The Beauty and the Wealth of a Land of Desolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brendan Byrne State Forest: A Quick Guide

Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, formerly known as Lebanon State Forest, is located in the northern part of the New Jersey Pinelands. It’s location and convenient access to State Route 70 make it convenient to reach from North Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. The park is made up of 34,725 acres of pine, oak, and cedar forest stretching through parts of Ocean and Burlington Counties. The park is named for Brendan Byrne, former governor of New Jersey, and the signatory of the Pinelands Preservation Act of 1979, which created the Pinelands National Reserve.

The forest was originally named after the Lebanon Glassworks, which operated here between 1851-1867. The name came from Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, a place famous for its cedar trees, which are also plentiful in the swamps of the Pine Barrens. The factory chiefly made windowpanes, although bottles and a few decorative pieces were also produced. The factory shut down when the supply of wood for the furnace was exhausted. All that remains of Lebanon Glassworks today are a scattering of concrete foundations.

Nearby Whitesbog village is another attraction. Whitesbog has been a major cranberry farm for over one hundred and twenty years. At the turn of the 20th century, Whitesbog was the largest cranberry farm in the United States. In 1916 Elizabeth C. White, in collaboration with Dr. Frederick A. Coville successfully developed the first cultivated blueberry. Today the village has been preserved by the efforts of the Whitesbog Village Trust, and the cranberry bogs and blueberry fields still produce a bountiful harvest each year. Visitors can come and see the semi-restored company town and walk out among the bogs. The Whitesbog General Store is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. from February through December, and carries various food items such as blueberry and cranberry preserves, marmalades, honey, and assorted candies. The store also carries a number of handmade craft items as well as a selection of Pine Barrens themed books. An annual Blueberry Festival is celebrated here during the summer.

Getting around Brendan Byrne State Forest is relatively easy. Many of the major roads through the forest, especially those leading to the campgrounds, are paved. The unpaved roads are best left to people with four wheel drive vehicles, although even with four wheel drive it is possible to get your vehicle stuck. Care should be taken driving as the rangers are not able to help pull a stuck vehicle, and calling for a tow truck is expensive.

New Jersey state law states that off-road vehicles such as quads and dirt bikes are prohibited on state land. Motorized recreation in Brendan Byrne State Forest is allowed with special conditions. A vehicle that is properly licensed and insured for on-road use in the State of New Jersey is permitted within the bounds of the forest. This includes cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, Jeeps, and dual-sport motorcycles. All vehicles must stick to “designated roads” – the definition of which can be up to the ranger’s discretion, although a safe bet that you’re allowed on any road or trail that is marked on a street or topographic map. Topographic maps for the area are available online. The rangers have no tolerance for people leaving roads, making new trails, or disturbing or destroying wildlife in bogs or wet areas. Be wary of parking alongside a road – the hot exhaust system of a vehicle may ignite the tall, dry grasses that sometimes line the dirt roads.

Brendan Byrne State Forest is probably best known for its excellent campgrounds. Unlike in Wharton State Forest, all campsites are easily reached by car. There are eighty two tent and trailer sites, all located a convenient distance from restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. There are three furnished cabins on the shore of Pakim Pond featuring a pair of bunk beds (accommodating a total of four people) as well as half-baths with a toilet and basin sink. The cabins are wired for electricity. Additionally there are three yurts available, featuring a lockable wooden door, and a pair of bunk beds (accommodating a total of four people.) The yurts are all handicap accessible. Cabins and yurts book fast, so those interested in them should plan to reserve them early.

93% of the land within Brendan Byrne State Forest is open for hunting and trapping. Hunting is allowed during specific seasons according to the schedule posted by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Bow hunting for deer is one of the most popular sports. During hunting season it’s advisable to wear blaze orange or other brightly colored clothing to make yourself visible.

Hiking is also a popular activity in Byrne. The famous Batona Trail is a fifty mile tail that connects Wharton, Brendan T. Byrne, and Bass River State Forests. A typical through-hike along the trail will take approximately three days. There are over 25 miles of marked trails throughout the forest. The Mount Misery trail also allows visitors the option of mountain biking. The Cranberry Trail is also wheelchair accessible. Two other trails intersect with the Batona and provide loops of about six and fourteen miles for shorter day hikes. Trail maps are available at the Ranger Station near the main entrance to the forest.


For More Information:

Brendan Byrne State Forest Office: (609) 726-1191
Official Website:

(Note, there is no fee charged for entrance to the park.)



Whitesbog Village
Whitesbog General Store


Ghost Towns:

Mary Ann Forge


Hiking: Trail Maps

Batona Trail Map and Brochure from the NJ DEP

The BATONA Hiking Club



NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife Regulations & Forms


Off-Road/Motorized Recreation:

NJ Department of Environmental Protection ORV Use Policy


Wharton State Forest: A Quick Guide

Wharton State Forest is the largest, and perhaps the best, place to begin a Pine Barrens adventure. With over 115,000 acres of land spread between Burlington and Atlantic Counties there are plenty of places to explore, and lots of things to do.

The best place to start your visit is at Batsto Village located in the southern extent of the park near Hammonton. Batsto Village, a nationally recognized historical site, was the home to extensive iron and glass making industries in the 18th and 19th centuries. Batsto’s importance to providing munitions for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War was such that its ironworkers were exempt from military service. Over sixty years later, after the Pine Barrens iron industry collapsed, a glass factory was built in the village that operated for another twenty years. After the glass factory closed the village site was purchased by the industrialist Joseph Wharton for use as a country manor. Much of the land preserved in Wharton State Forest comes from land that he purchased. While neither the iron or glass factories remain, Batsto Village today contains many restored historic buildings as well as a small museum and visitors center.

There are a number of ghost towns within a reasonable driving distance from Batsto. The closest is the town of Washington, located a short drive away. This place was noted for being a tavern stop along the famous Tuckerton Stage Road which ran from Camden to Tuckerton. Also close by are the ruins of the paper factory at Harrisville as well as the iron furnace town of Atsion. While not as well preserved as the buildings at Batsto, the village of Atsion is notable for it’s unique Greek Revival style mansion, built in 1826, and is sometimes open for guided tours.

Many Pine Barrens ghost towns are only reachable by dirt roads. While the state occasionally grades some of the more prominent roads, they may be impassible at times. A four-wheel drive vehicle is highly recommended while exploring the Pine Barrens, and it’s urged that you be alert and cautious while driving in the woods. Topographic maps are available for sale at the visitor’s center at Batsto and the ranger station at Atsion. Due to liability reasons, the State Park Police will not pull a stuck vehicle from the mud.

New Jersey state law states that off-road vehicles such as quads and dirt bikes are prohibited on state land. Motorized recreation in Wharton State Forest is allowed with special conditions. A vehicle that is properly licensed and insured for on-road use in the State of New Jersey is permitted within the bounds of Wharton State Forest. This includes cars, SUVs, pickup trucks, Jeeps, and dual-sport motorcycles. All vehicles must stick to “designated roads” – the definition of which can be up to the ranger’s discretion, although a safe bet that you’re allowed on any road or trail that is marked on a street or topographic map. Topographic maps are available for sale at the Batsto and Atsion ranger stations or available online. The rangers have no tolerance for people leaving roads, making new trails, or disturbing or destroying wildlife in bogs or wet areas. Be wary of parking alongside a road – the hot exhaust system of a vehicle may ignite the tall, dry grasses that sometimes line the dirt roads.

Camping is a popular activity year-round in Wharton State Forest. There are a number of state-run as well as private campgrounds in the area. The major state-run campsites are located at Atsion, Hawkin’s Bridge, and Godfrey Bridge. These campsites offer a varying range of amenities, with Atsion being the only one to offer showers. Several primitive or wilderness camping areas exist – Bodine Field, Goshen Pond, Buttonwood Hill, Batona, Lower Forge, and the Mullica River camp area. Most are reachable by car, with the Mullica and Lower Forge campsites only accessible by hiking, canoeing, or horseback. Private campgrounds tend to have more amenities, trailer hookups, and waste management facilities. During the busy summer camping season it is recommended to call ahead to ensure space for your tent or trailer.

One of the best ways to experience the nature of the Pine Barrens is by water. The Mullica, Batsto, Wading, and Oswego Rivers all cut through Wharton State Forest and provide a scenic, relaxing way to spend a day. The Pine Barrens rivers are largely calm and slow moving. The lack of rapids and white water make it an excellent place for a novice to begin to learn how to handle a kayak. Several companies in the area offer rentals and day trips with pickup and dropoff services available. You’re also free to bring your own canoe or kayak. If you’re interested in just a swim there are lifeguarded facilities at Atsion Lake as well as an un-guarded beach at Harrisville Lake.

89% of the land within Wharton State Forest is open for hunting and trapping. Hunting is allowed during specific seasons according to the schedule posted by the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife. Bow hunting for deer is one of the most popular sports. During hunting season it’s advisable to wear blaze orange or other brightly colored clothing to make yourself visible.

Hiking is also a popular activity in Wharton. The famous Batona Trail is a fifty mile tail that connects Wharton, Brendan T. Byrne, and Bass River State Forests. A typical through-hike along the trail will take approximately three days. The trail passes near several of the state run wilderness campsites at convenient locations for stopping. For those looking for a shorter hike the Batona is accessible at a number of trailheads along its route. Additionally, there are several shorter trails in the Batsto area ranging from one to ten miles in length. Trail maps are usually available at the visitors center at Batsto Village, near trailheads, and can also be found online.

For More Information:

Wharton State Forest: 

Batsto Ranger Station: 609-561-0024
Atsion Ranger Station: 609-268-0444
Official Website

(Note that between Memorial Day Weekend and Labor Day, there is a fee to park at Batsto. As of 2012 the fee is only charged on weekends and is $5 for NJ residents and $7 for out of state visitors.)

The Batsto Citizens Committee – Information on the village and upcoming events


Ghost Towns:

Harrisville Video Tour produced by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance

Lower Forge/Un-Bridge Revisited – A visit by a member of the NJPB Forums to Lower Bridge

Batsto and the Bloomaries – An old article written about Batsto’s iron making past


Canoe/Kayak Rental:

Mick’s Canoe and Kayak Rental

Adam’s Canoe Rental


Public/Private Campgrounds:

See the article on “Camping in the Pine Barrens” for a list of public and private campgrounds in the Pine Barrens


Hiking: Trail Maps (Scroll to the bottom of the page for the Wharton Map)

Batona Trail Map and Brochure from the NJ DEP

The BATONA Hiking Club



NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife Regulations & Forms


Off-Road/Motorized Recreation:

NJ Department of Environmental Protection ORV Use Policy


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.

The Jersey Taverns

The tavern was a building that, in colonial America, was second in importance only to the meetinghouse. Here a person could hear the news, find the market prices of goods, conduct business, attend court, and enjoy a glass of beer, ale, wine, or other hard spirits.

The first tavern that historians can name is Lyons Ordinary, founded on the banks of the Passaic River in the new settlement of Newark around May of 1666. Henry Lyon was charged to “keep an Ordinary for the Entertainment of Travellers and Strangers.” While all traces of this early tavern have vanished under the tarmac and concrete of modern Newark, the idea upon which this this tavern was founded — so far as the legislature saw it: to provide comfort and accommodations for visitors—was the same as every other tavern in New Jersey.

The Cedar Bridge Tavern. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record or Historic American Landscapes Survey, HABS NJ,15-____,1-1

The taverns that may predate Lyons have been lost to history. The British, having just defeated the Dutch and taken control over all of what would eventually become New Jersey in 1664, wasted no time in writing laws to govern the ordinaries. Over the course of the following centuries, laws would be enacted, repealed, enforced, and ignored. The first law regulating taverns appears in the Duke of York’s Laws in the Charter of William Penn on April 2, 1664:

No person or persons shall at any time under any pretence or Colour whatsoever undertake to be a Common Victuler, keeper of a Cookes shop, or House of Common entertainment, or publique seller of wine, Beare, Ale or strong waters by retail or a less quantity than a quarter Caske, without a certificate of his good behaviour from the constable and two Overseers at east of the parish wherein he dwelt and a Lycence first obtained under the hand of two Justices of the peace in the Sessions upon pain of forfeiting five pounds for every such offense, or Imprisonment at the discretion of the court.

Providing hospitality to strangers was of chief importance to the early settlers in America, and legislators enacted laws to ensure that taverns existed to provide entertainment and lodging to visitors. In East Jersey, a law enacted in 1688 provided for a fine of forty shillings per month for each town that did not have an ordinary. West Jersey generally left the matter up to the discretion of the local town. In either province, no one but the holder of a license could charge for giving lodging or meals to strangers. Furthermore, the law required the tavern keeper to maintain a register containing the names of all visitors for the local magistrates.

The earliest colonial taverns usually consisted of two rooms. One room contained a bar and tables for drinking and meals. The second served as residential quarters for the tavern keeper and his family. Like many early buildings the kitchen was usually just a lean-to connected to the back of the building and served double duty as a woodshed. Overnight guests would simply bunk down on the floor of the dining room once the last drinks were served and the night’s dishes were cleared away. The bar of an eighteenth-century tavern stood in a small alcove in the corner of the dining room, with a lockable door to one side and a short narrow ledge long enough for a few people to order drinks and bring them to their tables. At night a wooden barricade would swing down from the ceiling and close off the bar, keeping the proprietors valuable liquors secure from the strangers sleeping in the dining room. An example of this “cage bar” can still be found at the restored Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield.

A cage bar in the King's Tavern, Sunnybrook MD. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record or Historic American Landscapes Survey, HABS MD,3-SUNB,1-1

The tavern building usually featured separate entrances for the bar and the private living quarters and a large covered porch ran across the front of the building. As the fortunes of the colonists improved and the taverns became larger and more elaborate, the builder maintained the tradition of a public and a private entrance. The presence of both doors under the continuous roof of a porch provides a valuable clue that helps differentiate an old tavern building from some farmhouses that also had multiple front doors.

Identifying the tavern would be a large wooden sign either attached to the building itself or hung from a nearby post. This custom began with English pubs and the law required a hanging sign to obtain a tavern license. The sign’s elaborate design directly reflected the fortunes and whims of the proprietor. In some cases the sign was just a simple board with the name of the establishment painted on it. Others might have elaborate carvings and/or surrounded with a wrought iron frame. Tavern keepers also changed locations, and, when leaving, they would often carry the sign to their new establishment. Thus, for example, the Kings Arms Tavern originated in Trenton and then relocated to Perth Amboy when the proprietor sold the original building.

The Noah Brooks Tavern Sign, Middlesex, MA. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record or Historic American Landscapes Survey, HABS MASS,9-LIN,5-3

Conversation and gossip served as the chief mode of entertainment at the tavern for the local gentry and travelers. The tavern keeper also occasionally held dances, although the larger of these gatherings, at least in the Pine Barrens, occurred in dedicated dance halls. The infamous pine robber, Joe Mulliner, had a penchant for the dances held at the Quaker Bridge tavern and the authorities finally apprehended the miscreant at a dance held in the tavern at Nesco.

The games played at taverns often drew the ire of the Legislature. Amusements such as dice, shuffleboard, quoits, long bullets, and ninepins— an ancestor to modern day bowling—provided entertainment at the tavern and many who would have normally worked in the fields or mills loitered around the tavern looking for a game. In 1739 the Legislature lamented in an act that the tavern was not “for the Encouragement of Gaming, Tipling, Drunkenness, and other Vices so much as of late practiced at such Places, to the great Scandal of Religion, and Dishonour of God, and the impoverishing of the Commonwealth.”

In 1779 the Legislature passed a law prohibiting the playing of “Fives, Ninepins, Long Bullets, or similar Games at a Tavern or in the Highway or on the Grounds, or against the House of any Person, without Leave.” Lesgislators later amended the law to allow shuffleboard, bowls, quoits, and ninepins under local option.

The “sport” of Cockfighting became associated with these early taverns. Then, as much as now, officials would not tolerate the fights and the sponsors held the events clandestinely. Owners carried their birds to the tavern yard and men would assemble in a circle lit only by an oil lantern and the stars to watch the birds fight. Sometimes a particularly successful bird, famous at some other tavern, would be brought in to challenge the local champion. Usually the noise and crowd attracted attention, but, more often than not, the men, birds, and prize money would disappear by the time any constable arrived to investigate.

Taverns also attracted traveling shows and carnivals. These exhibitions drew crowds from far and wide to witness the “monstrous sights” of trained animals, slight of hand performances, puppet shows, and various fake mechanical devices. These shows grew in such number and frequency that, yet again, the Legislature felt the need to act and on March 16, 1798 enacted a law with a preamble that read:

“And whereas public shews and exhibitions of divers kinds have of late become very frequent and common within this State, whereby many strangers and worthless persons have unjustly gained and taken to themselves considerable sums of money, and it being found on experience that such shews and exhibitors tend to no good or useful purpose in society, but, on the contrary to collect together great numbers of idle and unwary spectators, as well as children and servants, to gratify vain and useless curiosity, loosen and corrupt the morale of youth, and straiten and impoverish many poor families.”

The Spring Garden Inn, Ancora, NJ. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record or Historic American Landscapes Survey, HABS NJ,4-ANCO,1-1

The type and quality of food served naturally depended on the location of the tavern. For taverns located in cities such as Burlington, Newark, and Princeton, the fare was quite lavish. Accommodations off the beaten path provided far less comfort. John Torrey, the famous New York botanist, traveled through the Pine Barrens in 1818 researching material for his publication Catalogue of Plants growing spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York. After leaving the tavern at Quaker Bridge he continued on to the tavern at Ten-Mile Hollow in Berkley Township where he noted that:

“After we left Quaker bridge we fared pretty hard. Some places called taverns that we were put up at were not fit for an Arab. At a place called Ten Mile Hollow, or Hell Hollow, we expected to sleep in the woods, for it was with most difficulty that we persuaded them to take us in. This was the most miserable place we ever saw; they were too poor to use candles. No butter, sugar, etc. A little sour stuff which I believe they called rye bread, but which was half sawdust, and a little warm water and molasses were all we had for breakfast. For supper, I could not see what we had, for we ate in the dark.”

The courts set prices for food, drink, and lodging almost from the beginning. The Court in Burlington adopted a resolution on August 8, 1682:

“Ordered by ye Cort that no Person or Persons keeping or shall keep an Ordinary or Inne within ye Jurisdiction of this Cort shall from after ye Tenth day of August inst. take more than Two pence for an Ale quart of good wholesome Ale, or strong Beere, and Benj. West and Henry Grubb are by ye Cort appointed to be Ale Tasters and to see ye measures for Ale & Beere, according to ye order above, until next General Assembly, or further orders.”

These were the days before a la carte menus became the norm, and the food served at the tavern was usually whatever the proprietor felt like cooking at the time. Drinks consisted of beer, ale, cider, wine, or a limited selection of spirits, chiefly rum. Unlike today’s taverns that have a variety of different drinks available, the choices in the past were limited to whatever the tavern may have had on hand.

Drink prices also varied depending on whether you drank indoors or out. The authorities levied serious fines for those who overcharged, particularly during the Revolution. The May 2, 1778 Minutes of the Council of Safety record that the Council levied a heavy fine of six pounds per offense against tavern keeper Samuel Smith for overcharging. The Council also forced him to forfeit the charges for the food, drink, and lodging entirely, bringing his fine to £37.2.6. A schedule of the prices the Burlington Court established in 1739 can be found at the end of this article.

