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Vol. LXIII, No. 26
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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Plans for Rehabilitation of Mountain Lakes Recognize Historic, Environmental Issues

Ellen Gilbert

A presentation by the principals involved in the Mountain Lakes Dam restoration project was the main event at last week’s Environmental Commission meeting.

Project Engineer Deana Stockton described the nearly two-hour, PowerPoint program as a “first brush” intended to familiarize commission members with plans for the rehabilitation of the two dams. “We have met previously with a few members out on site,” she commented. “This is the first formal presentation.”

Two dams are in question; a lower dam constructed in 1884, and an upper dam, built in 1902. Both were constructed by the Margerum Family’s Riverside Ice Company, which became the Mountain Lakes Ice Company in 1887, and the Princeton Ice Company in 1906. The business closed in 1928. Familiar local names like Penn, Stockton, Stryker, Updike, and Palmer were among the property’s owners. In the mid 1900s it was sold to Dudley Clark, who built the existing house on the site. In 1987 Princeton Township acquired the property.

“We are trying to balance sensitivity to historic and environmental issues,” noted Township Engineer Robert Kiser, and this was borne out in the visual images and comments offered by Storm Water Management Consulting President Joseph J. Skupien in the first part of the program. Archaeological investigations by Hunter Research in 1990 located the remains of several ice-related buildings and structures, particularly near the lower dam. In 2007 the area was placed on the New Jersey and Federal Register of Historic Places.

Describing the project as “a personal passion” and “a “Rubik’s Cube” in its complexity, Mr. Skupien began by acknowledging Public Works Department efforts to keep the two dams standing for many years. Saying that archaeology, history, and preservation all informed the preliminary analyses of what the project would need to accomplish, he compared a current aerial photograph of the area with a photo from the 1930s. The difference was dramatic, with no real vegetation in evidence in the older photograph. Mr. Skupien described the area as a “Vernacular rural historic landscape locally significant in the area of industry.”

While preservation concerns are being addressed, however, both dams need to be repaired to the extent that they will withstand the “100-year-old flood,” which is calculated to be the level of flood water expected to be equaled or exceeded every 100 years on average.

The precariousness of the dams’ current state was particularly apparent in a recent photograph displayed by Mr. Skupien, who noted that “the screen is not distorted — yes, the dam is leaning over.” A three-year old photograph of Mr. Kiser standing atop one of the dams, followed by a newer photo of the same site showing dramatic dam deterioration also illustrated the point.

Proposed improvements to the area include detailed instructions to any contractor to comply with the historic concerns of the site. Areas of archaeological sensitivity, referred to as “constraints,” have been identified and will be fenced-off. Mr. Skupien noted that there are “not a great number of large trees” that will need to be cleared for the project.

A significant part of the work includes plans to dredge Mountain Lake. Princeton Hydro Vice President Geoffrey M. Goll observed that this is “not going to be an inexpensive project,” and that dredging is “a historic restoration in and of itself,” as it brings the lake back to its historic configuration.

Mr. Goll noted that the dredging would coincide with dam work, so that workers could use the same access points, equipment, and stockpiling sites, in order to have as little environmental impact as possible. In accordance with N.J. Fish and Wildlife Department requirements, fish from the lake will be salvaged and relocated, possibly to Lake Carnegie, where fish from the recently drained pond in Smoyer Park were placed. Ms. Stockton noted that Fish and Wildlife will come back and restock the lake when the work is completed, offering an opportunity to start fresh if less habitable fish are currently there.

“Dredgers will be sensitive to picking up historic tools or encountering historic structures, making sure they don’t damage anything,” said Mr. Goll, adding that it would be a “slow process.” Out of concern for animal hibernation, the lake will not be lowered in winter. The proposed starting time for the project, he said, is mid-March, after amphibians and reptiles come out of hibernation. 

It has not yet been decided where the dredged sediment will be placed. Farm fields and old quarries are among the possible locations. Mr. Kiser said that nearby sites would be explored for economy’s sake, and added that the project would provide an opportunity to put Mountain Lakes House, which currently has a septic system, on the public sewer system.

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