I’d heard all the sensational stories about the New Jersey Pine Barrens: how the company towns had all died out, how the residents were “feeble-minded, uneducated drunkards” (to quote a 1912 heredity study), and how the infamous winged “Jersey Devil” had terrorized the area for more than 200 years. It all sounded too good to be true! Keeping in mind the cautionary advice of the Soothsayer to Julius Caeser in 44 BC (“Beware the Ides of March”), I set off on March 15 to see these things for myself.
The Pine Barrens make up almost one-fourth of the land area of New Jersey, but they are little known outside of the state. Native Americans lived here as early as 10,000 BC—that is, shortly after the last Ice Age was receding. European settlers arrived in the mid-1600s and promptly set about cutting down the acres of pine trees, damming the numerous rivers and streams, strip-mining the bog iron, providing the Indians with firewater (and smallpox), and generally making an industrious nuisance of themselves. From their efforts, however, sprang sawmills, gristmills, iron furnaces, shipyards, farms, glass factories, and numerous inventions and scientific developments. Other than the cranberry bogs and blueberry bushes, almost all of this industry has long since disappeared, often with little trace.
There are possibly as many as 100 ghost towns in the Pine Barrens. Even though I was only planning to visit 17 of them, my 2-day itinerary was ambitious. A quick 126-mile dash brought me to Medford, NJ and the start of the Pine Barrens. Medford dates back to 1670, and it’s one of those company towns that has actually survived to the present—minus its glass factories and other industries that petered out long ago. I allocated 10 minutes to finding the oldest house in Medford and managed to come up with this little “saltbox” example built by Henry Stackhouse in 1815. (Turns out it’s just the oldest house on Branch Street; as usual, “haste makes waste”…)
The Main Street Friends Meeting House was built in 1842 following a Major Difference of Theological Opinion among New Jersey Quakers. They reunited in 1955, with the result that Medford and several other towns in this area each have two
Quaker meeting houses.Cranberries, Blueberries, and Brooksbrae Bricks
The Pine Barrens are believed to have gotten their name from the stunted pine trees together with the sandy, acidic soil, which did not support many of the crops attempted by early settlers. Over time, however, people discovered that cranberries could be grown here quite successfully—and today New Jersey is the third-largest producer of cranberries in the country.
James Fenwick started his cranberry farm in 1857, and his new son-in-law, J.J. White, joined the business in 1867. This was their 600-foot-long cranberry sorting and packing house, in its prime and today. It was devastated by fires in 1970 and 1985, well after farming operations had ceased here. (The J.J. White Company has continued to raise cranberries and blueberries in another, nearby location, and today’s company is operated by fifth generation descendants of its founder.)
Fortunately, most of the rest of Whitesbog Village remains very much the same as it was during the Whites’ tenure. This was the home of farm superintendant Joseph Haines starting in 1912. Today, it’s a private residence—and the nearby Haines family farm is one of the largest producers of cranberries in New Jersey.
During the off season, Whitesbog farm workers built barrels in the long building to the left in this photo. Each barrel would hold 100 pounds of cranberries for shipment. The buildings to the right were houses for the workers. Whitesbog was considered a model company town, with much better facilities and treatment of the workers. During harvest season, everyone
was expected to pitch in, including children. In the historical photos, some of these Whitesbog kids looked happier about the harvest than others. (The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was not amended until 1974 to apply to child agricultural workers.)
This was the original general store and post office for the town; as with most of the larger buildings at Whitesbog, it is now a private residence.
The current general store replaced the original in 1924. It’s open to the public on weekends throughout the year and offers many Pinelands products and books.
The building on the far side of this pond was a boarding house for the farm workers. As it happens, the pond is really a parking area for the village; it was flooded by the prior day’s torrential rains.
I especially wanted to see “Suningive,” which was the home of J.J.’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth White
(1871-1954). As a girl, she had enjoyed blueberries from the many wild plants that grew in the area, and she realized that blueberries would be an ideal complement to the farm’s cranberries. Despite many efforts, however, no one had successfully managed to cultivate blueberries anywhere in the U.S. Elizabeth joined forces with Dr. Frederick Coville from the Department of Agriculture, and in 1916 they became the first persons to ever cultivate blueberries. Thanks to Elizabeth’s pioneering efforts, New Jersey is the second-largest producer of blueberries in the U.S.—and blueberries can be grown throughout much of the world.
