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History of Lake Hopatcong – The Largest Lake in NJ
Cover image by Terry Ballard. Contributions by Jeremy Travers.
Lake Hopatcong is the largest freshwater lake in New Jersey. The lake measures nine miles in length, and with its many coves, islands, and points has 40 miles of shoreline. The lake was created during the last ice age and started out as two smaller spring-fed lakes. What was known as Great Pond was located from what is now Hopatcong State Park north to Nolan’s Point. A small stream connected Great Pond to Little Pond which was located in what is now known as the Lake Forest or the Woodport area.
The First Residents
The Lenape tribe were the first residents of the lake over 12,000 years ago. It was an ideal setting with a vast body of water plentiful with fish and bountiful forests to hunt. There are several theories as to the origin of the lakes name. The most common is said that the name of the lake came from the Lenape Indian word for “stone water” or “stone over water”. Some believe “Hopatcong” to be a derivative of the Lenape word hapakonoesson meaning “pipe stone”. A third interpretation is that it was derived from the Lenape word Huppakong meaning “honey waters of many coves”, but this wording was probably created in the early 1900’s to stimulate the booming tourism industry.
It was not until after the war of 1812 that the country entered the age of canal building. It was the first step toward creating an interstate highway system to move products and goods around the country. It was during this time period that the idea of creating the Morris Canal was developed.
The canal would connect the Delaware River and the Hudson River making way for commerce to expand across Northern New Jersey. The canal needed mass amounts of water to support the canal system. It is said that George MacCulloch, a Morristown businessman, came up with the idea of using Lake Hopatcong as the canal’s water source while fishing on the lake. Lake Hopatcong was the highest point of the canal system which meant water could flow both east and west on the canal.
The Morris Canal Company was created in 1824 and ran until 1924. Although its future was not as successful a venture as its developers had envisioned the canal did set the stage for the lake to become one of the biggest resort areas around.
The Morris Canal prompted the building of railroads to the local mines in the area and lake. Nolan’s Point was chosen as the railroads terminal as it was the deepest point on the lake.
This made it easy for barges with goods easy to pull across the lake to the canal at its southern end. The railroad company saw the potential to begin bringing people to the lake and in 1882 the first passenger train arrived at Nolan’s Point and the beginning of the tourism boom had started.
The only way to get around the lake and its many hotels and camps were by water as the road system around the lake were virtually nonexistent. This led to the development of several steamboat service companies to transport people and goods to the different parts of the lake.
The lake would undergo great development along its shores and on its islands such as Raccoon and Halsey where camps and great Victorian “cottages” were developed.
In Mt. Arlington an entire millionaire’s community was developed called Breslin Park. It included the “Mira Lacum” house that was built in 1895 for famed 19th century architect Francis Himpler.
Lake Hopatcong was a magnet for the era’s rich and famous. The most famous female actress of the day was Lotta Crabtree and she had a home built on the lake not far from the “Mira Lachum” house. in 1885- which still stands today near Lee’s County Park.
Noted scientist and inventor -Hudson Maxim- came to the lake in the early part of the 20th century and built a large estate on the western shore of Hopatcong. Maxim was the inventor of smokeless gunpowder and a variety of other high explosives as well as an author and scientist. He was called “the most versatile man in America” by his good friend Thomas Edison.
During the heyday of the Vaudeville and Burlesque era, the lake was a favorite vacation spot for such stars as Budd Abbot, Bert Lahr, and Milton Berle. The center for this activity was famed vaudeville and Broadway actor Joe Cook who had a sprawling estate named “Sleepless Hollow” in Hopatcong’s Davis Cove. The estate boasted a 9-hole golf course, two bars, and tennis court. Cook lived at the lake from 1924 to 1941.
By 1900 there were over 40 hotels and rooming houses on the lake. Many concentrated around the railroad and Nolan’s Point. The point became a major tourist hub of the lake with the creation of The Lake Pavilion Hotel by John L. Allen in 1887. In addition to having an orchestra playing twice a day it offered an ice cream soda fountain, confectionery, souvenirs, photography studio, and amusements. In 1928 the Allen’s sold the Lake Pavilion after 41 years of ownership and the property became part of the new Nolan’s Point Amusement Park. Nolan’s Point Amusement Park was created to compete with the Bertrand Island Amusement Park in Mt. Arlington which was seeing great success.
As the times changed and transportation needs evolved the use of trains declined which reduced the number of visitors to Nolans Point. The Great Depression also added to the challenge of keeping the Nolan’s Point Amusement Park open and in 1933 it closed. Bertrand Island Amusement Park remained open for another 50 years hosting an array of entertainers over the years from a young Dean Martin and even beauty pageants and in its later years held amazing weekly firework displays.
Year Round Residents
Following World War II, the lake continued to grow as a popular summer destination evolving into a middle-class bungalow and second home community. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s the lake saw an increase of bars and taverns along with other forms of entertainment such as numerous beaches, miniature golf courses, and a zoo located in Hopatcong. The lake was a grand place for family entertainment during the summer months.
As the construction of Interstate 80 reached the lake area in the 1960s this brought more people to the area accelerating the evolution of the lake as a summer community. The lake was a place where a butcher from New York City could afford to buy a vacation home where his family could spend the whole summer creating memories. By the late 1970’s all remnants of its days as a summer resort area had disappeared. More and more of the homes on the lake were converted to year-round residences. The last of the grand hotels had burned to the ground and with the closing of the Bertrand Island Amusement Park in 1983 the evolution was complete. Lake Hopatcong had become a residential community.
Today Lake Hopatcong is made up of mainly year-round residents that reside in 4 municipalities and two counties. The lake is owned by the state and is part of the state park system. As development continues around its shores and with the increase in the lake’s population there have been many challenges maintaining the health of the lake. The municipalities and its residents of the lake along with the state have committed to preserving the lake for future generations to enjoy. While the lake is barely a shadow of what it once was, Lake Hopatcong remains today a unique and special recreational and environmental resource.