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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mining Ancient Cedar

This morning I was sitting in my recliner, finishing my breakfast tea, and looking out my back window at the beautiful Bass River. What a view! I couldn't help thinking how blessed I am to have such a breath taking view right in my backyard.

The light gray standing dead cedar trees, just in front of the pines, can be seen across the Bass River from my backyard. (September 25, 2010 photo by Pete Stemmer.)

As I focused more intently across the river, a grayish outline of the dead remnants of an old cedar forest came into focus. Anyone boating at low tide can also testify to the sunken remains of the old cedar trees and stumps in the river, as they frequently become unexpected impediments to the boater. I have seen many an unwary helmsman strike one of these submerged obstacles and do serious damage to very expensive outboard motors.

Sipping my tea, my mind wandered, and I remembered seeing an 1888 New York Times article about mining the ancient cedar forests of South Jersey. I quickly located the article on my laptop and found myself transported back to ancient times.

I thought I would share the old cedar mining article with you. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did.

I couldn't find any photos of the actual mining of cedar; however, I found an old photo of a giant cedar from the Great Swamp in Washington Township. I present it below to give you an idea of the enormity of the ancient cedar trees discussed in the article which were significantly larger than the standing cedar in the photo which makes the cedars of our day look positively puny. Some of the ancient South Jersey cedars freed from their murky home have been documented to have over 1,000 rings. Now, that's an old tree of gigantic proportions!

John Simkins in the Great Swamp in Washington Township stands by a large cedar tree that is immense by today's standards but smaller than the ancient cedars buried in the muck and swamps of southern New Jersey.

So, join me with a cup of tea as you read the 1888 New York Times article on Cedar Mining in Southern New Jersey.




DENNISVILLE, N.J. Oct 5 – An industry the like of which does not exist anywhere else in the world furnishes scores of people in this part of New Jersey with remunerative employment, and has made comfortable fortunes for many citizens. It is the novel business of mining cedar trees – digging from far beneath the surface immense logs of sound and arematic cedar. The fallen and submerged cedar forests of Southern New Jersey were discovered first beneath the Dennisville swamps 75 years ago, and have been a source of constant interest to geologists and scientists generally ever since. There are standing at the present day no such enormous specimens of the cedar anywhere on the face of the globe as are found embedded in the deep muck of the Dennisville swamps. Some of the trees have been uncovered measuring six feet in diameter, and trees four feet through are common.

Although ages must have passed since these great forests fell and became covered many feet beneath the surface, such tress as fell, according to the scientific theory, while they were yet living trees are as sound today as they were the day of their uprooting. Such trees are called “windfalls” in the nomenclature of the cedar mines, as it is thought they were torn up by the roots during some terrible gale of an unknown past. Others are found in the wreck that were evidently dead trees when they fell, and to these the miners have given the name of “break-downs.” The peculiar action of the wind and the water in the swamp has kept these break-downs in the same stage of of decay they were in when they fell as the same agency has preserved intact the soundness of the living trees.

The theory of those who have made this mysterious collection of buried cedar trees a study is that they in some unknown age formed a vast forest that grew in a fresh-water lake or swamp that covered this portion of New Jersey the properties of the soil of which were necessary to the forest's existence. According to Clarence Deming and Dr. Maurice Beasely, eminent geological authorities in Southern New Jersey, the sea either broke in upon the swamps or the land subsided and the salt water reached the trees. This destroyed the life of many of them, and subsequently some prehistoric cyclone swept over the forest and leveled it to the earth. The heavy trees gradually sunk into the soft soil of the swamps until they reached the substantial earth or rock beneath it, where they reposed, unknown and undisturbed, until their presence was accidentally discovered in 1812. Ever since ten the logs have been mined and have been an important factor in the commercial and business prosperity of South Jersey.

