I first heard about the New Jersey Pine Barrens back in the 1970s, listening to guys at work talking about their four-wheeling adventures in the "Pines." It sounded like there were lots of pine trees and sandy roads where you could roam around all day in your jeep, drinking beer and raising hell. They also mentioned the "pineys" who lived there: inbred, backwoodsmen who would shoot you if you ignored their "No Trespassing" signs. It sounded like fun, and I was hooked.
I picked up a book by John McPhee, The Pine Barrens. He wrote pieces for The New Yorker in the 1960s, and decided that the large expanse of undeveloped land in the middle of New Jersey would make a good story. He traveled to a place called Hog Wallow, a few miles south of Chatsworth off Route 563, and interviewed an old-timer named Fred Brown. He lived in a tar-papered shack near a cranberry bog with pigs running around outside; inside, it was pretty bare-bones, with an ice box, a small table, and a radio—more like Appalachia than New Jersey. There was a kid hanging out with him that day, Bill Wasiowich. His parents took off when he was young, leaving him to fend for himself. He spent most of his time wandering around the woods, making a living picking cranberries, cutting wood, and gathering sphagnum moss. He dropped out of school, figuring it wouldn't do him any good, and learned to read by studying the Bible. He's still living out in the Pines today, never getting the urge to join the suburban rat-race. I've read he takes care of a hunting lodge somewhere in Woodland Township, making a living much the way he has always done.
The book describes the geologic, economic and cultural history of the Pine Barrens, and alerts the reader to the value of the area as a vast aquifer, holding trillions of gallons of pure water. The hundreds of thousands of acres of sandy soil form a perfect filter for the rain water before entering the underground system. Before the state acquired the Wharton Tract in 1954, the military was considering building a huge jet airport in the middle of the Pinelands, paving over thousands of acres of pine forest, polluting the water, and causing irreversible damage to the fragile ecosystem. Fortunately, the idea never left the drawing board due to the efforts of conservationists, ensuring that the Pinelands will stay undeveloped for future generations to enjoy.
If you drive through the Pinelands, you'll see mile after mile of pine trees and sand roads veering off the highway. The few people you'll run into are usually campers, canoeists, hunters or people just out for a quiet day away from the suburbs. But for 100 years, starting in the mid 18th century, the Pinelands were home to several industries, starting with lumber and charcoal-making, then later bog-iron furnaces and forges, and finally, paper and cotton manufacturing. Thousands of people once worked in the various Pinelands industries, and made their homes in the small towns that sprang up around them, like Batsto, Atsion, Harrisville, Martha and many others. Due to the depletion of resources and other economic forces, by the end of the 19th century, it was all over. Most of the people moved away to the surrounding cities and towns to find work, but a few stayed to scratch out a living. Some remained in the larger towns like Batsto and Atsion, farming and cutting wood, but the smaller settlements vanished, leaving ghost towns behind. If you turn off the highway, and drive down one of the hundreds of sand roads crisscrossing the Pinelands, you might come across a clearing in the woods, with non-indigenous shade tress surrounding a cellar-hole, indicating a place where a family once lived and died.
Batsto is the most well-known Pinelands town. Its mansion, workers' houses and other buildings were restored by the state. The one-time iron, glass works and farming community is now a popular tourist attraction. The Victorian era mansion is completely restored, and open for tours. You can also walk the grounds of the old village along the Batsto River, past the old saw-mill, and take one of the many trails that branch out into the woods.
But my favorite ghost town is Atsion. Most of it has been neglected by the state, and left to deteriorate over the years, except the mansion and company store. When the state took over the Wharton Estate, the mansion was in bad shape. The state fixed the roof and exterior to prevent further damage, and shuttered the windows. It sat there for decades, and people always wondered what it was like inside. We were driving down Route 206 towards Atsion earlier this year, and noticed something wasn't quite right. As we got closer, we realized that the shutters of the old mansion were open, exposing the completely restored windows! The state started restoring the inside and opened the mansion to the public. There is nothing inside except bare walls, ceiling and floor, but it was still interesting to see after all the years reading and wondering about it. You can see the large walk-in stove in the basement, and the marble fireplaces in the high-ceilinged rooms, and just imagine what it was once like when its wealthy owner entertained his guests there.
