Barely an hour's drive east of Philadelphia lies a 2,400-square-mile area that still approaches wilderness. Called the Pine Barrens, this part of New Jersey played an important role in Colonial America and a vital one in the Revolutionary War.
The Pine Barrens did not represent valuable land back then. Just the opposite—the soil was boggy and sandy, as it remains to this day. But the land did support a thick forest of pine trees. And in the damp, soggy ground one could find iron ore.
To early Americans, that combination of pitch pine (Pinus rigida) and iron ore was heaven sent. That's because iron ore was transformed into iron by melting it to remove impurities, a process called smelting, and the fuel of choice was wood charcoal rather than the mined coal of later times. The resinous pitch pine—its sappy, hard-to-work wood seldom desired—proved perfect as a source of charcoal.
So began the intensive "mining" of the Pine Barrens. Colonists extracted the iron ore from the ground and felled the surrounding pitch pine for smelting. From the iron, blacksmiths crafted tools, hardware, and weapons. In fact, iron that originated in the Pine Barrens was forged into guns that fed the War of Independence, and later, the War of 1812.
Over the centuries, the pitch pine forests were cut extensively for fuel and for building barns and bridges. Forest fires also raged. Scrub oaks replaced the virgin forest, so shading the younger pines that they became stunted. But even today, the Pine Barrens has not yielded to agriculture or extensive development.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson