Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Trotting along the White Horse Pike

Where in heck did the White Horse Pike get its name? Not being a South Jerseyan, I've long wondered why that particular nomenclature stuck to a road that runs east/west from Atlantic City to the Ben Franklin Bridge in Camden. As far as I knew, the area wasn't home to a herd of albino horses, and the equine population is Camden County isn't particularly high.

Perhaps there was a racetrack nearby?

Maybe a European settler had ridden a white horse down the road in the early days of West Jersey?

Or maybe it's a ghost horse, the Camden County equivalent of the Jersey Devil?

The answer, as I discovered, came from much farther back than the opening of the Garden State Park Racetrack in Cherry Hill (which was on another road, altogether). Chartered as a toll road in 1854, the White Horse Pike originally ran about 14 miles from Camden to the village of White Horse, which had taken the name of the tavern at its center. The White Horse Inn had been built in 1740 along a footpath the Lenapes had reportedly used as their road between the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean. It's been theorized that the inn's owner, Elizabeth Bates, named her establishment for the natives' horses.

I drove part of the Pike after my visit to Lawnside, prompted by the WPA Guide to New Jersey. The guide claimed the Inn was operated by the same family for nearly 200 years, with the original sign, complete with a picture of a white horse, still hanging from the porch. Granted, I was counting on a 70 year old description of the place, and lots of things can happen in that stretch of time, but I was cautiously hopeful the inn would still be there. It had, after all, been an important stop on the stagecoach route and the stimulus for the growth of the village. Maybe it wasn't in a county seat, as Mount Holly's Mill Street Hotel and Tavern is, but it sounded as if the White Horse was equally worthy of preservation.

Scanning the roadside at highway speed can be daunting, even when you have to stop occasionally for traffic lights. I saw a muffler man hawking tires in Clementon, but beyond that, it was the usual assortment of chain drug stores, fast food joints and assorted mom-and-pop emporia. Some of those looked pretty old, but nowhere near colonial-era old.

The Quaker Store in Stratford. Nice porch!
Then I saw what I thought could have been the White Horse Inn, sitting at a triangular-shaped plot of land formed by the intersection of Route 30 and Berlin Road. The building looked old enough but had signs stating "Friendly Quaker Store." As I later found out, it's the oldest surviving building in town, having been built in the 1860's on the foundation of the 1740's-era general store. Local preservationists have been working to restore it, and long-time Stratford residents still remember the proprietress and her kindness toward those who needed a little credit until payday.

Still, though: if the Quaker Store was the longest-standing building in the community, that meant the White Horse Inn wasn't to be found. Indeed, later research revealed that it was torn down in the 1970s to make room for a strip mall, likely the one where I stopped to take the photo above.

White Horse Farm Hammonton NJ Hidden NJ
The White Horse, in Hammonton
Disappointed not to find the White Horse, I kept driving toward Atlantic City, toward Hammonton. Development along the roadside got progressively less commercial and increasingly more rural, with farm fields replacing retail buildings. I'd stopped to grab a sandwich earlier, but I didn't pull into one of the rare parking lots to eat it; there were so few cars in the restaurant lots that I felt it would be rude to take up a spot for a repast I hadn't bought there.

The road had gotten really quiet by the time I drove reached the town limits of Hammonton, the self-proclaimed Blueberry Capital of the World. Traffic undoubtedly picks up substantially during growing season, but in early March there wasn't much going on. When I pulled into the lot of the quiet White Horse Farms to take a photo, I saw a red-tailed hawk dive toward the center stripe of the road and swoop up to perch on the adjacent roadside utility line. Something tells me he does that a lot, without consequence.

At least I found the White Horse, even if it wasn't the one I expected to see. And I discovered quite a few targets for pick-your-own during blueberry season. Elizabeth White would be quite satisfied.

1 comment:

  1. the White Horse Tavern was still standing, albeit in dilapidated condition when I was a boy growing up in Somerdale, NJ. in the mid sixties. You are correct in that the Tavern was located on the same side of the White Horse Pike as the restored Quaker Store (which was still operating as a General Store in the sixties). Spooky in appearance the local rumor at the time was that the Tavern was inhabited by a squatter the kids called Willie.


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