Dang—now I really want some blueberry pancakes!
My next goal was to find the ruins of the Brooksbrae Brick Factory, said to be located in the woods on the other side of the defunct Jersey Central Railroad tracks. It wasn’t hard to find the tracks; Jersey Central was one of several lines operating in the Pine Barrens. As best I can tell, the last freight train ran along here in 1978.
A short trek through the woods brought me to the factory ruins. When Brooksbrae was built in 1905, it was a state-of-the-art facility for manufacturing bricks. The place is replete with tunnels, which were heated by a furnace and used to dry the bricks before they were baked in the kiln. (See Inside the Underground Tunnels at Brooksbrae Brick Factory
for an entertaining video exploration.)
Brooksbrae was also replete with graffiti and signs of paintball wars. Fortunately, I had the place to myself, and I happily explored the ruins without stepping into any of the tunnel vent holes.
Only later did I learn “the rest of the story” of the Brooksbrae Brick Factory. It had been in operation only briefly before the death of the owner created a complicated legal situation, which left the plant idle. Years went by and then, on October 16, 1917, things went horribly wrong. An Austrian emigrant named Gildo Plazziano was serving as watchman for the facility. He had befriended 12-year-old Hannah Chattin, who lived with her parents nearby, and she had gone to his simple cabin that morning to help him paper the walls. Later, Hannah’s father and brother saw flames coming from the cabin and rushed there, only to observe the bodies of Hannah and Plazziano lying together on a cot in the midst of the fire. According to contemporary newspaper accounts, “The [police] supposition is that the man attacked the child and then, realizing the enormity of his crime, had killed her, set fire to the shack, and then committed suicide.” The fire spread to the factory, quickly destroying it. The local coroner (who was, himself, charged with murdering his wife in 1905) was not able to determine the cause of death, and exactly what happened that fateful morning has never been determined.Ruins, Royalty, and a (Short) Trip through Deep Sand
Blissfully unaware of these lurid events, I continued on to Chatsworth, the “Capital of the Pines.” The settlement began as a site for loggers, thanks to its abundant pine forests, and over time graduated to bog iron mining, farming, and (of course) cranberries. Mario dei Principi Ruspoli (1867-1963) was an attaché at the Italian embassy in Washington, DC, and in 1890 he married Pauline Marie Palma de Talleyrand-Périgord. As the granddaughter of real estate magnate Joseph D. Beers and an heiress to the Beers-Curtis fortune, Palma inherited considerable property in the Pine Barrens. She and Mario built an “upscale cottage” on the shores of Chatham Lake in the early 1890s.
Together with wealthy friends from New York City, the Ruspolis built the Chatsworth Club, starting with Palma’s mother’s winter home. The first president of the club was Levy Morton, a banker who had previously served as a U.S. Vice President. Other notable members included John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, and Charles Abercrombie. The exclusive club thrived for only a relatively short time, however, and it was sold in 1907. After subsequent efforts to revitalize the club failed, the main lodge burned under suspicious circumstances in 1911. Prince Ruspoli was recalled to Italy in the late 1890s, but he continued to own the cottage. It deteriorated quickly during his absence and succumbed to flames in 1932. Today there are no signs of either structure. Only a few clearings and faint trails through the woods offer any indication of the grand events that once took place here. This photo was taken from approximately the same spot as the historical one.
In contrast, the 1860 White Horse Inn still stands proudly in downtown Chatsworth. It was renovated with funding from the annual Chatsworth Cranberry Festival
and is now home to the Woodland Township Historical Society.
My favorite part of Chatsworth was Buzby’s General Store. It was built by Neil Wade in 1865 and purchased by Willis and Myrtle Buzby in 1895. By 1997, however the store had been abandoned for 7 years and was facing the same fate as the Chatsworth Club and Prince Ruspoli’s cottage. Then along came R. Marilyn Schmidt, who had been a pharmacologist for the Food and Drug Administration and later started the Barnegat Light Press—while living in the Barnegat Bay lighthouse! She tackled the restoration of the general store and has operated it ever since.
