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Chapter 1

Chapter 2
The Biology of Salt Marshes

Chapter 3
Banking/Diking Procedures

Chapter 4
Economics of Land Reclamation

Chapter 5
Salt-Hay Farming

Chapter 6
Meadow Companies

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Sources Consulted

The Landscape Transformation of Coastal New Jersey
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Land reclamation, whether clearing woodlands for open pasture, irrigating to provide water to normally dry areas, or draining surplus water from wetlands to make sowable fields, has played an important role in the development of the United States from its early settlement to the present. Farmers along the Atlantic Coast, and to a lesser degree along the Gulf of Mexico, practiced extensively the last form of reclamation, the transformation of wetlands, until the end of the nineteenth century. [1] In many cases, the wetlands include both fresh and salt tidal marshes. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, the main purpose for reclaiming the marshes was to increase the agricultural potential of an area (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Location of wetlands that could be drained for crop production. Economics.

Today, land reclamation in New Jersey and other coastal states in general is a common means of acquiring land for community development, despite the resultant destruction of the natural environment. Unfortunately, the land cannot revert back to its natural condition on its own. Land reclamation for agricultural purposes, however, is almost extinct today. Far less detrimental, this process requires that marshlands be drained and blocked off from tidal inundation and allows the land to revert back to its natural condition when not maintained.

Ironically, while contemporary land reclamation invites urban development complete with homes, shopping plazas, business districts, and parking lots, reclamation for agricultural purposes allowed for a different sort of community growth. The farmers and owners of the land had to work collectively to keep their dikes from failing and the land from flooding. Construction of the dikes did not push animals, such as the prevalent muskrat, out of their habitat as the construction of shopping malls might today.

Reclaiming marshes for agricultural purposes had been practiced in England and Europe prior to the settlement of the United States. As with many Old World practices, the first settlers transferred and modified the land-reclamation technology to fit the New World's environment. The technology used in America is rooted in English and Dutch tradition. The oldest European land reclamation occurred in the Netherlands. By the eleventh century, the Dutch concentrated their efforts on protecting lands within the salt marsh district from the temporary damage of sea floods and the encroachment of salt water inland. As a result, diking systems existed in many areas. The first dikes consisted of raised trackways that joined farms with improved tracts of marshland. The farmers, realizing these raised trackways protected the land from encroaching salt water and general inundation, extended them to form a closed system of water defenses. Streams and ditches, which intersected the dikes, were closed by simple barriers that could be removed to release internal waters. During the tenth century, sluice gates that closed automatically during high tides and floods replaced the manual barriers. Devices such as these are what made the concentrated effort to protect the Dutch countryside easier in the eleventh century. [2]

The Dutch efforts to reclaim marshlands perpetuated many new ideas on that technology. By the nineteenth century, the Dutch had so advanced the techniques that they not only kept the sea from inundating dry lands, but also created 42,300 new acres of fertile farm land by draining Haarlem Lake through an immense system of canals and pumps. Upon completion of the project in 1852, 16,000 people occupied the land, producing much of the food for northern Holland.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the success of Dutch reclamation projects enabled visitors to witness the benefits of turning unprofitable salt marsh into productive farm land. In 1892, the New Jersey state geologist reported that his trip to the Netherlands had been successful due to his examination of the dikes in such coastal areas as Helder, Petten and West Kappelle. The geologist, while visiting the west and northwest coasts of the Netherlands, observed the land to be below the level of high tide and in some places below low tide due to the stripping of the peat layer. Despite this, he considered this area agriculturally viable.

The preservation to agriculture of this exceedingly fertile and productive part of the kingdom is in the maintenance of the system of dikes, which are the results of centuries of work and at the cost of many millions of guilders. [3]

In the early twentieth century, the Dutch commenced reclamation of the Zuider Zee (Fig. 2). Through the construction of eighteen miles of main dike to hold out the North Sea, plus tide gates, locks, interior dikes, ditches and large pumping stations, the Dutch created 550,000 acres of farmland to support approximately 300,000 people. [4]

Figure 2. Map of Zuider Zee project, Holland. Land Drainage.

