Livin’ La Vida Lago

Lake Hopatcong’s heyday as a resort is a thing of the past, but it remains a great escape for residents and day-trippers seeking refreshment and relaxation.

A quiet late-summer afternoon calls for a leisurely motorboat ride near Halsey Island on Lake Hopatcong.
Photo by Laura Moss.

When I was a child, the abandoned roller coaster could still be seen from my bedroom window in King’s Cove.

The tracks soared above sheets of plywood that made clear the Bertrand Island Amusement Park—which dated back to the turn of the century—was no longer open for business. First introduced to the park in 1924, the roller coaster hosted its last group of  riders on Labor Day, 1983. Then the plywood went up, along with “No Trespassing” signs; it would not be long before the coaster came down in a heap. One more relic of Lake Hopatcong’s heyday was gone.

When my mom and I would pick wildflowers in what had been the grounds’ parking lot, I would often wish desperately for the carnival rides, games of chance, and picnic pavilions to return. Bertrand Island had been a major attraction on this sinuous body of water back when the area was a popular resort, and I was always captivated by the idea that the lake drew the likes of Bud Abbott, Bert Lahr (a.k.a. the Cowardly Lion), George Burns, and Milton Berle.

Today, Lake Hopatcong is far removed from that world. Many of the black-and-white photographs of the past were taken in the same locations as my own vibrant snapshots, but the peaceful waters, large hotels, and pristine shores have been replaced by motorboats, Jet Skis, and more than a thousand homes packed along the lake’s edge (Click here for more information about the lake). The medley of lawns along Hopatcong’s 45 miles of shoreline has sent streams of fertilizer into the lake, threatening to choke it with weeds. And a wall of condos now stands in the footprint of the Bertrand Island dance hall and roller coaster.

All of which does not mean Lake Hopatcong is on its way out­—quite the contrary. Though it will never again be the tucked-away freshwater retreat of bygone days—and it has growing pains to deal with—Hopatcong has, in many ways, rebounded from a mid-twentieth-century decline and is embracing its past. Although most of the lakefront is in private hands, Hopatcong, which lies on the Morris–Sussex county line, still offers substantial public access and remains a source of relaxation and refreshment to the thousands who take to its crisp waters and rocky shores every summer.

New Jersey may be known for its shore, but the state’s 126 miles of Atlantic coastline have nothing on the hundreds of miles that surround its more than 400 publicly accessible lakes, ponds, and reservoirs. The Garden State map is peppered with those oddly shaped blue splotches, most of them formed when the last glacier retreated from this neck of the woods about 20,000 years ago. These abundant bodies of water can provide days of escape without Garden State Parkway tie-ups and saltwater stickiness.

Though the water was part of my year-round landscape, with the cooler months offering fishing, canoeing, and ice skating, “the lake” has always been synonymous with the word “summer,” and for much of my childhood, I assumed everyone had two lives: a school life and a lake life. Looking back, I’m thankful for the blessing of having that second version of reality that stretched from the last day of class until Labor Day.
My grandfather, parents, brothers, husband, and I grew up at the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club, and we still spend most summer weekends sailing our 17-foot Thistles (a boat that will never be mistaken for a yacht) from its docks. We race those and other small sailboats amid groups of kayakers and buzzing motorboats, usually on the two-mile stretch from Bertrand Island to Halsey Island. We waterski in the more tranquil Henderson Cove (in the northwest corner, near Raccoon Island), and dock the boat at the Windlass Restaurant (on the eastern shore) for a drink on its deck.

The great bumps of the roller coaster may be gone, but entertainment abounds for those of us fortunate enough to call Hopatcong home, as well as those who visit for a day. By interacting with this four-square-mile basin with crazy wind patterns and an enigmatic name (Hopatcong either means “honey waters of many coves” or “pipe stone,” depending on whom you believe), we connect ourselves to the history of our families and our community.

The Lenape Indians first discovered Lake Hopatcong’s beauty, some 12,000 years ago. By the nineteenth century, the construction of the Morris Canal and the railroads jump-started its growth as a resort destination for Manhattanites, vaudeville stars, and other vacationers. They came by train to stations in Landing and Nolan’s Point, and then ventured onto the water on squatty steamboats with names such as the Mystic Shrine and the Uncle Dan. When the Hotel Breslin was built with the backing of prominent New York City investors in 1887 (on the property where a half-dozen homes, including my parents’, stand today), it solidified Lake Hopatcong as a place to see and be seen. An 1890 guidebook asserted that the Breslin gave the lake “an element of wealth and fashion.”