Marilyn proved to be a charming and knowledgeable proprietor, and she happily answered all my questions and told me fascinating stories about the area’s history. I won’t mention her age (but I believe it rhymes with “matey-thrive”), and she is still going strong. Along the way, Marilyn has written quite a number of books about this area, and she has certainly earned the title of “The Queen of the Pine Barrens.” As it happens, Buzby’s Chatsworth General Store
is now for sale, as Marilyn would like to devote more time to her writing.
An early Pine Barrens industry was “bog iron,” which is formed when iron-bearing groundwater oxidizes and accumulates in shallow streams and bogs. It is relatively easy to mine, and many bog iron furnaces operated in this area from about 1765 until the deposits were exhausted in the 1820s. This was the site of the Speedwell Furnace in 1784, although virtually nothing remains today other than the earthen banks seen in the distance. Speedwell was owned and operated by Benjamin Randolph, who was much better known as a furniture maker in Philadelphia. Among other pieces, Randolph made a desk for Thomas Jefferson, upon which the future President wrote the Declaration of Independence.
As I turned onto the “sugar sand” road leading to the former cranberry village of Friendship, I encountered a long line of mud-spattered 4x4’s coming the other way. Many rolled on huge knobby tires and carried air-intake “snorkels” for driving through deep water. I began to wonder what I was getting myself into. Sugar sand is made up of tiny grains and can be very slippery even when dry, let alone after being inundated by the prior day’s rains…
Nonetheless, the trusty 335i made it to Friendship without incident. I should say “what was left of Friendship”: it was one of the most barren-looking places I’ve ever seen.
There were a few signs of the once-prosperous cranberry farming village, but not much—a foundation here, a cellar hole there. A little one-room schoolhouse is the only surviving structure, and it’s somewhere else. Friendship was founded in 1869 on the site of a sawmill dating back to 1795. For a time, the cranberry business here was the largest in the area, but it declined and was sold to real estate speculators in the 1950s. A planned development never materialized, although the owners managed to sell the property to the State of New Jersey for a windfall profit.
The old cranberry bogs are still quite scenic, and the foundation of the massive packinghouse is easy to find. (I wonder how many 4x4’s have inadvertently landed in here over the years?)
As I went to turn around and drive back to civilization, I managed to get well and truly stuck in the deep sugar sand in Friendship. It was a bit embarrassing, since I was only 100 yards away from 6 or 7 New Jersey State Park Police who happened to be in the area (perhaps to shoo 4x4’s away from the packing house ruins…) Despite snow tires and BMW’s finest e-differential, I wasn’t going anywhere. Fortunately, I’d brought a small shovel with me, and I managed to dig the 335i out in no time. I expected a round of applause from the park police as I drove off—but I don’t think they even noticed my escapade.
Modern cranberry bogs in New Jersey are gigantic. This one is a small part of the Haines & Haines Company, which has been farming here since 1890.
Visitors to the Pine Barrens are routinely cautioned about getting lost. There are possibly hundreds of narrow dirt roads crisscrossing the area, often wandering off in random directions. Many of these started as Native American trails and progressed to stagecoach roads in the 1700s. A good GPS is invaluable, especially since cell phone service is spotty at best.
McCartyville, NJ thrived from about 1795 to 1890. It was another company town, based around a gigantic paper mill. William McCarty started the business and developed innovative methods using salt marsh hay, old rope, and rags as raw materials; even so, he went broke in 1846, and fire destroyed the town not long afterward. Richard Harris had the place back in business by 1856—and McCartyville became Harrisville, complete with some of the earliest gas streetlights in the country in 1867. All was fine until Harris went broke in 1890. Joseph Wharton bought Harrisville in 1896 along with many other Pine Barrens lands, intending to create a massive reservoir and sell the abundant water to Philadelphia. The New Jersey legislature put an end to his plans, and Wharton turned to other ventures. These businesses didn’t include the paper mill, however, which subsequently languished. Finally, another massive fire leveled the town in 1914, taking most of the mill with it.
You can find what’s left of Harrisville by poking around in the woods. This was the foundation of William McCarty’s mansion.
The town had its own gristmill, portions of which are still visible near Harrisville Lake. (Incidentally, Marilyn Schmidt told me that every single pond and lake in the Pine Barrens is manmade. Most were used to provide waterpower for the iron furnaces, sawmills, cranberry bogs, and other industries.) Near the gristmill, all that’s left of Richard Harris’ mansion and the general store are almighty holes in the ground. In the historical photo, the gristmill is on the right and the store on the left. If you look carefully, one of the gas streetlights is visible in front of the store.
Then there was the massive paper mill itself, which stood three stories high. Bits of it still survive, including this towering brick wall. It’s hard to judge the scale, but I could have easily stood upright in the upper arches. Water from the lake flowed into the factory via a long, hand-dug canal and then exited back into the Wading River through the center of these arches. The entire factory site is fenced off to prevent vandalism.
While checking out the water race, I somehow ended up inside
the fenced off area. I’m sure I don’t know how that happened, but it did allow me to get a much closer look at the back of the old wall. Such forays are not recommended, I suppose, since a strong wind could knock the ruins over anytime. Or one of New Jersey’s Finest could hand you a hefty fine. (I escaped both possibilities.) In the old photo of the Harrisville ruins, from about the 1930s, Len Sooy and his two grandsons were obviously not too concerned.Glass Factories and Sunken Ships
Throughout my trip in the Pine Barrens, I was impressed by how few people there were about. It was a welcome change from the crowded roads and sidewalks in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Although it wasn’t easy to find sites in Harrisville, it was even harder in Hermann City. John Sooy built a house here in about 1750, next to the Mullica River. It was expanded on one side in 1840, and then on the other in 1869 when the German Koster family bought the home and turned it into a hotel. The Kosters and their descendants lived here for over 100 years. Remarkably, the structure survived fairly intact until an arsonist struck in 1987. Today, only an empty field remains, with the occasional front step or other indication that a large building once stood here.
We’ll say more about the Mullica River in a bit. The Hermann Hotel certainly would have had a nice view of it.
The second-largest glass factory in the Pine Barrens was built here in 1873, even as many others in the area were going out of business. With the help of an economic “panic” (depression), it failed after only 6 months. For reasons that are not clear, three sailing ships loaded with glass products were purposely scuttled in the Mullica when the factory closed. They are still there in the sandy river bottom, and it is said that the hull of one of them can be seen when the tide is exceptionally low.
To find the factory, I headed due east through the woods and thorny underbrush. For what seemed like the longest time, I found nothing at all. Eventually, I spotted some earthen banks and discovered this brick-lined tunnel lurking in the underbrush. It had been part of a network of passages that conducted air to the superheated furnace used to create glass from sand.
From the top of one of the banks, I could see another tunnel in the distance together with a brick conduit, which I believe is the same part of the factory shown in the old photo below.
Did I mention that I had to wade through a thriving population of thorny vines to find these places for you, my loyal readers? And that they would snag and untie my shoelaces with every second or third step? All in a day’s work for itinerant history-seekers!
Back at the top of the hill, near where I had parked, I located what had been the cellar of a boarding house for the glass factory workers. After the heavy rainfall, it looked more like a swimming pool.Batsto Village and a Jilted Fiancé’s Revenge
Of all the Pine Barrens ghost towns, Batsto Village is the best known. The Batsto Iron Works was founded by Charles Read in 1766, making it the first such facility in the area, and it produced pig iron and iron products from bog iron ore. Batsto was instrumental in providing cannonballs, other munitions, and supplies for the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. The village was purchased by the state of New Jersey in 1954 and is now a beautifully preserved historic site.
This boat was discovered at the bottom of Batsto Lake in 1957. It (and many others) had been used to collect bog iron and transport it to the furnace.
William Richards bought the iron works in 1784 and, together with his son and grandson, continued to run the industrial site through 1876. When higher quality iron ore was discovered in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s, together with coal to fire the furnaces, Batsto smoothly transitioned to window glass production. The Richards built houses for their workers, saw and gristmills, carriage houses, barns for livestock, and this general store and post office. Incredibly, the post office is still in operation.
