In Pinelands, Atsion still holds its ground

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Posted on Sun, Mar. 23, 2003 story:pUB_DESC
In Pinelands, Atsion still holds its ground
By Jim Reuter
Inquirer Suburban Staff

Most of the old towns of the New Jersey Pinelands are gone, reclaimed by the forests in which they were carved.

Ong's Hat, Speedwell, Hampton Furnace and similar settlements are little more than small clearings in the woods.

But Atsion, in the Wharton State Forest in Shamong Township, is a link to the past and a present source of enjoyment. The former iron-forging burg on Route 206 consists of 19th-century buildings, early-20th-century cabins, and a modern recreation center on a pristine Pinelands lake.

The state purchased the 96,000-acre Wharton Tract in 1954 from the estate of Joseph Wharton. Wharton had amassed the acreage with the hopes of selling its enormous water reserves to Camden and Philadelphia. He died in 1909, his plans unrealized. Wharton State Forest now comprises more than 110,000 acres and is managed by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Forestry.

Terry Schmidt works in Atsion's information office, accepting reservations for the rental cabins and campsites and providing information for visitors.

"I grew up in Marlton, when it was like this, basically a country crossroads," she said. "I camped at Bass River [a state forest just east of the Wharton forest] in the 1970s when we had outhouses, no electricity and gas lamps."

The nine 80-year-old cabins on the north shore of Atsion Lake are not quite so primitive. Originally private getaways, they have been renovated by the state and are rented from April through October. They are equipped with kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces and electricity, but no heat. Two are handicapped-accessible. All rent quickly.

"Our weekends are booked up" through October, Schmidt said. "We still have some vacancies during the week."

Jeff Adams supervises upkeep at Atsion. His ties to the Pinelands are strong: He grew up in Tabernacle and now lives in Sweetwater. He's worked with Parks and Forestry at Atsion for 17 years. His son works for Parks and Forestry at Lebanon State Forest. His father worked for the Division of Fish and Wildlife for 33 years.

"My grandfather had a saw mill on Atsion Road" just past where the cabins stand, he said. "I spent a lot of time in the town growing up in the '50s and '60s."

Pointing to the counter in the Atsion office, he added, "I used to buy penny candy right here when it was the general store."

He also swam in the tea-colored Atsion Lake. (The color comes from the many cedar trees in the Pinelands.) The lake now features a sandy beach, a playground, barbecue pits, picnic areas, a nature trail, and a boat launch.

"We've had to close the gates sometimes just after 10 a.m." because of the crowds, Adams said. "I've seen vans with 15 to 17 people in them. We've had as many as 2,500 people a day here in the summer."

Less crowded are the remains of the old town. A three-story mansion was built in 1826 for Samuel Richards, owner of the ironworks from 1819 to 1842. It was the center of the area's social life for decades.

And, it may still be lived in.

"The locals have said they've seen a woman looking out one of the windows," Schmidt said. "I've never seen or heard anything, but a lot of people have lived and died there since it was built."

Although it's now closed to the public, Schmidt and Adams hope to see the mansion reopened.

"Structurally, it's sound," Adams said. "But we'd need a lot of money to fix it up. And the money we have now we need just to keep the [lake] complex and cabins going."

With cutbacks in state funds, Schmidt noted that volunteers were needed more than ever at Atsion and throughout the state forest.

"We can use people to clean the trails and riverbanks, conduct historic tours, do crafts; we have projects for anybody," she said.

A sand trail, Quaker Bridge Road, winds its way from Atsion through the pines to Batsto. On it, just past the mansion, stands Grace Bible Church and its cemetery; the church has held weekly services since 1828. Farther down the road is Public School No. 94, which closed in 1922.

Other buildings became the victims of age, arson and vandalism and have been swallowed by the pines.

But near Atsion Lake, the past maintains its presence. In the middle of the picnic grove, amid pine trees and surrounded by a black iron fence, sit the headstones of some of the town's early settlers, their names now erased by the elements.