- Pine Barrens trails full of mysterious legends
- Barnegat Lighthouse State Park is full of stories
- Along the beaches, islands and forests outlining the waterways from Absecon to Barnegat Bay, walkers may see a black dog roaming alone.
It’s no question that weird things can be felt in the eerily silent trails in the Pine Barrens.
The cracking of every twig prompts an over-the-shoulder glance for things unknown.
It’s like you’re in a scary movie — or at least getting into the Halloween spirit.
For those not faint of heart, mysterious legends are waiting to be found, hidden along the same trails their subjects once walked (or ran) hundreds of years ago.
One of these is the Batona Trail (short for “back to nature”), which spans from Pemberton to Little Egg Harbor through 50 miles of sand and pitch pines. It has several trailheads, some with grim stories.
The most notorious is the legend of Ong’s Hat. The Ong’s Hat Trailhead is just off of Magnolia Road, which can be reached via Route 70 in Pemberton.
This portion of town, once called Ong’s Hat, was believed to be named after a former resident — and he was a bit of a lady’s man. That was until a woman became angry with him and stomped on his hat, prompting him to storm off in a rage, only to throw his hat into the air and get it stuck in a tree. It hung there as an eerie reminder for years.
Visitors began to recognize the town by the hat, and all that’s left today of the small village are ruins of a ghost town that no one seems to be able to find.
Now for the fun part: Some believe it’s a portal to an alternate dimension.
At least that’s what author Joseph Matheny had people believing in the 1980s and ’90s when he released his book “Ong’s Hat: The Beginning” chapter by chapter. As told in the story, a commune of like-minded creatives — scientists, poets, musicians, authors and the like — took to the woods because of a portal called “The Ashram.”
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Being a techie who had done ample work on video games, Matheny sought to create an Augmented Reality Game that would send people out into the wilderness to discover unknown things about the world and themselves, utilizing real facts and people he had met in his time spent in New Jersey, paired with fictional details and characters.
Some readers took Matheny’s experiment to heart, and believe there is a portal out there, or that the author knows more than he lets on (which he swears isn’t the case, and implores people to believe his work is an act of pure fiction). Fans have even shown up on his lawn in Oregon to interrogate him.
“The idea was the location of the Ashram was never known, which added to the story and let it live beyond the story,” he said, although there was a time when he would hint that the book provided encoded coordinates to it. “There’s a mysterious thing out there that no one knows where it is, but it’s out there.”
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Matheny, who described himself as a radical environmentalist and avid hiker, said he wanted people to get out and explore their inherit human nature.
“It was for the kids … that were seeking a true experience,” he said. “The game I designed pointed people in the direction of ‘Let’s not just sit on our butts and stare at screens. Let’s get up, get out and do something.’ “
For those looking for more than meets the eye, he said, the Pine Barrens is the perfect place.
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“The Pine Barrens (is) a naturally liminal environment that does something to the human consciousness,” Matheny said. “It causes a cognitive dissonance where you start filling in the blanks, similar to sensory deprivation.”
Ong’s Hat isn’t the only trailhead on the Batona with an interesting story.
Allison Hartman, a marine biologist, folklore specialist and assistant manager of Pinelands Adventures for the nonprofit Pinelands Preservation Alliance, makes it her job to keep these stories alive.
“Some of these stories have lasted hundreds of years, and the Pine Barrens have such a rich oral history so I’m very humbled … to know I’m part of this long line of storytellers,” said Hartman, who regularly takes visitors to the Pines on folklore and cryptid-themed walks. “You simply step foot in the Pine Barrens and you can feel the weight of hundreds of thousands of years of history. You can even see evidence of it on hiking trails, like the [ruins] of cellar holes or handfuls of stones that were clearly parts of buildings.”
One of these abandoned places can be found near Apple Pie Hill, the highest point in the Pine Barrens, which can be accessed via the Jeff Horelick Path Trailhead of the Batona Trail along Tabernacle Chatsworth Road. The hill was a former site for the Pine Crest Sanitorium, but there is little known on whether it ever became fully functional as the records of all patients were scrubbed.
A Dr. William White owned the property, operating a bottling factory on the premises. White also attempted to sell 5-acre plots on the property, but only a few sold and due to this downfall, it quickly became abandoned. Dr. White is said to still haunt this area, which is shrouded with an eerie chill and surrounded by echoing woods.
Just a few miles away, near Quaker Bridge Road in Wharton State Forest lives another legend. But this is not a tale of a soul lost to the forest, but rather, one saved by it. Quaker Bridge Road used to be an active route for Quakers in the 1700s, making the trek from Pennsylvania to Tuckerton for their annual meeting.
