The largest single piece of the landscape in West Windsor isn’t really West Windsor at all. Most of it is located in our township, but it really belongs to all of Mercer County. It’s called the Richard J. Coffee Mercer County Park, and it takes up nearly 15 percent of our township’s area. One of its main entrances is in West Windsor on what is usually called Old Trenton Road. The other entrance is in Hamilton Township on Hughes Drive.
The park has been in existence since 1985 and covers about 2,600 acres, or a little over four square miles. The land that makes up this area was acquired by the county in the 1960s and ’70s. It includes what were once about 50 individual properties, most of them farms. Except for small areas at the western end in Lawrence and Hamilton townships, it is all in West Windsor. The park was named in honor of longtime Mercer County official Richard J. Coffee in 2009.
I first heard that Mercer County was going to have a park in the 1970s when I heard that an old friend and member of the county park commission was involved in planning one. I had no idea how big it was going to be or just where it was going to be, but knowing that Pete Morgan was involved I knew it would be something special.
I had known Pete Morgan for a long time, specifically since he was the track coach at Princeton University soon after I started there in 1947. He had been the coach at Trenton Central High School since soon after graduating from Notre Dame University in 1929. This was the same Trenton Central High School that will be rebuilt over the next four years. It was originally built in 1932.
A Trenton native, Pete had been active in local affairs following in his father’s footsteps. After retiring as Princeton coach in 1969, he kept in touch with a number of the local alumni he had known as team members and kept us informed of some of his activities, especially with the Mercer County Park Commission.
The park contains facilities for just about any activity one can think of doing in a park. There are baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, volleyball courts, cricket pitches, and fields for football, soccer, and lacrosse. There’s also an ice skating center. Some of the playing fields are lighted, and during its first few years, the West Windsor-Plainsboro High School Pirates played their home football games there. (Of course, that was long before we had our own lighted football field or bleachers to sit in. And there was no High School North.)
In addition to the organized sports facilities, there are hiking, biking, and running trails. Some competitive cross-country meets are held there between area schools. I even remember there being a five-kilometer race there on New Years Eve — near lighted areas, of course. The idea was that you would start during one year and finish in the next. I ran once, but was very glad when it ended. It was cold — not fit weather for racing. I didn’t try that again. But I have gone to see the all-breed dog show put on each year by the Trenton Kennel Club. It draws a big crowd — people and dogs.
The park is also the site of numerous special events during the year, including ethnic gatherings and the upcoming Cultural Festival that will be held on Saturday, June 20, this year.
But perhaps the most impressive of the park’s many attractions is Lake Mercer. This was the result of damming up the Assunpink Creek just at the border between West Windsor and Hamilton townships. The Assunpink rises far to the east of here near Millstone Township and eventually makes its way to the Delaware River in Trenton. But it traverses the southwest corner of West Windsor Township and feeds Lake Mercer in the process.
The creation of Lake Mercer was an example of the creative and simultaneous cooperation of two government functions: parks and highway building. It turned out that when the New Jersey Turnpike was to be designated I-95 (it wasn’t always called that), there was a desire to create a new “loop road” portion that would go around the north of Trenton from east to west and be designated I-295. Part of the way around Trenton and on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River the road would be designated I-95 again, and south of Trenton on the New Jersey side the turnpike would continue and would be paralleled by I-295. At about the same time, a new high-speed road was to be built that would cross the state from east to west. This would be designated I-195.
So with all this road building going on, a way was found to take advantage of the excavation required to form Lake Mercer in the park. During the initial formation of the dam across the Assunpink that was needed to create the new lake it was realized that the gravel in the terrane that was being bulldozed was just what was needed to help build the foundations for the newly paved roads nearby.
Ground was broken for the park in June, 1971, and the county was able to sell the excavated gravel to contractors who were building the roads. The local press became aware of this stroke of good luck and followed the progress very closely for a long time. It seemed that news of the latest tonnage of gravel excavated from the lake site and the corresponding advance of the road beds was a weekly story in all the papers.
The lake itself ended up being quite large — 365 acres in area — over half a square mile. A major feature of the lake is its crew racing course, which is considered one of the best in the country. The race course and its boat house are called the Finn M.W. Caspersen Rowing Center. The race course features multiple rowing lanes for competitive crew races.
It was built with private funding as a joint venture of three prep schools (Lawrenceville, Peddie, and Hun) and Mercer County. The center has been designated the official training site for the U.S. Olympic rowing teams. The boat house is on the north side of the lake and is accessible via South Post Road from Village Road West.
The lake is also accessible to the general public, either by bringing their own boats and canoes or renting them at the park waterfront near the boat house on the south side of the lake. The boat house is currently undergoing a major renovation, but it should be completed this summer. There will be a snack-bar and other public facilities. But even without the latest enhancements to the boat house, it’s a very nice place to take a walk and just hang out.