If you walk out the front door of the mansion, facing south, and turn left on Quaker Bridge Road, the old stage-coach route between Camden and Tuckerton, you'll see the 200-year-old church built by Samuel Richards on your left about 100 yards down the road. It is still being used today. Keep going, and you'll pass a one-room schoolhouse on your right, used in the early 1900s when families still lived in the village during the Wharton era, working on his farm. Down a little further, you'll cross the abandoned Jersey Central Railroad tracks. At one time, it connected Jersey City to the Delaware Bay, past Bridgeton in Cumberland County. If you make a right and walk along the tracks, you'll cross the trestle over the Mullica River, and pass the railroad station and hotel. Unfortunately, they aren't there anymore, but if you look real close, you might see a clearing with a brick lying around, or a slight depression in the ground, giving away a hint that something may have been there once. Walking back toward the mansion, you'll see the ruins of the large mill off Route 206 near the river. During the mid-19th century, hundreds of people made a living making paper and cotton there. After the collapse of the Pinelands industries, Wharton used it for a cranberry packing house. By the early 20th century it sat idle, until some jackasses burnt it down in the 1970s.
There are cabins running along the lake, on Atsion Road, which the state rents out. They were built in the 1930s, with stone fireplaces, and upgraded with modern plumbing and electricity. We've stayed in them over the years. If you don't have a canoe or kayak, and want to explore the Mullica River or just paddle around the lake, there's a canoe rental place across the street. One year, while staying there, we stopped in the old church for the Sunday service. The handful of locals attending seemed happy to see a couple of new faces. The current congregation is Baptist, and about halfway into the sermon, the preacher starting spewing fire and brimstone. My first impulse was to bolt out of the nearest door or window, and keep running, but out of respect for the members, I stayed and endured the potential wrath of God if I dared transgress his law.
Anyone interested in the New Jersey Pinelands has a number of books to choose from. Naturalists, historians, folklorists, outdoors-men and ordinary people fascinated with the charm and romance of the area have all written about it. One of the best to start with is the "Forgotten Towns" series by Henry C. Beck. He was a Courier-Post reporter in the 1930s and '40s, and convinced his editor that paying him to travel out to the old towns and interview people would sell newspapers. He talked with people who were alive during the waning days of the 19th century Pinelands industrial era, and saw places before they were obliterated by time and vandals.
One day, when it was slow at work, I googled Atsion history and hit a site that posted a story written by someone who grew up near the old village back in the 1930s. His name was Doug Entwistle. He was born in the last remaining "railroad-era house" next to Route 206, which, until a few years ago, was still standing. He reminisced about swimming in Atsion Lake, and exploring the abandoned village as a kid. This was not long after the state paved Route 206, when seeing a car go by was still a novelty. His mother attended the one-room schoolhouse on Quaker Bridge Road in the 1920s, and he had friends still living in the village before the state took over in 1954. We emailed back and forth: I asked questions and related what I saw recently, and he told me what it was like growing up back then. He enjoyed sharing his memories of that long forgotten town, and telling stories about the people who lived there. I've looked at old black and white pictures of Atsion, and read stories about it, but reading his personal reflections really turned the clock back for me. One of my favorite stories was about the Jersey Central steam locomotive making its nightly run through the Pinelands, thundering through the moonlit town, blowing steam and showering sparks into the night. He also mentioned the famous 1950s era TV clown, Bill Bailey, who once lived in one of the old workers' houses in Atsion, and the fire engine he parked in his yard—only a clown living in the Pines could get away with that.
I emailed Doug a few years ago after spending a day in the area, to keep him up on some of the changes I saw, but never got a response. I tried connecting to his website, but it was down. Sadly, he may have gone the way of the old town that he loved.