In fact, according to www.atlasobscura.com—a website boasting a multitude of “curious and wondrous travel destinations” around the globe—New Jersey is home to 74 such sites. The Philadelphia region also offers numerous intriguing spots. Who would’ve known!
Devon Perry, executive director of Visit South Jersey, aspires to share our region’s rich history and rare, hidden treasures with residents and visitors alike.
Whether in search of a Halloween happening, a supernatural phenomenon or merely relishing the natural splendor throughout South Jersey, one such property Perry is proud to spotlight is Batsto Village.
Located in the Wharton State Forest in the heart of New Jersey’s Pinelands, the 123,000-acre site—just 8 miles from Hammonton—is administered by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Parks & Forestry. In fact, Wharton State Forest is the largest park in the entire state system.
“Batsto Village is nationally recognized for its historical significance and beauty,” explained Perry. “Two centuries of American history are available to visitors.”
Guided tours of the 36-room mansion are offered to the public Wednesday through Sunday. The sprawling, picturesque grounds include a Visitor’s Center, post office (that still hand cancels mail without use of a zip code), a once operating grist mill, saw mill, out buildings, cottages long ago inhabited by workers, a large lake and more.
Batsto Village, often referred to as a ghost town in and of itself, holds a very popular, annual Halloween event: “Haunting the Pines.” The event is run by the Friends of the Batsto Citizens Committee, Inc., a volunteer group that promotes and supports the property and the Wharton State Forest through fund-raisers and special events throughout the year. In conjunction with two state employed historians, the volunteer corps imparts the stories behind the property that was once a thriving community with successful businesses that produced iron as well as glass products.
The Halloween event, geared toward kids 12 and under and their families, is open to the public and free of charge. This year, more than 300 children and their families are expected to swarm the property on Sunday, October 29 from noon to 3 p.m. The cherished tradition always takes place the Sunday before Halloween. Expect to find face painting, games, pony rides, tours, food and more, while spending quality family time and exploring nature and the colorful foliage.
“It’s our way of giving back to the community,” explained Wes Hughes of Cherry Hill, NJ, chairperson of the Batsto Citizens Committee. He’s been a volunteer at the property since 2011. But the village, he explains, caught his attention many years prior. Hughes, 66, the director of Industrial and Commercial Services for Goodwill Industries of Southern Jersey & Philadelphia by day, first visited Batsto as an elementary school student on a class trip. The memory was indelible.
Traveling from his hometown of Glassboro, he recalls arriving at the impressive property on a yellow school bus. “I somehow fell in love with the place,” he said.
Long intrigued by its 200-plus year history and natural splendor, in 1983, after living for a number of years in Maryland and Connecticut, he returned to his home state of New Jersey. He wrote a letter to the State inquiring about becoming a volunteer at Batsto. “For some reason,” he recalled, “it just never came to fruition.”
Fast forward to 2010. Hughes was organizing a camping trip for himself and some friends to the Bass River State Forest. He submitted an application to volunteer at the park, another place that sparked his passion. When filling out the paperwork, he checked a box indicating his interest in history.
So when Hughes was contacted in early 2011 by Bill Schall, then chairperson of the Batsto Citizens Committee, asking if he would be willing to volunteer to give tours of the mansion, it was—quite frankly—a bit surreal.
“I said, ‘Bill, I’m your guy,’” remembered Hughes, admittedly a dream come true for the history buff. One thing led to the next and ultimately Hughes spearheaded the committee. Occasionally, he’s still called upon to give tours.
Hughes explains that the Richards family occupied the mansion for nearly 100 years. It was sold in 1876 to Joseph Wharton, a Philadelphia Quaker and wealthy industrialist who also endowed The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It was Wharton’s dying wish that if the property were ever to be sold, that it not be broken up; that it be sold in one parcel,” explained Hughes. Wharton died in 1909. His wish was granted when the State of New Jersey purchased the entire property in 1954.
