Three Turning Points in Mountain Lakes History — and the Mayors Who Successfully Preserved the Promise of a Unique Community
Contributed by John Steen
(Edited by the author from an address he gave to the Mountain Lakes Borough Council as Borough Historian on December 26, 1995.)
A time capsule message, dated August 3, 1912, and left by the Directors of the Mountain Lakes Association in the cornerstone of the soon to rise stone railroad station, begins with this wish: “That the Mountain Lakes, which you shall know, shall have fulfilled the splendid promise of the Mountain Lakes of 1912.”
In retrospect, we must be amazed at how the founders of our community could frame so positive a message in a place that had yet to realize any of its “splendid promise.” But our community forefathers possessed more than promise. They had the vision and the civic spirit to overcome many challenges and persevere in the face of crisis and times of historic turning points. From 1922 to 1952, our young community faced down three crises thanks to three mayors, whose vision and leadership matched that of the Directors of the Mountain Lakes Association, founded on July 5, 1911 to represent residents’ interests in a continuous dialog with builder Herbert J. Hapgood.
Crisis #1: Hapgood’s Departure Leaves Us Vulnerable
For the first 13 years, the Mountain Lakes Association was the nearest we came to local government. Its dialog with Hapgood ended abruptly in 1922 with the bankruptcy of Hapgood’s Mountain Lakes, Inc. and the departure of Mr. Hapgood himself. This unexpected development endangered the covenants guaranteed by Hapgood’s development company for all the houses and lands it had sold to the residents. These covenants, commonly called “property restrictions,” were the kinds of standards included in today’s zoning laws. Purely residential districts, hundred foot frontage requirements, and uniform setbacks are examples. The Association didn’t want a new developer to come on the scene who would not respect the existing property restrictions, and thereby change the community radically, ruin property values, and ultimately the ideal family life of our community. After much discussion, the Association decided that we had to become self-governing. That was very, very difficult to do. But, in less than a year, March to December 1923, the Association won the unanimous support of the community for incorporation of Mountain Lakes as a borough in April 1924.
Two months later came the election our first Mayor, William R. Doremus, and our first Council.
Mr. Doremus had been one of the Association leaders with the vision to see that the community needed the self-determination to exercise sufficient control over its own future. Prior to becoming our mayor, he was our representative to the government of Hanover Township, the municipality that included most of Mountain Lakes. He had been working for the Ingersoll-Rand Corporation for about 30 years, and he was its comptroller. He said in later years that it was all those years in the company, a very intelligently run company, in which the chief executives relied upon the department heads who were experts in their areas and gave them the authority and the responsibility to act, that gave him the experience he used as our mayor. That became Mr. Doremus’s model for working with the Borough Council, one followed by the Borough Council for a long time. He was also co-owner of the Mountain Lakes News, so he was privy to what went on in town. The newspaper was also very much a part of our civic fiber, a democratic instrument that played a major role in keeping residents informed.
One of Mayor Doremus’s early accomplishments was to talk Fred Rubidge, a semi-retired civil and mechanical engineer, into becoming Borough Engineer in 1927, a post he held for over 20 years. Mr. Rubidge presided over the work necessary to produce an infrastructure for the borough that matched all of Mr. Hapgood’s early promises. We finally had a reliable municipal water system throughout the town!
Crisis #2: The Depression Makes All Towns Vulnerable
Halsey Frederick was Mayor for 12 years, January 1, 1933 through 1944—never once running in a contested election. His approval rating, as we would put it today, was phenomenal. He was a man who believed in this community, in civics, in public benefit and the public interest, like few other people who ever lived here, and that was universally recognized. What we know him for today is having made it possible for us to survive the Depression, and come out an even stronger community at the end of World War II. As FDR was to the nation, Halsey Frederick was to our borough at the same time.
As across the nation, the Depression dealt despair and suffering when property after property here fell into arrears and into the hands of the banks for non-payment of mortgages. This meant that a lot of land could be bought very, very cheaply by anybody. The Belhall Company, successor to Mountain Lakes, Inc., was no longer able to construct new homes, and it too was driven into bankruptcy. Once again, Mountain Lakes faced a control problem.
