JOURNEYS INTO NEW JERSEY
Look at a map of New Jersey, and you'll find places listed that really don't exist anymore. Yes, the names are right there on the map. But if you actually travel to a place like Ong's Hat, you won't find much. Places where there were once communities now have none. For all purposes they have vanished.
Some had names related to their founders – some have a historical connection; some are just unique – like Blue Hole, Long in Coming, Chicken Bone and Double Trouble.
In some cases they have been swallowed up by the forest with barely a trace. In other cases, buildings and signs persist – relics to a time when they were useful.It might be a surprise to learn that by some estimates, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey contain more ghost towns than the entire American West. And unlike those Western boomtowns, these Eastern counterparts were often carefully conceived and fully functioning communities – some for a long time and a few dating back to before the Revolutionary War.
For example, a settlement along a river dates back as far back as 1645 along the banks of a river explored by Eric Mullica and is now named after him.
It was the wartime needs of the Revolutionary War that helped New Jersey become the first state to support a thriving iron industry. And, it was this iron industry that played a pivotal role in supplying ammunition and goods to George Washington's army during the war.
In the 1700's and 1800's, there were tiny company towns all over the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey. In addition to iron, they were all either paper or glass towns. Some towns tried each before eventually dying.
For example, in the 1850's, John Mason invented a jar that he said would help housewives preserve fruits and vegetables. In fact, the Mason jar did have a profound impact on households. It also significantly impacted the Pine Barrens region as Mason brought his glass making techniques to factories built in the town of Crowleytown. For almost 20 years, Crowleytown was a major community – one of industry, residences and business. By the mid-1870's it was done. Now there remains barely a trace.
Down the Mullica River are ship remains at what was the glass-making community of Herman City. Some period structures (private homes) can still be found there, too, as well as some rotted foundations in the forest. Though it was quite important in its time (1870's), Herman City lived and functioned for barely six months.
Down another area river, The Wading, can be found structures from another industrial community, Harrisville, that lasted from the 1700's until the late 1890's when it was destroyed by fire.
Another once-important location is the site called Washington, New Jersey (This is the one in South Jersey – there are others, but that's the subject of a future article unto itself). In its time, it was an important stagecoach stop for the Old Tuckerton Stage Line.
It was 1773 when Nicholas Sooy built Sooy's Tavern along the Stage Road, and that little town of Washington became such a busy stagecoach stop and community center. The tavern was frequented by the workers at the nearby forges at Atsion, Batsto, Speedwell, Hampton and Martha. It was a favorite spot for weddings and meeting with friends. Town meetings were held at this tavern until 1819. For this reason, the Tavern also became a spot for sergeants from the Continental Army to find recruits.
A community grew around this commercial spot, with schools to educate the children of local workers. Soon after the death of George Washington, Sooy renamed the tavern Washington Tavern in his honor. Reportedly, a sign with a crude caricature of Washington hung outside the tavern with the words "Our Country Must Be Free."
Among the ghost towns of New Jersey there's even alleged to be a haunted town. Along the Great Egg Harbor River was a ship building business that helped the Revolutionary War cause by allowing travel and industry that circumvented a shut New York Harbor and blockaded Delaware Bay. The area also helped America develop trade by sea.
One town in this area, Catawba, was built by George West starting in 1813. It included an elaborate mansion and the first Methodist Church. By the late 1820's strange things started happening - including the deaths of members of the West family. Many attribute the deaths to a fever, but other tales persist to this day. Among the numerous local legends are stories of buried treasures and haunted properties
As for Ong's Hat, it has an interesting history of its own as well. Situated on Route 72 west of its intersection with Route 70, the name can be found right there on state maps (You can find it on online maps too).
The origin of the name is unknown, but a well-known folk story attributes it to local man who was a fixture at local dances, wooing women with his suave attire, especially his silk hat. The surname Ong was common among early Pine Barrens settlers, and one of the earliest settlers was named Jacob Ong
According to Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey by Henry Charlton Beck, Ong's Hat was a real village. By 1936, Ong's Hat was still on maps but nothing was there except a clearing, an abandoned shed and bits of brick and roofing.
These once important industrial centers are now mainly mere points on a map in the one million acres comprising the Pine Barrens.
A few of these areas are still accessible. Places like Batsto, Allaire and Smithville have been restored and preserved to give us an idea how they were back then.
The site of Washington, N.J., and its remaining ruins are now a part of Wharton State Forest. You can explore these roads, but those in the know advise travelers to make sure they have a capable four wheel drive (the roads can get muddy and flooded), bring a good map and GPS. There are a lot of roads, they say, and you can easily get lost.
What can these towns tell us of the 21st century? They can surely tell us something about ourselves; how even back then places were deemed disposable and expendable – for having outlived their usefulness. Many were based on one product or service (iron, glass, shipbuilding, stone, stagecoaches), and they just were not needed any more. Many were places that the railroads bypassed when their tracks were laid – rendering stagecoach and river travel obsolete, and thus their towns, too.
Yet, there is a history – of the region and of our nation – that is hidden and mostly silent here. If you take the time to look and see, you just might hear the sounds of these ghost towns of New Jersey and their stories. They have something to tell us.
Want to Learn more ? You might consider these resources, just a few of those available:
Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pines Barrens, By Barbara Solem-Stull; Plexus Publishing, 2005; Forgotten Towns of Southerm New Jersey, By Henry Charlton Beck, Rutgers University Press, 1984 (1961); Jersey Genesis, the Story of the Mullica River, By Henry Charlton Beck, Rutgers University Press, 1983 ; and Iron in the Pines; by Anthony Pierce, Rutgers University Press, 1965.
Eric Model explores the "offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten" on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at journeysinto.com.