The Blue Hole photo is courtesy of Weird NJ...your travel guide to New Jersey's local legends and best-kept secrets
Devil in a Blue Hole
A spontaneous, aimless and possibly fatal journey into the New Jersey Pine Barrens
By Donna Montalbano
What comes to mind when you think of New Jersey, the butt of a zillion jokes (You’re from JOISEY? Yeah? What exit?) When most people think of New Jersey, they think of that ugly stretch of the turnpike across from New York City; they think of the honkytonk boardwalks and the so-not-Vegas casinos. Be honest: to you, New Jersey is just a stretch of highway you jet through as fast as humanly possible so you can get to someplace better.
But the best part of New Jersey is the part you can’t see from a speeding car.
As you blow down the Garden State Parkway on your way to AC or DC or wherever, the edge of the Pine Barrens is a blur of scraggly trees and thick scrub that stretches for miles on the west side of the road. You don’t care what’s back behind those trees; you just want to get where you’re going and put all THIS in your rearview mirror.
But if you’re up for an adventure then ease up off the gas and start looking for an opening between the trees. Pull in. Park. Get out of the car. You will see a few rutted sand trails that disappear into the woods. Pick a path, any path, and it will lead you into an alien world. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in America, but you are about to enter one million glorious, mysterious, haunted acres of wilderness. The largest area of natural open space between Maine and Florida.
The Pine Barrens.
At first you won’t be impressed. Trees, more trees, sand, bush, brush and scrub. But if you push on, before long you will stumble upon bogs and swamps; streams and rivers stained red brown by iron and tannin. You will come across dismantled wooden bridges (ancient border squabbles) so unless you’ve got a raft or canoe you’ll have to go around. That could take you in a ways and the woods get a little jungly, but hey, this IS an adventure.
"Why," you are muttering to yourself, "do they call it the Pine BARRENS? It sure doesn’t look barren to me."
Answer: it is called the Pine Barrens because the sandy, acidic soil is too barren for large-scale domestication. Ironic, since New Jersey is known as the Garden State.
The indigenous Lenni Lenape Indians (the name means Original People) did grow some corn and pumpkins here and there. Mainly they hunted turkey, deer and elk (yes, there used to be elk!) and gathered nuts and berries. During the hot months, the Lenape took their annual vacay to the bay and ocean where they would meet up with other tribes and feast on shellfish and catch some cool breezes. It was a great life until the white men came. The Lenape extended friendship, food and survival tips. In exchange, the white men gave the Lenape liquor and smallpox. The white men were called "settlers" because their motto basically was: We’re taking all your land, and that’s settled!
After some time, the Lenape, decimated and marginalized, begged the New Jersey Assembly for a place of their own. Ask and ye shall receive, and this is what they received: three thousand acres out of the million they once freely roamed. Without any sense of irony or shame, the white men named it Brotherton. It became the first and only Native American reservation in New Jersey and one of the first in the nation. Today it is called Indian Mills, but not because any "Indians" live there.
When the settlers realized they couldn’t farm, they looked around and luckily found bog iron in the water. So they built foundries and turned the iron deposits into iron ore and got rich. Some Pine Barrens’ ore was made into armaments for the American Revolution.
The iron ran low. The white men made charcoal but the coal mines of Pennsylvania turned that into a losing proposition. They built glass and brick works and paper mills. The factory owners created company towns where their workers, paid in company scrip, somehow found themselves in debt from the day they arrived. ("I owe my soul to the company store…")
The air the families breathed was three parts toxic smoke that spewed from the factory chimneys.
Lumber was needed for houses and fuel and shipbuilding in this "New-to-Us" World, and the Pine Barrens was made of wood. Pretty soon the timber business was booming. Thousands of acres of oak and pine and white cedar were cut down in their prime. But guess what? There were tree-huggers even back in the 18th century! One of them was Benjamin Franklin, who decried the wanton destruction of virgin forest and urged conservation of natural resources.