The gristmill dates back to 1828 and produced flour and cornmeal for use in the village. The sawmill was also water-powered, and, like most of the structures in the village, is still fully operational.
Close to 20 of the workers’ houses still exist. The rental was $2.00 per month.
Note the color of the water flowing over the Batsto Lake dam. Like most waterways in the Pine Barrens, it is tea-colored as a result of heavy concentrations of tannin from the pine trees.
Despite the Richards’ best efforts, Batsto went broke in 1867. In his continuing effort to corner the market on Pine Barrens water to sell to Philadelphia, Joseph Wharton purchased the village. Later, with his water plans thwarted, he converted the property to farming. In the process, he expanded the Richards’ mansion to 32 rooms and adopted an Italianate style. In the old photo, Joseph Wharton is shown at the left together with his wife and children. The little, dormer-style room perched on the roof, to the left in my photo, was actually a secret room, believed to have been used for concealing slaves escaping from the south via the Underground Railroad. It could be accessed only through a false back to an upstairs closet. New Jersey acquired Batsto Village in 1954 and established it as a historical site. The relatively few people who were still living in the worker houses were allowed to stay as long as they liked, with the last property finally vacated in 1989.
This nearby Methodist church was built in 1808 (succeeding two earlier ones from 1707 and 1760) and was dedicated by the famous Bishop Francis Asbury. It drew parishioners both from Batsto Village and nearby Pleasant Mills, and services have continued to this day. In Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey
, Henry Beck tells the story of a handsome young carpenter named John Lynch, who was helping to build the church. He was also engaged to one young woman when he began courting another. His spurned fiancé, upon learning of his duplicity, declared “I do hope John Lynch dies before that church is finished!” At that same moment, and miles away, John Lynch fell from the roof of the chapel and died instantly from a broken neck. He is buried in the churchyard—as is his erstwhile fiancé, “who, clad in the mourning that bespoke the remorse she felt for the sudden and unexpected gratifying of her thoughtless wish, died of a broken heart.” Pleasant Mills and the Mystery of the Real Kate Aylesford
Speaking of Pleasant Mills, the Lenni Lenape Native Americans had a summer village here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Eric Mullica was a Swede who is credited with being the first person to sail up the river that was later named for him. He and his family settled nearby in about 1695. English and Scottish families arrived in 1707, seeking religious freedom. A sawmill was built here in 1752 by Jack Mullin, who may or may not have had a daughter named Honoria Reid. Local legend states that the owner of the Batsto Ironworks, Charles Read, was the father of Honoria Read—but he wasn’t; he and his wife Alice had two sons but no daughters.
Colonel Elijah Clark is known to have built a mansion next to the Mullica River in 1762. Honoria is said to have lived in the mansion as an 18-year-old—but probably didn’t. Elijah’s friend, Colonel Richard Wescoat, bought the mansion in 1797, and his
daughter Margaret definitely lived here. The settlement was known as Sweetwater, according to most (but not all) sources. Some Pine Barrens history is pretty hard to sort out!
Anyway… Directly across the road from the Clark Mansion are the ruins of the old mill for which the village is named. This was originally the site of Jack Mullin’s sawmill, I believe, but in 1822 William Lippincott built a cotton mill here, naming it The Pleasant Mills at Sweetwater. With 3,000 spools, the cotton mill was quite successful until a devastating fire in 1855. A few years later, John and William Ferrell (no, not that
Will Ferrell, although he might be a descendant) converted the cotton factory to a paper mill. It was also very successful—until another fire in 1878, during a severe hurricane. William Ferrell was well-insured, fortunately, and he rebuilt the factory, which remained in operation until 1914.
There aren’t many places to park off of the road around here, so I borrowed the driveway leading to the mill ruins, which can be seen in the background. After the paper mill closed, various efforts were made to reopen it, convert it to producing asbestos, and so forth, but they all failed. Following a brief stint as an art gallery, a portion of the old mill was used as a community theatre starting in 1952. It only lasted for 5 years, but during that time a teenaged Anthony Perkins performed here (well before his starring role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
), as did Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and others.
