Protecting Lake Hopatcong through the decades

LAKE HOPATCONG, NJ – The first residents of the area surrounding Great Pond practiced

controlled burning to clear the land for farming. They hunted the abundant deer. They made good lives for themselves for many years.

They called one of their settlements Succasunny for "place of the black rock," without knowing that black rock would change everything.

When the white settlers discovered the black rock (iron ore), they dug the mines and cleared the forests for charcoal to fuel furnaces. According to history writer Bob Koppanhaver, writing in Skylands Visitor Magazine, the fuel demand for an active blast furnace could be up to an acre per day.

They also built the early railroads to take the ore from the mines to the forges.

Another important discovery, coal, in Pennsylvania, became the nation’s energy source. While Great Pond, the largest natural lake in the state, had been dammed before, the large dam at what is now Hopatcong State Park was constructed to provide water for the Morris Canal, an engineering marvel that crossed New Jersey from Phillipsburg to Jersey City to carry coal from the Lehigh Valley to the port.

Lake Hopatcong as it is now was formed in the early 1820s.

The industrialization of cities such as Newark and Hoboken and, of course, New York City,

created a class of people who could afford to spend at least part of the summer somewhere north and west and at a higher elevation. In the days before air-conditioning, it was the best way to escape the city heat. The shore was not yet THE destination.

The height of the lake’s popularity passed long ago. During the Victorian Era, beautiful hotels ringed the lake. Those who couldn’t afford them stayed in more modest boarding houses. The elaborate "cottages" of the Gilded Age were joined by tiny bungalows.

Because tourism was dependent on the railroad, it was interrupted when rail service was

needed to transport munitions from the Atlas Powder Company in what is now the Landing area of Roxbury Township.

But there were golden years after World War I. The stories of the Roaring Twenties on the lake, with loosely enforced Prohibition and visits from Abbott and Costello and Guy Lombardo are shared now by the children and grandchildren of those who remembered them.

At first gradually, then at a pace that outstripped the towns’ ability to provide classrooms, the

summer residences were converted to year-round homes, forever changing the face of the lake.

Shared governance

The Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board was formed to bring the two counties, Morris and Sussex, and the four municipalities -- Jefferson, Mount Arlington, Roxbury and Hopatcong -- together to govern the lake.

When the state built a pipeline to send Lake Hopatcong water to Jersey City’s water supply, even though wells were going dry around the lake, the mayors of the four towns formed a bipartisan coalition to fight for the lake’s water.

But, eventually, the public started to think the planning board wasn’t enough.

By 2000, the Knee Deep Club, a group of sport fishermen who run fishing derbies, stock the lake and perform many services for the community, formed Save the Lake 2000.

Another group of lake business owners founded the Lake Hopatcong Alliance. Both had the goal of improving the lake for business, recreation and the lives of the residents.

The Lake Hopatcong Commission was formed by the state on Jan. 8, 2001, to replace the

Regional Planning Board. The act creating the commission, called the Lake Hopatcong Protection Act, states in part: ". . . commission composed of both local and state officials and representatives to oversee and safeguard Lake Hopatcong as a natural, scenic and recreational resource to ensure the lake may be enjoyed to the fullest possible measure by citizens and visitors to the state."

It is "in" but not "of" the state Department of Environmental Protection, according to its founding documents.

"It’s sort of a clearinghouse for all lake issues," former Chairman Russell Felter said. He recalled the late State Senator Tony Bucco was the driving force behind it. Anthony Albanese was the first chair, Felter recalled, followed by then-Mount Arlington Mayor Art Ondish. Felter, long-time mayor of Jefferson, replaced him for several years. The current chair is Ron Smith.

The Act provided for all state or federal funds "for the protection, preservation, restoration,

maintenance, management or enhancement" of the lake to be allocated to the Commission. The initial appropriation was $3 million in start-up and first-year costs. The commissioners were to develop a budget for each year after that.

However, money became tight over the years.

The state continued to fund weed harvesting, until this year’s Motor Vehicle Commission

shutdown, but the Harmful Algae Bloom created a whole new set of problems.

The Commission and the municipalities and counties work closely with the Lake Hopatcong

Foundation, a non-profit organization that presents programs on lake history and conservation, encourages cultivation of native plants and operates The Study Hull, a floating classroom open to elementary school children and adult groups. Samples taken off The Study Hull are analyzed by students at the Morris County Environmental Academy, part of the county’s technical school held at Jefferson Township High School.

The Foundation was founded in 2012 when lake area businessman Bela Szigethy was concerned about the uncertainty of funding from the state. He based the idea on the Central Park Conservancy, addressing environmental issues such as weed control, water level concerns, boating safety and quality of life issues.

See related story: Lake Hopatcong battles algae and aquatic weeds

About Jane Primerano

Jane Primerano has covered agriculture and environmental issues in the Northeast for nearly a decade after 20+ years of reporting on municipal and county government, police and education for weekly and daily newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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