The railroads transformed America, but for some reason the promised rail lines which would connect the Pine Barrens to the rest of the country, never got built. That meant owners could not profitably produce and transport their goods. So the factories closed, the company towns emptied out. The abandoned workers’ cottages, schoolhouses, churches and general stores became the ghost communities of today.
Slowly the Pine Barrens began to heal from the insult of unbridled capitalism. The principal industries became the harvesting and packaging of cranberries and blueberries. Four main reasons the Pine Barrens still exist today and have not been scoured flat to accommodate housing developments, malls and fast food franchises, are: The blessing of infertile soil which made commercial farming impossible; the lack of railroad access, which made industry unprofitable; some worthy preservation efforts, and the simple fact that industry and land developers saw no real value in this untamable tract of sand and bog and pine. They instead concentrated their efforts into turning the Jersey Shore into a carnival sideshow and, in anticipation of the coming Megalopolis, into ever-widening the corridors to New York and Boston; Philadelphia and Washington. You know, like the corridor you were just blasting down.
Tired of the history lesson? It’s a beautiful day, go see some sights. If this is your lucky day, you will glimpse through the trees something truly wondrous: a crystal clear circular pool the color of bright blue sky. This is the famous Blue Hole.
The streams and rivers in the Pine Barrens are notoriously brown and brackish. How could this ice cold blue diamond drop of water BE here, in the middle of nowhere? Two theories: a meteor slammed violently into the middle of the forest, or, a glacier bulldozed through. Either way, the hole that was created was filled and chilled to the brim (and still is) by subterranean springs (note: Pine Barrens aquifers produce some of the purest, sweetest water on earth.)
Locals believe The Blue Hole is bottomless. It is certainly not as pacific and benign as it appears. Strange currents churn the water on the calmest days. The temperature of the blue hole is a bone-chilling 50ish degrees even in midsummer. "Whirleypools" as the locals call them, are said to appear without warning: first a burp, then a ripple; a lazy swirl, and suddenly the waters spin so fast they form a sucking funnel powerful enough to drag a man down and hold him down forever.
So they say, anyway. You may be skeptical, but many Pineys still forbid their children, even on the hottest summer days, to dip even a toe into The Blue Hole.
The Pine Barrens’ ecosystem nurtures all kinds of exotic and rare flora and fauna. Tree frogs the size of your fingernail. Otters. Coyotes and foxes, even bobcats. FYI, after a very long nap, the black bears are back.
And oh yeah, snakes. Lots of snakes. The good news, only a very few are poisonous.
What grows in the Pine Barrens besides pines? Huge oaks and stands of white cedar. Reeds, ferns, waterlilies, over 30 species of orchid, and a surprising number of carnivorous plants. These meat eaters prefer to dine on insects but on a slow day they might nip at your fingertips. Best to keep your hands in your pockets.
You have heard of the Jersey Devil. This is his domain. There have been many reliable sightings of JD over the years. Some say he dwells in The Blue Hole. Others believe he is always on the move like Bigfoot, searching for someone to devour, or at the very least, scare to death. He is a chimera with horned head, hoofs and a tail, but a man’s body. One legend has it that he is the 13th child of a mortal woman named Mother Leeds, who cursed him before he was born. (Well, in her defense, thirteen is a lot of mouths to feed…)
The Jersey Devil can stop your heart, but so could a tourist-hating backwoodsman with an axe to grind. Don’t you watch horror movies?
Which brings up a touchy subject: Pineys. The genuine Pineys, that is, who have been here for generations. Some are descended from the laborers who stayed after the mills and foundries shut down. Others have desperadoes in their family trees: fugitive slaves; Hessian army deserters from the Revolution, even pirates and privateers who cheated the gallows by escaping down the waterways from ocean to bay to river to creek, dragging their treasure chests. Sure, those Deliverance-type rumors persist: tales of inbreeding, insanity, and blood feuds; of murders most foul and a whole lot of folks gone missing. Are the Pineys to blame? Doubtful: did you see that episode of the Sopranos?