As it happens, the entire Pleasant Mills property
is for sale, in case you have $149,900 burning a hole in your pocket and don’t mind doing a little rehabbing. There’s a 3-bedroom house hiding within this building.
And the old theatre is inside what used to be the pulp engine house alongside Atsion Creek. What a deal! (Cue Mickey Rooney: “Hey, let’s put on a show!” Then Judy Garland: “Yeah! We’ll print tickets and then everybody will come!”)
Across state route 643 is Nescochague Lake, which served as the water supply for the mill. And situated on a promontory, right where I expected it to be, I found Col. Elijah Clark’s mansion—which is also known as the Richards House, the Wescoat House, and the Aylesford House. Honoria Read/Reid was said to have lived here, as were Margaret Wescoat and Kate Aylesford. All three were described as beautiful, intelligent, clever, and adventurous. But probably only one of them was a real person…
When I visited, the mansion looked somewhat rundown. I believe the appearance is due to the paint on the front section of the house having been scraped off in preparation for repainting.
In a wildly popular 1855 novel, written by Charles J. Peterson, the fictional heroine Kate Aylesford lived in this house after having survived a shipwreck. She was later abducted by a notorious outlaw but used her courage and cunning to escape and make her way into the swamps, where she was rescued from certain death by her resourceful old Uncle Lawrence and the gallant Major Gordon, whom she went on to marry. All of the characters in the book were based on real people in this area. But who was the inspiration for the daring heroine, Kate? Was it Honoria Read/Reid, Margaret Wescoat, or someone else entirely?
All the local legends say Honoria was the inspiration, right down to having been abducted by the all-too-real villain Joe Mulliner and rescued by an American officer whom she subsequently married in 1782. One problem with the traditional version is that there is no hard evidence that an actual young woman by this name ever lived here or existed at all. On the other hand, Colonel Richard Wescoat bought the mansion in 1779, and his daughter Margaret definitely lived here—and matched virtually all of the other characteristics of Kate Aylesford, including marrying the dashing Revolutionary War soldier Nathan Pennington. Once again, cold, hard, historical facts appear to trump local romance and legend—but we don’t really know for sure. Kate Aylesford: A Story of the Refugees
is a pretty good read, by the way, even if a little wordy and overly formal.Smugglers, Privateers, and Joe Mulliner—the “Robin Hood of the Pine Barrens”
Before the American Revolution, the British government imposed stiff import duties on goods brought into the Colonies. A natural reaction was smuggling, and the Mullica River became a favorite way to avoid the British patrols in Philadelphia and New York. In fact, a whole shipbuilding and transportation industry sprang up along the river in support of smuggling operations. This is the Mullica, roughly a mile downstream of the center of smuggling activities at “The Forks,” where the Mullica and Batsto Rivers merge.
At the start of the Revolution, the Continental Congress approved the use of private ships for attacking and seizing British vessels and their cargoes. According to Barbara Solem’s excellent little book, The Forks: A Brief History of the Area
, more than 1,000 British merchant ships were captured by Colonial “privateers” during the war, and a great many were brought up the Mullica to The Forks, where the cargoes were auctioned off and transported to Philadelphia and elsewhere.
In response, the Royal Navy sailed to the Mullica in 1778 to rout the pesky privateers (and the Colonial forces guarding them). A courageous Polish military officer, Count Kazimieriz Pulaski, had been recruited by Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Lafayette to help the Revolution. Upon his arrival in America in 1777, he declared “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Two years later, he did in fact die in his defense of American freedom. But in 1778 he and his cavalry troops were dispatched by George Washington to rush to the defense of the Mullica. The Royal Navy never made it very far up the river, and their mission was ultimately unsuccessful; British merchant ships continued to fall prey to the American sailors.
In a sad footnote to this story, a small division of Count Pulaski’s forces were camping on what is now Osborne Island not far from where the Mullica River empties into Great Bay, near Tuckerton, NJ. Informed of the troops’ whereabouts by a deserter, a British force attacked in the middle of the night, bayoneting 44 of the Americans as they were sleeping and capturing the other 5. Today, this area is the site of a modern housing development—but a small portion of the land has been left vacant, commemorating the massacre.
