Local Author Celebrates Pine Barrens' Rich History

Author Karen Riley unveiled her fifth book 'Legendary Locals' at a Lacey Historical Society meeting

Lacey residents got a history lesson Wednesday night as a local author shared the rich past of the Pine Barrens.

Karen Riley of New Egypt unveiled her fifth book, "Legendary Locals," at a Lacey Historical Society meeting in which she presented a slideshow of photos taken of the Pine Barrens through the years.

“I like to educate audiences on why the Pine Barrens are so important because the fact of the matter is that it may not be around for your children or your grandchildren,” Riley said.

The Pine Barrens account for 1.1 million acres occupying seven counties, 56 municipalities and 22 percent of the state. Settlers originally thought the land was barren and therefore not valuable, Riley said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said.

There are 54 endangered and threatened plants and 44 endangered animals that can be found in the Pine Barrens, she said. For example, the Pine Barrens tree frog can be found nowhere else in the world. It is also believed to contain 17 trillion gallons of water.

“So if we lose this land, we’re going to lose a lot,” she said. “This is the first preservation in the United States, and it’s a world biosphere. But just because it’s federally and state protected doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be there. There are always developers nibbling at the edges.”

New Jersey is the most densely populated state and is on its way to becoming the first to be built out, Riley said.

“(The Pine Barrens) are going to look very tempting,” she said. “The infrastructure is there for them to move in there and there are concessions being made.”

Riley, a Brooklyn native, originally became interested in the Pine Barrens when she moved to New Egypt near the northern end of the forest. Across the way was the Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area.

“I knew the land had value,” she said.

Riley began researching the land when the construction of a housing development was proposed. Five years later, she had her first book, "Whispers in the Pines: The Secrets of Colliers Mills," which includes a tidbit of history about Amelia Earhart.

“(The book) came out by accident,” she said.

The development was unanimously denied by the planning board but was eventually overturned in court, she said. The agreement included the preservation of 10 acres.

It was a “bittersweet irony,” she said, when her book came out the same day the developers broke ground.

There started the birth of a series of books on the Pine Barrens, her latest being "Images of America: The Pine Barrens of New Jersey."

“You find the answers to your questions but then the answers lead to more questions,” she said.

The history Riley, a member of the Lacey Historical Society, shared went as far back as the 1800s. The slides that Riley showed were just a portion of a collection of approximately 8,000 photos that she collected within 11 years. The old-fashioned black and white photos revealed the lives of settlers who relied on the Pine Barrens for a living.

Riley spoke about each industry and its processes that the Pine Barrens were utilized for: the harvesting of cranberries, blueberries and concord grapes; the manufacturing of iron, charcoal, glass, paper and bricks; wood making; the collection of pine cones, moss and salt marsh; and military presence.

The presentation debunked myths and included fun facts such as Elizabeth Lee of New Egypt was the maker of the world’s first cranberry sauce and the Pine Barrens were heavily utilized for military bases. The U.S. Navy actually had a missile program at Island Beach State Park in 1943 that fashioned the first ramjet from the exhaust pipe of a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane.

“It was all fascinating,” said Elizabeth McGrath, president of the Lacey Historical Society. “Karen brought all the industries of the Pine Barrens to the table. I never knew how rich in history the Pinelands were. It’s all right here, in our own backyard.”

Riley first began writing when she was 8 years old and was nationally published at the age of 11. After 11 years of research, she has published three books on the Pine Barrens, her fourth is "Healing in Hurting Places," a book that is centered on healing following childhood sexual abuse.

A portion of the proceeds from books sold on Wednesday evening went towards the Lacey Historical Society as well as Healing in Hurting Places, Riley’s ministry for victims of sexual abuse.


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