by Kat Kurylko, Research Assistant
June 22, 2021
Mountain Lakes is known for its Arts and Crafts style homes, but the story of its shaky and colorful development has faded from memory. Conceived in 1908 by land surveyor Lewis Van Duyne and developer Herbert Hapgood, the area was promoted to New York city-dwellers, despite its swampy surroundings, as an oasis free of mosquitoes and complete with all the latest conveniences. The promise of cutting-edge electric lighting, asphalt roads, and an “artesian” water system tucked in among gorgeous scenery attracted many interested buyers, including several stage and screen actors. Mountain Lakes was soon abuzz with activity and newsworthy social events. However, under the surface, there was trouble in paradise.
By 1911, homes were still without lawns as pickaxes continued to turn up enough boulders “to build the pyramids.” Charmingly named roads like Pickwick Lane and Rainbow Trail remained unpaved with ruts so large that travelers could easily find themselves in a ditch. Tree stumps littered the lakes forcing boaters to navigate an invisible maze that made rowing “a never ending adventure.” If that wasn’t enough, in 1917 the town was plagued by a raucous swarm of cicadas, and one week before July 4th, a pet alligator escaped from its home, forcing the town’s waterways “off-limits to bathers until the rascally reptile was recaptured.” As the early 1920s dawned, the electric streetlights had yet to be installed. Perhaps worst of all, residents’ faucets began to spurt tadpoles and frogs because the “artesian” water system was actually a mosquito-larvae-infested pond.
Dodging creditors and disgruntled homeowners, Hapgood fled to Rio de Janeiro in 1922 and then to Sydney, Australia, where he died in 1929. After Hapgood’s departure, the community, still faithful to the original vision of a modern community in nature, became an independent municipality in 1924. Today, residents of Mountain Lakes take great pride in the borough’s unique character and embrace the rich, interesting history of its pioneer days.