By Robert Heide and John Gilman
A vast region known as the Pine Barrens, and other sections of southern New Jersey are said to be menaced by the Jersey Devil, a demon reported to have a horse-like face, red eyes, bat wings, cloven hoofs, and a forked tail. This demon beast, as legend has it, likes to play mischievous tricks on innocent travelers and children, sometimes half-scaring them to death from fright. The ‘Pineys’, the local folk who live in the Pine Barrens, are said to be dominated by this devil and will themselves ‘give a scare’ to outsiders for no apparent reason. Many Pineys are descendants of Hessian troops (German soldiers hired by the British) who hid out in the barrens after the American Revolution to avoid being captured. The Pineys call the Jersey Devil the ‘Leeds Devil’, referring to the original legend that it was born to a Mrs. Leeds in 1735 at what is now known as Leeds Point near Smithville. One of the myths has it that the devil’s first meal was several sleeping children and another handed-down tale has him devouring the entire Leeds family. The monster so menaced this area that a clergyman in 1740 was called in to perform an exorcism that was said would last for 100 years. Unfortunately, the Jersey Devil did not completely disappear during this time; he came back in 1840 with a vengeance and has not left since. Sometimes throughout the 1.1 million acre 2,000 square miles of the Pine Barrens National Reserve (so-named by Congress in 1978) blood-curdling screams and agonizing moans are heard at night that are attributed to this weird beast. The Jersey Devil is said to hide out in swamps and near dark ponds and lakes, and has been spotted often in the Atlantic City meadows as well as in the depths of the forests—and chicken coops—around Batsto, a former bog-iron center and now a restored village.
Oyster Creek Inn at Leeds Point. Photo credit: R Heide- J.Gilman Enterprises
In times past when life seemed easier and the pace was slower with no super throughways, turnpikes, and parkways, you could really enjoy the towns and places old two-lane Highway 9 passed through. Often your destination might not be the ocean resorts but one of the towns on Route 9 on Barnegat Bay, Manahawkin Bay, Great Bay or the series of smaller bays and inlets down the eastern seaboard to the very tip of the state at Cape May Point. Cabins and overnight lodgings were always to be found along this highway and still are. This is quite a surprise when you consider that most of these quaint places from the 20s, 30s, and 40s were replaced in the 1950s with the newer, cleaner, more efficient motel equivalent. The giant Holiday Inns of later decades were unimaginable back then and are scarce in this laidback southern region. As you drive south into the Pine Barrens, you will notice that tall shrub pines, open meadows, yellow sandy soil, and great pine groves predominate, giving the feeling of being in Georgia rather than Jersey. Included in all this is a large mysterious pygmy Pitch Pine forest and a 17 trillion gallon aquifer of pure glacial-ice-quality water beneath the Pines’ deep sand beds. The small towns of Barnegat, Manahawkin (Lenape for “good corn land”), Tuckerton, New Gretna and Little Egg Harbor are all on the old route—to the east are the wetlands and estuaries and barrier beaches—to the west are forests including the 10,000 acre Bass River State Forest, Lake Absegami, the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, a 20,000 acre area of bays, wetlands and tidal inlets which all together form a vital system in the ecology of the entire Pine Barrens region. The 120,000 acre (NJ’s largest) Wharton State Forest merges with the wetlands near New Greta in this enormous wilderness (the largest on the east coast, comprising 22 percent of Jersey’s land) with its more than 400 varieties of wildflowers, blueberry, gooseberry and huckleberry bushes, its cranberry bogs and the large variety of different Pine trees and wild orchids, water lilies and curly leaf ferns—and its wildlife including snow geese, brant, blue-winged teal, black ducks, gadwall, shorebirds, snowy egrets, herons, ibises and warblers as well as bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, marsh hawks, ospreys, great blue herons, swans, screech owls, turkeys, beavers, river otters, fox and deer, maybe the occasional cougar or bear. It’s primordial – breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
Best known likeness of the Jersey Devil by Ed Sheetz. Photo credit: R Heide- J.Gilman Enterprises
The Mullica River (there is a wilderness campsite on the river in the Wharton Forest for 100 people but no cars or vehicles of any kind are allowed) winds snakelike through the forests and marshland and enters the Great Bay. Hwy 9 doglegs onto the Parkway over this vast wetland and after crossing it the two-lane highway resumes on its way south to the quaint unusual town of Smithville which was a stagecoach stop in the 19th century. In addition to an old mill there are several long and low buildings, and a huge collection of vintage weathered houses collected and moved from other locations by wealthy art and antique dealers Fred and Ethyl Noyes. The Noyes bought an old restaurant in 1953 in time to cash in on the opening in 1957 of the Garden State Parkway and the town became what today is called a ‘destination’—mostly busloads of people from Atlantic City. You will find a few other fancy ‘ye olde’ tavern’ type eateries in Smithville as well as a general store, a tobacco store, a bakery, a bookshop, a Jersey Devil souvenir shop with the infamous devil imprinted on t-shirts, postcards, posters and other Pine Barren souvenirs, a cheese shop, a Christmas shop, a toy shop and a candy shop as well as several antique stores and a large indoor antique center. It sounds kitschy but is actually a great deal of fun.