The buried forest lies at various depths in the swamp, and the uncovering of the trees or working the “cedar mine” is done in a very simple and easy manner. The log miner enters the swamp and prods in the soft soil with a long, sharp iron rod. The trees lie so thickly beneath the surface that the rod cannot be pushed down amiss on its testing errand, for the prodding is not so much in search of a tree as it is to test whether the tree is a “windfall” or a “break-down.” When the prod strikes the log the miner chips off a piece with the sharp point of the tool, which brings the chip or splinter to the surface when drawn out of the muck. By the appearance and order of this chip the miner can tell at once whether the tree he has tested is a sound or dead one. If the former, he quickly ascertains the length of the trunk by prodding along from one end of it to the other.

That ascertained, he proceeds at once to raise the log from its hidden bed. He works down through the mud a saw similar to those used in sawing out ice in filling an icehouse. With this he saws the log in two as near the roots as he cares to. The top of the tree is next sawed off in the same way, and then the big cedar stick is ready to be released from its resting place. A ditch is dug down to the log, the trunk is loosened by cant hooks, and it rises with the water to the surface of the ditch. A curious thing is noticed about these logs when they come to the surface, and that is they invariably turn over with their bottom sides up. After mining the log is easily “snaked out” of the swamp and is ready for the mill or factory.

These ancient trees are of a white variety of cedar, and when cut have the same aromatic flavor intensified many degrees that the common red cedar of the present day has. The wood is of a delicate flesh color. One of the mysterious characteristics of these long-sunken trees is that not one has ever been found to be waterlogged in the slightest. It is impossible to tell how many layers deep these cedars lie in the swamps, but it is certain that there are several layers, and that with all the work that has been done in constantly mining them during three-quarters of a century the first layer has not yet been removed from the depths. At some places in the Dennisville swamp the soil has sunk in several feet and become dry, and there the fallen cedars may be seen lying in great heaps, one upon the other. No tree has ever been removed from the Dennisville swamp from a greater depth than five feet, but outside the limits of the swamp they have been found at a great depth, which shows the correctness of the deep-layer theory. Near the shore of the Delaware, eight miles from Dennisville, white cedar logs have been exhumed from a depth of 12 feet. At Cape May, 20 miles distant, drillers of an artesian well struck one of the trees 90 feet below the surface. It was lying in an alluvial deposit similar to the Dennisville swamp. Another log was found at Cape May 20 feet below the surface, and a third at a depth of 70 feet. These deeply-buried logs were among the largest ever brought to light and their location so far away from Dennisville marsh indicates the great extent of that ancient forest area.

The uses to which the cedar logs are put are many. The principal use is the making of shingles and staves. The longevity of articles made from the wood is shown in shingles, tubs, pails, and casks made from it over 70 years ago, and which have yet to show the slighest indication of decay. The shingles and staves are worked into shape entirely by hand, the only machine work that is permitted in manipulating the cedar logs being sawing of them into proper lengths for the uses to which the lumber is to be put. The Dennisville cedar shingles command a price much higher than the best pine or chestnut shingles.

What it is in the amber-colored swamp water and red muck at Dennisville that preserves these trees so that, after the lapse of centuries, their fibre is as clean and smooth and strong as it was when the green branches of the cedar were waving over the swamp is a mystery that scientific men have yet been unable to solve.

New York Times – October 5, 1888

[ Transcribed by Peter H. Stemmer.]

The following is an illustration from Eric Sloane's "A Reverence for Wood." It shows the mining of cedar and the cedar's conversion into shingles.

If anyone out in the Blog-O-Sphere has a photo of mining cedar or knows of any cedar mining operations that occurred in the Bass River - Little Egg Harbor area, I would like to hear from you.

Pete S


  1. Were cedar shakes made completely by hand in colonial New Jersey before the first sawmill was built?

    Alfred Nicolosi

  2. Thanks for posting the 1888 New York Times article on mining cedar in Dennisville.

    Can you recommend other websites that address this topic?

  3. They mined Cedar on the East Side of the Mauricetoen Causeway into the 1920's