The following was written by a resident who grew up here.
In 1939, Halsey A. Frederick, Mayor of Mountain Lakes since 1932, and previously Councilman and Council President since 1929, wrote the following:
“Mountain Lakes was incorporated as a Borough just fifteen years ago. Previously our residential area was part of two townships — Hanover and Boonton; our roads were bad; our water supply inadequate, with residents on water rations during dry seasons; our water mains too small for fire protection; our lake dams insecure; our only school a Hanover Township school in which we had little control; our children in the Boonton Township area not eligible to attend the school without special dispensation, and our pupils beyond the ninth grade obliged to commute to Morristown. Efforts to compel the Water Company to increase its water were unavailing and practically nothing could be done to improve the roads, since township authorities repaired only the township roads, and the development company had all but collapsed. The whole situation was intolerable and incorporation as an independent municipality was the only solution. So we became a Borough.
“In the fifteen years that have passed we have not only remedied the distressing conditions with which we previously were confronted but have added many desirable features for our convenience, comfort and safety. Perhaps most important of all we have, by agreements with the development company and by zoning, confirmed for the future the character of Mountain Lakes as a fine residential park. Without these accomplishments and the improvements of these fifteen years there is grave doubt if we could have weathered the difficult nine years just passed and if our homes would have much value now. In retrospect, the stake which we have won seems large compared with its cost.”
Is this the way it was…?
Mountain Lakes didn’t just happen. It is the product of the foresight and initiative of men like Halsey Frederick who, in a time of crisis, saw what had to be done and did it. As you leaf through these brief reminiscences you will encounter occasional reflections on the transformation Mayor Frederick described in his 1939 State-of-the-Borough Report quoted above, filtered through the eyes of a young citizen who watched the drama unfold.
DUKE DE MUD
It may come as a shock to the reader that there was a time in Mountain Lakes, as elsewhere, when roads were unpaved. Here, the paving frenzy peaked between 1926 and 1930, to accommodate everything from sleek Pierce Arrows of the well-to-do-soon-to-be-disenfranchised, to the Model-T Fords of the more fortunate, and less vulnerable. Model-T’s, like their owners, were better mudders anyway. One day, before the asphalt avalanche, a young woman was thrown from her horse into a mud puddle which had been patiently waiting in front of our house for just such an occasion. After determining that nothing more than pride was damaged, and after securing her horse to a nearby tree, my father carried her into the house, depositing her on the couch for a brief recovery period, all of which was very exciting for this three-year old. Indeed, it was almost as exciting as the time the coal wagon, drawn by Dixon’s best team, threw it’s left-rear wheel on Valley Road. In this case, however, it was the Niagara of coal and the staccato epithets of the driver, (something about a cotter pin), that really caught my attention.
The Boulevard and Morris Avenue, as through streets, had been the earliest to enjoy the favor of the road builders, who became the folk heroes of our youth. Watching them build the secondary streets, we were fascinated by everything from their precision shovel work, to their perfectly-formed trenches, and especially to their strange language and the two-foot hoagies (could this have been my imagination?) they ate for lunch! Of course, it was the handsome and cultured steam-shovel operator who called himself Duke de Mud who caught my attention through his extraordinary skill in earth moving, and his regular visits to our back door for drinking water. A true gentleman, my mother said. These were the people whose hands created our infrastructure: The roads, storm sewers, bridges and retaining walls that, with occasional refurbishment, continue to enhance our environment with beauty and utility, without intruding upon it.
ARTHUR STRINGER AND THE TOURNE
Arthur Stringer, the Canadian author and poet who lived at 130 Laurel Hill Road, shared his love of the pastoral beauties of this area with others by leading occasional nature walks. My mother was among those who enjoyed these outings, however, her freedom was somewhat limited by a 3 1/2-year old (who nevertheless generally took care of himself). The solution: Take him along! That was my introduction to the Tourne. Challenged by the steep northeast face, I nevertheless made it to the top, which accomplishment I’ve always credited to the imposing figure of Arthur Stringer, his pipe, his walking stick, and his gravelly voice — Carlton Heston, in his better days, couldn’t have been a greater inspiration! At least that’s how I remember it. Arthur Stringer also had a twinkle in his eye: While in his overalls repairing a roof leak one Saturday afternoon, he projected a scowl over the eaves and greeted a door-to-door salesman, (such vendors were a cultural phenomenon of the Depression), by shouting: They ain’t home! And if they was, they wouldn’t buy nuthin’ — They’s too stingy!