So if the Devil don’t get you, and you manage to evade the locals, keep going because still more wonders await you inside this kingdom of pines. A little heads-up about a couple of things? If you see a pool of water on the path in front of you, it is not a mirage. Do NOT assume you can wade through it. Find a very long branch and stick it down in there. If you become alarmed at how far it goes in, you might want to take a detour. And the gritty scraping sound you hear as you walk? You’re walking on sugar sand, a particular silica native to the Barrens, fine and light and so white it glows in the moonlight. When sugar sand mixes with ground water, well, that’s called quicksand. So, uh, watch your step.
Where should you go next? How about back in time? The Pine Barrens are filled with ghost towns (more ghost towns than in all of the Wild West, some say). You will see lone brick chimneys or a depression in the ground in the shape of a dwelling. If you want to fill in the blanks of your imagination you can tour Batsto Village, a restored 18th century iron manufacturing center. The past is present everywhere: restored villages, crumbling mansions, ruins of ruins and every once in a while, a tavern or general store that has been around since the Revolution, still open for business.
You might even trip over History, because poking out of the ground are broken bricks, pottery shards, even family possessions: spoons, cups, buttons.
The evidence of the white settlers is all around, but the Lenape left little behind because they lived a biodegradable existence. You might find an arrowhead, or a bone hair ornament, but the most obvious legacy of the Lenape are the sand trails and roads that crisscross the Barrens. Once these were the network of footpaths to the east, west, north and south that connected them to hunting grounds and other tribes.
Are the towering pines making you claustrophobic? Let’s turn down another path, so you can see something very different.
You were not expecting this, were you? A pygmy forest that’s barely as tall as you. These are the Pine Plains, acres and acres of dwarf pines that were bred from fire.
Wildfire: the Pine Barrens’ worst enemy and best friend.
Which brings you to your last stop; a final dose of shock and awe. Close your eyes. Now open your eyes.
In front of you: a post-apocalyptic hellscape. The earth is sere and gray and the trees are twisted and blackened. Behold the devastation left behind by the latest ferocious forest fire.
This looks like utter destruction, but it really isn’t. The conflagrations that regularly ignite the Pine Barrens are also a kind of friendly fire. As the flames consume, they also renew. Fire burns away the dense layers of pine needles that suffocate the soil, so new things can grow. The intense heat bursts open the pinecones, the seeds explode and are carried on the winds of the inferno to germinate and take root. Without fire, the Pine Barrens would have no pines.
Well, it’s time for you to go, stranger: back to AC or DC or PA or NYC or wherever there are no bogs or bottomless blue holes or wildfire or devils.
Not sure which way to go? Okay, don’t panic. Retrace your steps. Where is the sun? It sets in the west, remember? You’ll want to go in the opposite direction. You may lose the light behind all those giant trees so pick up the pace. Watch out for quicksand and the uncapped old wells and gaping cellar holes of long gone houses. Don’t blunder into a bog, or take what you think is a shortcut. Don’t make a lot of noise, it annoys the wild dogs.
You don’t really believe in ghosts and devils, do you? Campfire tales, right? And if you come across a Piney, just smile and act normal. They are really very nice people.
Is this the path you wanna take? You sure? Well, good luck. Don’t bother to pull out your cell phone, there’s no signal. Just concentrate on getting the HELL out of here before dark. Seriously. You do NOT want to be lost in the Pine Barrens at night.
The Jersey Devil backstory...
Let's start with how he looks. The general consensus is that the Jersey Devil has the head and hooves of a horse, talons, the body of a man, and batlike wings. In flight, he resembles a dragon, with red eyes and a bloodcurdling scream.
The "dragon" description is very interesting because the native American tribe living in the region long before the Europeans came, the Lenni Lenape, called this area Popuessing, or Place of the Dragon.
