New Jersey has a proud military history. When most people think of NJ and wars, they think of our prominence in the Revolutionary War. However, NJ was also an active participant in World War 1, more specifically as a supplier of munitions to aid the war effort.
Nestled quietly in the forests of Atlantic County in South Jersey is Estell Manor Park, former home to over 8,000 employees of the Bethlehem Loading Company. Today in this nearly 1,700-acre park you can walk the 27 miles of trails and not only observe the beauty of nature, but also see the remnants of this once massive town along with the brick walls and foundations of the factories and other infrastructure slowly being reclaimed by the magic of nature.
There’s a lot to see here and part of the fun is you see different things during different seasons as the underbrush can conceal quickly. Our trip this early spring, we observed several foundations previously covered over, as seen above.
Park near the Nature Center and you will find the boardwalk trail behind the building. This will connect over to the Crossover Trail. The trail becomes a pleasant mixture of compacted sand and dirt, some spots can get muddy but overall, it’s a nice flat easy hike.
Along the way, look for the concrete foundations of long-ago buildings, now covered with moss. If you are there the right time of year you can also see the moss growing along the former railroad ties in the trail. I don’t want to give exact mile markers, as that spoils the fun of coming around the bend and spotting the large crumbling brick walls of the former munitions plant.
You will come to a small house on the right, The Observation House, which looks out on a field. Cross to the left of the field and on your left, you’ll find another large concrete shell of a building with trees growing out of the oddest places. Nature is quickly taking back what is rightfully hers.
At this point make a left and take the Munitions Trail over to Artesian Well Road. Make a right on the road and walk down towards the river. Here you will find the ruins of the Artesian Well and the BLC Powerhouse. These towering concrete structures are reminiscent of The Acropolis with their columns and air of silent mystery.
After leaving the ruins, it’s worth a little detour to the Smith-Ireland Cemetery to visit the graves from the 1800’s. For my mycology friends, it’s worth mentioning this is the one and only place I have ever been lucky enough to spot dead man’s fingers fungus.
Loop back to the boardwalk and take the Swamp Trail along the river for a 1.8 mile walk through cedar swamps and coastal forests. There are a couple of overlooks of the South River and the views are really lovely. You might even get really lucky and spot a red-tailed hawk, like we did, or an eagle eyeing up the river too.
This park is home to foxes, coyote, deer, beavers, otters and various turtles, snakes and lizards. Take the Swamp Trail to the Gunpowder Trail and soon you’ll find yourself back at the Nature Center area.
The Bethlehem Loading Company came to this area around 1910 to build an ordinance proving ground initially, because it was so deserted. They plowed and cleared and blasted until the town of Belcoville roared to life. Now, over 100 years later, nature has quietly grown and spread-out shoots and roots so what remains for us today is a forest of wonder, with crumbling brick walls and soaring trees filled with the sounds of birds in summer.
Explore more of Atlantic County with our guide.
All photos by author. Follow her on Instagram.