There is a path that follows the originally-planned trolley right-of-way from Birchwood Lake through the swampy area beyond, ultimately depositing the energetic walker at the base of the Tourne. Around 1910 Mountain Lakes, Inc. talked the Morris County Traction Company into developing the Boulevard Route, defined by the current walking path,. Nevertheless, cuts and fills, artifacts of the original plan, remain to either confuse, interest, or be ignored or overlooked by the casual pilgrim. Take note of those disappearing remnants of our past and everything else that meets your fancy. The ghosts of fun and romance dwell there. Mountain Lakes young people have always considered the Tourne and the surrounding woods their own. In fact, this was virtually true by default for many years before the redefinition of these as public lands. With boys and boys, girls and girls, and boys and girls, the cry has always been: Lets go to the Tourne! With its caves and panorama, it remains one of the Wisconsin Glacier’s characteristic sculptures, essentially unblemished for ten-thousand years, its stoss and lee slopes well preserved for the exploration by, and the enjoyment of, future generations.
THE UNQUENCHABLES: TWO THAT GOT AWAY
There was a time in the early days when the speed with which firemen and their equipment arrived at the scene far exceeded the speed at which water arrived. This condition was being frantically addressed by replacing eleven miles of two-inch water main with four-inch main, even as two of our most precious landmarks were burning to the ground. One casualty, the Mountain Lakes Inn, stood on the corner presently occupied by Coldwell-Banker- Realty on Crane Road, when it was the Boulevard. Mr. Hapgood built the Inn to accommodate prospective buyers of properties in Mountain Lakes. At the time of its demise in 1929, as its function had all but disappeared, the Inn itself retired in a blaze of glory or perhaps I should say a glorious blaze. My mother attended the fire, it being in the neighborhood, and she later expressed doubt that it had been necessary for my father to walk the ridge, systematically chopping holes in the roof to ventilate the attic, since the place was already derelict and, as Neil Yaccarino firmly held the nozzle and hollered for water, the response was only a drip, and the place burned down anyway. The date was June 29, 1930. Too bad they hadn’t replaced the two-inch main yet.
The other casualty of note was the Mountain Lakes Club — a classic example of Hapgood design. The fire started in the kitchen around 5:30 on New Year’s Eve, 1928. It was a very cold night, common in those days, and the commuter-firemen, returning on the 6:20, were met by their wives at the station. The wives were bearing their husbands’ boots, foul-weather gear, and tumblers of brandy to warm and fortify them for the long and grueling night ahead. Arriving at the Club in good time and good spirits, they immediately realized that all was lost, and, I was later told, spent the rest of the night playing hoses at each other across the retreating flames while the party went elsewhere. Nearby, I was spending the night at Bob Thompson’s house at the top of the hill on Lake Drive. Anyone would have found it a spectacular sight — but especially two impressionable five-year-olds, their two cold noses pressed against one cold pane on the third floor of No. 44 Lake Drive, saying over and over, just above a whisper: W-o-w…w-o-w….. .
PUBLIC SAFETY AND HARRY DENNIS
Police Chief Harry Dennis (seated with hat)
For its first 30 years, the Police Department had variously one or two full-time police officers, augmented by several volunteers, and two motor cycles. The volunteer force peaked during prohibition. One of the original professional officers, Harry Dennis, became chief in the early days and continued in that role until after WW2. In addition to being a significant force in rearing the community’s teens in ways their parents seemed unable to, Harry was a brave and honorable man. One July night in 1933, he was notified of the hijacking of a ”silk truck” (that’s a silktruck, not a silk truck) westbound from Paterson on Route 6 (later U.S. 46). He intercepted the stolen truck on Fox Hill (loaded trucks only made about 3 mph up that hill) and apprehended the two hijackers just as one squeezed the trigger —- click —- and Harry was blessed with a misfire. Harry made the arrest and saved the unspent shell as a souvenir along with his J. Edgar Hoover Medal for bravery.
In earlier days Mountain Lakes had two paid policemen, a Mr. Morgan and our beloved Harry Dennis who later became Chief as discussed above. At this earlier time, however, the Chief was a volunteer by the name of William Lewis. Bill was dedicated to his job and, since the State did little or nothing about road signs in those days, he posted one of his own on the Boulevard near the Lake Drive School which was the only public school in town at that time. The sign warned: “9 M. P. H.” At that rate, it’s not surprising that, among other lawbreakers, he one day netted a young mother and her 3.5 year-old son kiting down the Boulevard in their Model-T at the frightening speed of 25 MPH. As Officer Lewis started to throw the book at her, the child peeked through a hole in the isinglass curtain of the rear seat and interrupted with: “How do you do Mr. Morgan?” —— then from the Mother in whispered tones: “It’s not Mr. Morgan”——– followed by the child trying again: “How do you do Mr. Dennis?”———-and then the worried Mother’s less-whispered tone: “It’s not Mr. Dennis—– I think the gentleman’s name is Mr. Lewis”——– followed by: “How do you do Mr. Lewis?”. Mr. Lewis smiled. There was no ticket. I wish I could do that.
Lake Drive School opened in November 1914, its first four classrooms earning Hanover Township cheers and plaudits from an appreciative citizenry. It cost $23,000. Six years later it had ten classrooms, and that’s how I first found it in 1928. We kindergartners in the southeast corner classroom had 1/2 pint of milk and Graham crackers for a snack between weaving and running-around time. In first grade, at the Community Church (space shortage, you know), I reached the highest point of my academic career by demonstrating to Miss Buckman that I could read A. A. Milne’s The King’s Breakfast, complete with my mother’s inflections. When advised of this extraordinary feat, my mother assured her that I was faking it, and it was uphill from there on. As a candidate for most memorable person, Mr. Skidmore, (or Skiddy as we called him), the Lake Drive Custodian, was truly a life-long friend to all who passed through his province. The teachers were generally thoughtful, sensitive, and very well qualified to handle, or perhaps I should say guide, the eclectic bunch of K-through-niners they confronted daily in Lake Drive School. After Lake Drive, people were shuttled off to either Morristown or Boonton High School. The resulting annual confrontations between Mountain Lakes athletes on opposing teams helped spark an intense rivalry between those two schools.
Briarcliff High School, which came at a price of $196,000, was finally approved on the third referendum when the opposition realized that $70,000 of the cost would come as a PWA (not WPA) grant from the federal government. PWA was the Public Works Administration, and as its name implies, was a much more business-like agency than the Works Progress Administration, which had a more make-work flavor. In any event, the grant was gratefully accepted although, in spite of it, most of the beneficiaries still went out and voted for Alf Landon in the next Presidential election. Briarcliff was opened in 1936 (8 thru 11) and filled in 1937 (7 thru 12). Abe Smith, Rutgers ~’34, was our Athletic Director, founder of the Mountain Lakes athletic dynasty, and warmly remembered by all who served and learned under him. The most serious student crisis early on involved the selection of school colors. There was an extended debate, with dialogue including: “Just because they are used by University of Illinois doesn’t mean that Orange and Blue are compatible colors!” Interpolation of the Notre Dame Fight Song provoked argument surrounding the phrase: “for right ahead is old Mountain Lakes” — right ahead?? — old?? — Does ‘ahead’ refer to the score or does it suggest that people should go around dribbling the basketball behind them, or only throw laterals? Well, you all know that right ahead won over right behind, but I think there may still be some holdouts. There always are. Thank goodness.
In the beginning, there were no fish and no beaches. Then there were perch, catfish, sunfish, and an occasional bass, but no beaches. There were ancient 18-inch snapping turtles, but no beaches. I won’t go into the snakes, but in spite of them, there were no beaches. And then there were beaches, sort of. The first real beach, at the Mountain Lakes Club, was sanded in the late teens, for members only. Two years later, what is now the Midvale Boat dock appeared on maps as the Public Beach. At the time, and for many years later, this choice of the word Beach revealed a strong tendency for exaggeration on the map maker’s part. Although I wasn’t around early on, as far as I know, there was never either a lifeguard or a grain of sand in attendance. As another option, I recall that in the late 20’s, there was a diving board and a lot of rocks at the southern end of Crystal Lake. Also, about that time, “Pop” Leonard, who lived at 45 Briarcliff Road, developed a fine beach on the eastern shore (the dam site) of the Little Lake (Wildwood), but it too was private, though the fee was modest.
Meanwhile, on the Big Lake, sand and a springboard had appeared at The Dam, or The Damn, as we called it, at Lake Drive and Rockaway Terrace. Having just returned from The Dam (with family of course) on Saturday July 10, 1926, and having removed my bathing suit (picture a nude 2 1/2 year old), I ran (toddled?) to the rattling window in response to a sustained rolling roar, rather like an extended peal of thunder, punctuated by sharp reports — the explosion of the U.S. Naval Arsenal at Lake Denmark. I believe that day was also marked by my learning to swim(an overstatement, perhaps?). But I digress. The public remained patient on the beach front into the early 30’s. After all, there was a Depression going on. Then someone discovered that the Borough-owned property at the foot of Tower Hill Road was an ideal site for what ultimately became Island Beach. Surprisingly, the same lake-front property, which was the last available suitable site for a public beach on the Big Lake, had been up for auction in 1927, and through either good judgment or good fortune, the Borough acquired it. Island Beach has served us well, but it wasn’t until many years later, following WW-II, and the Navy advanced-sonar experiments in acoustically-quiet Crystal Lake, that in neighboring Birchwood we undertook a noisier development in the form of first-class, competition-level, swimming and diving facilities for which the Community had waited almost half a century
SAILING ON THE BIG LAKE
During the 30’s, Snipes and a Cape Cod Sailer were the usual winners in Sunday competition on the Big Lake. [This was before the days of Sunfish sailboats.] The boat with the largest sail area and correspondingly, the greatest wetted hull area, was built by Buzz Barton and Hank Amadon on the back lawn of 38 Pollard Road. It was regularly well back in the pack. There was an occasional challenge from a Snipe-like mahogany boat built by the Himmers who lived in the original stone house at 254 Boulevard. Sailors will confirm that wind conditions on the Big Lake are highly variable. But competitors who honed their sailing skills on this chameleonic surface have gone on to achieve Regional, National and International rankings in sailing competition. So much for the fickle westerlies and the odd shore effects of the Big Lake — it turns out that such challenging conditions are merely a prelude to championships. If you can sail it here, you can sail it anywhere, except maybe a Sunfish in the surf. That requires another kind of experience!
I cannot leave the subject of sailing without mentioning my first sailboat, hand crafted by my father. Its construction featured treated canvas over a wood frame with pontoons for roll stability and leeboards for slip resistance. Since nobody else fit in the cockpit, I had it all to myself, sailing many times between the Cove and Island Beach, running down and tacking back, during the early 30’s. Nor should I fail to mention the water-logged 14 footer my best friend Dick Webb and I badgered my father into salvaging from the northeast end of the Big Lake. Dick and I mostly watched while he did the caulking, fitting up, sailmaking, rigging, then cutting a steel centerboard and fabricating a rudder. Oh yes, we did a little more than watch; but we were really only qualified to caulk and paint. Have you ever wondered where such fathers come from? Well they come out from New York on the 6:20 at night and they go back in to New York on the 7:26 in the morning — they go to School Board meetings several times a month and to fires whenever called upon; they perform numerous miscellaneous other tasks for home and community, and still find time to establish and operate a boat yard behind the garage! Are there really such people anymore?
POLLARD ROAD I: THE CUT
Around the turn of the century, during the age of rail, the Lackawanna Railroad improved and expanded trackage on the Boonton Line between Hoboken and Dover. This was to accommodate a burgeoning demand for heavy freight traffic between New York and Buffalo, while building and maintaining a healthy passenger service for which Mountain Lakes was to become a major source of revenue. A large vertical cut in bedrock was necessary to accommodate the new tracks (four), gracefully routed around the crest of Fox Hill on a line directly southeast of, and parallel to, the centerline of what is now Pollard Road. On the aerial-survey photograph of Mountain Lakes that hangs in the Borough Hall meeting room, the abandoned right-of-way appears as an S-curve intersecting the improved right-of-way at three points. This should be of possible interest to archaeologists of the 25th Century, or railroad buffs of the 20th. Today, with the invasion of the interstates and the passing of the age of rail, the railroad is back to an unexciting single track, but those who were around in the early decades will remember how houses trembled as long steam-drawn freights regularly wheezed and snorted westbound, up the grade and through the cut beside Pollard Road. Air-traffic noise is a lullaby in comparison.
