Situated on picturesque Batsto Lake, the historic village of Batsto is an idyllic portal into the history and culture of New Jersey’s famed Pine Barrens, a place that brings the spirit of the region to life in the clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer, a child’s wooden rocking horse resting on a sunlit windowsill, the rush of wind through the crooked boughs of pitch pines.
In fact, the village is quite possibly the best place for visitors from near and far to begin their exploration of New Jersey’s globally unique Pine Barrens.
“Batsto Village is a wonderful place to soak in the interesting history and culture of the Pine Barrens, to learn about its rare and unique plants and wildlife, or to simply spend the day enjoying nature on the area’s many easily hiked trails and scenic rivers,” Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin said. “Many first-time visitors are surprised by how much there is to see and do in and around Batsto. Visit once and you will surely visit again.”
Located at the southern edge of Wharton State Forest about 10 miles east of Hammonton, Batsto is the gateway to one the wildest expanses of New Jersey, a landscape of pristine rivers and lakes prime for paddling, sandy trails for hiking, pine woods studded with cedar swamps and old cranberry bogs for exploring.
From the cupola high atop the Wharton Mansion, the predominant structure in the village, Wharton State Forest Superintendent Rob Auermuller surveys a vast expanse of pitch pines. “People come from all over New Jersey and all across North America to visit Batsto,” he said. “People are drawn by the desire to see how people lived, how children played, what they did each day.”
A symbol of the power and influence wielded by 19th century Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Wharton, the cupola also served as a watchtower for forest fires that are as much a part of the region’s ecology as are the trees, sand and water.
A short walk from the mansion, the visitor center, completely renovated several years ago, is a must-stop to truly understand the history and ecology of the Pines. The exhibit room provides a concise and well-organized introduction to Batsto, and the people and places of the Pinelands.
Upon entering you are introduced to the natural resources that first drew Batsto Iron Works founder Charles Read to this unforgiving landscape more than two centuries ago – the sand, the water, the trees, and, of course, the bog iron found along the region’s rivers and streams that fueled the production of weapons, kettles, pots and other iron implements.
You then quickly walk to an exhibit featuring an interesting collection of Lenape artifacts and another on the natural landscape of the Pine Barrens – the frogs, the carnivorous plants, the cranberries, and the timber rattlesnakes that thrive in this region.
As you continue your journey through the museum, you will learn about the foundry that thrived on the charcoal from trees and the ore formed by a chemical reaction between decaying plants and minerals in sand, the glass industry that took iron-making’s place and relied upon the region’s abundant sand, and Joseph Wharton, whose plans to divert water from the Pinelands ultimately resulted in the creation of the state forest that bears his name.
At more than 120,000 acres, Wharton State Forest is the largest unit in the New Jersey State Park System. Miles of hiking trails, including the pink-blazed Batona (for Back To Nature) Trail cross the forest, all easily traversed with little more than the trail map available at the visitor center and a couple bottles of drinking water. The trailhead for an accessible network of nature trails can be found at the picnic area across from the visitor center.
Not far from the visitor center, miles of sand roads plunge deep into the woods, leading to sites of long-gone settlements, secluded riverbanks perfect for picnics, old cranberry bogs being slowly reclaimed by nature – and to nowhere in particular.
About a half dozen private canoe liveries operate on the Batsto, Mullica, Wading and Oswego rivers, making this a paddler’s paradise. Each year, thousands of kayakers and canoeists paddle down the Batsto River into the upper reaches of Batsto Lake, which once provided water for the foundry and Batsto’s mills.
The name Batsto is derived from early Swedish settlers and their word for bathing place – badstu, a term that was also used by local Lenapes. The Batsto that greets visitors today is a far cry from the industrial boom town of the past, a time when “smoke billowed so thick daylight could barely penetrate it,” Auermuller said.
Today’s visitors come to relax, to enjoy the scenery, and to glimpse life in the 18th and 19th centuries. To this historical end, Batsto offers visitors dozens of preserved buildings, including a still-operating sawmill, a gristmill, a blacksmith shop, a stone barn, early 19th century workers’ houses, a general store and, of course, the iconic Wharton – or Batsto – Mansion.
“Many of today’s visitors first visited Batsto as children. They are now bringing their own children,” Auemuller said.
A key goal of the Christie Administration’s parks sustainability plan is to improve visitor services, amenities and activities. Auermuller and the Batsto Citizens Committee Inc. have been working to rekindle the living history features of Batsto, over the summer launching a Second Saturday series that featured mansion tours, sawmill demonstrations, glassblowing, Revolutionary War and Native American interpretive activities, and wildlife presentations.
Auermuller is also working to develop a smartphone version of the village cell phone audio tour that will be synchronized to videos. And every Saturday, Toby Kroll a retired firefighter and professional blacksmith from Salem County, volunteers in the blacksmith shop, explaining his virtually lost craft to often-amazed visitors.
“People seek me out because they can smell the smoke, they can see the coal,” said Kroll.
“I think we have what the public is longing for – living history. It’s history that you can hear, that you can smell, that gets grit in your teeth, dirt on your hands.”
The mansion, open only intermittently in the past, is now open regularly for guided tours Thursday through Sunday. With its cupola towering over the village, the mansion is easily the most recognized feature of Batsto, if not the structural icon of the Pine Barrens.
Noted ironmaster Charles Read of Burlington founded Batsto Iron Works in 1766. The iron works changed hands several times during the Revolutionary War period. During the Revolution, the foundry became the principal arsenal in the war effort, casting critically needed cannons and cannon balls for George Washington’s Army.
Colonel William Richards purchased Batsto in 1784. Batsto would remain under Richards’s family ownership for more than 90 years, reaching its height between the War of 1812 through 1830. A glass works was built in 1846. The iron furnace was extinguished two years later.
Wharton purchased Batsto in 1876. The industrialist also purchased tens of thousands of acres of forest as part of a plan to dam the myriad streams and rivers and sell the water to Camden and Philadelphia. Those plans never materialized and, in fact, led to passage of a state law banning the exportation of New Jersey water. The law remains in effect today.
Wharton tried growing peanuts and sugar beets in the sandy soil, without much success. Eventually he grew cranberries, worked iron, and built the existing sawmill. His death 1909 forced residents to find work in the surrounding area. The village was never the same.
Wharton’s extensive land holdings were managed by a Trust Company until 1954, when the state purchased them as the core of Wharton State Forest. A few Batsto residents held on, remaining in their homes until the early 1980s.
Lifelong Hammonton resident Janet Worrell remembers all of the work that was entailed in restoring the village. Today she is treasurer for the Batsto Citizens Committee, the state’s key partner in keeping the village history alive.
“Our role is and always has been to work with the state in the restoration and interpretation of the village,” Worrell said. “At Batsto, you can see the whole evolution from a time when this was only woods inhabited by Indians all the way through the industrial growth of our country.”
Logo courtesy New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection