Touring the Ruins of the Bass River Civilian Conservation Corps Camp
a Crossover with WanderFinder
A few posts back I mentioned that I volunteered to help blaze a new trail, and that when walking these trails, I often thought of who made them and why. Many forest roads and foot trails originated during the Great Depression They were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put unemployed young men to work to help feed their families. They fought forest fires, they built roads, planted trees, built fire towers, tended to dams, and more.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of touring the ruins of a former CCC camp in Bass River Forest, now part of the Pinelands National Reserve in New Jersey. Hannah of WanderFinder invited me to visit a Wolf Sanctuary in Pennsyltucky, and after the delight of our Conowingo Dam trip to ogle bald eagles, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately, the lupine lair was booked up, so I suggested we gallivant through the Pines. The Apple Pie Hill fire tower was open again, and we could visit the ruins of Hampton Furnace and the old cranberry town of Friendship! Or hey, the NJ DEP just emailed me about a tour of the CCC camps, if that’s your thing.
That is definitely Hannah’s thing, so we carpooled in the Squatcharu to Bass River and caught up on things along the way. I don’t ever want to edit a podcast, but the conversations I have with Hannah should be on public radio. Two very different perspectives, and we’re quite civil as we suss out solutions and ponder the quandaries. (You’ll just have to read us instead, and be thankful for it.) We had planned on picking up Italian hoagies at my favorite deli and noshing on the way, but we started late and I had to take the Atlantic City Expressway instead of my scenic itinerary, and we had Bob’s Oat Bars, which are slightly better than eating chocolate-coated hard tack found on a disused lifeboat. But we made it just in time to join the hike, led by two very knowledgable women of the park ranger service.
They began with a little primer on the Pines, and then we hiked to the ruins of the barracks of the CCC camp. The young men were required to shower daily for health and hygiene, and had to send home most of their pay. The ruins of their showers are mossy bathroom tiles in the middle of the forest, just off Stage Road. Bathroom tile patterns have not changed much in nearly a century. I once installed a few bathrooms with my old man, so I’m kind of an expert. You got your squares, honeycombs, or this one, which I call the Tetris:
There are also some concrete stairs nearby, which the ranger said some claim was a hospital; but why would you have stairs? It was more likely the officers’ quarters. Near to it is a fallen chimney, with a terracotta center pipe, and a tree growing through it. A few years from being swallowed by nature, and made part of the Pinelands’ endless cycle of rebirth.
From there we hiked longer through the forest until we came to the Forest Firefighter memorial, first created after three of the young corps members died fighting a huge blaze. In the ‘70s, four more forest firefighters died fighting an enormous blaze, and their names were added to the monument. Now we have prescribed burns and more active forest management.
From there we hiked to Lake Absegami, created by the corps by damming the river. It is still used today for canoeing, swimming, fishing, and kayaking in the area, which isn’t far from the Jersey Shore, and offers a cooler, quieter escape if you need a break from the beach. Like all the waters of the Pinelands it is crystal clear yet tea-stained with iron deposits or tannins, giving it that eerie quality of depth and clarity that captivates me out here among the pillars of silence.
We often take these parks, and everything that was built before us at great expense, sacrifice and toil, very much for granted. Jackasses like DeJoy want to privatize the post office—which is a service, not a profit-making enterprise—which we paid for and built. They want the parks and forests to be “productive.” And to that I say, go directly to hell. These are our treasures. If you want to take land that’s lying fallow and make it productive, you can seize all the golf courses with eminent domain before you touch a national park, thank you very much. In fact, I recently went for a bike ride at Tall Pines Preserve, a local park built from an abandoned golf course, and it was lovely. I saw cardinals and groundhogs and people walking their dogs, and no rich idiots in carts chasing their dimply balls.
When I was growing up under Reaganism, some people liked to say that the New Deal, which saved the United States from the Great Depression, “paid people to dig holes and fill them back up again.” This was the revisionist history written by the bankers and their bootlickers, who prefer the military method of government work assistance: paying young people to blow shit up overseas and then rebuild it twenty times as guerrillas sabotage it. Now we have AmeriCorps, which I had the honor to volunteer with when cleaning up flooded homes devastated on Rockaway Island by Superstorm Sandy. The kids who serve there do a 10 month stint for $400 a month plus room and board, training, and a taxable grant towards college education, and it should be expanded, in my opinion.
After the hike, we hauled ass towards the best bar in the Pines, the Lower Bank Tavern. It’s close to Batsto Village, and often has bikes out front. It has a solid menu of American Fried cuisine, including a lengthy selection of burgers that I want to try. We opted for onion rings, corn fritters, and of course, cheesesteak egg rolls, the Official Appetizer of South Jersey. They were all excellent, and I grew up a mile from that New Jersey oil vat of fried goodness, Rutt’s Hut, and have also done tenure as a short order cook who worked a grill and a fryer, so I know a thing about clean oil and proper basket handling. The Lower Bank is a top notch greasy spoon. Here are Hannah and myself posed by its chainsaw-carved bulldog:
I dragged Hannah to nearby Batsto village, a historic iron town kept alive by the park service, for a little off-roading and port-a-potty hunting, and a good time was had by all. I’m looking forward to her post today about this trip. Part of what I enjoy about our outings is how we notice different things! She’s better with people than I am. But this time around, a young man on the hike noticed my vanity plate, and recognized a fellow car nut. He drove his father there in a shark blue Porsche Cayman, which also has a horizontal “boxer” engine like my Subaru. We passed a campground where a pristine 2001 Grand Cherokee was parked, I heard him chatting up the owner. I told Hannah it was because that’s the last of the models with the unkillable 4.0 six-banger engine, and for sure, that was it. We also chatted up a woman wearing a natty Fjallraven coat, which I coveted. I didn’t even notice that their logo is a little arctic fox until Hannah pointed it out. So, pop over to Hannah’s and read her take on it. Here’s a link to her penultimate post, which introduced me to Peepers the hyena, and a new wildlife podcast:
Edit: Here is Hannah’s post, of hawks and grief and what it must have been like to be one of the “CCC boys.”
If you would like to watch more videos of the Park Ranger talking about the history of the camp, check out the videos at the very end. If you survive this visit to the lair of the Jersey Devil…
Not to be confused with the Works Progress Administration, which put people to work on public works projects and much more.
This is great. I love knowing people I like but have never met are having fun together doing interesting things.
My paths cross frequently with AmeriCorps volunteers and it seems an excellent program. Good on ya!
Great point on those golf ⛳️ courses!