Jersey Sore

I’ve lived in New Jersey now, off and on, for nearly twenty years, but I’m not a native. I was born in Michigan and have at various times lived in New York, Indiana, Rhode Island, Maryland, California, New Hampshire, and the British Virgin Islands. None of the places I’ve lived has been perfect. They all have their good and bad points. When it comes to New Jersey, though, nobody seems to acknowledge the good. From comedians to columnists to Internet forum posters the standard line is that New Jersey consists of a single strip of industrially polluted concrete running from New York to Philadelphia, studded with chemical plants, refineries, landfills, and tanning salons. Now, thanks to MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” everyone also thinks that the open space between the salvage yards and tattoo parlors is crammed with orange-tanned goombahs sporting oily hair and neck chains.

If that’s your view of New Jersey, then rejoice. Your ignorance quotient is about to be attenuated significantly. You’re about to learn that not only is New Jersey nothing at all like the popular stereotypes would have it, it is in fact one of the most beautiful places in America. From the mountainous Highlands of the northwest, to the fertile rolling hills of the midlands, and the vast undeveloped tracts of pinelands in the southeast, New Jersey combines a little slice of everything that is best about our continent. I won’t ask you to take this on faith. In order to make my point I’ve combed through thousands of pictures of the state that I have taken over the years, and selected fifty that I think show a New Jersey most of you don’t know exists. This is the New Jersey that I know, and I’d like you to know it too.

When you’re through enjoying the images, consider this: all that beauty, the pines, the highlands, the hunt country, the Delaware River, Delaware Bay, miles of shoreline, all of it, is within 1-2 hours of New York City and Philadelphia, and 3-4 hours from Baltimore and Washington, DC. In other words, we win. We have our share of problems, to be sure. Taxes are too high, and we have a lot of challenges in terms of how to maintain economic growth and rebuild infrastructure… but then so do the states most of you live in, and our Governor doesn’t have a secret second family. Yet. So the next time you see some Jersey-hater hating, point them toward this post so they can get some education. Better yet, come visit yourself. Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Out on the Paulinskill Viaduct

I’ve posted an account of a recent visit I made to the Paulinskill Viaduct, a crumbling concrete edifice that was once an integral part of the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad’s “Lackawanna Cut-off” route across hilly northwestern New Jersey. Like the Pequest Fill, also a part of the same route, it is a monument both to American ingenuity, and American chutzpah in the face of nature’s obstacles. You can read the article here, and view the gallery of images from my hike here.

Back to the Lehigh and Hudson River

A couple of weeks ago I set out to trace the route of the abandoned Lehigh and Hudson River Railway north from its crossing at Johnsonburg Rd. near Allamuchy, NJ. You can find the post related to that excursion here. The LHRR was once one of the most important rail links in the Northeast, serving as a bypass around New York City via the Poughkeepsie Bridge for trains heading north from DC to Boston, including the famed Federal Express trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

This past week I headed out late in the afternoon to walk the same line south from the crossing, with the goal being to reach the culvert where it passed under interstate 80 southwest of Allamuchy. Despite having been abandoned for over 30 years, much remains to tell the tale of a once-critical rail link. I’ve updated the gallery with the additional pictures. Have a look and let me know what you think.

Van Campen Cemetery: Update

On the 16th of last month I posted about my attempts to locate the Van Campen burial ground near the former site of Calno, New Jersey, and about the overgrown mess I found once I was successful. At the time I expressed disappointment with the National Park Service for not keeping the property cleared. I have since exchanged emails with Mr. John Wright, Park Archeologist and chief of Cultural Resources at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Mr. Wright was kind enough to fill me in on the situation with the burial ground, and I hope he won’t mind my repeating the outline of the tale here.

It turns out that the family burial grounds in the region were exempted from the federal land acquisition program back in the Tocks Island Dam days, and are still privately owned. The cemetery near Calno had been maintained for some time by Mr. Harold Van Campen and Ms. Jean Zipser, however it has fallen into neglect since their deaths. Mr. Wright has offered to pass along my report to members of the Van Campen family, and I in turn have offered to help them clear the property if they have a mind to do so. Mr. Wright did not mention who currently owns it, but it is probably a safe assumption that it is still in Van Campen family hands.

