“Are you new to this area?” asked the elderly gentleman.
“Umm…visiting from South Jersey.” I said while noticing his long hair in a pony tail and his perfect white beard.
“Typically you would see ice fishing at this time of the year…” he said while lighting a cigarette. We were standing in front of beautiful Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake, on a cold but sunny day, in the first week of December.
As I was observing the old cottage houses along the jagged shoreline, he pointed in the distance towards some new condos and said with an iota of sadness in his voice: “It is hard to believe that the amusement park is now closed for 30 years. I remember coming here 60 years ago as a kid. They had so many wonderful rides and games…a wooden roller coaster…Boomerang ride…Tilt-a-Whirl…Aerojet…Ferris wheel…Dodgem cars…we could come with a dollar and keep busy all night, as each ride was only 5 cents!”
After listening to the vivid recollections of this gentleman, I did some digging at the tiny local museum and found that Lake Hopatcong was a very popular resort in the past. Its location near New York city, large size of the lake and height above sea level, earned it the nickname of “the jewel of the mountains.” When passenger rail service connected it in the late 1800s, a great number of hotels and entertainment venues opened up attracting vacationers from the northeast and beyond. It became famous for beauty pageants, boat races and carnivals. The rich and famous from the city owned cottages and spent time relaxing here.
Lotta Crabtree, one of America’s wealthiest women who performed on stage from 1850 to 1891, had a grand cottage by the lake. Joe Cook, one of the biggest Broadway musical comedy stars in the 1920s, owned a house called “Sleepless Hollow” that had a theatre, tennis courts, a nine hole golf course and two bars! His grand piano with signatures of hundreds of fellow artists, as well as other artifacts can be viewed at the museum.
The Great Depression forced the hotels and entertainment venues to close down as people had no money to afford vacations. Fires destroyed most of the old buildings. After the war, the place started developing again, and flourished in the 50s and 60s. These were golden years, and it was the time when the elderly gentleman I was talking to, was a kid. For many kids of that generation this was the first place they were allowed to go without parents. And for teenagers at that time, the place provided the first summer jobs.
By the 70s, America was changing with the slowing of the baby boom, and competition had emerged from larger and more modern amusement parks. People started flying to Florida and California for their vacations. Smaller parks that could not expand or modernize started succumbing to slowing demand, and were forced to close down. Finally on the Labor Day of 1983, the Lake Hopatcong amusement park at Bertrand Island closed its doors.
But I could see that the amusement park had found a permanent place in the hearts of the people.
Residents around the Lake have seen great ups and downs. The place has now evolved with a lot of new construction. The local people have had to adjust to a new Time.
As we drove back home that evening, I was reminded of a Nicolas Poussin painting “A Dance to the Music of Time.”
There are 4 central figures in the painting, holding hands and moving clockwise in a circle. Earlier these figures were thought to represent the 4 seasons, but later scholars believe the figures represent Poverty, Labor, Wealth and Pleasure.
Unlike other paintings with a similar theme, in Poussin’s painting, it is hard to distinguish the figures. One slowly leads to the other, but they are all surprisingly very similar in their appearance and movement. Perhaps signifying a constant process of change.
The Lake shimmers calmly as if nothing has changed. While the world around it dances elegantly to the music of Time.