Sunday, December 2, 2012

Good enough for the elite: Chatsworth Lake

Our salute to Carranza completed, we found our way northward to Tabernacle and then eastward toward Chatsworth. The small town center is known to locals and a small group of Jerseyphiles as the capital of the Pinelands, but a hundred years or more ago, it was the preferred home of royalty.

Royalty? In the Pines? Absolutely, and specifically on Chatsworth Lake, near County Route 532.

Burlington County is no stranger to titled residents -- consider exiled Spanish King Joseph Bonaparte, who established his Point Breeze estate in Bordentown. With all due respect, though, the remote Pinelands doesn't seem to be much of a place for a monarch to settle. Why, of all the places in the world, would an aristocrat choose Chatsworth?

As many New Jersey transplants have experienced, family has a lot to do with it. A New York real estate baron named Joseph D. Beers had bought a substantial amount of land in the Pinelands in the early and 19th century, perhaps on speculation, given the success of the region's glass and iron industries. Once those businesses declined, however, Beers' family was left with about 25,000 acres of land in what was then called Shamong.

In the late 1800s, one of Beers' granddaughters, Palma de Tallyrand Perigold, married Italian Prince Mario Ruspoli, who was then serving his country as an attache in Washington, D.C. Palma had inherited 7000 acres of Beers' land, and with her husband built a Queen Anne style home fashioned after the Chatsworth estate in England. Given their stature in New York and Washington society, they entertained widely, attracting a veritable who's who of late 19th century and early 20th century elites.

As the story goes, Ruspoli and a partner developed the Chatsworth Club, a country club for their well-to-do friends and associates. Located on the lake visible from Route 532, the club grew to over 700 members, including Astors, Vanderbilts, Biddles, Drexels and even J.P. Morgan. The Jersey Central Railroad's Blue Comet ran through Chatsworth on the way to Atlantic City, delivering the famed and wealthy to the club in style from New York.

Just by happenstance, I found a trace of the story in Henry Charlton Beck's classic Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey. As he tells it, the club was founded by a coterie of New York capitalists including Levi Morton, who was vice president of the United States under Benjamin Harrison. It's supposed that Morton and his fellow power-brokers wanted a place where they could enjoy hunting, fishing and socializing with whomever they chose, without worrying about inquisitive newspaper reporters. Beck also opines that the Ruspoli/Perigold home served as the Chatsworth Club's main building and conveniently burned to the ground as the club itself was failing financially.

Regardless of which is true -- the Chatsworth community's own account or Beck's tale -- the Club is no more. Today, the only vestige of the venture is the 1860's era White Horse Inn, which once served as a stopping point in town for visitors to the club. A local group called the Chatsworth Club II is working to restore the Inn as a museum, using proceeds from the annual Cranberry Festival to fund their work. When Ivan and I stopped in town, the building looked good indeed. It seems they're well on their way.

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