This time, Mayor Frederick realized that something more radical was necessary. We had to buy that land in order to control it, and control our future. He initiated action in 1937, and by 1939, having the prior authority of tax liens, he had successfully purchased mortgaged properties with a market value of $700,000 (then assessed at $180,000) for a small fraction of their worth. He was then able to come up with a plan to preserve some of that land, to market other properties in a measured, reasonable way into the 1940s, and through the sale of those properties, to realize more than was actually owed the borough in taxes. His move was not only highly successful financially, but more important, it was civic genius, a very responsible, farsighted thing to do, for it enabled us to maintain our original design, character, and lifestyle. In Frederick’s own words, “We controlled the future development of Mountain Lakes in a way which zoning laws and deed restrictions could never have controlled, because we owned it.”
Frederick’s move was also historic. A noted textbook, American City Planning Since 1890, written by Mel Scott at the University of California in 1969, cites Mountain Lakes as the only community of any size in the United States which has been able for over half a century or more, to maintain its original design and lifestyle, a goal beyond the ability of any other communities to achieve. It accomplished that feat through the mechanism of purchasing any lands that were in danger of being developed adversely to the character of the community, and thereby seizing control and maintaining control over its development. So, we’re in the books, for what is essentially civic-minded leadership in the face of great challenges.
Halsey Frederick followed the precedent established by Mayor Doremus of delegating authority to his councilmen to handle the details of governing. The purchase of all the foreclosed properties required all kinds of agreements from political leaders and authorities in Trenton, work he delegated to a young councilman named Richard M. Wilcox who was very inexperienced, but enthusiastic about the task. It proved to be an invaluable tutelage for him in civic leadership – training he called upon when he became mayor in 1949.
Crisis #3: The Need to Move Quickly on the Fox Hill Lakes Area
Early in Richard Wilcox’s term as mayor, the Planning Board was in continuous discussion and negotiation with the developer who owned the Fox Hill Lakes section of the borough. This was ice company property that was never controlled by Mr. Hapgood except for a little part of East Shore Road, and constituted three lakes (Birchwood, Crystal and Sunset) and two ponds, a magnificent topography aesthetically, and an important part of this town. The Planning Board, on behalf of the town, was going to be particular about how it was developed. When the Planning Board came to deem the presumptive developer no longer credible, fearing he would not develop the property in keeping with the character of Mountain Lakes, Mayor Wilcox decided that another purchase was necessary. This solution was accomplished more quickly than in either of the two earlier crises. In a matter of a couple of months, the authority was given in Trenton, and in July 1952, the borough purchased 240 acres for $60,000.
Yet Another Crisis Averted By a Civic-Minded Former Mayor
Richard Wilcox retired as mayor at the end of 1954, but his civic life was far from over. In 1955, he confronted a new crisis. The Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad proposed to eliminate all passenger service on the Boonton line. Our town, like the others all the way to Montclair, felt that it was not a good idea, certainly not going to make life any easier, and that this end of passenger service should be opposed. The towns chose Richard Wilcox as their spokesman and leader. And chose wisely, for he was very successful in overturning the Lackawanna’s plan and getting the railroad to acknowledge, in July 1955, that the towns needed that service. That acknowledgment has echoed through the years: when the Lackawanna was merged into the Erie, and later when it became Conrail, and still later when New Jersey Transit took over the passenger service, none of those subsequent authorities ever questioned the necessity of maintaining passenger service on the Boonton branch, even though it’s the least utilized, and probably the least efficient financially, of all the operations in Northern New Jersey.
A Community Empowered Through Democracy
Communities grow, people age, and places change. But all three can have continuity as they do that, so that even as time moves on, one can still recognize the original character, the original value, in each of them. And that’s what preservation is really about. It’s to insure that what comes later is in harmony with what’s already here.
Most of all, our civic process exemplifies how democracy in action can empower a community to realize and then to maintain its original vision. Again and again, Mountain Lakes showed that we had what G. K. Chesterton in 1908 called “the democratic faith,” stressing that “the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves.”
John Steen was Borough Historian from 1993-1997.