and swamp for a few hours only to find a small, uninteresting clearing – and I certainly would not have enjoyed the trek back.

Another goal was to find some place reasonably close to my house, which disqualifies the Great Swamp and the Southern Pine Barrens. As much as I like Wharton State Forest, it’s a long drive, and there are few places you can go without seeing other people. My search gravitated towards Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area, which is only forty five minutes or so from my house. The southern part of the tract piqued my interest. I found a road that looked like it passed what might be some abandoned bogs and ruins near High Bridge Road. On the South-Western side of the property, I found what looked like an abandoned cranberry bog and a small mysterious lake without any water systems nearby to feed it. No trails led to the lake, so it would be a nice hike from the abandoned bog. The direction I was going to take was all the better since it crossed a small river – Bordens Mill Branch –  and the topo map showed a small strip of swamp on either side of the stream. It would be a nice challenge.

As soon as I got home from having an early Mothers Day dinner with the in-laws I began to plan my trip. I mapped out the waypoint, downloaded them to my GPS, and printed out a copy of the topo map for the area. I hunted around for a backpack that would be small enough to not be a pain to carry, yet large enough to carry my camera, several lenses, food and water, and some other gear. I was excited at the prospect of bushwhacking through the woods, slogging through a swamp, and the challenge of finding my way across the river without getting too wet.

The wheels of my Jeep touched the sand Colliers Mills around 11AM the following day. My first stop was to explore the ruins off High Bridge. The road that I needed forked off High Bridge Road and led deep into the woods near the border of the WMA and Lakehurst Naval Air Station. I was disappointed to find that the trail was well maintained and had fresh tire tracks. I consoled myself by thinking that there was plenty more exploring to be done, and that this was only a diversion from the big adventure of hiking to the “Lost Lake.”

I decided to swing down a smaller path that led through a clearing and then back to the main trail. My GPS was jumping all over the place – first the ruins were on one side of the road, then they’d swing across to the other side. Thinking that it would be easier to find the ruins on foot, I parked the Jeep on the main trail and headed into the woods.

I didn’t have to hike long as the GPS showed the ruins to only be four hundred feet away. Up ahead I saw a clearing. As I walked closer, I began to see bits of rusted metal in the ground. By the time I got to the clearing I could see that I had been there before, when I had driven through it only a few minutes before. I shook my head at my folly and wondered why my GPS had suddenly become so inaccurate.

If there had been anything in this spot, it’s gone now. As I wandered around the clearing I began to wonder about the abandoned bog nearby. I found a break through the trees and walked towards it. The bog was overgrown, but what interested me was the very abandoned road that seemed to parallel the bog. I made a mental note to add this to my list of places to come back and explore at a later date.

I followed the trail back to the Jeep and checked the map. It appeared that the road I was on led all the way into Lakehurst Naval Air Station. Wondering if it would be blocked off by a fence I decided to check it out. Sugar sand was soon replaced by a thick bed of pine needles as I pressed on, and the tell-tale signs of humanity’s presence (litter) disappeared as the woods passed by in a green blur. My mind began to soak in the solitude when a large puddle blocked my path.  What looked like a floor mat protruded up above the surface and a long discarded tow strap lay on the opposite side of the puddle. I thought of the people who had been stuck here before and that that they likely had no thoughts or cares for solitude in the woods. I wondered if it was really something that could be found in the Pine Barrens today. It was a thought that hung over my head throughout the day.

Realizing that a puddle with a discarded tow-strap is generally news, I decided to turn around and head towards the other side of the WMA and start exploring the area that was sure to be more remote and wild. I got back to the paved road and turned left at Archers Corner. This brings you through where the town of Colliers Mills once was. Fairly new construction lines the road into the town, and the only original building left from the town is used by the rangers for storage. It’s likely that nobody who lives there now could tell you of the tale of Ephraim P. Emson, founder of Colliers Mills, the two horse tracks he built here, or his ultimate doom by one of his prized steeds.

Going straight past the main entrance to the WMA, the road quickly turns from asphalt to rough sand and follows the lake that formed by damming Bordens Mill Branch to power a sawmill. Today the mill is gone, and the only people nearby are a father and his two young boys fishing on the bank of the lake. They’ve driven here in a Chevy Avalanche pickup, with chrome rims and terrible low-profile tires. You can tell that these people aren’t of the Pines – there’s not even a scratch on the glossy black paint. They watch as my dirty yellow Jeep passes by.

If you were to take this road as far as you can, you’d end up on Hornerstown Road. The road is paralleled by a chain link fence, newly erected to protect Lakehurst NAS. If you could continue further down the road once it crosses onto military property you’d pass close to Boyd’s Hotel, an important stop in the stage route from Hanover Furnace.

Taking a left hand turn, I nudge the Jeep down a precariously narrow road that runs alongside an abandoned bog. The clouds that have been hanging low all morning are starting to clear up. I parked the Jeep in a clearing and set off to find the second abandoned bogs. There’s a road leading to it, but at this point in time I had lost my bearings somewhat so I decided to let the GPS lead the way. Stumbling through the woods, I was able to make my way to the path that led to the bogs. Walking along the long-abandoned road I passed the ruins of what might have been a hunting cabin or building somehow attached to the bog operations. All that remains now is the faint outline of a cinder block foundation, an old cast iron sink, and a well pipe sticking out of the ground. The path leads on, curving around a bend and delving into a puddle before entering a swamp. It became wetter and wetter until finally it ended in a clearing – the bog itself.

It was unlike any bog I had ever seen. First, there was no embankment around the edge of the bog. It was literally a path into a marsh. Instead of open water, vegetation grew throughout. I was able to walk through most of it in my knee boots, although there were a few spots that were deep and tried to suck my boots off. Exiting the bogs and walking around the edge in the swamp, I found a discarded tire and an ancient beer bottle. That, and the sounds of shooting from the WMA nearby, served as a reminder that mankind is never far away in the Pine Barrens.

It was nearly two o’clock when I made my way back to the Jeep. The next part of my adventure was about to start – the hike to Lost Lake. After stopping to rest up and reapply my bug spray I started out on the journey. I dove into the woods with renewed vigor as I was sure I would be exploring a place where nobody has been before. At first the going was easy but soon I found myself surrounded by some sort of small trees or shrubs. I pressed on, forcing myself through the vegetation, cursing myself for wearing short sleeves. Finally, I stumbled on what might have been a deer trail leading in the general direction of the lake. The trail took me down towards the river, and the vegetation became more green, lush and thick.

The topo maps on my GPS informed me that I had entered the swamp surrounding Bordens Mill Branch. I’m not entirely sure why, but the ground was remarkably dry. Water sat only in a few small stagnant pools. It appeared that I was standing in what might have once been a river bed, and I came to the conclusion that I was standing in Bordens Mill Branch and it was now dry. The vegetation on either side of the river was extremely dense and I soon had rips in my jeans from the briars. Exhausted from trying to fight my way through the vegetation, I turned around back to the stream bed and began to follow it in an attempt to find a less overgrown area to trek through. It brought me out to a trail which immediately confused me. As far as the topo map was concerned, there is no road here. This was backed up with the satellite photos that I had poured over the night before. Curious, I followed the road. As much as I hate to admit it, I was happy that I came across the road. I really did not enjoy bushwhacking as much as I thought I was going to.

Soon, a curiosity came into sight. A rude bridge crossed a cedar stream. At once I realized my folly – the dry “river bed” that I had assumed to be Bordens Mill Branch was not in fact anything so important, and this river – crossed by a very convenient bridge – was the river that had once powered the mill at Colliers Mill.

The trail led on through the woods in the direction of the lost lake. As I began to pass trees with bright orange blazes on them I began to get depressed. I felt cheated out of the opportunity to be the first person to visit Lost Lake. The path continued on, passing through a series of clearings and continuing on through the woods. After a half an hour of walking the blazes stopped, and I found myself in another clearing. To my right the land dropped down into swamp, and I could make out pools of standing water in-between the trees. According to my GPS, the lake was only a few hundred feet away. Now very happy that I had my knee boots on, I entered the swamp. Following a small trail of water, I soon found myself on the side of the lake. It was not more than thirty or forty feet long, and perhaps twenty across. The water was already nearly to the top of my boots so I dared not go any further.

The “Lost Lake” at Colliers Mills

Ten minutes later I was back on the trail towards the Jeep. It was late, and I was exhausted and slightly disappointed. It’s very likely that I was not the first person to visit the lake. It’s simply too easy to get to – especially as I found that had I continued to drive down the path that the Jeep was parked on, I would have been able to park right at the bridge I found.

First published on NJPineBarrens.com in 2008

Despite the fact that I was didn’t chart any new territory, it still was an enjoyable day. The area isn’t overrun by people, and you do get a sense of isolation out there, despite the fact that every now and then you’ll see evidence of people being there before. In some ways, the Pine Barrens are ideal for weekend explorers, since help is never truly that far away.

On the Trail to Union Clay Works

Clay was king at Pasadena. Nestled back in the woods near Woodmansie, down the tracks from Whiting and even farther from Chatsworth, an empire of clay was borne and then quickly died. Wheatlands or Pasadena – the largest and most well known of these towns – still leaves her mark on the modern world by her ruins that, despite having been abandoned for nearly one hundred years, still look surprisingly good. The towns of Old Half Way, Union Clay Works, and Red Oak Grove however, are all but forgotten – simply empty clearings along the side of a seldom traveled dirt road.

The clay pits turned lakes at Old Half Way

The trail begins where Savoy Boulevard ends and Pasadena Road begins. The long abandoned Jersey Central Railroad tracks cross the road near the hamlet of Bullock, and a lone sign signals that you’ve entered Manchester Township. The dirt road leads down into Greenwood Wildlife Management Area, along what is known to the local hunters as the rye-strips – cleared land along the road set aside for deer to graze on. It was here that fox hunter Donald Pomeroy had his funeral service. We speed quickly past, taking the first right hand turn and plunging into the woods.