While drinking was tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, by the most conservative of Quakers , drunkenness proved to be a serious offense in New Jersey’s early days. As early as 1683, the General Assembly passed a law that provided for either a fine of three shillings and four pence per offense or confinement in the stocks for a period of not more than five hours. The courts summoned Peter Groom in 1694 and, having been fined five shillings for standing before the court with his hat on, unluckily had his fine raised to fifty pence once he admitted that “hee had got over much strong drink” and had appeared “before ye Court drunk.

The law also prohibited the sale of liquor to the Indians. In 1680 the Burlington court decreed that:

“… if any psn or psons shall hereafter, directly or indirectly, sell any Rumme or other strong Liquors to any Indian or Indians, either by great or small measure without order from ye Cort then such pson or psons soe offending shall forfeit & pay for every such offense 50s And upon refusall neglect or non-payment of ye same it shall be Leviyed upon any of ye Goods & Chattles of ye pson or psons soe offending by Distress & sale of ye same. This is to continue until further order.”

The court modified the measure shortly thereafter to allow the sale of liquor to the Indians in small measure provided that the Indians depart “into ye Woods to drinke ye same there, yt [that] soe the people may be nee disturbed by them.”

Taverns in the cities tended to sprout up wherever a licensee may have a house or a plot of land on which to build one. Outside of population centers, however, taverns were constructed at convenient intervals along stagecoach lines and served as rest stops for both the horses and drivers as well as the passengers. Frequently the stages carried freight and mail as well, and the stage stop in Arneytown near the border of Burlington and Monmouth Counties served not only as a tavern but also as a post office and general store.

Lawrie House, Arneytown, NJ. Authors collection.

Before the Revolution, the county courts made it quite difficult to obtain a license for a tavern, yet, despite the population of West Jersey being 13,714 people in 1726, quite a number of taverns existed within the province. After the Revolution, returning veterans and widows of fallen soldiers created a flood of tavern license applications, and the courts were only too happy to oblige. By 1784, fifty-seven taverns existed in Burlington County, thirty in Gloucester, twenty-six in Salem, five in Cape May, forty-seven in Hunterdon, and ten in Cumberland. Just two years later, William Livingston, the first governor of New Jersey, complained:

“I have seen four times as many taverns in the State as are necessary. These superabundant taverns in the State are continuously haunted by idlers. These taverns are confessedly so many nuisances – all well regulated governments abolish them, and yet I have not seen any of our courts that license them willing to retrench the supernumerary ones.”

Two years prior to Livingston’s lament, the residents of Greenwich Township in Gloucester County, perhaps fearing an explosion in the number of taverns operating nearby, filed a petition with the court protesting an increase in the number of tavern licenses. The petition stated “that the number [of taverns] now are Sufficent for the Uses for which they are instituted, that any more May be of Great Disadvantage to Sundry of the Near inhabitants Who are apt to frequent such Places to the Poverishment of Themselves and familys.

The fears of idleness and drunkenness resulting from the growing number of taverns in New Jersey and beyond, coupled with changing social morals in the early nineteenth century likely provided an impetus for the Temperance movement, which urged the complete abstinence of alcoholic beverages. The closing of the iron furnaces in South Jersey and the migration of the workforce away from these now deserted villages starved the taverns for business. As the nineteenth century came to a close, most stage routes had ceased operations, the horses and carriages replaced by much faster automobiles and trucks and the taverns along the route often underwent conversion into homes. Although illicit distilleries operated in the Pine Barrens during Prohibition, the last of the old taverns had finally closed.

While the heyday of the old taverns is long gone, some of the old taverns and stagecoach stops once again serve alcohol and food. The Cassville Tavern in Jackson still retains much of the feel that an old stagecoach tavern must have had. In Chesterfield, the old Recklesstown Tavern, circa 1710, is again a bar and restaurant called the Chesterfield Inn and still hosts games of quoits. In these hallowed halls you can raise a glass of “good ale or beere” and join over three hundred years of drinking history in New Jersey’s taverns.

Appendix: 1739 Burlington Tavern Price Schedule

On August 19, 1739 the Burlington court set a schedule for the prices a tavern could charge for food, drink, and lodging. This list is an interesting example of the kinds of offerings these old taverns would have had. A tavern may have offered more or less than what this list shows, and should not be considered any sort of canonical “menu” for a contemporary tavern at the time. I have tried to clarify some of the language used in the schedule so it is not “as written” in 1739.