“There were more than 40 hotels and rooming houses on the lake, which is staggering now when you think of it,” says Martin Kane, president of the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum (located on the grounds of Hopatcong State Park) and author of six books on the lake. “There were dance halls, two separate amusement parks, each with its own roller coaster, and two different yacht clubs. It shows you what a major resort the lake was to have that much activity. It had to be a really amazing place.”

Lake Hopatcong’s descent from that pinnacle of prominence was a result of the Great Depression and the rise of the automobile, which allowed people to explore different destinations. Over the decades, Hopatcong’s shores began to change. The construction of Interstate 80 in the 1960s helped usher in the age of suburbia for much of northern New Jersey, and the lake’s hotels and boarding houses slowly disappeared. The final hotel burned down in 1972, unofficially marking the end of the resort era and the switch to a new identity as a residential lake with year-round homes—tens of thousands of them—dotting the lakeside and the acreage for miles beyond.

A few old lakefront estates remain, such as the Mt. Arlington home of stage actress Lotta Crabtree. Several iconic buildings also stand, including the LHYC clubhouse, which dates back to 1910 and continues to hold court over the main lake. But Lake Hopatcong is no longer a place for long respites so much as it is a summer-weekend playground for year-round residents and boaters from nearby communities. “Back [in the early 1900s], the lake was actually more active during the week, because people were there for vacation,” says Kane, who grew up in Manhattan with a summer lake house. “Today, people work during the week, but thousands pour in on the weekends.”

Do they ever. My weekday sailing lessons as a kid were quiet and pleasant, and boat rides during the week are still incredibly peaceful. But come Saturday morning, the masses arrive. On particularly glorious summer afternoons, water traffic creates washing-machine turbulence that is especially obvious on light-wind days (which are increasingly frequent as growing number of roofs and parking lots in the area reduce surface wind). Antique boat parades—as well as a boat show in the early summer at the yacht club—give spectators a passing glimpse of beautifully restored Chris-Crafts and other classic motorboats.  In May, the Inboard Powerboat Circuit has speedboat races at the southern end of the lake, which bring the roars of engines and crowds (the event made it into New Jersey Monthly’s premiere issue in 1976). The end of summer is marked by the Back to School Regatta at LHYC, when hundreds of young sailors  hit the waters in tiny Opti sailboats.

It is easy for longtime residents to relate to the “Go Home Benny” movement at the Jersey Shore, which is fueled by frustration with crowds that impinge on year-rounders’ otherwise peaceful world. The droning of motorboat engines might as well be the chugging along of my hometown’s economy, but it certainly can get annoying. Last year, high gas prices temporarily improved the situation, but a visit to Byram Cove on a Sunday afternoon still meant navigating through hundreds of anchored motorboats, a mass of metal and fiberglass that would rise and fall with the waves. Some pizza joints actually deliver out to the water, and several bars and restaurants offer boat parking. WaveRunners buzz around, and bass boats drift in every cove as anglers wait for the next big catch. It is a remarkable scene.

But that scene’s biggest threat comes neither from annoyed residents, nor the visiting masses. The lake is in jeopardy of being overrun by weeds. With natural springs and an outlet in the Musconetcong River, Hopatcong’s waters can withstand much of the heightened activity. But septic tanks in the non-sewer residential areas and lawn runoff flush nutrients into the water that feed the lake’s bottom-dwelling grasses and weeds.

In the past, weed harvesting and disposal was the work of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, which was initiated by Senator Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) after the droughts of the 1990s caused a massive weed bloom. But last year, the commission, which also monitors water quality, lost its state funding, and nearly all of the staff was let go in November. The lack of harvesting does not just mean swimmers have to deal with tangling greenery at their toes, but motorboats may find some parts of the lake unnavigable.

Commission chairman Arthur R. Ondish, who is also mayor of Mt. Arlington (one of four lakeside townships), says the commission is working to fund itself. But efforts to impose user fees have been difficult to enact because of disputes among commissioners. “It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point,” Ondish says. “Obviously maintenance has to happen, or a lot of the lake is going to be unusable.”