Swedish explorers, who colonized New Jersey before the English, named this area Drake Kill; in Dutch, "drake" means dragon and "kill" is a river or stream. So there was already a dragon myth in this part of the Pine Barrens before Mother Leeds predicted, around the 1730's, that her thirteenth child would be the devil. When he was born, he morphed into a demon and flew up the chimney; and this is where the modern legend of the Jersey Devil began. And there is indeed archival proof that a Japhet and Deborah Leeds lived in Leeds Point, Atlantic County, New Jersey and had twelve children.
History also shows that a Titan Leeds published an almanac at the same time as Benjamin Franklin did; and on the masthead of the Leeds almanac was three Wyverns; dragon-like creatures which looked very much like mythical ancestors of the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil is a cryptic, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster; many have seen him, some have taken pictures of him (like the picture published recently in the Huff Post) but nobody has ever caught him. Yet.
Soprano's in the Pine Barrens
Anybody who is/was a Soprano's fan remembers the classic Pine Barrens Season 3 episode that aired first in 2001. How did it come about? Timothy Van Patten, one of the show's directors, had a dream about Christopher and Paulie getting lost in the Pine Barrens. Van Patten's dream was inspired by creepy childhood stories about a mysterious creature who lived deep in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
In the episode, Paulie and Christopher are out making "collections". Things go awry, and they've got a dead body on their hands. Their brilliant scheme is to dump it somewhere in the southern Jersey Pine Barrens. Alas, when they get to the perfect spot, they find out their dead body isn't so dead after all. The victim runs away and in chasing him, Paulie loses a shoe and both he and Christopher lose their way. It's cold, it's dark and they are the middle of the infamous Barrens: home to quicksand, snakes, wild animals and of course, the Jersey Devil. It is hilarious to watch two big tough guys turn into a couple of scared, sniveling kids...but then again, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey will do that to a person. Google the episode and relive the blood-splattered shenanigans of Paulie and Christopher alone in the woods...
Little Plants of Horror
In my book Someplace Else, I mention the meat-eating plants of the NJ Pine Barrens. How do the carnivorous plants of the Pines satisfy their hunger? Sure you want to know? Well, the rapid-moving carnivores such as the Venus (Little House of Horrors) Flytrap, and the Sundew capture their prey aggressively. The Sundew has tentacles and a sticky surface. When an insect lands on a Sundew, its legs get stuck in the gooey nectar. As it tries desperately to pull free, the tentacles wrap around and imprison it. The Flytrap is aptly named; it snaps shut around its prey in the blink of an eye. Just as deadly yet utterly passive, is the Pitcher Plant, or saracenia purpurea, a funnel-shaped plant with a wide open red-rimmed mouth and a hood to keep rainwater from diluting the caustic liquid in its cup. Prey is attracted to the sweet-smelling liquid but when they try to take a sip, they fall in and can't get out again. So they don't merely drown, they are also slowly devoured and dissolved by the plant's digestive juices. Although Pitcher plants in other parts of the world are big enough to eat snakes, rodents and birds, the diet of the Pines' Pitchers are insects, and maybe the occasional tadpole. Still, more than one macabre experiment have proved that some Pitchers have a taste for human flesh...
Jersey Devil sighting...or is it?
article appeared in the East Side Monthly, Providence, R.I. 2004
What Lies Beneath_
…the forgotten tunnel under College Hill
By Donna Montalbano
Below our familiar city streets, buried deep beneath the cellars of stately homes and college dorms, lurks an abandoned underworld; dark, chill and silent as a tomb now, except for the incessant drip of metallic rain.
Mention the East Side tunnel and most people nod, and say, “Oh yeah, the tunnel on Benefit Street where the buses go through to Thayer.”
No. Not that tunnel.
I’m talking about the old East Side Railroad Tunnel that was built one hundred years ago. Providence’s own twentieth century Big Dig. Obsolescence was certainly not part of the original plan. The project was conceived just after the turn of the last century to provide easy rail service to Union Station. The new tunnel obviated the need for an unsightly trestle running up and over College Hill.
The East Side Railroad Tunnel is dead and buried now. No sign marks its existence or commemorates its service. You won’t find its hidden portals unless you know where to look. No matter; the entrances are sealed off on both ends; the massive steel doors welded shut.