A Breakfast of Tea or Coffee with Bread & Butter & loaf sugar 8 pence
Ditto with Muscovado Sugar 6 “
Ditto of wth chocolate wth bread & butter 7 “
Ditto of cold or hashed meat 6 “
A Dinner ordered extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider 1 shilling
A common hot family dinner with a Pint of Beer or Cider 9 pence
Cold Ditto with a pint of Beer or Cider 8 “
A Supper ordered Extraordinary with a pint of Beer or Cider 1 shilling
Ditto of cold or hashed meat 6 pence
A Quart of Common Strong Beer indoors 4 pence
Ditto outdoors 3 “
A Quart of Double Beer indoors 6 “
Ditto outdoors 5 “
A Quart of Cider indoors 3 “
A Pint of Cider Royall 4 “
A Pint of Metheglin 6 “
A Quart of Mimbo with Loaf Sugar 8 “
Ditto with Muscovado Sugar 6 “
A Quart of Punch with Fresh Lemons or Oranges & Loaf Sugar 1 shilling
A Quart of Lime juice punch 9 pence
A Quart of Milk or Egg punch 8 “
A Pint of plain Rum outdoors 6 “
A half of a pint out of doors 3 “
A Gill of plain Rum 3 “
A Gill of Cherry Rum 4 “
Ar/a Gill ditto 2 “
A Quart of Tiff 8 “
A Quart of Wine 2 “

All & Every afsd Liquors to be sold by measures having the Standard mark thereon according to An Act of General Assembly of this Province under sd Pains and Penalties therein contained.

Provender for Horses
Pasturing one night or each 24 hours 6 pence
Stabling one night or each 24 hours at Common Hay 6 “
Ditto at Clover hay 8 “
Two Quarts of Oats 3 “
A half peck of Oats 5 “
Each Lodger 2 pence
A Lodger requiring a Bed unto himself 4 “

The historian Charles Boyer, in his excellent book Old Inns and Taverns in West Jersey, from which this author copied this schedule, explains some of the words that would be unknown today. “Muscovado sugar” is simply raw, unrefined brown sugar. Boiling down cider to one fourth of its original volume made “Cider Royall.” “Metheglin” is a concoction of fermented honey, herbs, and water. A “mimbo” was a drink made from rum and loaf sugar. Boyer failed in his efforts to determine the consistency of a “tiff,” except he noted that it contained a considerable amount – usually about a pint – of rum.

Of special note is the section about lodging. It was quite the custom for an innkeeper to “pack them in” when he could, and friends and strangers of the same sex frequently found themselves sharing a bed. While someone could request a bed of their own, customs of the day would have made that person look quite obnoxious and fastidious.

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 Refugee John Bacon

Captain John Bacon is one of the most notorious of the legendary Pine Robbers – outlaws who preyed on rebel and Tory alike in the desolate lands of the colonial-era New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Bacon, like many other famed Tory leaders in the province of New Jersey, likely held a commission and gained his “Captain” title from the “Board of Associated Loyalists,” a group formed in New York under a charter from William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin and the last Royal governor of New Jersey.[1] The British Government, knowing that an organized force of Loyalists would free up their armies to conduct military operations against the Continentals, approved of the Board and, as such, offered a reward of 200 acres of land to anybody willing to fight for the British for the duration of the war. Raids were to be conducted solely against military targets[2], and Bacon chiefly confined his “picarooning” to well-known members of the Monmouth Militia,[3] unlike many other Pine Robbers who simply used the war as an excuse to plunder indiscriminately. The exploits of Bacon and other Refugees – Tories operating under the auspices of the Board – proved far more violent and sinister than those sanctioned by the Crown.

Prior to the war, Bacon worked as a laborer on the Crane family farm in Manahawkin.[4] Members of the Crane family would later join the Monmouth Militia. It is likely that Bacon’s Tory sympathies caused a rift between himself and his Whig employers and he either was fired or quit to join the Board of Associated Loyalists. At some point, he settled his wife and two sons in Pemberton,[5] but spent most of his time hiding and raiding in the area between Cedar Creek and Tuckerton.
One of the first actions attributable to Bacon is a raiding expedition near Forked River. Bacon plundered the house and mill of John Holmes, who was known to be somewhat wealthy. Bacon and his men camped in the woods near the mill under cover of darkness and waited for daylight. They came forward, put a bayonet to Holmes body, and demanded money. Like many others in the pine country, he buried his valuables outside rather than leave them in the house, but fortunately his wife had some money on her person. Satisfied with that, the Refugees then ransacked the house for whatever supplies they could find and retreated back into the woods.[6]

Immediately after the Holmes raid, Bacon dispatched a detachment of the bandits to Good Luck, now Bayville, to plunder the house of John and William Price. The bandits knew these two brothers well, not only as militiamen, but as people who helped care for those who had suffered at the hands of the enemy. Lieutenant (later Major) John Price once took in the daughter of Captain Ephraim Jenkins, whose house in Toms River endured the torch.[7] John Price managed to escape the house just as Bacon’s men appeared, saving only his Lieutenant’s commission. The bandits booty included Price’s musket and drum. The Refugees used them for their amusement as they made their way back to their group. Hearing the faint drumbeat, Bacon assumed a party of Americans was after him and he set the remainder of his men up on the high ground around the mill and ordered them to fire as soon as the men making the noise emerged from the woods. Fortunately for the approaching bandits, their brethren had sharp eyes and did not shoot when they saw who was making all of the noise![8]

