South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel

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Furnaces, Farms, and a Railroad

      Although liberated from the shackles of British mercantilism, the South Jersey economy suffered a depression in the years immediately following the end of the war. The Continental currency, money printed and circulated without bullion or specie to validate it, rendered the new nation’s financial structure chaotic. The enormous profits that had been realized from privateering, the making of armaments, and the importing of gun powder were terminated along with the cessation of hostilities. A series of bad harvests aggravated the already serious financial predicament of the farmers, burying them in debt.

      Batsto was put up for sale in 1784. At the time, the furnace was shut down, and the advertisement announcing the sale offered the formerly thriving iron center as an attractive location for grist mills. The glassmaking enterprise at Wistarberg was defunct also. Having closed down early in the Revolution, the factory was up for sale in 1780. It was never reopened. The Stanger brothers, who had established a glass furnace at Glass House (Glassboro) during the war, were in dire straits, their fortune having dissolved into worthless paper money. Gradually, between 1783 and 1786, they sold the glasshouse, the glassmaking equipment, and the land itself.

      However, recovery had begun by the end of the decade. The state legislature replaced the Continental currency with a more stable money of its own, at the same time relieving debtors by paying the interest on their Continental obligations. Owners of swamps and marshland were enabled, by legislative act, to improve their property. Cranberry growers were protected by law, in 1789, from the theft of their crops. The bog iron and glass industries prospered under new management.

      William Richards purchased a share of the Batsto complex when it was offered for sale in 1784. He rebuilt the furnace, paid off the indebtedness, and expanded his ironmaking operations. In 1809, he retired to Mount Holly, turning the management, and the mansion house, of Batsto over to his son, Jesse. The younger Richards presided over the prosperous community until the middle of the 19th century, when the substitution of coke for charcoal in the smelting process, and the consequent rise of the iron and steel industry in Pennsylvania, sounded the death knell of ironmaking from bog ore in the Jersey Pines. Doubtless, the Pennsylvania competition did no more than hasten the demise of an already dying industry. For the twenty years before the furnace at Batsto went out of blast for the last time, in 1848, pig iron was being imported to supplement the diminishing deposits of bog ore in the streams of Burlington and Gloucester Counties.

      In 1801, however, the end of the bog ore industry in South Jersey was a long way off. The Weymouth Iron Works, at the head of the Great Egg Harbor River, was being built on a vast tract of land acquired the year before. By 1802, both a furnace and a forge were in operation. After a shaky beginning, the Weymouth enterprise began to prosper when it was purchased by Samuel Richards, the eldest son of the Batsto family, and his cousin, Joseph Ball, in 1808. Despite a continual shortage of ore, and the need in later years to import it from New York, Delaware, and Timber Creek (in Gloucester County), cast-iron pipe flowed in large quantity from the works on the Great Egg Harbor until after the Civil War had begun. Much of this pipe, the chief product of Weymouth, was contracted for by the Philadelphia Waterworks.

      During the recovery following the post-Revolution economic slump, a Richards iron furnace was put into blast along Landing Creek, in Galloway Township, Gloucester County. Called Gloucester Furnace, little is known about the operation until the second decade of the 19th century, so little, in fact, that some claim it was not erected until 1813. Its brief era of prosperity, and that of the town surrounding the furnace, began after 1830, when Thomas Richards, a son of the Weymouth owner, and his cousin purchased the furnace, a saw mill, and the 17,000-acre tract on which they were located. Products of the Gloucester works included stoves, lamp posts, and special castings. In 1855, Gloucester Furnace fell victim, like Batsto, to the competition from the coke furnaces of Pennsylvania.

      A short-lived ironmaking enterprise, called Etna Furnace, was begun about 1816 on the Tuckahoe River. It ceased manufacturing its bar iron, spikes, and bolts in 1832.

      America’s second war with Great Britain, the War of 1812, provided a stimulus to the South Jersey bog iron industry early in the 19th century. Batsto turned out shot, shells, and grenades for the American army. Weymouth, too, became involved in the munitions business. As early as 1809, shot was being manufactured, followed by shells and bombs in 1810. The production of ammunition, and later of cannons, increased as war drew nearer, and continued throughout the duration.

      Not all in South Jersey agreed that the War of 1812 was either expedient or necessary. Legislators from Gloucester and Cape May Counties favored an anti-war resolution that came before the New Jersey Assembly. On the other hand, representatives from Cumberland and Salem Counties recorded their support of the war movement by voting against the resolution.

      Nevertheless, South Jerseymen cooperated for the common defense when their shores were threatened. They utilized the artillery placed at their disposal by the governor. An encampment of troops was stationed at Billingsport to protect the towns and farms of South Jersey, and to ward off any water-borne attack on Philadelphia. The enemy was uncomfortably nearby for awhile. In 1813, a British fleet stood at the mouth of Delaware Bay to enforce a blockade of shipping in and out of Philadelphia. Enemy foraging parties came ashore near Maurice River, looking for cattle, as other Britishers searched for water at Cape May Point. During 1813, privateering and blockade running were attempted with some frequency by South Jersey traders, but their exploits were rarely successful. On the whole, the War of 1812 had, at most, a minor effect on South Jersey.