Although not as intense as those in the Netherlands, land-reclamation projects prospered in England as early as 1543 with the draining of the Wapping Marsh near the Vale of London; it continued well into the eighteenth century. The farmers throughout England were familiar with the procedures of draining and banking at various levels. Fens or low, flooded grounds known variously as marshes, moors, or mosses, were a common component of the English landscape. Tracts of marsh that were drained include areas of the counties Kent and Norfolk, and both shores of the Humber River and its tributaries. [5]

The biggest and most successful reclamation project of the Old World, however, was the draining of the fens. The fens occupied the southeastern quarter of Lincolnshire, the north half of Cambridgeshire, and portions of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Huntingdon, and Northampton. Farmers reclaimed more than 700,000 acres of tidal and overflowed peaty lands by building levees, ditches, and pumping plants. This project took almost two centuries to complete with most of the work done by 1660.

The continued efforts to reclaim land in England and the Netherlands promoted the application of this technology in the New World. In marshy areas occupied by Dutch or English colonists, evidence of land reclamation exists either through physical remains of the tradition, or through colonial documentation. Land reclamation was practiced as early as 1675 along the Delaware Bay in the colony of New Castle. In 1664, the British gained control of New Castle and other strategic points along the Delaware from the Dutch and placed their rule over the Dutch and Swedish settlers in the area. The English allowed several of the Dutch magistrates in New Castle to continue in their roles. [6]

In June 1675, the Dutch magistrates of New Castle, upon Governor Edmund Andros's request, appointed four impartial men to survey the marshland on the north side of New Castle as a potential site for possible highway construction. The surveyors reported that the marsh was worthless. The magistrates then decided that the highway would only become a reality if a dike with sluices were built on the marsh. They ordered all the male inhabitants of the district of New Castle to construct a dike 10' wide at the bottom, 5' high and 3' wide at the top with several strong sluices. Under orders from Andros, the magistrates appointed three Dutchmen—Martin Gerritsen, Pieter de Wit and Hendrick Sybrants—to oversee the work. Andros backed his decision as to the nationality of the overseers with the comment that "there are few here who have the knowledge of such work, especially among those living in New Castle" (Fig. 3). [7]

Figure 3. "Map of the Providence of New York," detail of engraving by Claude Joseph Sauthier, 1776. Historic Urban Plans.

As permanent settlements increased in the colonies, more reclamation projects occurred and more settlers commented on the value of the marshes in their private accounts. In the late seventeenth century, Jasper Danckaerts, a Dutchman who traveled throughout New York and New Jersey, commented in his journal that the Dutch governor diked and cultivated a piece of marsh along the Delaware River near the settlement on Burlington Island. On that particular tract the governor had gathered more grain than from any other cleared upland. [8]

Another historic account which reflected the value of the marshes was related through Adriaen van der Donck, a seventeenth-century resident of New Netherlands who occupied the office of sheriff in Rensselaerswyck and Westchester County. He commented that the health of the cattle brought from Holland declined until they were fed salt hay and given salt and brackish water. Reclamation projects and utilization of the marsh environment were so widespread along the Atlantic seaboard that laws were enacted to aid the owners. [9]

During the mid eighteenth century, Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist, wrote:

Dykes were made along all rivers here to confine their water; therefore when the tide was highest, the water in the rivers was much higher than the meadows; in the dykes were gates through which the water can be drawn from, or led into the meadows; they sometimes placed on the outward side of the wall, so that the water in the meadows forced it open, but the river water shut it. [10]

Even after the Revolutionary War the draining of the marshes continued apace.

By the nineteenth century, agriculturalists wrote frequently in farm journals, spreading their knowledge of the procedure and results of their experimentation. After the Civil War, the reclamation of tidal marshes grew as a topic of concern for agriculturalists and geologists alike. These scientists saw it as a way to decrease crowding in cities, to rid the world of the mosquito and disease-infested wetlands, and to increase the amount of fertile farmland. In 1895 New Jersey state geologist John C. Smock reported that:

Malarial epidemics no longer occur in this valley [Pequest Valley] whereas formerly they were common through the warmer seasons. The general healthfulness is as marked now as were the former unhealthy conditions due to sluggish streams, pools of standing water and decaying vegetation. The improvement here is suggestive of the benefits of drainage generally. [11]

Articles in agricultural journals, state agricultural reports, and U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletins further exemplified this trend.

In 1885, D. M. Nesbit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a special report the Tide Marshes of the United States. Although Nesbit credited early Swedish, English, Scottish and Dutch settlers with bringing reclamation technology to the New World, he acknowledged that the procedures for it in general agriculture had been modified so that they were uniquely American.