The Prices were not the only patriots with which Bacon had a problem. He ruthlessly robbed and attacked Joseph Soper and his son Reuben—both members of Captain Reuben Randolph’s militia—who lived at a place called Soper’s Landing near Waretown. Bacon’s men visited so frequently that the Sopers often slept in the swamps nearby out of fear for their lives.[9]

Joseph Soper was a shipbuilder, and it’s said that one of his employees, an Englishman named William Wilson, acted as a spy for Bacon. One day Wilson witnessed Soper being paid for a vessel and raced to inform Bacon. Soper, suspicious that Wilson might betray him, split the money into two parcels, one large and one small, and buried them in separate places by his house. His suspicions were confirmed when Bacon and his men raided the house later that same day, aided by a man with a black handkerchief covering his face. Most authorities accept that this mysterious man was Wilson, although no legal proof existed that could attach him to the crime. During the raid, Joseph Soper took refuge in the swamps and only women and children occupied his house. The refugees threatened and frightened the women to such a state that they led Bacon to the smaller of the two parcels. The recovered money apparently satisfied Bacon and he simply cleaned out the house of all of its contents, as he did numerous times before, and departed with the loot.[10]

Produce was fetching exorbitant prices in British-held New York in December of 1780, and three men, Thomas Collins, Richard Barber, and Asa Woodmansee,[11] loaded a whaling ship with produce obtained from the farms around Barnegat Bay and sailed for New York City by way of the old Cranberry Inlet, once located near the mouth of the Toms River. The men made the journey to New York safely, sold their goods, and just as they prepared to return home, John Bacon appeared and compelled the men to allow him to join them on their trip back to Barnegat.

The boat made it back safely to the inlet and they anchored outside it for fear of venturing inside the bay during daylight. In the meantime the local citizens caught wind of the voyage and sought the Toms River militia to seize the vessel and put a stop to the illicit trade with the British.  As night fell the men raised anchor and no sooner had the vessel cleared the inlet then they came upon a boat commanded by Lieutenant Joshua Studson, who stood and demanded their immediate surrender.

The three men, unarmed, prepared to surrender, but Bacon, knowing he would face the gallows for his crimes thus far, steadfastly refused. Having his musket ready, Bacon quickly took aim and fired. Studson fell dead and the militia was thrown into such confusion that Bacon and the other men made their escape. The unfortunate crew, who only sought to make a bit of money selling produce, knew they could not stay at home and fled to the British army, where they were forced into service. Their time with the British was short-lived, however, as they soon fell “sick with the small pox and suffered everything but death” as Collins said afterwards.[12] They later took advantage of amnesty, which General Washington offered to British deserters,  and returned home.

A year later, Bacon and his men claimed another victim. On December 30, 1781, a group of militia under the command of Captain Reuben F. Randolph assembled at his inn in Manahawken to search for Bacon, who had been reported to be in the area. The night grew long, and around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, the men in the militia decided to rest and posted sentries to watch for the bandits should they pass nearby. Shortly before sunrise, the Refugees passed by on their way to West Creek. The sentries sounded the alarm and the sleeping militia woke to find they were outnumbered. As they prepared to retreat, the bandits open fire and killed one of the patriots named Lines Pangborn and wounded Sylvester Tilton. Bacon did not give chase, however, and continued on his way to West Creek.[13]

The shot that hit Tilton went clean through below one of his shoulders, and the attending physician passed a silk handkerchief through the wound in search of the musket ball. He recovered his strength and vowed revenge against a man named Brewer, one of Bacon’s men. After the war, Tilton discovered that Brewer resided in some remote cabin and set out to avenge himself. Along the way, he met a Quaker named James Willets who begged in vain for Tilton to abandon his trip. Failing at that, Willets asked to accompany Tilton in hope he might be able to defuse the situation should the two men meet. Tilton, determined to find Brewer, warned the Quaker that, should he interfere, he’d get flogged as well.

Tilton arrived the cabin and burst through the door, surprising Brewer, who didn’t have the chance to reach for his musket. Dragging Brewer to the door, Tilton gave the fellow an unmerciful beating and then told him “You scoundrel! You tried to kill me once, and I have now settled with you for it, and I want you now to leave here and follow the rest of your gang.” By then, most of the Refugees had settled in Nova Scotia.[14]

Bacon’s most notorious act is known as the “Massacre on Long Beach.” On October 25, 1782, the privateer galley Alligator discovered a cutter from Ostend, Holland, bound for St. Thomas, abandoned on the north end of Long Beach Island. It is not known exactly who commanded the Alligator. A contemporary Tory newspaper[15] puts Lieutenant Andrew Steelman of Cape May as captain, while others claim that David Scull was master.[16] Captain Joseph Covenhoven was also on board. The wrecked cutter had a costly load of Hyson tea and other “valuable articles”[17] worth £20,000.[18] Steelman went ashore to round up some locals to help transfer the cargo to the Alligator.