POLLARD ROAD II: SAFARI COUNTRY
During the late 20’s and early 30’s, the W. H. Hills occupied No. 70 Pollard, which Hapgood had marketed as Colonial Hall. It always seemed fitting, and somewhat poetic, that the Hills lived at the top of the hill. Colonial Hall’s two imposing pillars merited the regal name, but they were perhaps less in tune with the surrounding habitat. You see, the Hills were circus people. . .and they possessed the livestock and the colorful lifestyle to prove it. As to color, I recall my mother remarking on the frequent changes in Mrs. Hill’s hair shades (usually from red to RED), or on being greeted upon occasional encounters in the post office with a gracious though saw-dusty: “HELL-O-O-O Dearie”. Their menagerie included monkeys, dogs, and elephants, all trained (in a sense). Will Hill handled the elephants. The number seemed to vary from year to year — somewhere between a pair and a herd. After the Borough passed the livestock ordinance in the early thirties, elephants, monkeys, and horses were exiled. I don’t know where the monkeys went, but the elephants, (and perhaps the ordinance was slightly bent here), were tethered across Bloomfield Avenue (now US 46) behind the future sight of the Faithful Source. What delightful jungle sounds they made in conversation with passing trains.
But while they were still on Pollard Road, the elephants were sheltered in a garage-like structure, built in the Hapgood style, on the uphill lots of the Hill property. That garage-like structure, with aesthetic and functional improvements, presently forms the southwest end of No. 66. One day an elephant slipped tether and wandered across the trail, or road, since I don’t recall whether it was BP (before paving) or AP (after paving), made tracks for No. 63, the Stollers, and aimed for Mrs. Stoller’s dining-room window, just to chat. Being of staunch upstate NY pioneer stock, and a non-drinker, she knew it was a real elephant and she looked it squarely in the eyes. They were lonely eyes. Being as well a person of kindness and sensitivity, she immediately phoned Mr. Hill and suggested earnestly and directly that he take better care of his elephants. Clearly, this elephant was not getting enough attention at home. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if that elephant had chosen an easterly path toward the railway cut.
POLLARD ROAD III: GOING FOR THE RECORD
Long before the invention of snow days, when teachers lived close by, there were fewer opportunities to go sleigh riding. Fortunately, the best sledding was in the evening hours anyway. After dusk the southwest slope of Pollard was in the optimum condition for beating the distance record, when the surface had recovered from any softening during the day. The hill was like an airport with no controller, but it ran itself. Streetlights were a modest but necessary blessing. Everybody knew the rules and the instant penalty of disaster awaiting any violation. . . adherence was instinctive. KEEP TO LEFT COMING AND GOING; WAIT YOUR TURN; MAINTAIN GENEROUS SPACING BETWEEN DEPARTURES, and PASS THE WARNING: CAR-R-R-R-R to suspend operations when residents required access at the Rockaway Terrace barrier.
Not without risk, it was all for the sake of the run: A rush of adrenaline, a flying start. . .then slamming onto the hard-packed surface and accelerating down the upper slope, anticipating the thrill of becoming airborne at the drop-off (No. 80), rattling past No. 88 at maximum speed, then flaring out beyond Rockaway Terrace, cruising around the bend, and, under optimum conditions of surface, runners, and gross weight, making it up the rise and onto the flat at Orvis’s driveway (No. 129). Good run, but not the record — that was Motley’s driveway (No. 139). Some enterprising young souls had to ice the hill and overload a bobsled to make it! Ralph Wells was aboard that night — ask him to describe the terror and exhilaration of that run. Some famous birdmen trained on Pollard Road in those early days. If you live in the neighborhood, and you free your senses, you can hear echoes of their young voices on the hill; hear and feel the passing trains made audible and tangible anew, and rise to sounds of the jungle, the trumpeting of elephants. . . . .as of long ago.