So there you have it: no government negligence; but just the perhaps-unavoidable decline of will over the years. This is, after all, the eventual fate of all old burial grounds. I do hope, though, that this one has a few more years left in it.

The Dying of Old Roads

It comes up occasionally, among antiquarians and history buffs, and those given to poking around in ruins and old documents: what sort of fingerprints our great civilization would leave on the land if it were suddenly to disappear, as so many civilizations of the past seem in retrospect to have done. How long would the traces remain? Some believe that our massive buildings, dams, and bridges would be the last of our works to stand, but I’m inclined to think that long after they have finally crumbled into dust a determined archaeologist with access to orbital views of the planet would be able to trace any modest country lane on its way from one place to another.

And yet, as long lasting as the impression of a road may be, whether in the gap between trees, a discolored strip of cropland, or a cut along the side of a hill, any owner of a driveway knows that at the time a new roadway is layed down it experiences its finest hour. As soon as the spreaders are packed back on their trailers, the trucks have pulled away, and the lines are painted it begins. Water starts to seep under the fresh, oily pavement, where it will lie until winter and then heave up at the first freeze with incredible force. Thousands of tires press down upon it with weights of 500 to 3,750 pounds apiece. At the edges of the road the roots of tiny grasses start feeling their way along, looking for gaps. The earth itself shifts as if to shrug off the unnatural hard coat she’s been given. By the end of a season, or two, the maintenance crews are out with fresh asphalt; patching cracks and potholes.

In New Jersey we have a number of places where the state or county has abandoned an old road to nature. The reasons are varied. Sometimes the road is simply not needed anymore. It may have been made redundant by the construction of a newer, safer way. In other cases different levels of government feud over which is responsible for the costs of maintenance, town against county, county against state, and the road languishes while the matter is resolved, if it ever is. In these cases a road is sometimes closed off, while in others, to the great delight of people like myself, the officials merely throw a sign up saying, in effect, “This road is in disrepair, so the risk of travel is yours.” Not that it isn’t ordinarily anyway. Government is well-insulated from the liability for bad things that happen on roadways.

Not long ago I visited two such roads whose history is a little different from the average transportation maintenance problem in the state. Forty-five years or so ago the Army Corps of Engineers began acquiring land in the Delaware Water Gap region to accomodate a proposed dam and National Park. The area was thickly settled by families who had been on the land for generations, and the story of their eviction and the subsequent fate of their properties is rich with incompetence and tragedy, and should be told in full some day. The area was well seamed with two-lane country roads. Nearly all of them, save a few main arteries, ceased to be maintained as roads when the Corps handed over control of the area to the National Park Service. You can find them on old maps, but when you visit them today you find they have been gated off, and given park-like trail names.

Most of these roads have truly become trails, their pavement having long ago crumbled, leaving just a few chunks of asphalt on the edges here and there to testify to busier days. Others, of course, were never paved at all. And then there are those, like Sand Pond Road in Warren County, and Old Dingmans Road in Sussex, that were maintained longer, but eventually suffered the identical fate. The traveller on either of these roads today finds the route in the middle of a long death, with faded lines still visible, along with large chunks of original pavement. But on Sand Pond especially the effects of water washing down the hill toward Hardwick have gouged great furrows from the road surface. Sand Pond is not a road to travel in a vehicle with little ground clearance.

If you do travel these roads today, and have a sharp eye, you may see from time to time the paneless windows of ancient farmsteads now abandoned, staring out from the wild growth of vegetation like so many dead and sightless eyes. Once these roads were witness to the daily passage of wagons heaped with grain and seed, Model T’s with their truck bed conversions putting to market and back, and the tramp of weary schoolchildren on their way back up the mountain after lessons. Now they slowly return to their earlier state, when they were nothing more than a gap between the trees where wagon wheels made a kind of track, and in time even that will fade as the trees and heavy brush reclaim the path. But even then the traces will be there, in faint lines and disturbances in the forest and meadows, for many generations to come.

