Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/April 1893/Traces of a Vanished Industry
By JOHN GIFFORD.
Aline drawn across New Jersey from Long Branch to Salem separates a peculiar peninsula known as "South Jersey." This rudely triangular region is bounded by the ocean, Delaware Bay and River, and the rich farm lands on the outcrops of the marl-beds.
This territory is slightly undulating, little cultivated, and sparsely inhabited. There are sandy parts covered with pitch pines. Being unfit for cultivation, this should be left in forest, to regulate the climate and hold the sand in place. The pines are pioneers. They prepare the soil for other plants, and when cut are quickly replaced by oaks and other trees. There are loamy and gravelly parts worthy of careful cultivation, yielding excellent fruits and vegetables.
There are low, boggy sections, in which flourish cedars, magnolias, maples, mistletoe-stunted gums, and the like. Many of these lowlands are fit for meadows and berry bogs. A striking feature of this region are the dark and dense swamps of white cedar. The tree is tall, straight, and sharp-pointed, yielding a soft, white, durable wood. In the humus of the swamp, which is often several feet in thickness, one tree supports another, and, if a few are cut, others fall in every direction. An old cedar-swamp bottom, through which there is a running stream, is usually selected for a cranberry bog. Many acres of swamp land are covered with huckleberries in plenty and of fine quality. There are bushy, semi-marshy areas, with here and there a straggling pine. In such places many rare and beautiful plants, for which the region is famous, are found, and, in spite of the flies and mosquitoes, they have long been a favorite resort of enthusiastic botanists.
There are also the salt marshes, called "mashes" by the haymen and baymen, extending for many miles along the coast and bays, the rich black soil of which may some day be drained and tilled. It freshens when banked and sluiced. These marshes, endless to the eye, are intersected by many bays, salt-ponds, thoroughfares, and winding creeks, bordered with rustling reeds, resounding with the twitterings of many meadow-wrens, the cacklings of mud-hens, and cries of many birds of the snipe order. They are aglow in season with pink, white, and yellow flowers, and flecked at times with the sails of boats moving in the creeks and bays. These meadows yield thousands of tons of salt and black grass, which is still in many places cut with the scythe and carried by two men with "hand poles" to the square, clumsy scows which are partly rowed and partly drifted to the landings.
Many miles of salt meadow separate the mainland from the narrow strips of sand beach bordering the sea, the white glimmering sands of which, covered in places with large hollies and red cedars, are washed hither and thither by the waves and piled by the winds in dunes. These beaches, on which are located the famous seashore resorts to which thousands flock for recreation, are separated by many inlets, through which the tides sweep swiftly.
Here and there are the gray, unsightly boles of trees which have been killed, and whole strips of woods blasted and blackened by fires which rage at times in these regions.
Few spots are favored with more rivers and streams along which the scenery is wilder. Their waters are yellowish-red in color at first, but become black later, owing to changes in the peaty matter which they contain. Years ago these streams were dammed, to supply the power with which to move the clumsy, old-fashioned bellows to pump air into the furnaces in the manufacture of iron from "bog ore."
The sand of the hills of South Jersey is yellowish in color, because of the iron which it contains. When firmly cemented together by large quantities of iron compounds, a durable ferruginous sandstone or conglomerate is formed, which is the principal building stone of the region. In contact with decomposing organic materials, ferric oxide, the insoluble reddish coloring matter in the hills, is reduced to ferrous oxide, which combines with carbonic acid to form a carbonate of iron, which is soluble in water containing an excess of carbonic acid. Thus it is carried by the water to the bogs, where the carbonic-acid gas is exchanged for oxygen and the iron is precipitated in the form of ferric oxide; but, if there is a large quantity of decomposing peat present, it is deposited in the form of ferrous carbonate. Thus the so-called "bog iron ore" is formed.
The "raising" of this ore and the manufacture of iron there-from was the leading industry of South Jersey during the early part of this century. Charcoal was the fuel used and coalings were common throughout the "Pines." An active coaling is now seldom seen. Shells were hauled by wagon or rowed and poled by scow from the seashore for a flux, the oyster then being of more value for that purpose than for food. Better oysters could be picked from those shell heaps than can be bought at the stands to-day. In a memorandum kept by the "master ore-raiser" for one of the largest furnaces there are many interesting notices of large quantities of clams and rum bought and sold, but the oyster is never mentioned. These account-books were decorated with the pictures of soldiers and warships, showing well the prevailing thought of those days.
There was then an extensive trade between South Jersey and the West Indies, exchanging lumber and iron for rum, sugar, and molasses, in spite of the pirates who were ever at home in the thoroughfares, bays, and crooked channels of the coast. Scattered here and there along these streams are the remains of what were once centers of a flourishing industry. In some places the furnaces and forges have been completely obliterated and forgotten; in others only bits of black slag remain; while in others the ruins are still standing. At the head of the Tuckahoe River there is a crumbling stack, at Allaire there are ruins, and at Weymouth the course of a canal may be traced by which the ore was brought to the furnace from the bog.
The places were connected by stage routes, along which at regular intervals were the famous "jug taverns" of old, the ruins of which in many localities may still be seen. They are now in the midst of the forest, and, like the remains of the forges and furnaces, are sad reminders of more prosperous days. To-day one may wander for miles along these old overgrown roads without seeing a single human habitation.
In 1766 a furnace was built at Batsto, one of the first and at one time the largest in this country. Batsto is in the heart of the "Pines," at the head of Mullica River. Battles were fought at Chestnut Neck near the mouth of this river, at one time a large and prominent settlement, and cannon balls, old pennies, and pebbles oddly decorated on one side have been found on the beach. Skeletons of men have been bared by the winds, which some think are those of soldiers and others of Indians, since it was once an Indian village, as is indicated by potsherds, broken shells, flints, and other signs scattered all over the surface of the ground. Munitions of war were cast there for the Revolution. General Greene himself owned a twelfth interest in the Batsto furnace, but sold out his share when he entered the army.
Extending northward from the Mullica River are the "Plains," a desolate region inhabited at one time, they say, by wild hogs, pine robbers, and pirates.
Weymouth was another important place. Materials were forged there for the War of 1812, and street lamps standing today in Philadelphia and waterways in Mobile were molded there.
Scattered here and there throughout the "Pines" were active, thriving "bloomeries." Now all is silence, save for the noises of the woods. Instead of the buzz of the mill and the commotion of men at work, there can now be heard only the chirping of insects and the song of the cheewink by day and the croaking of toads and frogs at night. The ruins of forges and furnaces, the large, dilapidated houses, the overgrown roads, the wharves, the sluices, the piers, the old fences, and the masses of black coal-dirt on the landings where vessels once came for wood and charcoal, are all evidences of what the country was when iron was made from "bog ore." In the houses and ample barns even of more recent date the spiders have woven their webs, the wasps have mudded the walls, and the rats scamper at home through the deserted rooms. Many orchards are untrimmed and sterile, many meadows flooded, and many fields overgrown with briers and Indian grass.
After the death of the iron manufacture South Jersey passed into another industrial stage—the making of glass. The glory of this industry is also passing, and ruins of old factories are not uncommon.
Those furnaces and forges mark the infancy of the iron industry in America—an industry which has made this century "the age of iron." Its local decline was natural and unavoidable—due to an inadequate supply of ore, a crude manner of manufacture, and difficult means of transportation.