The locals rounded up included William Wilson who, upon seeing the beached vessel and the crew of privateers unloading her, ran to Bacon and told him about the situation. Bacon and nine of his men arrived later that night after the exhausted (and likely drunk) privateers had fallen asleep on the beach. Under the cover of darkness and moving silently across the sand, the Refugees snuck up to the sleeping crew, drew their knives, and murdered most of the crew. Those who awoke to the noise were at a disadvantage and secured their rescue only when Scull, aboard the Alligator, led reinforcements ashore. Scull’s men managed to scare off the Refugees, who withdrew back into the night. Scull, for his part, suffered a wound in the thigh. Steelman was dead, and, according to a British report of the incident, Bacon and the Refugees killed or wounded all of the party except for four or five. Reuben Soper, who had deftly eluded Bacon by sleeping in the swamp with his father, was one of the men killed that day.[19]

From this point, Bacon was a marked man. In late December, 1782 a party of men under the command of Captain Edward Thomas of the Mansfield Militia and Captain Richard Shreeve of the Burlington County Light Horse were in hot pursuit of Bacon near Cedar Creek. Knowing that they were being pursued, Bacon decided to build a barricade across the south side of Cedar Bridge, opposite the tavern on the stage road to Barnegat. The barrier constructed, all that remained was to wait for the Continentals.

The Battle of Cedar Bridge. Painting by Louis Glanzman.

The militia arrived, opened fire, and charged the Refugees. Bacon, knowing he could not expect anything except the executioner should he be captured, urged his men into a stiff resistance that lasted for a considerable time. Finally the militia seemed to be getting the better of Bacon’s men, when suddenly shots rang out from a different direction. Locals, for some reason sympathetic to Bacon’s cause, began firing on the militia. The confusion allowed Bacon and his men to retreat, and the militia could do nothing more than arrest those that had fired upon them and transport them to the Burlington County Gaol.[20] When the smoke cleared, Thomas and Shreeve discovered the militia had suffered two casualties – William Cook, dead, and Robert Reckless, injured. Ichabod Johnson, a refugee who carried a bounty of £25 on his head, was slain. Bacon and three other of his men suffered injury, but escaped.

Commemorative marker on Rt 72 near Cedar Bridge.

A detachment of Shreeve’s troops consisting of John Stewart, John Brown, Cornet Joel Cook (brother of William), John Brown, Thomas Smith, John Jones, and one other unknown man,[21] pursued Bacon and finally caught up with him on the evening of April 3, 1783[22] at the public house of William Rose, located between West Creek and Tuckerton. Approaching the house, Stewart peered through the window and there spied Bacon sitting with his gun between his knees. Stewart withdrew and gathered his companions, who then all returned to the house. Stewart burst through the door, surprising Bacon, who reached for his gun. Stewart lunged for Bacon before he could fire and wrestled him to the ground.

Bacon then cried out for quarter, which Stewart granted. Both men arose from the floor and Stewart called out to Cook. Cook, upset to finally face his brother’s murderer, gave Bacon a bayonet thrust that somehow went unnoticed to Stewart or the other men. Bacon appeared faint and fell, but shortly revived and attempted to escape through the back door. Stewart pushed a table against the door that Bacon then knocked aside, and then struck Stewart to the floor. Bacon attempted to open the door and escape when Stewart, who had regained his feet, shot him. The ball passed through Bacon, through a piece of the building, and bounced harmlessly off the chest of Cook who stood guard outside.[23]

The militia carried Bacon’s body to Jacobstown, where the Americans began burying his body in the middle of the road in the presence of many locals, who had turned out to see the spectacle. Before they had a chance to lower the body, Bacon’s brother arrived and pleaded with the militia to allow him to claim the body for a private burial. It is said that Bacon, his grave marker now long gone, is buried in the cemetery at Arneytown.[24]


[1] Edwin Salter, A History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, Embracing a Geneolgical Record of the Earliest Settlers in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. (Bayonne, NJ: E. Gardner & Son, 1890), 212.

[2] 1st NJ Volunteers, 1NJV Tidbits, (June 21, 2011).

[3] Salter, 207.

[4] Salter, 178.

[5] Edwin Salter, George C. Beekman, Old Times in Old Monmouth Historical Reminiscences of Old Monmouth County, New Jersey. (Freehold, NJ: The Monmouth Democrat, 1887), 43.

[6] Salter, 208.

[7] Salter and Beekman, 45.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 46.

[11] Salter, 203.

[12] Ibid, 204.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 45.

[15] Salter, 210

[16] Renee Brecht, The Long Beach Island Massacre, part 2, (June 21, 2011).

[17] Salter, 210.

[18] American War of Independence – At Sea, The Long Beach Island Massacre (June 21, 2011).

[19] Salter, 209.

[20] New Jersey Gazette, Trenton, January 8, 1783.

[21] George F. Fort, MD, “An Account of the Capture and Death of the Refugee John Bacon,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, (Newark, NJ: New Jersey Historical Society, 1847) 151.

[22] New Jersey Gazette, Trenton, April 9, 1783.

[23] Fort, 152

[24] Henry Charlton Beck, More Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963) 260.

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 in 2006.


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 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 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.