“Southern New Jersey and the Pine Barrens were rich in bog ore,” said Hughes of Batsto’s origins. Beginning in 1766, Batsto was one of many places that scraped bog ore from the area streams to produce an array of iron products. “The waterways and streams in the Pine Barrens were rich in iron. Decaying vegetation would fall in the streams and over a period of a few decades it would combine with the iron and formed bog ore,” he said.
Many products were made from bog ore, such as kettles, pots and pans, Dutch ovens, cast iron pipes. In fact, Hughes underscores that during the Revolutionary War a large percentage of the cannon balls and cannons were produced at Batsto.
Today, it’s not unusual for visitors to inquire about whether the mansion is haunted. “People often ask if there are resident ghosts,” said Hughes. And although a photo of a questionable silhouette on a mansion wall once appeared in the book “Weird New Jersey” and stories abound through word of mouth, Hughes says there’s no factual evidence of ghosts or paranormal activity. “We don’t promote it; we don’t dispel it,” he said.
Travel down the shore to Asbury Park and the Paranormal Museum/ Paranormal Books & Curiosities is clearly a destination that promotes all things its name implies. The museum is currently closed for renovations, but still offers tours of some spooky, ghostly sites (see box) on the boardwalk and historic downtown district.
According to their Facebook page, when they reopen they will once again feature a storefront of books and items that “explore the unexplained myths, legends and folklore that permeate our culture, dot our history books and continue to defy explanation in our modern world.”
They first opened in 2009 as the Jersey Devil Museum, named for the infamous monster that has caused goose bumps to many an area resident for over a century.
Ghosts & Legends Downtown Tours take place Thursday through Sunday. Participants meet at the storefront, 621 Cookman Avenue, Asbury Park.
For information, call (732) 455-3188 or visit paranormalbooksnj.com
Just over the Delaware River in North Philadelphia is another Atlas Obscura featured property—Laurel Hill Cemetery. A National Historic Landmark that was established in 1836, many renowned figures that shaped our country’s history are buried there. Forty Civil War generals, 6 Titanic passengers and individuals such as Rittenhouse, Widener and Elkins are buried on the grounds amidst a sculpture garden, art, architecture and greenery.
The cemetery holds numerous special events near Halloween. “October is our busiest month of the year,” explained Beth Savastana, program and volunteer coordinator. In September, the cemetery actually co-hosted an event with Atlas Obscura called “Into the Veil.”
At 7 p.m. on Friday, October 20 and Saturday, October 21, people will have a rare opportunity to partake in nighttime, flashlight tours of the cemetery: Soul Crawl, Haunted History Tours. The tour guides share some of the macabre stories of those buried there. The tales are of murder, intrigue and more, explains Savastana. And they are all true and well researched. After the tour, participants enjoy Halloween cider and candy in the courtyard.
“All of the money raised through programming goes back into historic preservation of the cemetery,” said Savastana, adding that their events are family-friendly. “Nothing that we do is scary.”
At 7 p.m. on October 26, 27 and 28, there will be performances by the Mechanical Theater of an originally written production of “Dracula: A Gothic Mystery.”
From 1 to 3 p.m. on October 29, the cemetery will host their annual Fall Family Day: Halloween Picnic and Parade.
For more information on educational tours and events, call (215) 228-8200 or www.thelaurelhillcemetery.org.
Visit South Jersey (VSJ) is the official destination marketing organization for Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties, and the Outer Coastal Plain Wine Region. VSJ promotes travel to the region by marketing South Jersey as a destination.
According to Executive Director Devon Perry, there’s something for everyone. “Historic, bustling main streets, five-star cuisine, a burgeoning wine and craft beverage industry, sports, family fun, art, theater, shopping, crafts, agricultural tourism, picturesque farmland and open space. It is all here in South Jersey.”
For information go to visitsouthjersey.com or call (856) 757-9400.