The earliest written documents about the forest date back to 1624 during the exploration of coastal inlets and bays by Henry Hudson. Of course, Indian tribes such as the Lenni-Lenape were already here, providing commerce in the fur trade, but area settlement did not really begin for another fifty years while a transportation network of roads were being cleared. What we now know as Route 9 began as Shore Road during this period in time.
Initially shipbuilding, whaling and timber-based trades thrived during the early 1700's, yet abundant resources of iron, sand, trees and water also brought the charcoal, iron and glass industries. In 1766, Charles Reed founded Batsto Iron Works. With bog ore mined from the banks of rivers, it produced household goods. During the Revolutionary War, Batsto also manufactured parts for the Continental Army. Though the British Army had plans to raze Batsto, after winning the Battle of Chestnut Neck in 1778, several of their ships foundered in shallow waters and their troops instead returned to New York.
Around the turn of the century, whalers and trappers migrated north, and the shipbuilders followed. Still, iron production and sawmills flourished. Along with the timber, it was almost all you needed to build homes. Stage Coach Road led directly to Philadelphia, which probably received most of the wood.
The Atsion Mansion was built in 1826 as a summer home for Samuel Richards, a prominent ironmaster from Philadelphia.
The region's farming also began to grow and in 1840 John Webb established the first cranberry bog in what is now Ocean County. Later in 1864 the Renault Winery was founded. Some farmers begin blueberry cultivation, though it will take several decades of research to produce a substantial harvest.
By this time steel production in Pennsylvania was strong and the demand for pig iron decreased dramatically. Batsto turned to making glass for a couple of years but soon fell into receivership. Because of the building boom in Philadelphia and New York, entrepreneur Joseph Wharton knew all those people would need fresh water. He also knew the sandy Pinelands soil allowed water to pass through easily and cleanly to a huge aquifer below. In 1876 he purchased Batsto and much of the land atop the aquifer, intending to distribute the water through conduits to those cities. Initially the New Jersey Legislature liked the idea, but when it came time for a vote, they declared "New Jersey is not a state that can be tapped at both ends." and the plan was scrapped.
Because of Wharton's dream and the aquifer itself, New Jersey eventually enacted the State Forest Service in 1905 to protect its land and water resources. They began with the acquisition of Bass River State Forest. In 1926 the first forest tree nursery was established in Jackson Township.
Although he passed away in 1909, Joseph Wharton's Batsto farm remained in trust until 1954, when it was purchased by the State of New Jersey. In 1963 a series of wildfires burned 183,000 acres surrounding the farm, thankfully the mansion and all historical buildings were saved. As you travel this region, take note of large tracts of forest that seem sparse, then you'll understand that nature takes a long, long time to recover.
Each owner has added their own improvements to Batsto, though Joseph Wharton infused the 32-room mansion's Italianate architecture.
An awkwardly historical moment occurred here in 1928 when Emilio Carranza, inspired by Charles Lindbergh, was on his return during a non-stop flight from Mexico City to New York City. His plane crashed during a thunderstorm; he did not survive. A monument was built on that site and each year since then, local people continue to hold a memorial.
John McPhee's 1967 bestseller The Pine Barrens about local history, people and biology spurs public opinion to demand more protection for natural and cultural resources. In 1971 the Pinelands Environmental Council is created. During the next decade several more agencies are also created to regulate and research the Pinelands, continuing to its addition as a National Reserve in 1978.
People in South Jersey have grown up with stories of The Jersey Devil. The most famous account starts in 1735 around Leeds Point. An impoverished woman with twelve children, Mother Leeds gave birth to a deformed child with an elongated body, winged shoulders, a large horse-like head, cloven feet and a thick tail. She confined it to the cellar until it eventually escaped up the chimney.
The creature has been blamed for boiling streams dry, failed crops, even cows that won't produce milk. Some say just seeing it foretold of hard times or wars. During the early 1800's, an artillery officer is said to have fired a cannonball at it without having any effect. A reward had been offered for its capture, but never claimed.
Other folklore has been passed between generations as well. Fables like Witch of the Pines tell a story about revenge. The Barnegat Pirates would lure ships to the shallow shore and then pillage their bounty. From The Serpent of Long Beach Island to The Haunted Tavern, the list goes on.
There are many more legends without such dire consequences. A poem called Quail Hill is about a place in Smithville where a young Indian squaw turns into a bird to escape her captors. You can learn How the Cricket Got its Tune or discover The Legend of the Church Bells . We call it Pineylore.
If you would like to know more about the history and culture of Wharton State Forest and the Pinelands National Reserve, we think that these web sites are a great place to start.