Buried in Brambles: The Vancampen Cemetery

At the worst of it I found myself nearly immobile. Vines stretched tightly across my chest, thorns dug into my forearms with every move, and my feet, down somewhere in the invisible nightmare below the foamy ocean of green in which I swam, were in the tangled clutches of evil flora with long, sinuous tentacles. I had no idea what they were, and no intention of looking. I had been struggling to find a way out of this place for almost forty-five minutes. My breath was laboured, my jeans and shirt ripped and bloody, my forearms dripping red. Movement was only to be had by throwing one leg or the other up and over the closest thorny mass and trying to press it down. Success got you a foot forward, while more commonly failure left you dangerously off balance and ready to tumble into the darkness. At one point I seriously pondered the potential ignominy of calling the rangers and asking them to cut me out… never a serious option, but I could see how it might become one. I had a nice chunk of stone nearby. I might have gotten up on it to try and see a way out, but I couldn’t do it. The words on the front of the stone said “Sherman Vancampen,” and I didn’t think he would appreciate me climbing on his grave.

It began two months earlier with some lines on a relatively recent topographical map, and the abbreviation “Cem.” The lines were in the form of a rectangle not far north of an old farm that had once been one of the homesteads of the Vancampen family. A check of various sources turned up references to a “Vancampen cemetery,” and I was intrigued. I had visited the nearby graveyard of the Depues, and thought that was all the mortuary evidence that the vanished town of Calno had to offer. But here were hints of another, where I would find the headstones of the patriarchs and matriarchs of one of New Jersey’s original pioneer families. I made two trips to the location, searching the deep woods to the north where I thought the map pointed, to no avail. On my third trip I had simply happened to look in the right direction, at the right time, while passing up the narrow lane to the farm. There were two newish-looking headstones, resting in a little niche that had been carved out of the undergrowth, on a rise maybe 200 feet north of the road. It was the work of a few minutes to reach these graves, the last resting places of George and Mary Vancampen, and Walter Vancampen and Mallie Sutton.

The stones were in good shape and more recent, the latest one dating from 1954; recent enough to still have living nuclear family around to keep the gravesite as tidy as possible. Beyond I saw hints of other stones deep in the greenery. The brush was simply fearsome: as bad as anything I have been in. Thick thorn bushes and vines were everywhere. However someone had pushed a slight path onward and deeper into the thicket, whether animal or human, and it was this I determined to follow. This had not originally been a bushwhacking trip, and I was not prepared for deep stuff. They call it “bushwhacking” for a simple reason: to get through you need to get a big knife and whack bushes. With no cutters or even a knife on hand, no thick gloves, and short sleeves I was not equipped to move forward. But the site of older stones deeper in got the better of me. I could just follow this older gap, and come back out the same way. Foolproof!

Against the average fool, perhaps. For twenty or thirty minutes I worked my way forward. Each group of stones revealed interesting names and dates, some that I knew from earlier research. I took as many pictures as I could, from as many angles as the brush would allow. Each group also yielded another dim view of yet another group of stones off a little ways in the bramble, reachable if I would just go a little farther, which inevitably I did. When I finally arrived at what I thought was the northern edge of the plot, and turned to come back, there was no path. It was like the bramble had closed in behind me. It was just me, the thorns, some tombstones, a lot of bugs, and not much else. I tried a number of times to find the “easy” route by which I had come; the one that had now been pressed down by at least three passages of something sizeable, but it was simply invisible. The brush was over my head in most places by at least a foot, and although I retained a strong and reliable sense of where the road was, I could not place myself in the plot itself, in relation to the elusive path out.

