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Saving the History of Cedar Bridge

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 03, 2019

Barnegat — Today when we talk about Cedar Bridge, we mean the tavern building recently reopened by Ocean County after years of archaeological research and restoration as a museum depicting life in the Pine Barrens. But during most of the 19th century, Cedar Bridge was a village. While the tavern was a stop on the stage line linking Philadelphia and Burlington County with the shore, there were other occupations.

A branch of the Wading River had been dammed where a sawmill operated, turning logs into lumber to be used to build boats at the shore and houses inland. Most important, near the Village of Cedar Bridge were located three iron furnaces: Stafford Forge, Martha’s and Batsto. All demanded fuel, which at the time was charcoal. In 1887, the Trenton Times sent a reporter to investigate.

“Throughout this region charcoal making is an industry which is much underestimated by the uninitiated. Here at Manahawkin, this pretty little sea-coast town by Stafford lake, where all is peace and plenty, do live some charcoal burners. Over against the east-side of this section of the county are ‘The Pines,’ and here it is that charcoal is made. We leave the pleasant village and over the old wagon road enter the outskirts of the woods. We pass a few farms. Fields of ripening grain, marking the man’s habitations, and ere long we are in the depths of the forest.”

Eventually, near Cedar Bridge, “We stop at a hut and are cheerily welcomed by the hardy collier, who takes us to the ‘firing ground’ and shows to us the modus operandi of charcoal burning. Ere long work is commenced on a ‘pit.’ Like other words in the English language which, by their use, convey one meaning and have another, a ‘pit’ is not a pit, but rather means a high cone of sticks and earth. First the green or dead pine wood is cut into ‘four foot lengths,’ and is piled in cords … the entire affair is covered with pieces of turf, known as ‘floats,’ and this in turn with a thin top dressing of sand. … The sand prevents too rapid consumption, and at last, after the wood has been well ‘cooled,’  the sides cave in, and the big cone is a shapeless mass. … Charcoal is sold by the bushel, three cords of wood being required for one hundred bushels of coal. Coal sells at from ten to twelve cents per bushel. Therefore a ‘pit’ of nine cords of green wood, or three hundred bushels of charcoal, is worth, at ten cents per bushel, about $80.”

Unfortunately for Cedar Bridge and the New Jersey iron industry, Pennsylvania coal was quickly replacing local charcoal, and with it the jobs. At about the same time the village received another blow: Railroads were crossing the state, and the trip to the shore by rail soon displaced stagecoaches. In 1925, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the new way to the shore.

“Penetrating another sector of the barren ‘Piney’ district of south Jersey, the State Highway Commission has aided in completing a project started thirteen years ago and has lessened by ten miles the route between Trenton and Barnegat and Camden and Barnegat.

“The final link in the new gravel thoroughfare between Chatsworth, Burlington county, and Cedar Bridge, at the Ocean county line, is now open to traffic and is receiving finishing touches before acceptance.”

In 1934, Henry C. Back, the editor of the Camden Courier, explained what happened when the new road was constructed.

“The road itself has suffered in the intervening years, years in which motor transportation has demanded hard-surface paving to replace the twists and ruts of yesteryear. Although the concrete of the Ocean County half of the route, completed before Burlington County improved its half, follows in part the old stage line, many points have been stranded on half-moon curves eliminated by modern road engineers. Cedar Bridge is one of these points.”

By then all that was left, according to Beck, was the Cedar Bridge Tavern. “One very obvious link tying the present with the past is the Cedar Bridge Hotel, still standing intact and serving as a very comfortable home when we went down to see it. Because the old road was orphaned by the newer highway, as can be seen so well from the vantage point of the Cedar Bridge forest fire lookout tower.”

Beck went on to tell the story of the 1782 skirmish at Cedar Bridge, which attracted attention to the site just as something was happening in Washington. According to the National Park Service, “In 1933 the National Park Service Department of the Interior established the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) following a proposal by Charles E. Peterson, a Park Service landscape architect. It was founded as a make-work program for architects, draftsmen, and photographers left jobless by the Great Depression. Guided by field instructions from Washington, D.C., the first recorders were tasked with documenting a representative sampling of America’s architectural heritage. By creating an archive of historic architecture, HABS provided a data base of primary source material for the then fledgling historic preservation movement.”

Seymour Williams, a Rahway architect, was given charge of the project for New Jersey. He explained, “This survey is part of the national plan for the conservation of our national resources. Under this survey the historic or ancient structures of the State, built prior to 1860, are investigated, mapped, completely catalogued and scale working drawings made for them. The buildings selected for inclusion in the survey are those which possess exceptional historic or architectural interest. Approximately 400 buildings throughout New Jersey have been investigated and listed under this category.”

While Ocean County had experienced a lot of history, at that time there wasn’t a historical society, and in the middle of the Great Depression there wasn’t any outcry to preserve anything. But Williams did find a site lost in the vastness of the Pine Barrens.

“This remarkable public house constructed of timber frame in two stories with cellar under the original part only and an unfinished garret under the gable roof is fortunately preserved in almost unaltered condition. As shown on the drawings, the original unit comprised the western two-thirds of the house, the floor plan having the public room across the north front, behind which a parlor or private dining room in the southeast corner and the kitchen on the southwest one, the board partition between which two rooms has since been removed. The abutting corner fireplaces in the first and last-mentioned rooms have very plain wood mantels with bracketed shelf, and as in all the rooms in the two stories, a chair-rail in addition to the baseboard. Remarkable is the limitation of moldings to the bead in all finishing woodwork of the interior. The twelve-foot extension of the house eastward was made very soon (as the identity of the details indicate) providing a new parlor and kitchen on the first floor and two additional bedrooms on the second, and greatly improving the proportions of the mass of the house.”

He also warned that the building itself was in danger.

“Across the highway from the tavern stands the remains of the unusual building, a combination of stable, bowling alley and dance hall. Since the photograph was taken and later the survey and drawings made, this building has been destroyed by storm. Between it and the river westward were observed the remains of the up-and-down saw of the mills, evidently the same mill mentioned in the deed of 10 May 1813.”

Across the state there was the beginning of the movement to preserve New Jersey history. Meanwhile, the report on Cedar Bridge drew dust in the Library of Congress.

Today the tavern still stands and is open to the public by following a dirt road off Route 72 near the Route 539 traffic light.

Currently the site is open to visitors on Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning July 6, additional hours are Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 to 4. It will be closed on Wednesdays but can be viewed by appointment.

Next Week: The tavern faces destruction.

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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