“…commenc’d going for weeks at a time, even for months, down in the country, to a charmingly recluse and rural spot along Timber creek, twelve or thirteen miles from where it enters the Delaware river. Domicil’d at the farm house of my friends, the Staffords, near by, I lived half the time along this creek and its adjacent fields and lanes” (Whitman, “Specimen Days“ 804)
Undoubtedly, Camden defined much of Whitman’s later life. The sojourns he took out of Camden, though, were equally influential. While Whitman lived in Camden, he befriended the Stafford family. It was this friendship that carried Whitman further into New Jersey to Timber Creek and to what is now known as Laurel Springs. And it is this connection with Timber Creek and the Stafford house with which Whitman credits (at least somewhat) his mental and physical recovery from the effects of his first stroke – a “semi-renewal of the lease of life” (804).
At these places, Whitman sat often with pen in hand and mused on nature and on life, musings which ultimately found their way into Specimen Days. Today, over 130 years later, Timber Creek and Laurel Lake are still charming – although much less recluse than they once were – and still echo Whitman’s descriptions of 1874 & 1875.
“We had a heavy shower, with brief thunder and lightning, in the middle of the day; and since, overhead, one of those not uncommon yet indescribable skies of limpid blue, with rolling silver-fringed clouds, and a pure-dazzling sun” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 810).
“Down every day in the solitude of the creek. A serene autumn sun and westerly breeze to-day as a I sit here, the water surface prettily moving in wind-ripples before me” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 816).
Named for the large amounts of timber that grew along its banks, Big Timber Creek is 11 miles long and drains an area of 63 sq. miles. It has 9 tributaries, 6 major lakes, and 25 waterway miles, and it forms the boundary between Gloucester and Camden counties in Southern New Jersey. Traveling through 28 communites, Big Timber Creek begins in Washington Township and Winslow Township and ends in Gloucester City and West Deptford, emptying into the Delaware River approximately 3 miles south of Camden. While some farmland and forest still surround the creek, much of it is becoming rapidly “surbubanized.”
The Armewamexes branch of the Lenni-Lennape Indians lived along the creek. Colonization around the creek began in the 1670s when the Quakers and Irish arrived. The first European Settlement along Timber Creek was Fort Nassau, established in 1623 at the mouth of the creek. It was a sensible place to settle, for it made transportation (in the absence of roads) much more feasible. South Jersey farmers also used the creek to transport crops to Philadelphia.
Today, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation has protected over 100 acres of land surrounding Big Timber Creek, essentially preserving much of what Whitman loved about the creek. The NJCF also partnered with Deptford Township and the NJ State Green Acres Program to create and preserve an 18-acre park, known as Timber Creek Park. Walking along the park trails in this unexpected refuge takes the traveler through the history of the Creek, but a study of its vegetation and wildlife – those same things Whitman wrote about in Specimen Days.
Laurel Springs, NJ
Laurel Springs is located in Southern New Jersey, 14 miles from the Walt Whitman Bridge, which connects Philadelphia to New Jersey.
What is now known as Laurel Springs first belonged to the Lenni-Lenape Indians, and was settled by European settlers in the early to mid 17th century. Quakers were among the first settlers in the area.
Joseph Tomlinson came to the area in 1686 and after his marriage in 1690, he acquired 117 acres of land, part of which is now Laurel Springs. Ephraim Tomlinson, Jr., Joseph Tomlinson’s great-grandson, bought 819 acres, located on both sides of Timber Creek. Part of this became Laurel Springs. Joseph Tomlinson’s great-great-grandson, another Ephraim, built a home in 1844 and began a small community. He orginially chose the name Laurel Mills due to the dense growth of laurel in the area. (The Ancient Greeks used Laurel wreaths to honor poets and heroes. How apropos that Whitman would find himself in Laurel Springs…)
This marks the beginning of what is now known as Laurel Springs, New Jersey.
A railroad was built in 1877, which made Laurel Springs more accessible. Prior to this time, three farms and a pasture defined the boundaries of present-day Laurel Springs. Two of those farms, totaling 187 acres, were owned by Montgomery Stafford. It is here that Whitman converted one of the Stafford Farm buildings into his summer home (1876 and 1884). The Stafford house that Whitman eventually made his summer home still stands today at 305 Maple Avenue in Laurel Springs.
“The clear beams are now thrown in many new places, on the quilted, seam’d, bronze-drab, lower tree trunks, shadow’d except at this hour—now flooding their young and old columnar ruggedness with strong light, unfolding to my sense new amazing features of silent, shaggy charm, the solid bark, the expression of harmless impassiveness, with many bulge and gnarl unreck’d before” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 814).
What Whitman found at Timber Creek, Laurel Lake, and on the Stafford farm was a rejuvenated self. Although these same places are now surrounded by neighborhoods, houses, and busy roads, they still hold something of solitude and peace for the reader of Whitman. Much of what he wrote in Specimen Days of these places his readers can still see.
Whitman is still there.
After visiting these places, I’m certain that Whitman said it best:
“It seems indeed as if peace and nutriment from heaven subtly filter into me as I slowly hobble down these country lanes and across fields, in the good air—as I sit here in solitude with Nature—open, voiceless, mystic, far removed, yet palpable, eloquent Nature” (Whitman, “Specimen Days” 830).
“Big Timber Creek Watershed.” New Jersey Conservation Foundation. New Jersey Conservation Foundation, 2009. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.njconservation.org/html/gfa-timber.htm>.
“Fact Sheet: Big Timber Creek.” Delaware Riverkeeper. Delaware Riverkeeper Network. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.delawareriverkeeper.org/factsheets/big_timber.html>.
“Timber Creek Park Trail Guide.” Big Timber Creek. Old Pine Farm Natural Lands Trust, Inc. 17 Oct. 2009 <http://www.bigtimbercreek.org/timber_creek_park_trail_guide.htm>.
Whitman, Walt. “Specimen Days.” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996.
Wolfe, Bob. “Borough History.” Laurel Springs-NJ: News. 31 January 2004. Borough of Laurel Springs. 17 October 2009 <http://www.laurelsprings-nj.com/news.php?extend.3>.
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