Not to over-dramatize this. The area I was in is remote by New Jersey standards, and at 7:30 in the evening there are very few people on the nearby roads. However I had a cel phone, and at times a bar of signal strength. I could call for help if I really, really needed to. As it turned out I did find a way, not by struggling in the direction of the road, but by turning east toward the deeper forest. I emerged very cut up, with ruined clothes and trembling with exhaustion. At no time was I lost in the strict sense of the word. But I was in brush so thick and thorny that movement became very, very difficult, and so it didn’t matter that I knew where I wanted to go. I am sure furthermore that this is not the worst the brush can throw at you. There are briar patches out there you can definitely die in, though perhaps this was just the kind you can get really frustrated in.

The question that emerges from this adventure, for me, is why the hell a graveyard full of historic markers is in such dismal condition? I travel often in this area, which is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and I have photographed dozens of abandoned structures that have been left to decay and fall down. Some of them are examples of colonial-era hand-built construction techniques. Pictures of many of them are on this site. Yet I don’t feel moved to beat up on the NPS, because I know they don’t have a lot of money, and they have saved and helped NGOs to preserve a number of structures in the area. Still, how much money and effort does it take to keep the brush down at a small, historic burial ground? There must be more to this, and I plan to contact them to find out why they are pursuing this policy of neglect. The Vancampens and others buried here were among the pioneers of our state. When the Federal Government acquired this land they acquired the responsibility to care for the historic places on it, and that responsibility is clearly not being discharged.

  • If you’re interested, there is a list of burials in the Vancampen (or Calno) Cemetery that was compiled by a contractor during the Tocks Island dam project in the 1970′s.

Falling Down on the Delaware

I walked up the forest trail, leaving the Old Mine Road behind. It’s called a trail now on all the Park Service maps, but like so many of the trails in these parts it was once a road. The trail has a name, and the data buried in modern GPS devices gives it that name and calls it a road, but when it was really a road, in the days before Tocks Island, it had another name altogether. It begins not far from an old town with a biblical moniker that disappeared fifty years ago, and ends by the banks of the Delaware River, in as scenic a spot as I have been privileged to visit. Along the way it passes the remains of farmers, and their farms.

I kept an eye to the south as I walked, and soon spied what I was after: a break in the wall of brush lining the path, and an old, faded blue sign telling the occasional traveller that somewhere beyond was the burying ground of the Depue’s, one of the oldest families in New Jersey. According to a variety of sources they are the descendants of one Nicholas De Pui, a French Huguenot and minor noble in the court of Louis XIV. He fled France for Holland after Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and subsequently took ship for America aboard the “Pumerland Church,” settling in Esopus-on-Hudson, one of the string of fortified towns the Dutch built during their brief tenure as masters of the American Northeast.

The link with the Pahaquarry region north of the Delaware Water Gap comes in the form of the Old Mine Road itself, which was built by Dutchmen to connect their strongholds on the Hudson with the fertile Upper Delaware Valley. It has long been said that the road was built to reach the metal mines of the Kittattiny, though some modern historians feel this could not have been the case. In any event, the road was in use as early as 1650, and a number of communities were established by settlers on both sides of the river, from Port Jervis all the way to Easton. The Depues, or Depews, or Depuys of Pahaquarry were either descended from Nicholas Depuy, or Samuel Depuy, depending on which source you choose to believe. The records are vague, partly because these settlements were soon orphaned. When the English wrested control of America from Holland in 1664 (nearly bloodlessly), the villages on the Delaware were cut off. In the 1730′s, when the Governor of Pennsylvania heard rumours of them and sent surveyor Nicholas Scull, he spent some pleasant hours in the home of Samuel Depuy and reported back that the settlers were shocked to learn of the colonies to the south, and had known nothing of the river’s name or destination, or that the English were there at all.