As we saw earlier, there may or may not have been a young woman named Honoria Read—but there most certainly was a tall, roguish, and fun-loving British sympathizer by the name of Joe Mulliner. Being a Tory during the Revolution was not popular with the American Patriots, and in 1779 Joe had to flee his home in Sweetwater. Before long he became a notorious outlaw and highwayman, leading his gang “The Refugees” as they robbed taverns, homes, and travelers. He was said to be quite a ladies’ man, who would insist on dancing with each woman present before leaving the tavern he’d just robbed!
Opinions vary considerably as to his personal conduct. Some described him as a ruthless murderer and rapist, while others stated that he never injured anyone, would come to the rescue of any damsel in distress, and gave much of his ill-gotten gains to poor residents of the Pine Barrens. Out of dozens of stories about Joe Mulliner, my favorite is the time that he encountered a young woman who was crying outside of the Washington Tavern. He asked her what was wrong, and she replied that she didn’t love the man she was about to marry and did not want to go through with the arranged wedding. Joe strode into the tavern with his guns drawn, told the groom that he could leave right away—or stay put and die. Said groom decided that discretion was the better part of valor and never returned to the Pine Barrens. Joe stayed, and he, the relieved young woman, and all of the wedding guests had a grand old time, dancing, drinking, and singing into the night.
In 1781, he joined one party too many: while Joe was dancing with the prettiest girl at the Indian Cabin Mill Inn, someone alerted the local militia, who surrounded the building and captured the outlaw. He was tried in Burlington, convicted of high treason, hanged at Gallows Hill later that day, and buried near his home in Sweetwater. His ghost was occasionally sighted for at least the next 100 years, wandering the highways and swamps and said to be looking for the fortune that he’d buried in the region. (Many people have also sought Joe’s treasure, none successfully so far…)
I was determined to find Joe Mulliner’s grave, but an hour spent searching all the high bluffs overlooking the Mullica River failed to yield any sign of it. I know it’s out there, and I haven’t given up. (If I run across his treasure in the process, I’ll be sure to let you all know.) For now, here are Weird N.J.’s
photos of the current tombstone and two of its predecessors. (The others have been stolen over the years.) Tucker’s Island, Here and Gone. And Here?
With my daylight starting to fade, I hustled off toward Tuckerton and my overnight destination. Naturally I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Dr. Charles Smith’s Neutral Water Health Resort in Egg Harbor City. Dr. Smith founded the resort sometime between 1905 and 1910, claiming that the waters here were a fountain of youth. Perhaps they were; he cited his year of birth as 1776, so his death in 1932 would have made him 156 years old! All that’s left of the resort is this “round house” solarium, in which people would dry out after wading in his serpentine canal waters, wearing woolen bathing outfits. The 16-sided building now serves as a museum. Oh, and the canal is still there in case you want to try out its healing properties yourselves. (In the old “wading” photo below, Dr. Smith is the fellow in the center with the long white beard, as befits someone in his 150’s.)
I reached Tuckerton and checked into the J.D. Thompson Inn. With just enough time to find Tucker’s Island before dark, I aimed the willing 335i in the direction of Great Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean. I stopped along the deserted road to get a photo of this unassuming-looking mound in the marshes. The Tuckerton Mound is formed of ancient quahog and oyster shells, dumped here roughly 1,500 years ago as Native Americans periodically went to the ocean for shellfish. The mound is about 10 feet high above the surface of the surrounding marsh—and another 14 feet below the surface.
The local Lenni Lenape Indians are said to have ascribed this mound to another race that long preceded their own. Interesting, perhaps astonishingly, in 1888 nearby farmers Alf and Art Stillson plowed up the skeletons of as many as 30 Native Americans—some of which were measured to be approximately 7 feet tall! Distinguished archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing from the Smithsonian Institution joined the excavation and confirmed the findings. Long thought to be a “tall tale,” this story was confirmed by historian Steve Dodson, as documented in his fascinating article “Tuckerton’s ‘Race of Giant Men’—An Historical Mystery
.” This is the only known photo of some of these remains.