Today my friend and fellow NJPineBarrens.com poster Guy (Teegate) is with me. The trail isn’t as bad as we had thought. The snow and standing water that I had encountered three weeks before were gone, and all that remained were the ruts in the road from when people drove past when the trail was still snow covered, and the dark gray color of the sand that wasn’t yet dry. We make another right at an intersection where someone has carelessly left a blue drink cooler and come up to a sign prohibiting motor vehicles. From here we continue on foot.

A kiln at Union Clay Works

Old Half Way, also known as Hidden Lakes, once was a town in the wilderness of Burlington County. There was a large clay mining enterprise nearby that eventually took over the town, dug it up, and left two very large pits. Left to time, the area reverted back to nature, the pits filling with water that was tinted aquamarine by the clay in the sand. The only small signs that there ever was civilization here are bits of scattered concrete from the foundations of buildings long lost. We walked to the first lake that ended up being deeper than usual, filling with the massive amount of rainwater and melted snow that we had this winter. We hiked to the second lake and found it even more impressive than the first. Here the lake is surrounded on all sides by very steep hills, making it harder for a vehicle to get to the waters edge. In fact the only vehicles we saw here were ones that had a one-way trip. Cars stolen, stripped, and burnt and left in the wilderness forever. One of these cars was even in the lake itself!

Over the years, Old Half Way became known as a party spot and on any given weekend there could be hundreds of people partying. The area was frequented by four wheelers that drove carelessly in and out of the lake. The result was that much of the land near the first lake had eroded and is very loose and unstable. It would be very easy to get stuck coming in and out of the lake area.

Our travels brought us to Union Clay Works. It’s rumored that the works suffered an outbreak of smallpox that wiped out a large portion of the population in the area. That, coupled with the difficulty of getting clay from the pits to the kilns, and finished products from the kilns to the narrow gauge railroad that connected at Woodmansie spelt disaster for the works. Details are sketchy of when the works were in operation but I believe it was around the years of 1875-1900.

Like many other forgotten towns in the Pine Barrens, the location of the site of Union Clay Works is betrayed by the unmistakable sign of man that has manipulated the environment around him. Two large clearings and a fallen Catalpa Tree, non-native to the Pine Barrens, show that this was the site of the town. Several cellar holes, some brick, and broken pieces of terra cotta are all that is left of this town. We had been told that there were the ruins of several kilns, with discarded pieces of terra cotta pipe to be found, but we only found one ruin that looked like it could have been a kiln. It seemed too small to have been used for making large pipes, however. Union Clay Works still keeps some of her secrets hidden.

Henry Charlton Beck, the famed historian, visited this area in the 1930s after being told of a small graveyard lost in the woods. Guy and I had been determined to find it for several months. Like Beck, we had both made trips into the area without much success. Becks directions were purposely vague and not much help. We eventually did find it, by accident, and we can see why Beck was confused. The graves are small and only visible once you’re almost on top of them. They are in very poor shape, and the presence of too many curious visitors will spell disaster for them. As such I won’t be giving precise directions to them.

The grave of Mary Atkerson at Union Clay Works

We found three headstones. All three are in poor condition. The one standing is devoid of any markings, but is missing a large portion of it’s back. It’s has been cracked straight through, and as Guy’s daughter found out, touching it causes it to fall apart. Like a jigsaw puzzle it was put back into one piece. The second headstone is just a small chunk of a larger stone that is missing. The grave is of “Willie —-.” Nothing further can be learnt from it. The final stone is in the best shape of all three, but is still missing pieces. Someone has built a wooden frame around it, and put the pieces back together. Beck mentions one of the stones being a jigsaw puzzle of pieces – perhaps this is the stone that he reconstructed back in the 1930s? Possibly only a dozen or so people have visited the graves since Beck was there seventy years ago.

Red Oak Grove seems to have suffered the worst fate of the three towns. Old Half Way and Union Clay Works have ruins to show where they were. Red Oak Grove only exists as the name on a topographic map. I made several searches through the area over the last few months and have found nothing except a lone stolen car along the side of a barely used path. Red Oak Grove lies in anonymity.

The triumvirate of towns – Red Oak Grove, Union Clay Works, and Old Half Way stand testament to a time when industry ruled the Pine Barrens. Not far from these sites, another large company mines the earth for clay and minerals much like their predecessors did one hundred and twenty-five years ago. The air is full of melancholia. Not of sadness, but of a place that time has all but forgotten. Beck ends his chapter with an abridged version of an epitaph from one of the graves at Union Clay Works. It is just as fitting now as it was then.

Lay away your little dresses that ____ darling used to wear
for she nevermore will need them for she has climbed the golden stairs
Gone but not forgotting

Originally published on NJPineBarrens.com in 2003