They lie all about this shaded forest grove, some beneath plain stones so worn they can no longer be read, others with still-ornate monuments to memorialize them. And there are no doubt many more around this place for whom there is no longer any stone. There always are. The farms they built are still here as well, and like this once-hallowed ground under the trees they are crumbling away. Leaving the graveyard I continued up the forest road. Somewhere ahead the old topographical maps and aerial surveys said a substantial farm had once existed. Google Earth said parts of it might still be there. Soon I came to a wooden utility pole, standing alone by the side of the road. Coiled at its base were loops of long-dead phone cable leading up to the insulators on the crosstree, and thence back into the woods along the way I had come. The connection to civilization had been cut. Just a little farther and I spied a gabled roof poking up above the riotous undergrowth. Eyeless windows peered out across a seemingly unbroken mass of green. I turned and looked to my right and saw another, directly across what had been the road, front door standing open. Further on there were the remains of barns and silos, and some rusty old vehicles.

This is what it looks like when the people leave. I’m familiar with ruins, but this is something different: a ruin in the making. In fact it is a ruin now, for all practical purposes. None of these houses are inhabitable. Very few are even salvageable. And there is a great tragedy in that: a sad song of good intentions and lost legacies. It was the plan of the Federal Government to dam the Delaware at Tocks Island, and it was for that plan that the people of the river towns were separated from their homes. The dam was never built, but the people were never invited back, and now you can see, from the Water Gap to Wallpack, historic old structures falling slowly into rubble. The National Park Service is responsible for this land and these structures now, and I sympathize with their plight. There is never enough money to preserve all of history, and the decision has been made: this land is now a park, and is to be allowed to revert to its natural state. Still, when one views hand-hewn beams that are two centuries old and fastened with hammered wooden pegs, and sees structures built in that way left open to the weather and decay, it is hard not to feel a twinge of anger. Surely, if the Park Service does not care to preserve these structures, there is some better use for them than to slowly become mounds?

I continue to return to this region often with my camera, because the past here is decaying quickly. There are currently two galleries with images of the abandoned farms and houses in the Pahaquarry region of Warren and Sussex counties in New Jersey:

The Depue and Kinney Farms

Calno to Wallpack Center

If you manage to get to these places on your own, please leave them as you found them, and I urge you to be very careful about entering any abandoned structure in the park. Some are posted against trespassing, and I do not enter those. Of those that aren’t posted, the vast majority are unsafe to enter. Ignore this and you may get to see the basement of one sooner than expected.

Broken Pipe(dreams)

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.

Continue reading

The Hillside Farms of Pahaquarry

My feet wandered back into the area of old Millbrook this weekend, and I expect they will tread that way again soon, and hopefully for years to come. This region, like the Pine Barrens in the Southern part of the state, completely fascinates me, and for the same reason. For such a small state New Jersey must be unique in having two such areas of restored wilderness. I say restored because in both the Pine Barrens, which make up much of the Southeastern corner, and the Highlands, which take up the Northwestern, civilization once thrived. Agriculture, mining, lumbering, manufacturing, transportation; every major enterprise of eighteenth and nineteenth century America was engaged in on these Northern slopes, and those Southern plains. Today there are, for the most part, just the woods, the hills, the sandy trails and woodland tracks that were once arteries, and the little dots on old maps that mark the towns.

Continue reading

Looking for the Farms of Pahaquarry

I headed back into the hills of Pahaquarry this past weekend in search of an old road, and some old farms, and found quite a bit more of the former, and less of the latter, than I had hoped. The steep hillsides of Pahaquarry Township were once part of New Jersey’s rural agricultural heritage, and the remains of this past dot the forest floor, and line the old trails throughout the area. Accompanying this essay are pictures of an ancient lime kiln and not so ancient, but just as abandoned, power line, not to mention a dump full of broken bottles and the remains of a baby carriage.

My feet wandered back into the area of old Millbrook this weekend, and I expect they will tread that way again soon, and hopefully for years to come. This region, like the Pine Barrens in the Southern part of the state, completely fascinates me, and for the same reason. For such a small state New Jersey must be unique in having two such areas of restored wilderness. I say restored because in both the Pine Barrens, which make up much of the Southeastern corner, and the Highlands, which take up the Northwestern, civilization once thrived.

You can read the full article here, or view the gallery of images.