Thankfully what most tourists do not catch, however, is the left turn off Hwy 9 near the old Smithville graveyard where a sign says Leeds Point, a spooky three mile drive along Old Moss Mill Road through deep woods and wetlands to the very tip of Leeds Point smack in the middle of the Brigantine Wildlife Refuge. It is here at the Oyster Creek Inn (40 Oyster Creek Rd. in Leeds Point in Galloway township) where boats dock up at the pier, some sailing and motoring in just for dinner. Rustic sea shanties and fishermen’s shacks surround this old restaurant that serves excellent seafood dinners in a plain atmosphere—you can come dressed as you like. An ‘old salt’ serves cocktails at a friendly bar (in the shape of a boat) and the open-view picture windows look out onto the bay. On a clear night you can spot the glittering lights of not too distant Atlantic City to the south and Beach Haven on Long Beach Island to the northeast. Big fish are mounted on the knotty pine walls, and the lights are cheery and bright so that you get to see exactly what you are eating. The fisherman’s combination platter is a real taste treat, and the crab cakes, soft shell crabs, bluefish, shrimp and oyster fries are all excellent and the clam chowder is just right. Dinners include the typical choice of French fries or baked potato, coleslaw, and a beverage. Call Oyster Creek Inn at (609) 652-8565 for reservations or just motor your boat in or drive out from Old Hwy 9. The inn is set practically on the spot where the Jersey Devil is said to have been born, so watch out for strange happenings in these parts. Sunsets here are spectacular, almost hallucinogenic. An after-dinner walk down the old dirt road among the tall marsh grass and along the bay is a very pleasant experience—that is if you haven’t consumed too many Jersey Devil Cocktails and wind up actually running into the scary and dangerous rascal.
Author Robert Heide at home in his Jersey Devil T-shirt. Photo credit: R Heide- J.Gilman Enterprises
Geoffrey Girard’s book Tales of the Jersey Devil collects myriad stories and first hand accounts of encounters with the beast— stories that have been building in the mythology of the State of New Jersey since Benjamin Franklin wrote the first piece about a ‘sighting’ of a ‘Jersey Devil’ for his Philadelphia newspaper. Was it tongue in cheek? We authors have been traversing these old roads for decades in one or the other of our autos, the Packard Patrician or the pink Plymouth Belvedere convertible – always taking the road less traveled. In the 1970s, just before Atlantic City became a gaming town, we took a caravan of Village Voice writers, photographers and editors down old Route 9 all the way to the city on the sandbar seven miles out to sea—which was about to change forever. Since then we have been down the old road hundreds of times covering the region for books and magazine and newspaper articles; over the years we have been involved in not just a few incidents. One was the night we were on a gravel road trying to find a Christmas tree just the right size. As we were putting our prize into the trunk, a dust storm suddenly started up and we became enveloped in a swirling tornado—hearing what we thought was a screech owl we looked out into the woods—two glowing red eyes looked back at us. “Let’s get out of here!” Once during the summer, camping out with our friends Ken Ketwig and Timothy Bissell, we had another adventure with the strange denizen of the woods. As dusk came on, John and Tim decided to take a swim in a cranberry bog. As they emerged from the water on a sandbar they turned and looked back to see what seemed to be a very large monster going underwater casting great ripples across the black forbidding bog. Another time Robert was in an antique store in Tuckerton—rounding a corner he stepped on the prongs of a rake—the handle hit him on the head at the same time as a large antique cranberry scoop clattered to the floor, grazing his arm. Robert cried out, but the proprietor said simply, “Oh, it’s the Jersey Devil again!”
The Jersey Devil, book by McCloy and Miller, published by Middle Atlantic Press in 1975. Photo credit: R Heide- J.Gilman
Books of interest to the reader would include our own: O’New Jersy 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions, Backroads of New Jersey and New Jersey—Art of the State; The Jersey Devil by James F. Mcloy and Ray Miller, Jr.; John McPhee’s invaluable book The Pine Barrens, originally published in 1968, and for avid fans of the unreal and macabre are the Weird New Jersey magazines and books published by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran—‘the two Marks’—including their own take on what else—THE JERSEY DEVIL. Long may he live!