      A marked slackening in the growth of population in South Jersey began during the years of the war. It lasted until 1840, when a noticeable increase in the rate of growth commenced. Whereas the population of the southern counties grew by 16%, between 1790 and 1800, and by 22% during the first decade of the 19th century, the rate of increase slowed to 11%, between 1810 and 1820, when Cumberland County actually lost in population. The pattern continued with 14% and 13%, increases during the two decades following 1820. A similar situation obtained statewide. Meanwhile, other Eastern states were showing substantive increases in population, and such Western states as Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee were growing at enormous rates.

      The slowing down of South Jersey is explicable. Despite all its activity in ironmaking, and other kinds of manufacturing, the region was still primarily agricultural, and the soil was becoming seriously depleted by 1810. Hundreds of families, predominantly of farmers, emigrated to the West, to Ohio for the most part, in search of new lands to cultivate. Other citizens, attracted to the opportunities of city life, moved to Philadelphia. Thomas Gordon, a gazetteer writing about New Jersey in 1834, observed that, because the state’s "labours have contributed largely to build up the two great marts of the Union, and to subdue and fertilize the western wilds," New Jersey "is remarkable for the paucity" of its population increase.

      A halt to the fearful depletion of nutrients in the soil of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland County farms was begun when marl was introduced as a fertilizer. First dug and sold at Woodstown, in 1826, this earthy deposit of lime, clay, and sand was being spread, with benefit, on the fields throughout the southern counties by 1834, producing abundant crops, grain, and grass. Farmers were attendant, too, upon the cultivation of garden vegetables, potatoes (which grew especially well in marled fields), melons, and fruits for shipment to the big city markets. The trend toward the use of marl was accelerated by the demands for increased food production brought on by the Civil War. Marl pits were opened at Woodbury in 1863. Within less than ten years, eleven companies in Gloucester County were selling marl.

      Improved transportation was a factor in reversing the population trend in South Jersey. Whereas road improvement and the construction of new highways excited the interest of forward-looking persons in central and northern New Jersey during the early decades of the 19th century, the focus for improved transportation in South Jersey was on the development of the steamboat. A brisk, new trade on the Delaware River in the 1830’s has been attributed to the use of steam-powered boats, which stimulated intercourse along the river and between its tributaries. By 1848, however, farmers and entrepreneurs in the south, too, were giving their attention to road construction. In fact, Gloucester County enthusiasm for the projects prompted the freeholders to turn over, without charge, county-owned bridges to private companies, which were formed to erect, maintain, and reap profits from the new road system.

      Most of the arteries laid between 1848 and 1860 were turnpikes, or toll roads, constructed of planks. They were called turnpikes because of the bars, or pikes, which blocked the roadway, and which were raised when the toll was paid. Toll gates were spaced at intervals of five to ten miles. On the average, fees were collected for carriages at the rate of one cent a mile for each horse, a half-cent per mile for a horse and rider, a half-cent for a dozen calves, sheep, or hogs, and a cent for a dozen cattle, mules, or horses. These toll roads were surfaced with sawed lumber, a relatively inexpensive material in comparison with the cost of the more durable stone or gravel surfaces. Yet, the low initial expenditure for construction notwithstanding, they were costly, because repairs and replacements were substantial and recurrent. Decay was the nemesis of the plank roads, on which the flooring, being continually damp, especially in places where drainage was poor, deteriorated quickly. Use of this type of construction was discontinued before the Civil War.

      The ardor for road development, on the other hand, did not diminish at the same time, South Jersey had seen its benefits: as one writer explained, "the effect of the construction of these roads was to enable farmers to carry seventy to one hundred baskets of produce at a load, where before they were limited to about thirty." Consequently, a number of companies converted their plank roads to gravel roads. Before 1870, turnpikes radiated from Camden to nearby towns such as Mullica Hill, Blackwood, and Haddonfield. Woodbury was connected by road to Mullica Hill, to Red Bank, and to Woodstown by way of Berkeley and Swedesboro. A plank road at first, the Woodbury to Woodstown turnpike was later surfaced with gravel. Longer pikes stretched from Camden and Woodbury to connect with Salem, Bridgeton, and Millville. The longest east-west highway to the shore lay in Burlington County, between Medford and Tuckerton.

      Unfortunately, receipts from stagelines, from the transporting of agricultural products, and from other kinds of local traffic were not sufficient to sustain the turnpikes as profitable ventures. The steamboat, as it was less expensive, continued to be the preferred mode of travel and transportation between the towns along the Delaware. After 1870, the toll roads were supplanted by railroads and public highways, until their revival in the post-Second World War era of the 20th century.