Ondish says he aims to protect the lake experience. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “Boating, swimming, waterskiing, Jet Skiing, going out to eat on the lake… I grew up with that. It’s really something special.”
As of press time, the situation remained in flux. Bucco was pushing four separate bills through the statehouse to try to get funding for the commission, including one that would allocate $700,000 from the $4.2 million the state collects in boat registration fees. “It’s such a beautiful lake, and to let it turn into a swamp is unconscionable,” says Bucco, who visited Bertrand Island in his youth but has no other ties to the lake today. “I don’t think it’s going to be doom and gloom next summer, but with all this progress, we can’t let it go back to what it was like in the ’90s. It’s a state-owned lake,  and the state of New Jersey has a responsibility to be a steward to it.”

If Bucco’s efforts prove fruitless, Ondish is trying to come up with a plan to raise funds through sources such as ramp or slip fees. “No matter how we collect it, we want to keep [the funds] local,” he says.
The faltering economy is not helping matters, and how the recession will affect lake recreation is unknown. Will people be inclined to skip the gas-guzzling motorboat escapes this summer, or will more area residents choose to spend their vacation time close to home?

The housing scene is another mystery. Craig Bradley, a local Realtor who grew up sailing on Lake Hopatcong and has lived there year-round since 1963, says that lakefront homes continue to bring in substantially higher sale prices than their landlocked counterparts. He says it is difficult to forecast how sale prices will be affected by the recession and can make no generalizations regarding lakefront properties because, unlike areas that grew via developments, each home on the lake is strikingly different from the next.

In late January, Bradley counted about 70 lakefront houses on the market, down from 105 last summer. Last year, he says, 42 lakefronts were sold, down from 60 in 2007 and 104 in 2005. Still, some homes  are quick to sell. “If a person wants a house on the lake, they won’t settle for across the street, and they’ll pay more for it,” he says.

At the south end in Landing, where city folks used to hop off the train and onto steamboats, Girl Scout troop 1769 worked with Bucco to rebuild the decaying concrete seawall. It is an effort that technically began six years ago, when these teenagers were just kids, but has roots that go even further back. “I grew up on Lake Hopatcong, and this was the place where I fished as a little girl with my father,” says troop leader Christine Houtz, who coordinated the efforts.

Up toward the northern end of the lake, the Szigethy family opened the Main Lake Market in 2006, restoring a building that dated back to 1905 but had most recently been a boatyard shop. A spot for fishing, boating, and rowing (complete with a Russian tea room) in the early twentieth century, today the space is a modern-day general store, with fresh sandwiches, ice cream, coffee, and water toys. Upstairs, the walls are lined with historical photos of the lake and the boathouse itself. “Everybody comes in and says, ‘This place is such a little jewel,’” says Erika Simmons, who has worked at the market since it opened. “It has that nice lake feel, and this is probably the best summer job anybody could ask for.”

A reverence for the lake’s history is reflected in the Szigethys’ next project on the east shore, alongside the longstanding Windlass Restaurant. Plans have been presented to the Jefferson Township Board of Adjustment to build on the empty and abandoned lot that had once been the Lakeland boat yard. The proposal includes boat slips, a small office, and—in a throwback to the old days—a miniature golf course.
“The Szigethys are bringing back a little of that element of the past, that resort-type living,” says Kane, who cites the opening of several lakeside restaurants and a proposal for a hamburger-and-hot-dog stand in the River Styx area as signs that the lake remains a recreational asset—even if backyard barbecues, wakeboarding, and three-bedroom colonials have replaced dance halls, canoeing, and sprawling stone-faced estates.

Teaching local students about Lake Hopatcong history and hosting historical programs are ways that Kane aims to ensure that future generations will continue to appreciate the vestiges of the lake’s past. “For a long time, kids growing up in the towns around the lake would learn history without realizing there was real history where they grew up,” he says. “Awareness will breed more interest and desire to preserve ways of life and [historical] buildings.”

The shoreline and people may have changed over the years, but I consider myself blessed to have experienced the lake way of life—sailing, diving from docks, and relaxing on Hopatcong’s shores. Though I missed out on the roller coaster, I still got to whirl through a historical landscape and have a fabulous time.

To read more stories from our Waterfront Getaways issue, click on the links below:

Pinelands Odyssey

The Take on Lakes

Rollin’ Down the Delaware

On the Waterfront

Pleasant Crossing

Walking the Waterfront

Down by the River

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