Ghost Towns and ‘The Sopranos’ — A Drive Through The Pine Barrens Will Satisfy Your Spooky Soul
If 18th-century surveyors Mason and Dixon had extended their line east of the Pennsylvania border with Maryland, it would cut through southern New Jersey, sequestering much of the sandy Pine Barrens region in The South. That’s not the only thing that makes the Pine Barrens region of the Garden State just a little different from the rest of the Northeast: It’s the area’s unique history, legends, landscape, and way of life. And it’s a great destination for a fall or winter road trip or a photo safari.
It’s a great destination for a fall or winter road trip, or photo safari.
The Pine Barrens are the heavily wooded slice of New Jersey (approximately 22 percent of the state) included in the 1.1 million-acre Pinelands National Reserve. They’re marked by thin pine and cedar trees and sandy soil.
Because of their proximity to Philadelphia and unique landscape, many small towns grew around industries that have since declined, such as iron ore and wood pulp. A drive through this often desolate area can turn up ghost towns, dirt roads with no posted speed limit, fallen factories, and towns named after one settler or family who are long deceased.
A drive through the area can turn up ghost towns, dirt roads with no posted speed limit, fallen factories, and towns named after one settler or family who are long deceased.
But this is not to say that the Pine Barrens are without pride, or industry. Cranberry farming is going strong, the Garden State’s sixth most valuable crop, bringing in $21.9 million a year. And each October, Chatsworth — a tiny town centered by a general store and once called the “Capital of the Pine Barrens” in Natonal Geographic — hosts a two-day Cranberry Festival that draws thousands.
The Pine Barrens are famous nowadays for a few things — the legend of the Jersey Devil, the acres of open space that are unusual in this busy part of the country, and the eponymous third-season episode of “The Sopranos” in which Paulie and Christopher dump a gangster there and end up lost themselves.
But decades ago, many came there to seek relics from the past. A book by legendary New Yorker writer John McPhee, The Pine Barrens, includes his observations of the people and towns there. However, I’m more inspired each autumn to read a series of books by late historian Henry Charlton Beck, published in the 1930s, especially Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. In each book, he and a travel companion or two picked town names from an old state map, went to the sites, and often encountered one remaining house or one person there to tell a story.
“The way to Ong’s Hat winds from the Pemberton road, back across a carpet of fallen leaves, through patches of white sand and down through deep, inky ruts,” he writes. “A hundred or so years ago, we were told, the place was a center of life among the pineys. There were frequent dances and couples came for miles in buggies, carryalls and on foot, to step to the music of country fiddlers. There was no Prohibition and it was more than soda pop that enlivened the crowd. There were brawls and fisticuffs, some of them bloody enough.”
Speedwell, N.J. Once called Speedwell Furnace. Image by the author.
And here is a passage about the bog-filled town of Speedwell: “South of Chatsworth and Jones Mill and beyond the blackened acres that were pines before the fire of several years ago, is Speedwell, or as it was originally known, Speedwell Furnace. The road to Speedwell is a dreary one. It winds and twists through charred stumps and stunted trees. On the road to Speedwell there is a corner known as Tom’s Grave…Nobody knows who Tom was. He was found stiff and staring one morning in the middle of the road…At length somebody conceived the idea of naming the dead man ‘Tom’ and burying him on the spot.
“The day we were there we stopped to talk with one Piney not far down the road. Noting the desolation and wondering, as everyone must do, how people live in the backwoods, we said, ‘You must have a rough time of it here, getting along.’ ‘No,’ he answered us. ‘You see, I don’t own no land. I just live here.’ ” Apparently, to own property is to be poor, at Speedwell.
See for yourself
If you’d like to take a road trip there, I’d advise traveling along Route 563, a county road that takes one past the Chatsworth General Store and through the bogs of Speedwell and other towns.
You can see the tiny cranberries bobbing on the flat surfaces.
When I visited a few years ago — taking a day off work to feed my soul with a little sightseeing — I found unusual sites such as a roadside stand advertising rabbit meat, and a grave for a woman who wanted to be buried in the Pine Barrens.
There are also numerous state parks with guided hikes and cranberry bog tours.
Sometimes it’s good to take a break, learn a little about history, and see what’s just around the corner. This story includes photos from two of my drives through the Pine Barrens. What’s your favorite road trip destination? Let me know below.