One night, a driver with a carriage full of people was rushing faster and faster through pouring rain, when a mystical white stag jumped out of the pitch black forest. When the driver retrieved his rifle to shoot the beast, it disappeared without a trace — no tracks and no sign of it among the trees.
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When the driver investigated the spot the stag once stood, he saw the bridge just ahead going over the Batsto River had been blown out by the storm, and if he had kept racing forward, they would have all perished. Now, Piney lore forbids shooting a white stag, and if you ever see one while hiking, odds are it’s trying to tell you something.
While in Wharton State Forest searching for the stag who will likely never appear unless needed, pay a visit to Hampton Road near Atsion Mansion, in an area once known as Hampton Cranberry Bogs, owned by the Rider Family. Walk along the road here, and you might just meet Henry Rider, or the bandits who killed him.
In the early 1900s, Henry was riding in a car with his brother Andrew (who was the true owner of the bog) and Andrew’s daughter Elsie, back from town where they had picked up $4,000 from the bank for payroll. They were seized by anywhere from 10 to 15 robbers (who happened to be masked and dressed in dresses to distract their victims).
Andrew could not get his gun working in time, and the bandits shot the entire family, killing Henry and seriously wounding the father and daughter. Many of the bandits never got caught, but one who did was tried and executed by electric chair in Trenton.
If you’re still not satisfied with these supernatural strolls, just know that no matter where you are among the Pines, the Jersey Devil is always watching, perched somewhere just beyond view.
Go: For Ong’s Hat: Turkey Buzzard Bridge Road off Magnolia Road, Pemberton; for Apple Pie Hill, take a hike down Jeff Horelick Path off Tabernacle Chatsworth Road, inside Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth; for Quaker Bridge, Hartman recommends taking the yellow-blazed Mullica River Trail to the green-connector trail to hop over to Quaker Bridge at the Batona Trail. You also can drive along Quaker Bridge Atsion Road; Hampton Road is accessible via Route 206 just past the Atsion Mansion at 744 Route 206, Vincentown.
Looking for some more coastal haunts beyond the Pines? Check out these walks and trails:
Barnegat Lighthouse State Park
There’s a peaceful feeling that envelopes adventurers who look up at “Old Barney,” which was first lit over in 1859.
Whether you’re there for an easy stroll through the woods on the Maritime Forest Trail, or a daring journey across a massive jetty that ends where the bay meets the Atlantic, it’s easy to become immersed in the park’s natural beauty.
The currents created by the marriage of the bay and ocean make for chaotic waters that hold many stories. Many sunken ships have found their fate here, like those of US Merchant Marines in World War II, who were taken down by enemy submarines and ships while transporting cargo.
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Others were taken by the sea’s unforgiving embrace. New Jersey is known as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to its rough waters, and this state park alone hosts countless memorials, including one for the US Merchant Marines.
Another is a stone fishermen looking over the bay, in memory of the countless commercial fishermen who have been lost to local tides. Just a few years ago following Superstorm Sandy, a mystery ship was uncovered in the Barnegat Inlet, believed to have been a barge.
But not all deaths that have occurred here were at sea. The beach was also the site of the Massacre at Long Beach Island. On Oct. 25, 1782, an aground British vessel was captured by American troops. The Americans seized ample amounts of cargo before taking to the nearby beach to sleep for the night. Unfortunately, the notorious Pine Robber and pirate John Bacon heard of the loot, and led his raiders to slaughter them in their sleep and reap the spoils.
Many spirits have called this park their final resting place, which now serves as a memorial.
Go: 208 Broadway, Barnegat Light; 609-494-2016, nj.gov.
Beaches, islands and forests from Absecon to Barnegat Bay
This time of year at the Jersey Shore is a favorite for dog owners as many beaches open up to our four-legged friends.
Along the beaches, islands and forests outlining the waterways from Absecon to Barnegat Bay, walkers may see a black dog roaming alone.
But he’s not lost. His owner, though, was lost, many years ago.
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Black dogs are often a symbol for imminent death or danger, but Piney culturedoes not see them that way. Back in a time when pirates plagued Jersey’s shores, one of the most notorious of all, Captain William Kidd, and his crew seized a ship somewhere in this area.
Among the ship’s crew, whom Kidd’s goons slaughtered, was an innocent cabin boy named William, and his faithful black dog. It was odd for a dog to be permitted on a ship, but because William and the dog were so close, he refused to join the ship’s crew without him. Legend has it that the dog put up a fight against the pirates until the bitter end, defending his owner.
This sea-faring pooch can now be seen roaming this area, searching for William so that he might return to his side and protect him once more.
Take Fido for a leisurely beach stroll this season, and you might just meet him.
Gabriela L. Laracca joined the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey in 2021 and eagerly brings her passion for cuisine and culture to our readers. Send restaurant tips to [email protected].