The sandy loams of the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey are a porous filter for the water that trickles through purifying layers to feed one of the largest aquifers on the East Coast. Hours after the rain has fallen the ground is for the most part dry again, and undisturbed. Into this same ground has been poured, over the centuries, the hopes and dreams of generations of entrepreneurs. The woodcutters, colliers, iron and paper mongers, would-be glass barons, and land speculators have all thrown their best shots at these seemingly endless miles of forest, meadow, river, spung, and swamp, with as little effect. To decamp in the middle of these woods today, in Lacey Township, or perhaps old Shamong, is to find yourself set back 200 years to the turn of the eighteenth century. Before and behind you are the miles of rutted sand roads. Around you the wind moans in the cedars and oaks. There seems to be no sign of the place this once was, and yet, something gleams dully from under a thick carpet of spring greenery.
What comes up in your hands after you push aside the brush is a chunk of clay pipe, thick and cold even in the spring warmth, with a rich brown glaze and crackling that has here and there marred the surface. Henry Beck visited this spot once, following a map old Buzby had given him, and mentioned similar shards. Once clay was the latest in a long list of natural resources that would at last bring riches to the captains of Pine Barrens industry. Not far up the road the Adams Mining Co. dug the pits at Old Halfway and hauled the clay in narrow gauge cars to the rail line at Woodmansie. Northeast of there, and south of Whitings, the Hydraulic Press Brick Co. operated clay pits for many years. The clay all around these parts is of the Cohansey formation; good for terra cotta and pipe. Under this spot where the shards litter the ground a yellow-white variation of it lies in ten foot-thick layers. In 1858, according to state geologist George Cook in his 1868 report to the New Jersey legislature, the Union Clay Works was established in this place to work that yellow-white clay.
First they attempted to make brick. Many of these can still be seen on the site, bearing partial imprints. I haven’t found a whole one with a good imprint, but I have been told by people who should know that they typically read “Ocean Co. N.J.” and sometimes had the date “1850” below that. You can see pieces of this inscription in some of the pictures of brick fragments in the gallery. According to “The Clays and Clay Industry of New Jersey” (Ries, Kummel, and Knapp, 1904) they also tried common pottery, but for whatever reason these products were not successful. Perhaps there was too much competition in the brick business from the Sayre works in Sayreville. You certainly find many of their bricks in the pines. In any event, by 1866 the plant had shifted over to making terra cotta sewer piping in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and configurations. It is this product which is found at the site in quantity today. Again the product was not successful over the long term. Ries, et al speculate that the distance from the railroad and the soft, sandy wagon tracks had something to do with it, but those seem small hurdles for the kind of people that persistently attempted to make enterprise work in the pines.
Whatever the reason, while other clay pits and works continued, Union Clay was abandoned in the late 1870’s. All of the pipe and brick you see in the images accompanying this article was manufactured before that time. Later, around the 1930s, the property was sold to a rod and gun club that maintained a hunting lodge here for several years, some remains of which can still be seen. Today the site is thickly overgrown forest, with few landmarks, waste-high brush, and an abundance of ticks and chiggers. I had visited it once before, nearly a year ago, but failed to muster the gumption to wade deeply into the woods. On a recent return I came more prepared, and spent nearly two hours searching for what I was sure I must have missed last time. The southern portion of the area, where I had been previously, has scattered pipe shards and the occasional brick. As I worked my way northward these dwindled, until in the center of the site I was seeing no remains at all.
I had almost convinced myself that there was nothing more to see when I came upon a pit full of foul, stagnant water. There was no reason for there to be a pit full of water here, unless some human had dug it out and left it to fill. I worked my way around the north side of it and began to see more shards, including one smooth chunk that had become embedded in the roots of a tree. Ahead of me a mound of earth obscured the ground beyond, and since mounds are always of interest in the Pines I headed toward it. On my right were what seemed to be piles of brick, whole and in fragments. On the other side of the mound I stumbled into a large dump pile of broken sewer pipe fragments. In “Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey” Henry Beck mentions finding a pile of pipe “draped around what might have been a kiln.” It’s possible that this pile I had located was the same one, or some other. How it got there is anyone’s guess. Very likely the workers at the plant dumped rejected product here, but it is also possible that the pipe was pushed here when the site was tidied up at some point in the past.
I had to move carefully as I photographed the pile, to avoid breaking anything underfoot. When I left I followed an old fire cut southward, as it was an easier trail than the one I had made for myself coming in. More bricks and shards were in evidence all through this area, and at one point I spied a series of six large iron bolts protruding from the ground. According to one historian I know the management at Union Clay once bought a steam engine and had it mounted at the works to provide power. It’s possible these bolts are part of the footings for that engine. There is more to see at Union Clay. There is a very old cemetery out there that was mentioned by Beck, and I think I know where to look for it now. There are supposed to be some cellar holes as well. And although I brought back my usual collection of tick and chigger bites as a reward for traipsing through their domain, I am looking forward to going back and giving them a third crack at me.
Note: updated on 6/14/08 with some corrections, with thanks to my friend Jerseyman, who knows more about this stuff than most people.