History: The Great Depression at the Lake

great_depression_1With so much economic talk these days, and discussion of whether this is a recession or a depression, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at how Lake Hopatcong coped with the Great Depression.

The teens and ’20s were the height of the lake’s run as a great northeast resort.  With some forty hotels and rooming houses, two amusement parks, and numerous entertainment venues operating, Lake Hopatcong concluded the 1929 season riding high.  No one could have foreseen the events soon to unfold.

While the seeds of the Great Depression had been sown in the preceding years (that familiar ring of cheap money, loose regulatory practices, and real estate speculation), it was the stock market crash of October 1929 that is traditionally considered the start of the Great Depression.  But it would take time for the enormity of the economic collapse to become apparent.  Initially, many felt this was just another economic decline or “panic” that had been witnessed periodically over the years and that, within a year or so, normality would return.  Shortly after the October crash, John D. Rockefeller stated that “these are days when many are discouraged. In the 93 years of my life, depressions have come and gone. Prosperity has always returned and will again.”  As the lake faced the 1930 season, business was certainly down and some hotels and businesses did not open for the season, but most still viewed this as an event which would soon pass.

However, this economic decline dragged on and became worse.  Tourism to Lake Hopatcong continued and most lake businesses tried to hang on.  Indeed, William F. Beck, then a prominent real estate broker located at Sperry Springs, noted in the July 25, 1931 issue of the Lake Hopatcong Breeze that “The so called depression is over; business is good.  Why worry? Just meet ‘em with a smile.  It takes 65 muscles of the face to make a frown and 13 to produce a smile. Why waste energy?”

When American unemployment hit 25% in 1932, it was clear there was nothing normal about the events being witnessed.  Yet throughout the Depression, people kept on  coming out to their summer homes and more than twenty-five hotels still continued to operate at the lake.  Boats still raced across the lake with ever larger motors, sailboats competed every weekend, and the Lake Hopatcong Breeze continued to publish a weekly newspaper for ten weeks each summer.  But the lake was obviously impacted.  The great Castle Edward Hotel closed with the Depression for the 1930 season and burned in 1931.  Other hotels went through bankruptcy and were sold.

With Franklin D. Roosevelt seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Hoover and a strong campaign throughout the country to repeal Prohibition, the Lake Hopatcong Breeze started the 1932 season with an editorial that stated, “What we want repealed is this so-called depression.  And we use ‘so-called’ advisedly as the depression is, largely, merely a state of mind or a matter of relativity.  Let us take, for example, Hyp Gordon—he won’t mind—and Mr. Carlton Baker—he won’t mind either.  Hyp Gordon has lived at Lake Hopatcong more years than you or I. He works now and then, here and there, and he’s never missed his three squares a day.  He fishes a lot and enjoys life and appreciates the beauty of nature and gets a kick out of a gorgeous sunset.  He was to do some work recently on Mr. Baker’s estate and Mr. Baker asked him his price.  The price Quoted was a pre-crash figure. ‘Why, Hyp, don’t you know there’s a depression?’  Hyp’s reply was, ‘Oh, the depression hasn’t reached Lake Hopatcong yet’  And the depression won’t reach Lake Hopatcong if we will all stop talking about it and go about enjoying our summer vacation and help everyone else to enjoy theirs.  There should be no talk of depression at Lake Hopatcong.  This is a play-ground and people cannot play if they are continually informed that they, or we, are depressed. The Breeze wishes to inform its readers that the word ‘depression’ will not appear in its columns again this summer.  Don’t mention it to us and we won’t mention it to you.”  But while the Breeze may not have wanted to admit it, later that season they reported that many of the lake’s visiting entertainers including Milton Berle donated their services for a benefit to raise funds for the Dover Unemployment Relief Fund staged at Dover’s Baker Theatre.

great_depression_3    The experiences of the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club are symbolic of life at the lake during these years.  In 1930 and 1931, the club continued as in previous seasons with an orchestra every Saturday evening.  The 1930 season still featured a public concert, vaudeville, movies, and masquerade ball.  However, while the club put forth full programs for the 1930 and 1931 seasons, it was starting to feel the pinch.  Perhaps it was sardonic humor when in 1931 the Masquerade Ball was changed a few weeks before it was to occur to a “Poverty Dance” in which attendees were to wear something of “ancient vintage.”  The “Hard Times Dance” that August probably said it all.  By 1933 it was specifically noted that the opening dance of the 1933 season did not have a good turnout.  Perhaps most telling was the cancellation of the Masquerade Ball a few weeks before it was to be held.  The annual dinner dance was not scheduled at all.  While much of the frivolity suffered, the Women’s Auxiliary instituted a couple of low cost events in 1933 to bring some life to the club house, putting on a pet show and a flower show.  Such events, open to all, occurred for the rest of the decade.

