In June, I had the pleasure of attending a tour of Atsion Mansion conducted by my friend and mentor, Barbara Solem, author of Ghost Towns and Other Quirky Places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Barbara has been leading tours of the mansion for about 10 years and also hosted a podcast called Atsion: A Journey Back in Time.
On this particular tour, Barbara was joined by John Hebble, Wharton State Forest historian, and Jeff Larson, a Pinelands Adventures tour guide who later took a group of visitors on a bus tour of the surrounding ruins of Atsion Village. Both the mansion and the village take their name from the Lenni Lenape word Atsayunk.
Charles Read and the Iron Industry
Built in 1826, the Greek Revival style mansion became the centerpiece of the village established in 1766 by Charles Read, a Philadelphia entrepreneur. Read also built furnaces at Batsto, Medford Lakes, and Taunton. The area of Atsion proved to be a prime location for bog iron production with abundant ore, pine wood to make charcoal to fire furnaces, water to turn the wheel and seashells to filter out impurities during processing.
At Atsion’s peak, 100 men worked the furnace. Workers were paid a $30 wage, a high amount back then for a hazardous job. Wages were paid in the form of scrip that could only be used at the company store. Atsion’s company store, located next to the mansion, was also once a post office, and now serves as a ranger station.
Atsion prospered until 1819. Another Philadelphian Samuel Richards, the son of William Richards who became an owner of Batsto, then purchased it. Samuel Richards also owned furnaces at Weymouth, Martha, and Speedwell.
The Richards Summer Home
Samuel Richards lost his first wife and several children to yellow fever in Philadelphia. He remarried a woman named Anna Marie and started a new family with her. The couple lived on Arch Street in Philadelphia. However, Samuel decided to build a summer home at Atsion to escape the heat and epidemics of the city.
This “summer home” became known today as Atsion Mansion, built out of New Jersey sandstone with pinewood floors and outside columns made from bog iron most likely taken from Weymouth Furnace. Barbara said the well-designed mansion stayed cool, even on hot days. To achieve this, the mansion was built with high 14 foot ceilings to let heat rise and a north-south exposure. The main hallway runs from the front entrance on the south portico to the back entrance on the north portico. The main staircase located off this hallway sits behind a set of louver doors that allow cool breezes to waft upstairs.
The first floor rooms include north and south parlors painted a pale color, a dining room, and a warming kitchen with King of Prussia marble fireplaces flanked by warming closets. The Richards family welcomed their guests through the rear north entrance and into the north parlor so they would not be subjected to the noise and smoke from the furnace and the Tuckerton Stage Road (today’s Quaker Bridge Road) across from the south side of the home.
Today, a sketch dated 1923 and bearing graffiti left by vandals hangs over the fireplace in the south parlor. It depicts a car driving along a tree-lined road. Many think this sketch memorializes the notorious murder of Henry Rider, Andrew Rider’s brother, that occurred during a robbery near the mansion in 1916.
All the rooms in the mansion are painted in their original colors, the parlors in pale pink and the dining room in dark green with stencils along the chair rail. Barbara noted that Richards frequently entertained friends, family and business associates in these rooms
“The main cooking was done in the basement,” Barbara pointed out. However, the servants brought food up to a warming kitchen where it could be arranged and served. The warming closet next to the fireplace in this room is larger than those in the other rooms. “Look at the color of this room. It’s very bright.”
The warming kitchen was painted bright green to counteract the soot that accumulated on the walls. A steep and narrow set of stairs used by servants lead from the warming kitchen to the upstairs hallway, which contains a large linen closet.
Upstairs and Downstairs
In keeping with the custom of the time, the Richards occupied separate bedrooms. Samuel Richards used the south bedroom, closest to the noise and smoke from the furnace, while Anna Marie used the north bedroom. Other smaller bedrooms were used by the couple’s children and guests. Another set of steep narrow stairs lead from the upstairs hallway to the servants’ quarters in the attic.
The kitchen located downstairs in the basement contains a bread oven. The basement also has a walk-in ice box and root cellars. A forced air heating system with a furnace in the basement fueled by wood or charcoal was installed later to pipe heat into the mansion for servants who occupied the mansion year-round.
Samuel Richards died in 1842. His daughter, Maria Lawrence Richards, along with her brother William, inherited Atsion. Maria married William Walton Fleming, a local businessman, in 1849. Maria and her husband took charge of Atsion, but after failed business ventures left him in debt for half a million dollars, William Walton fled the country. Maria searched for and found him in Brussels. She paid his debts, joined him in Brussels and sold Atsion.
Atsion changed hands several times after that. Maurice Raleigh bought Atsion in 1871 and converted an abandoned paper mill built by William Walton near the furnace into a successful cotton mill. However, after Raleigh’s death in 1882, the mill ceased production, and the mansion became unoccupied. Philadelphia tycoon Joseph Wharton purchased Atsion, adding it to his vast land holdings in the Pine Barrens and used Atsion Mansion for storage.
Atsion Village: A Ghost Town
After the completion of Barbara’s tour, Jeff conducted his tour through the ruins of Atsion Village. The buildings in the immediate vicinity of the mansion include the vine-covered remains of a barn built by Wharton, the Atsion Church and Cemetery, and a dilapidated worker’s home.
The church is still active, and some of the gravestones in the cemetery date from the 1800s. A school house near the church remained active until the 1940s or 50s. Jeff said that Wharton tried to grow peanuts near the church but that venture failed as did an attempt to produce silk by growing mulberry trees.
“Richards is one of the success stories here,” he said. Most other business enterprises floundered or prospered only for a short time such as Raleigh’s cotton mill. “It had a good 10 year run. It was quite a building.”
Once the mill stopped production, it fell into disrepair. A suspicious fire destroyed the multi-story building in 1977, reducing it to a few crumbled remains.
Atsion Village, which used to be home to about 300 people, became an abandoned ghost town as did many of the villages that surrounded the furnaces and mills in the Pine Barrens. Even the railroad that connected the village to the outside world ceased to run with the still existing tracks nearby now overgrown with foliage.
“The last train to run on these tracks was in 1978. These little company towns were their own little society,” Jeff said, noting that residents who found it difficult to assimilate into larger society became known as Pineys.
Some parts of the village have a more mysterious past such as the Slab House, which Jeff noted was probably one of the oldest structures at Atsion. “We know very little about it.”
Part of Atsion Village was located on what is now the Atsion Lake Recreation Center side of Route 206. An ice house used to stand where the recreation center pavillon is now. In addition, an extremely old graveyard with about 50 to 60 graves, many with Irish names, still exists near the picnic area of the lake. Although it is known as the Catholic Cemetery, Jeff said historically it was not referred to as that, and no documentation exists of a church at the site.
Are there actual ghosts at Atsion? Jeff noted that, although he was not a big believer in the paranormal, he has heard a few stories. “There is a ghost story here.”
In the 1800s, people attending the many parties at the mansion and village, told of seeing the Lady on the Dam. Some Pinelands Adventures customers told him that they saw a woman dressed in 1800s clothing along the road near Atsion. Jeff said different customers at different times recounted the same story to him.
Atsion Mansion tours are available every Saturday at 1 PM and 2 PM. Extended Atsion Village tours are available through Pinelands Adventures. The next combined mansion and village tour is scheduled for August 20th at 11 AM.