If you drive through the United States, from sea to shining sea, you’re going to see a few ghost towns.
You won’t be able to help it, because there are almost four-thousand of them, clustered in valleys and scattered on hillsides, lying dormant beside dried up riverbeds, and peering down at long-forgotten mines, with many of them as intact today as they were in their heyday, in the 1890s or the 1910s, or the 1930s, when the shiny-new seekers left to pick up coffee and drugs and never came back.
But there’s one ghost town that is particularly fascinating; it’s a ghost town of a ghost town, because it probably didn’t exist in the first place.
You’ll be driving about halfway between Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, and the Atlantic Ocean, or The Pond, as it’s known. Pemberton County, within which the town of Ong’s Hat allegedly sits, is marked on Google maps with a Burger King pin, just in case you get hungry for flame-grilling while steering your vehicle.
Once in the county, you’ll need to head for Southampton Township, and the Ongs Hat Road, which runs from Buddtown to Vincentown, and parallel to Jade Run, the vernacular for a small stream. Before you reach Four Mile Circle, where you can revive at a Wawa, you’ll take a left onto Turkey Buzzard Bridge Road, and there you will find the remains of Ong's Hat.
Or would you.
If you visited twenty years ago, you’d have been directed to the town using any map of the area, all of which clearly showed its location, although there is some doubt as to what you would have found when you arrived.
The town name seems to derive from a man called, not surprisingly, Ong. That surname was prominent among groups of settlers to this area, known as the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the largest remaining example of Atlantic coastal pine forests and home to the frightening Jersey Devil, primarily as a name of Chinese origin (in fact, Ong is the fifth most-common family name among Chinese residents of Singapore) and among mixed-ethnicity descendants of Chinese immigrant laborers and earlier American settlers.
And, for whichever of those reasons, the Ong name and town was known well enough to mark the thoroughfare that it sat next to as the Ongs Hat Road, when it was built to replace a dirt track in 1929.
The Ong in question was one Jacob Ong, who is said to have settled the area to farm and dance.
The story goes that Ong was somewhat of a dandy dancing dabbler, delighting denizens daily as he’d ‘trip it as ye go, on the light fantastick toe’, as Milton wrote, and was often seen at the local barn dances, kitted out in suave attire and silky hats, which apparently, in Southampton Township, in Pemberton County, in New Jersey, is something the womenfolk couldn’t resist.
Until the Burger King, one presumes.
Anyway, the combination of moves and moonshine drove one young lady crazy with lust, and her suitor equally crazy with jealousy, and he approached Ong in a most aggressive way. An altercation ensued in which the angry lover was driven to knock Ong’s hat from his head, and stomp on it.
For a dandy like Ong, this was chapeau sacrilège and he was forced, in his own moment of revenge, to throw his hat into a tree, where it caught fast on a high branch, and where it remained for years to come, signifying the identity and location of the town that grew up around it as Ong’s Hat, or Ongs Hat, when America gave up on grammar to match and not be outdone by their English grammar-averse counterparts across The Pond.
The hat became synonymous with the town, and the local tavern even had a sign with the hat painted on it, and may have been called something relating to the head covering, though traces of this have also been lost, or misremembered.
Jacob Ong may even have been the innkeeper there, as another legend tells.
Certainly, the town was located on a Hessian encampment map of 1778, so it seems the British and their German mercenaries found it a few hundred years ago. And in Forgotten Towns of Southern New Jersey by Henry Charlton Beck and published in 1936, Ong’s Hat was said to be a thriving town during the Civil War, serving as a ‘social centre for the surrounding area’, and known for its bars and bootleggers, with one of the first ever arrests for moonshining made there.
History further tells that by the early twentieth century, Ong’s Hat was merely ‘a clearing, an abandoned shed, and bits of brick and roofing suggesting houses had once been there’, and only a few inhabitants remained, including a Polish family called the Chininiskis, who one day just disappeared. It was many years later that hunters found a female skeleton at Ong's Hat, and although police finally tracked down Mr Chininiski in New York, they were unable to prove any connection, and the case remains unsolved.
If it even ever happened.
The last known resident on Ong’s Hat was Eli Freed, a farmer who moved there from Chicago, though he too soon left the area, and stories of the busy town of Ong’s Hat dissolved into the suggestion that only a small shed was ever built there, as an overnight stop from Little Egg Harbor, about sixty-kilometres away toward the Jersey Shore.
The man who built it was called Ong, and Ong’s hut became his hat, over time.
And there the story should end. But of course it doesn’t.
In the 1980s, a writer and transmedia artist called Joseph Wayne Matheny, who was born on Christmas Eve in the early sixties, wrote The Incunabula Papers, a tale that follows a series of narratives about time travel, and tells the story of a gateway to a parallel dimension at Ong’s Hat. When Matheny stated that the books were mere fiction, many saw these denials as evidence of government intervention and suppression, and they continue to this day to accept the gateway as fact, despite the improbability of a door to another world.
The truth of Ong’s Hat will probably never be known, and its rise and fall - if it ever rose and fell - is lost to the decades that have wiped the town from today's maps.
But maps can deceive, and ghost towns are often missed, as people travel from drive-through to drive-through, their eyes fixed on the upcoming feed rather than the silk hat that blows in the wind, on a tree branch, to their left, just beyond that pile of rubble.
Photo by Anthony