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Believe it or not, America’s first National Reserve is in New Jersey. The Pinelands National Reserve, created by Congress in 1978, covers 1.1 million acres — accounting for approximately 22% of New Jersey’s total landmass. Formerly known as the Pine Barrens, the area is larger than either Yosemite or Grand Canyon National Parks, and it spans seven southern New Jersey counties. It's comprised of pine forest and wetlands rich with unique plant and animal life, and it was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1988. But the region’s earlier history, especially in agriculture and industry, is also fascinating — a legacy checkered by haunted occurrences, local legend, and even a famous monster called the Jersey Devil. Read on for six fascinating facts you might not know about the Pinelands.
The Geology, Flora, and Fauna Are Unlike Anywhere Else
The Pinelands are adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean and include a network of rivers and creeks that were shaped over thousands of years by intense winds, forest fires, and coastal flooding. The extreme conditions have made this stretch of forest a unique habitat shared by rattlesnakes, bobcats, any number of migrating and resident birds, rare frogs, beavers, and bald eagles. Unusual flora include various orchids, ferns, carnivorous plants, and stands of rare pygmy pitch pine and oak forest — where mature trees look more like gnarled bonsai and rarely grow more than 11 feet tall.
The soil is sandy and acidic (locals refer to it as “sugar sand”) and waterways are often tea-colored, stained by the abundant cedar trees. Beneath the forest floor is a massive, natural reservoir of bacterially-sterile water that has been likened to melted glacial ice. So pure and coveted is this sand-filtered water that sea captains would take it on long voyages throughout history, and Joseph Wharton, industrialist and founder of University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, bought land in the Pine Barrens and planned to pipe the water all the way to Philadelphia.
It Used to be a Major Industrial Hub
The region was initially inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Native American tribe, but by 1694, Dutch and Swedish settlers had begun colonizing the area, followed by Quakers and the Scottish. These settlers harvested cedar, pine, and oak from the forests, much of it for the shipbuilding industry. By early in the 18th century, water-powered sawmills had become common in the region, and the clearcutting of forests had become so prevalent that Benjamin Franklin spoke out against the unsustainable practices.
At the same time, European hunters and trappers decimated populations of black bears, mountain lions, beavers, and wild turkeys. In addition, pitch, tar, and turpentine were harvested from the area, and centralized gristmills were utilized by the region’s farmers for their wheat and corn. Eventually, iron furnaces were established, and the area became instrumental in the production of munitions for the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War before it. What is widely considered the last battle of the Revolutionary War was fought in the Pinelands, at the site of the Cedar Bridge Tavern in Barnegat.
In the 1840s, when coal was discovered in Pennsylvania and steel smelting overtook the iron ore industry, much of the manufacturing in the Pinelands was halted. Soon, the communities that had sprung up around these mills and factories were also abandoned. But the area’s abundant wood (used for fuel) and its network of waterways (essential for shipping) remained desirable for various small enterprises. These included glass (the first Mason jar was produced in the region in 1856), terra cotta, paper, mattress, and furniture production. Eventually, however, the Pinelands’ reign as a regional industrial force ended with the closure of the iron furnaces, and today, the forests are dotted with ghost towns and ruins that mark forgotten industrial hubs.
The Area Isn't as Barren as the Nickname Suggests
Early settlers deemed the area’s soil infertile — hence the nickname “the Pine Barrens.” Indeed, by European standards, the sandy soil was far too acidic and porous to support traditional crops. But a handful of crops do perform well in the area, including cranberries, and the Pinelands is one of the country’s leading producers of the fruit. The vines grow wild in the region, and it's common for canoers to harvest fruit from the banks of rivers and streams. Cranberries have been commercially harvested in the area since the middle of the 19th century; many of the cranberry bogs in operation today are run by the same families that founded them generations ago.
Blueberry fans can thank the Pinelands for those convenient pints you grab at the grocery store year-round. Wild blueberries flourish in the area, but historically these bushes were difficult to cultivate. Thanks to a Pinelands farmer named Elizabeth Coleman White and her work with USDA botanist Frederick Coville, domesticated, high-yield blueberry bushes were perfected in the Pinelands by 1912. Blueberries are still a top crop in the Pinelands, and in June, the region buzzes with families picking their own blueberries while local diners serve signature blueberry pies.
There's an Interesting History of Failed Developments
In 1852, developers founded the town of Paisley and marketed it as a haven to artists, musicians, and intellectuals. Though 3,000 plots were purchased, only about a dozen houses were ever built. And in the 1920s, plots of land were given away with newspaper subscriptions, or as door prizes at movie theaters. Developers, attempting to lure buyers to the inexpensive land, would stage photos by wiring fruit to trees and posing fishermen and their prize catches — which were caught elsewhere.
Even a supersonic jetport was proposed for the region in the 1960s, boasting of 90-minute flights to Paris and high-speed trains to Manhattan in a half hour. The massive endeavor would have sucked up 32,000 pristine acres, including an entire state forest. Fortunately, the plans were scrapped.
Scary Stories and Creatures Abound Here
The Pinelands are widely considered the most haunted forest in the country. And it isn’t about one single haunted landmark — the region is famous for its ghost stories and local lore. “Pineys,” as residents of the Pine Barrens call themselves, are descended from expelled Quakers and the various outlaws and smugglers who inhabited the area generations ago. In the 1920s, journalists and politicians unjustly painted Pinelands residents as inbreds and criminals. These biases persisted when paired with reports of ghosts and paranormal activity in the area, which have resulted in generations of supernatural stories.
From frequent drownings in swimming holes of otherworldly blue water and indeterminate depth, to the memorial site of a notable plane crash, to a grizzly 1916 murder that landed in the pages of the New York Times, these woods are full of tall tales.
That said, the most famous ghoul in the Pinelands is the Jersey Devil. Described as kangaroo-like, with bat wings, horns, a forked tail, and a horse’s face peering out from a dog’s head, the Jersey Devil is said to be the 13th child of a local woman who made a deal with the devil in 1735. When the creature was born, it immediately killed its entire family and disappeared, only to terrorize locals and their livestock to this day. Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, claimed to see the creature while he was a guest at a Bordentown estate in 1820, and a series of sightings in 1909 led to school closures and a $10,000 bounty. The monster was never apprehended.
It's the Largest Undeveloped Tract of Land Between Maine and Florida
The Pinelands’ reputation as a destination for peace, recreation, and unspoiled nature isn’t new. During the Gilded Age, the town of Chatsworth and a luxury retreat called the Chatsworth Club played host to the country’s elite — Vanderbilts, Goulds, Asters, and Drexels among them. Founded by an Italian prince, the club was conveniently reached by train from New York City, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City.
Today, the Pinelands remain the largest undeveloped tract of land between Maine and Florida, despite the fact that it’s located in the country’s most densely populated state. Naturally, a wilderness of such immense size is dotted with various state parks and preserves, each welcoming visitors for hiking, camping, birdwatching, and kayaking. Batsto Village, in Wharton State Forest, even offers living history demonstrations. The settlement there was already crumbling when the aforementioned Joseph Wharton purchased the property in 1876. He used the land and its structures as a country retreat for close friends and family, and as an opportunity to explore his idea of gentleman’s farming. His manor house — expanded and renovated by Wharton in an imposing Italianate style — is open for tours as well.