No way in, and no way out if you had the misfortune of getting shut up inside. The darkness swallows you whole but nobody can hear you scream.
Eventually the tunnel varmints would find you, and by the time the doors were opened again, for one or another official reason, there’d be nothing left of you but a pile of bones.
I had to get into that tunnel!
To that end, I contacted the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, fondly nicknamed DOT. What a lucky break. It turned out they owned the tunnel, along with RIPTA, under a quasi governmental agency called the Rhode Island Public Rail Corporation. I got bounced from the community affairs department to the real estate division. I got the distinct impression they didn’t want me snooping around in their old tunnel and they weren’t too thrilled to have me writing about it either.
“It’s dangerous in there,” they warned me. “There are holes. A lot of water. Plus it’s very dark.”
“I’ll bring a flashlight,” I said.
“There are rats.”
Rats? Rats! “I still want to get in,” I insisted.
“You can get in,” they told me. “But you need proof of insurance in case anything happens to you. You have to pay for a police detail, and for men to unweld the tunnel doors and then weld them back again.”
“How much would that cost?” I asked.
“We can’t say,” they said. More than you’ve got, is the message I received.
So I didn’t get in. This time. Therefore, what follows is information I’ve dug up or googled, and gleaned from interviews with various officials and tunnel eyewitnesses.
After the last freight train rumbled through in 1982, the tunnel stayed open for another decade. On hot summer days, police cars often dipped into the tunnel for a quick cool-off. The tunnel sheltered petty criminals, urban gollums and especially college kids who made it their own Dungeons and Dragons lair. They sprayed the walls with their logos and artwork, including, oddly, a portrait of then-Mayor Buddy Cianci. They lit torches, built fires, played music and got drunk. It was harmless fun, just tunnel parties. So how did the urban myth of tunnel Satanism get started? We can pinpoint the moment:
May Day, 1993. The festival of Beltain, the Celtic Halloween. A group of mostly RISD students gathered at the western end of the tunnel near Benefit Street. They lit fires, donned animal masks and beat drums until the wee hours, when campus police showed up and ordered them to break it up. The students retorted that the security cops had no jurisdiction in the tunnel, and refused to leave. By the time the Providence police came on the scene, the crowd had swelled. Police sprayed the crowd with tear gas and the students fired back with rocks and bottles and bricks. The battle was joined. The cops linked arms in riot formation and advanced. A squad car was demolished in the melee. Many people were injured, including several police officers.
The next day the Providence Journal reported the incident, noting that the police had found evidence of “satanic rituals.” Thus was an urban legend born.
Shortly after the melee in the tunnel, thick corrugated steel doors were installed on either end, and padlocked. Locking the doors didn’t work. The determined and resourceful got in anyway. This gave rise to another urban tunnel myth: that a secret trapdoor existed, perhaps under Brown’s SciLi, whose foundations are said to be visible from inside the tunnel.
Finally the doors were welded shut, but not before the tunnel was swept by a security firm, Industrial Security and Investigators of North Providence.
The tunnel is not aligned perfectly straight from end to end; at one point it takes a jog. So after several yards, the darkness is near absolute. The men went in armed with searchlights, and guns.
Maurice Dionne, owner of Industrial Security, remembers the first time they went in. The passage was filled with holes and standing water. “We saw rotting pallets, blankets and pieces of clothing. There was an old drum set, car rims and lots of beer cans.” Mostly old junk, including a rusted chassis of a car somebody had dragged in. Perhaps the skeleton of the police car from the May Day riot?
On the floor of the tunnel lay remains of old campfires and strange stacks of rocks. Dionne adds: “We saw no evidence of human or animal sacrifices.” The tunnel walls were covered with what were, to Dionne’s eyes, “weird drawings and odd symbols.”
Interpretation may depend on generation. Erik Gould, the photographer who took the compelling photos of the tunnel portals (see erikgould.net) saw them in a different light, as just plain street graffiti. “It was really just ‘tagging’ by kids,” he says. “Not satanic at all.”