New Jersey has an extensive series of barrier islands on the Atlantic coastline. Atlantic City is situated on Absecon Island, with Brigantine Island to the north and then Long Beach Island. Ephraim Morse and his family were living on “Short Beach Island,” just south of Long Beach Island as early as the 1740s, grazing cattle and operating a store for mariners who sheltered here during storms. Reuben Tucker bought property in 1765 and was soon operating a tavern for mariners and beach-goers. Reuben passed away, but his widow, who was widely known as, uh, Mother Tucker, continued the business until her death in 1815.
Meanwhile, thanks to various storms, the 5-mile-long Tucker’s Island was getting smaller. When the tavern burned in 1845, a lighthouse was built on the site, and a life saving station was added in 1866. Completion of the Tuckerton Railroad in 1871 led to the construction of new resort hotels on the island in 1875 and 1879, plus a school in 1895, and business was booming. Even as the island continued to shrink. When the railroads reached Long Beach Island—but not Tucker’s Island—New Jersey’s first beach resort began to decline. The hotels were abandoned, and only the lighthouse and life saving station families plus a few hardy fishermen were left behind. Major storms in 1920 and 1927, plus steady erosion in between, eradicated the beaches and left the island at the mercy of the ocean. On October 12, 1927, the entire lighthouse toppled into the sea. The little schoolhouse was moved to a safer location and used for other purposes, but it, too, disappeared shortly after World War II. By 1950, Tucker’s Island had sunk entirely, just like the legendary Atlantis.
In one of those interesting Twists o’ Fate, the island has only recently started to reemerge! In the photos below, it can barely be seen as the little sandbar in the far distance. Check this space in another 50 years; there just might be a new casino on the resurgent Tucker’s Island (or at least a historical marker in honor of Mother Tucker).
With that, my light had all but disappeared and it was time to hike back to the loyal BMW, which had been waiting patiently amidst a sea of puddles.
After an excellent dinner at the Grapevine Restaurant outside of Tuckerton, it was back to the inn for a good night’s sleep. Much more adventure awaited me on the next day—so stay tuned for Part II.
PS: I am greatly indebted to the following sources of information and historic photos for this report, in addition to the usual [url]Wikipedia.com[/url] and Library of Congress
:Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens
, by Barbara Solem-StullThe Pine Barrens of New Jersey
, by Karen F. RileyTowns Lost (But Not Forgotten)
, by R. Marilyn SchmidtForgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey
, by Henry Charlton Beck (1936)Iron in the Pines: The Story of New Jersey’s Ghost Towns and Bog Iron
, by Arthur D. Pierce (1957)The Forks: A Brief History of the Area
, by Barbara Solem-StullKate Aylesford: A Story of the Refugees
, by Charles J. Peterson (1855)Batsto Village: Jewel of the Pines
, by Barbara SolemEighteen Miles of History on Long Beach Island
, by John Bailey LloydBrooksbrae Brick Factory
, by stuofdoomJoe Mulliner, the “Robin Hood of the Pines”
, by Weird N.J.NJPineBarrens.comGreater Philadelphia GeoHistoryIndustry in the Pines: The Story of Batsto Village
, by The History GirlThe Blueberry: Born & Bred in New Jersey
, by Ginny KnackmuhsA Self-Guided Tour of 63 of Medford’s Historic Sites
, by the Medford Historic Advisory BoardOld Jersey: Exploring the history, art, and culture of New JerseyThe Whitesbog Village GazetteVisiting Harrisville’s RuinsPineyPower.comHistory Now and Then
by JerseymanTucker’s Island
, by John Bailey LloydInto the Woods of ChatsworthThe Ocean County Compendium of History: The Murder of Harriet Hannah Chattin
, by Steven J. BaeliPrivateers in the American Revolution
, by John FralerEarly Life on the Wading River: Harrisville Then and Now
, by W.J. HawthorneEarly History of Atlantic County, New Jersey
, by the Atlantic County Historical Society (1915)Tuckerton Historical Society