      The first successful railroad in South Jersey was the Camden and Atlantic, organized in 1852. To whom is due the credit for its origination has long been a topic of dispute among local historians. That Atlantic City was both its creation and the fountainhead of its eventual good fortune is a received doctrine among them all.

      At the southeastern end of Camden County, 2 a cluster of glass furnaces was erected between 1822, when Jonathan Haines set up his Waterford Glass Works, and 1827, when a son of William Richards opened the Jackson Glass Works. A third glass factory, at nearby Winslow, was started by William Coffin, Sr., in 1829. At Batsto, several miles away in Burlington County, Jesse Richards turned to glassmaking in 1846. By 1850, the owners of these companies were becoming enamoured with the vision of financial gains that could be realized by a direct rail connection with Camden, and its outlets to Philadelphia, New York, and beyond. Samuel Richards, a son of the Jackson founder, and a dynamic young man in his early thirties, undertook to bring the dream of such a railroad to reality.

      An Absecon physician, Jonathan Pitney, also was contemplating the benefits of a railroad about that time, but for a different reason. Looking across the bay to Absecon Beach, he envisioned a resort where crowds of people would come for ocean bathing, a pastime which he believed to be unsurpassed as an aid to good health. A railroad to the shore would make his fantastic El Dorado accessible to the hot, teeming populace of Philadelphia. The doctor and his friend, Enoch Doughty, met in a small store in Absecon on February 11, 1851 to begin writing the first draft of a railroad charter.

      To the unimaginative, practical business minds of the state’s railroad interests, Pitney’s vision must have seemed even more absurd than that of the glass industrialists, which they dismissed with some humor and contempt. Indeed the doctor’s fantasy seemed ridiculous to the glass-makers, too; at first, even to Samuel Richards. The glass mogul was persuaded, nonetheless, to join the doctor and others on a visit to Absecon Beach in June, 1852, three months after the legislature had granted a charter for a railroad bound southeast out of Camden, but obviously before a terminal site had been selected. According to his own testimony, given years later, Richards, upon first seeing the island of sand hills, viewed it as "the most horrible place to make the termination of a railroad I had ever seen, but after the sun came out, it gave a different appearance." The civil engineer who had been selected to build the railroad, Richard Osborne, was among the group. He said in a speech at the silver anniversary celebration of the Camden and Atlantic that, except for Dr. Pitney, Enoch Doughty, and himself, none of them deemed it "a suitable site for a proposed bathing village, that to build a railroad to such a wild spot would be a reckless piece of adventure."

      Richards, on the other hand, saw the island’s potential as a harbor that could provide an alternative winter port to Philadelphia, when the Delaware would be choked with ice. With Richards adding his and his family’s financial backing to Dr Pitney’s vision, and to the doctor’s and Doughty’s influence in Trenton (where the state railroad monopoly, certain that such a far-fetched scheme would never materialize, did not block the enabling legislation), the Camden and Atlantic Railroad Company was organized. The 10,000 shares of stock, valued at a half-million dollars, were sold in one day, June 24, 1852.

      Nine months elapsed before land was purchased on Absecon Beach for the terminal and related facilities. The first tract was secured at $17.50 an acre. Later, 1000 acres of beach property were bought up by the Camden and Atlantic Land Company for an average price of $10 an acre. By August, 1853, the tracks reached Absecon. Storms and winter then delayed the project, as construction workers were frustrated in their attempts to lay the railroad across the meadows to Absecon Beach.

      The ceremonial opening of the Camden and Atlantic was celebrated on July 1, 1854, when 600 invited guests climbed aboard nine railroad cars at Camden and set out across the Pines to the seashore. Pulled by the engine Atsion, they traversed a distance in two and a half hours that, up to then, had taken two full days to cover by stagecoach. At the mainland side of the Beach Thoroughfare, the celebrities exchanged their railroad cars for boats, because a bridge across the narrow channel had not yet been built. A year passed before tracks reached all the way to the island. Regular passenger service between Camden and the shore commenced on the Fourth of July, 1854, three days after the formal opening of the railroad.

      The opening of the Camden and Atlantic was the signal for laying other tracks across South Jersey. A year before the route to the shore was operational, in 1853, the West Jersey Railroad was incorporated, with authorization to run a line from Camden to Cape May. Four years later, a section from Camden to Woodbury was opened, to be followed shortly by an extension from Glassboro to Bridgeton. Millville and Glassboro were connected by rails late in the 1850’s. Tracks were laid from Millville to Cape May in 1863, thereby extending the railroad to the southernmost tip of the state. Shorter connecting lines were laid between South Jersey towns after the Civil War.

      The benefits that would accrue to civilians from this new mode of transportation were postponed, while America fought another war, a conflict in which her very survival as a federal Union was at stake. A land joined together by rails was sundered by politics, and a bloody argument over human liberty.

2 Camden County was set off from Gloucester County in 1844. Old Gloucester had been dismembered earlier, in 1837, when Atlantic County was created out of its shoreward regions.

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