When our marshes shall be wrested from the tides, our political, social, and industrial conditions will warrant as well as demand the conquest, and its methods will be American. [12]

In the report, Nesbit attempted to gain support for more extensive reclamation projects throughout the United States. He did so by sending inquiries to every coastal state asking for information on agricultural-related reclamation projects and for opinions upon the success of the various projects. Though statistics were not included in most of the reports, the extent of U.S. reclamation prior to 1885 is apparent.

Dividing the coastal areas into five regions—north Atlantic, south Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific, and Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay—Nesbit summarized the marsh conditions and areas where most of the reclamation occurred. Along the north Atlantic coast, landowners divided marshes into small lots and bequeathed them to the next generation. The farmers in New England depended on the marshes for the production of salt hay, which grew in large quantities and sustained the livestock through long winters. By the end of the nineteenth century, most of the land that had been reclaimed for salt hay had returned to its natural state due to the increased costs of production and the lack of cooperation among the farmers to maintain the dikes. [13]

In 1885 the largest tracts of reclaimed land in New England were located in Maine, along the Machias and Middle rivers, and in Massachusetts along the Green Harbor River. Land along the Machias River had been diked since the beginning of the nineteenth century, at least; along the Middle River, 400 acres had been reclaimed in 1869-70. Although troubled by opposition, the improved land along the Green Harbor River near Marshfield, Massachusetts, in Plymouth County included 1,412 acres. Some of the people involved with Green Harbor insisted that the dike obstructed the harbor by allowing silt to deposit at its mouth, thus creating a sand bar. The owners of the marsh in 1885 continued to keep the land diked despite sabotage attempts. [14]

Maine farmers reclaimed on a large scale: 120 acres in Sagadahoc County in 1882; more than 700 acres in Cumberland County, especially in the area of Scarborough; 150 acres in the area of Ogunguit; and another sixty acres in 1872 along the Little River Marsh in Old Orchard, York County. Within New England, smaller-scale projects existed not only in Maine and Massachusetts but also in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. The following list illustrates the amount of land reclaimed in these states. Massachusetts: Essex County, 250 acres near Salisbury and Newberry; Norfolk County, 60 acres; Barnstable County, 60 acres. New Hampshire: Rockingham County, approximately 40 acres near Hampton Falls which failed. Maine: Knox County, 9 acres along Saint George River. Rhode Island: Bristol County, 4 acres. Connecticut: New London County, unknown amount along the Connecticut River; Middlesex County, 7 acres; and Fairfield County, 5 acres (most attempts in Connecticut failed due to various reasons, including what seems to be an intrusion by a joint grass with a woody stalk, possibly phragmites). [15]

In New York state, at the time of Nesbit's report, landowners attempted several projects in Richmond and Queens counties. In Richmond County, a state law allowed for the formation of the Marsh Land Drainage Company in the early 1880s. The state dissolved the company several years later because the reclamation project interfered with the navigation along Flushing Marsh Creek. The state declared the original legislation unconstitutional. [16]

Along the Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay regions—which included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia—most reclamation occurred in New Jersey and Delaware. In Delaware's northernmost New Castle County, Dutch and Swedish settlers improved the marshes as early as the seventeenth century; by 1885, reclaimed lands accounted for 10,000 out of 15,000 acres of marsh. In Kent County, embanked land totaled 5,000 acres, and in Sussex County, 3,000 acres. All this improved land was located along the Delaware Bay and its tributaries. [17]

The extent of reclaimed land in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia was minor compared to that of Delaware. In Pennsylvania, the marshes that had been improved were located below Philadelphia at the mouth of the Schuylkill along the Delaware River. In Maryland and Virginia, despite huge tracts of marshland, landowners made few improvements. Nesbit surmised that the farmers in these two states "have done nothing worthy of note toward reclaiming them excepting in a few instances on James River." [18]

In Cecil County, Maryland, a farmer reclaimed ten acres along the Sassafras River, only for the banks to be destroyed by muskrats in the 1870s. A similar situation occurred along the Mattaponi River in King and Queen County, Virginia. A more successful banking operation was developed along the James River in 1870. By 1885, these 250 acres had been let go due to lack of cooperation among the owners and problems with muskrats. Several smaller projects, ranging from one to 100 acres, were located in Surry and Chesterfield counties. In the latter, 100 acres had been reclaimed in 1815 and continued in such a manner until the dikes became a casualty of the Civil War. [19]

Similar situations ensued in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida so that the dikes that had once held back the tides were breached and failed. The marshes here were primarily inland, along rivers that were far enough from the ocean to prevent them from being affected by storm tides or from being heavily influenced by salt water; in areas where some salt water infiltration occurred, farmers inundated the reclaimed land with fresh water from local tributaries.