The 1934 season saw membership at the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club fall to 68 active members.  With a yearly membership fee of $25.00, the Depression had caused the yacht club to shrink to less than half its former membership in a few short years.  Perhaps even more telling, the yacht club’s account at the end of the 1933 season stood at $36.47.  It would rely on donations and loans to get through the 1930’s.  It is therefore not surprising that 1934 saw a much reduced schedule of events with only four dances.  The club did host a Friday night band concert on its grounds by the Emergency Relief Bureau from Morristown.  The concert, open to all, proved popular.

The Depression drew the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club into a close relationship with the Lake Hopatcong Country Club which was having similar problems.  This club was located on Lakeside Boulevard in Hopatcong and operated an 18-hole golf course (today its old club house serves as Hopatcong’s Civic Center).  The two clubs began to cooperate on their scheduling of events.  Joint dances, dinners and card parties became common, with the venues alternating between the two clubs.

As America struggled through the Depression, and some 75% of America’s amusement parks were forced to close, Lake Hopatcong could no longer support two parks.  Nolan’s Point Amusement Park went bankrupt in 1931.  It briefly re-opened under new management, but closed permanently in 1933.  Meanwhile, Bertrand Island Park utilized all types of promotions to boost attendance.  With economic times tough for most Americans, the Bertrand Island instituted “Copper Miners Nights” where children could dig for pennies and later a “Buried Treasure” game in which coins of all values could be found.  The park also introduced dollar dinners and 10 cents a glass draught beer.  At the Ballroom, the dime a dance policy was dropped and instead a small charge was collected to enter the Ballroom and dancing was free.  In 1932, there were “Lucky Nights” which featured  prize giveaways and the concept of all rides being reduced to five cents on certain nights was introduced .  This later evolved into the “Bargain Nights” or “Nickel Nights” which remained a popular feature long after the Depression had ended.  great_depression_2

In 1934, Mayor Lee of Mount Arlington joined officials of other municipalities around the lake, to urge all property owners to employ local residents to the greatest extent possible.  Citing a severe winter, he reported that “Our year-round inhabitants have not much opportunity for year-round labor. The wherewithall to support their families must be acquired mostly in the summer months.”  Showing how far things had fallen the following advertisement ran in the Lake Hopatcong Breeze during the summer of 1935, “Owner says sell for approximately 33 1-3 cents on the dollar. Five bedrooms, 2 baths, living, dining, kitchen, breakfast rooms, sun deck, large enclosed porch, large boathouse, garage, winter home, furnished; approximate cost $25,000; two boats, approximate cost $15,000; West Shore; $12,000 for all.”

Perhaps, the contrast between those that were able to still enjoy summers at the lake and those that had lost everything was apparent when in August 1936 one of the Lake Hopatcong Breeze readers noted “Every Saturday morning in New York City may be seen about two hundred victims of the depression waiting in line at John Street and Dutch Alley for a gentleman who gives each of them ten cents.  On August 15, I stopped and spoke to one of these men who told me that their benefactor was of Rumanian ancestry and in the jewelry business, and, said the man, ‘A dime comes in mighty handy.’  Last Sunday while sitting on my front piazza, I looked out on the Lake with its great number of speedy and expensive motor boats, the less costly but none-the-less thrilling sailboats, the attractive cottages lining the shore with happy and contented residents, and the unending line of autos passing my door, and I am impelled by this strange contrast of the men in New York and we at Hopatcong, so blessed with the comforts and luxuries we enjoy, to tell the first story, lest we forget that to the less fortunate in life.

By 1937 America’s unemployment rate was “down” to some 14% and things certainly appeared to be improving.  The July 10, 1937 edition of the Breeze noted “…the Spirit of ‘29 has returned, with free spending being the keynote of the many holiday joymakers.”  In August 13, 1938, “From the Saturday night crowd it appealed that all signs of the depression have disappeared. For those who arrived after 12 o’clock it was a disappointment as there was no space available for them and they had to go elsewhere.”  However, things took a downturn in 1938 when unemployment rose back to 19%.  The largest Lake Hopatcong hotel of them all, the Alamac, finally succumbed and did not open for the 1939 season.

Despite signs of improvement, the economy remained in wretched shape throughout the decade. While FDR’s policies greatly improved morale and did help unemployment, almost 15% of Americans were still unemployed in 1940.  Not until World War II would the Depression really end as the next great challenge for America and the world loomed.

Copyright 2009 Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.