While Satan worship in the tunnel may or may not be true, there certainly were Wicca parties and séances and other pagan bacchanalia.
The strangest artifact they found, Dionne recalls, was just outside the door of the tunnel’s eastern portal. “We saw a 25 gallon drum, with holes in it, suspended in midair by dozens of pieces of clothesline tied to trees.” Like some kind of creepy piñata, or an artifact from the Blair Witch Project.
Okay, you’re saying, stop being coy and tell us where exactly IS this East Side Railroad Tunnel? Well, the best way to find it is by using the “Rhody Method”: and be guided not by existing landmarks, but by the tunnel’s proximity to places and things that have long since vanished.
Remember the bridge that used to traverse the Seekonk River from East Providence? All that is left of this Scherzer Rolling Lift Bridge is a half drowned drawbridge sticking up out of the water, a finger of reproach to the city that this grand public work has come to such a sad end. The bridge came ashore near where the ballfield is, by Dunkin’ Donuts. The eastern portal of the East Side Railroad Tunnel is buried deep in underbrush, about fifty feet off Gano Street.
The western end of the tunnel, under Benefit Street at North Main, was near the legendary Lovitz Law Offices and used to be obscured by trees and shrubs. A shady oasis when cool air spilled out of the open tunnel. Today, like the song: “Don't it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
So now what? Does the East Side Railroad Tunnel molder uselessly away in the darkness; just a footnote in the archives of the Providence Historical Society?
Not if attorney and Brown alum Robert Manchester has his way. For twenty years, give or take, his proposal to resurrect the East Side Railroad Tunnel has been bouncing around the offices of the Mayors of Providence and East Providence, and the Planning office of Brown University.
Manchester wants to see Crook Point developed (the area between the Washington and Henderson bridges) with open green space, homes and a car park. A new bridge would be built over the Seekonk, the tunnel opened again for hybrid shuttle buses or trams bringing people over to the East Side. A win/win for both cities, Manchester believes.
Manchester stresses that his idea is not to make East Providence into a parking lot for Providence, but rather, help it reincarnate into a beautiful waterfront community with easy access to the East Side.”
East Providence’s Mayor Rolland Grant is enthusiastically onboard. East Providence has the longest shoreline in Rhode Island, and its waterfront used to be a base for oil refineries and steel mills. The development of Crook Point is already part of the massive East Providence Waterfront Special Development District Plan.
But on the Providence side of the river, the city and Brown University are hanging back, waiting for viability studies and a more solid plan.
“So far I wouldn’t call this a proposal,” says Richard Spies, Brown’s VP of Planning. “It’s still just an idea.”
But perhaps it is an idea whose time has come.
Tunnel Facts and Stats
--The tunnel was constructed in two years, at the cost of two million dollars, and finished one day ahead of schedule on April 8th, 1908.
--200,000 yards of material was excavated.
--Crews worked from each end and met roughly in the middle. No casualties were reported during construction.
--The Benefit Street Armory, which was leased to the Providence Marine Artillery Corps for one thousand years for a yearly rental of six and a quarter cents, was moved by logs and mules to make room for the tunnel, so the lease could remain in effect.
--The tunnel is 5080 feet long, 22 feet high and 31 feet wide. Its deepest point (110 feet) is under Prospect Street.
--The tunnel made the Fox Point train station obsolete, and it was closed after 73 years in service.
--The tunnel runs approximately east/west.
--The project included the bridge from East Providence and the approach to Union Station via a large stone bridge through to Union Station through what is now Citzen bank headquarters.
--The stone bridge was later demolished and many of its stones used as pavers for Waterplace Park.
--The tunnel officially opened on November 15, 1908.
--Originally the tunnel had two tracks, one (for the Bristol/Fall River line) was electrified.
The second track was removed in the 1950’s and the tunnel became a route for freight trains only.
--In 1981 ownership of the tunnel was transferred to the State of Rhode Island and the last train traveled through shortly thereafter. No ceremony marked its passing.