Prior to the Civil War, growers in the southeastern area of the United States grew primarily rice and received the highest capital returns of any agricultural lands in the area. During the war, landowners abandoned thousands of acres, while armies and neglect destroyed the dikes and ditching systems, and the land returned to its original condition. Yet, perhaps the most limiting factor to repairing the war-time damage was the racial attitude of many white southerners. In a letter to Nesbit, S. E. Barnwell of Georgetown County, South Carolina, conveyed this point. Barnwell wrote:

The lands [in Georgetown County] are admirably fitted for the use of improved machinery, but the want of skilled labor is needed. The negroes are well-behaved and willing to work in their own slothful way, but cannot be counted on in an emergency, and the reputation of the country for health (unjustly so) keeps whites away. [20]

South Carolina and Georgia both suffered great losses in the war. Prior to 1861, reclaimed land prevailed in Georgetown, Berkeley, and Colleton counties in South Carolina, and McIntosh and Glynn counties in Georgia. During or after the war, the amount of improved land in Georgetown County decreased from 46,000 acres to 10,000 acres, while Glynn County farmers abandoned 500 acres of good cotton-growing land after sixty years of use due to the drop in cotton prices. In some areas of North Carolina, the use of diked land also decreased because of the discovery that rice could be grown cheaper upland. [21]

Despite the fact that large portions of reclaimed land became a casualty of war, some areas were sustained for the production of rice. In North Carolina, farmers in New Hanover and Brunswick counties maintained small tracts of improved land. In Liberty County, Georgia, 130 acres that had been diked in 1835 along the Riceboro River remained free from tidal inundation, while 400 acres in Camden County continued to yield sixty to seventy bushels of cotton per acre. [22]

The marshlands in Florida did not suffer so much from the Civil War as they did from tidal action, which was insufficient for natural drainage, and from competition from inland swamps for the use of rice cultivation. In Nassau County prior to 1860, however, approximately 400 acres were diked and drained for rice and an additional 200 for other crops along Saint Mary's River. By 1885, only half of the latter tract of land still grew vegetables; the rest had returned to wetlands. [23]

The federal government donated most of the tidal marshlands along the Gulf Coast to the states, including Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. The government thought the land would be better developed under state ownership, but by the late nineteenth century, they had sold most of it to railroads and other corporations. Only in Louisiana did any major reclamation attempts occur. [24]

In 1878, the New Orleans-based Louisiana Land Reclamation Company commenced operations under a charter from the state legislature. The company's first job involved reclaiming 13,000 acres of land in Terre Bonne Parish; rice, jute and vegetables grew easily on the land. The company also worked in Saint Mary's Parish, where it reclaimed an unknown amount of land east of the Atchafalaya River. (West of the Atchafalaya River, private owners reclaimed 100 acres and proposed 100 more, according to Nesbit's report.) The reclamation company also planned to dike 100,000 acres of land in southwest Louisiana. Unfortunately, the project was unrealized because of the demise of a number of levees on the Mississippi River, which flooded the Atchafalaya River and made it financially impossible for the company to carry out its plans. [25]

Along the Pacific coast, the most successful reclamation enterprise occurred in a section known as "the delta," which links the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers in San Joaquin County. Within that area, reclamation advocates improved 11,000 acres in the Union Island area. They also planned to reclaim an additional 20,000 acres by 1887, but the success of this project is undocumented. [26]

Other reclamation projects in California included unknown amounts of land in Napa and Sonoma counties, as well as 3,000 acres to 4,000 acres of fresh marsh in Contra Costa County, and 100 acres in Alameda County. In 1861, numerous small landowners banked 14,000 acres on Sherman Island in Sacramento County. The project failed because some of the owners would not pay the taxes needed to maintain the land. [27]

Farmers in Oregon and Washington (in 1885, Washington Territory) also diked in portions of their land. In Oregon more than 400 acres had been improved in Clatsop County, and forty acres in Douglas County, while in Washington Territory an unknown amount of reclaimed land existed in Kitsap and Whatcom counties. [28]

Nesbit's report indicates that, despite the projects in other states, New Jersey's Delaware Bay and its tributaries contained some of the more prominent reclamation projects nationwide. Nesbit credited such lands along the Maurice River in Cumberland County, New Jersey, as the most fertile of its kind in the United States and exemplary—from which other parts of the country could learn.

The superiority of diked land over poor upland is nowhere better illustrated than along the Maurice River, in New Jersey. There the banked meadows, some of which have been in cultivation, without manure, for generations, are wonderfully fertile, and the upland immediately adjoining is only able to produce scrub oak and stunted pine, to which it is mainly given up. [29]

Despite its fertility, problems with maintaining the reclaimed land still occurred along the Maurice River (Fig. 4). Nesbit concluded, however, that with the amount of marshes already banked and the remains of old banking projects still intact, little effort would be required to fix the breaches in the neglected banks. The Cohansey River in Cumberland County, the northwest portion of Cape May County along the Delaware Bay, and much of the marshlands in Salem County had also been reclaimed. [30]

aerial view of marshland
Figure 4. Aerial view of marshland, which had been reclaimed, along the Maurice River. Sebold.

Along the Atlantic coast in New Jersey, landowners either believed the land could not be improved or neglected the improvements that had been made. This was especially true in Ocean County, where the marsh was sometimes lower than the low-water mark, Which indicated the need for pumping instead of natural drainage; in places with adequate natural drainage, the banks were let go because of a losing battle against muskrats and nature. The muskrat population also curtailed the projects in Atlantic County. [31]

New Jersey's Atlantic coast discouraged large-scale reclamation projects because of its geography. Unlike the Delaware Bay coast, which consists of one continuous marsh that extends upland from one to five miles, the Atlantic coast is lined with beaches or sand bars that are separated from the mainland by bays and inlets measuring from one to seven miles wide. As a result, few marshes exist directly on the coast; instead they can be found along Barnegat, Egg Harbor and Great bays, and the Mullica, Bass, Great Egg Harbor, and Tuckahoe rivers. Even so, the marshes are interrupted by various creeks and streams. [32]

Although more extensive attempts to reclaim both salt and fresh tidal marshes had occurred elsewhere in the United States—especially along the southern Atlantic coast—the Civil War disrupted them. In other coastal areas, skeptical and uncooperative landowners as well as money shortages hindered many reclamation projects. Even the diking projects along the Maurice River suffered from the lack of cooperation; one of Nesbit's correspondents, Daniel Harris, refers to diking projects along the Maurice that failed prior to 1885.

The owners of our tide marshes are satisfied with the success and profit that have attended reclamation. The diked marshes yield from sixty to 100 bushels of shelled corn per acre, without manure. The main trouble is that many owners fail to keep their portions of the bank and their sluices in good repair, and in consequence the land fails to produce as it otherwise would. [33]

From the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century, a lack of cooperation among marsh owners, as well as new government regulations about land use, destroyed many reclamation projects, and few examples remain. Nevertheless, the Delaware Bay region was historically committed to land reclamation for improved agricultural production. Within this area, land reclamation projects continued along the New Jersey side of the bay and its tributaries well into the twentieth century. Today, this tradition is extant in the Burcham Farm, which is located along what Nesbit called the most fertile reclaimed area in the United States, the Maurice River in Cumberland County, New Jersey (Fig. 5). Salt hay farmers also continue to reclaim marshlands in South Jersey along the Delaware Bay and its tributaries.

aerial view of farm
Figure 5. Farms such as the Burcham Farm, seen here in an aerial view, were once common along the Maurice River. Sebold.

The following chapters offer a detailed history of land reclamation in New Jersey, beginning with a general overview of the biology of tidal wetlands, and specifically salt marshes. This is followed by a look at the technological means and procedures of how land was actually reclaimed. Chapter four discusses the economics of reclamation, including an in-depth look at projects in Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May counties. This includes a history of the Burcham Farm. The next chapter looks at salt-hay farming both historically and currently. Chapter six looks at the legal aspects of reclaiming land and the resultant meadow companies, while chapter seven refers to cranberry farmers and how they utilize fresh-water marshes and swamps to create cranberry bogs.

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Last Modified: Mon, Jan 31 2005 10:00:00 pm PDT

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