Gropp (or Gropp’s) Lake, off South Broad Street in Yardville, was once a popular swimming and recreation area. Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about its history, courtesy of local historian Tom Glover, and the recollections of longtime area residents. More often than not, these recollections, often a generation or more removed from actual events, seemed to take on aspects of myth—the times the dam burst, the building of Interstate 195 nearby, the kids that drowned or nearly drowned.
Fishing and boating is still permitted at Gropp Lake, but swimming has been prohibited for many years, as per municipal ordinance 98-1(17). I’ve heard many different explanations as to why: The water’s polluted, some said. Too dangerous, said others, though no one could recall an actual drowning. In keeping with the local legends theme, I half-expected to hear tales of a parallel to the Loch Ness Monster. “Groppie,” perhaps?
I decided to contact Hamilton Township and find out—why can’t you swim in Gropp Lake? And would it be possible to restore it to its glory days?
After a few e-mails, I was advised of an upcoming meeting of the Hamilton Environmental Commission, which I (and any member of the public) would be welcome to attend. I had child-monitoring duties, but the commission members were accommodating, inviting me to bring the kids along and moving my questions to the beginning of the meeting. I wouldn’t typically recommend bringing children to meetings of local government, though I suppose such gatherings could prove useful as sleep-inducers.
Restoring Gropp Lake wasn’t a bad idea, the Environmental Commission members acknowledged, but there were many obstacles. Money from the township is always scarce, and the priority had to be larger, more-utilized areas like Veterans Park. There isn’t much parking available at Gropp Lake. The Department of Transportation owns some of the property surrounding the area; the exact details would have to be laid out. None of these seemed like they’d be particularly fun to deal with, but neither did they seem insurmountable. If it was easy, then the lake would have been restored a long time ago, right? Finally, as I’d expected, came the classic, all-encompassing objection, “it could be a liability issue.”
When I pressed to find out what the next step would be if these other issues were resolved, the members described how the restoration process might begin—with water testing at various parts of the lake. I suspect the lake’s bacterial level might be high, courtesy of the geese and ducks that populate the area, but water testing would clarify that issue (if not the water itself).
Some time after this meeting, I tracked down a copy of the book Lakeside “Sweet Mama” by Robert Teunon Johnes, adapted by his daughter Nancy, which offers a firsthand account of life in the Gropp Lake area from about 1910 and on. With an ice cream stand and a diving board in summer, ice skating and hockey on the lake in winter, and a trolley that led to town in Trenton year-round, life in the Lakeside area, as related in the book, seemed pretty idyllic. That is, until I read about the “frequent drownings.”
I suspect that modern reactions to these accounts might fall along generational lines; those old enough to remember taking adult responsibilities at a young age might say that the victims—even the children—knew the risks, while younger people might be shocked that swimming was allowed to continue, largely unchanged, after such tragedies.
As much as I’d like for my kids to have the kind of fun, adventurous childhood that the author apparently did, these stories bring home the fact that this was another era, almost 100 years ago. When the dam burst in 1915, the local residents held a carnival to raise funds to rebuild it. By the time it burst again in 1979, that sort of thing was probably unheard of.
In a perfect world, liability would be a non-issue. If you put up a sign that says “No ice skating” (there’s one at Gropp Lake), and some knucklehead goes out on the ice and falls in, I’d like to believe that no court would find you negligent. Similarly, changing the “No swimming” sign to “No swimming unless lifeguard is present” seems like it should cover the the situation adequately, while opening up the potential for expanded use. But I’m not a lawyer, and even if I was, I couldn’t guarantee that the township wouldn’t one day be forced to pay out a liability settlement.
Restoring Gropp Lake is possible, but it will require more than one person’s voice to spur action. As I said to one Environmental Commission member, my goal is to give people, via this column, an idea of what to do next if they wish to support restoration. His response was that “a few dozen people from a neighborhood isn’t enough, but with a thousand people, you might see some action.” So here it is, Hamiltonians—if you’re interested in seeing Gropp Lake restored, let the members of your local government know.
And if you’ve never been to Gropp Lake, do yourself a favor—stop by and walk out on a pier. It’s a beautiful view, especially at sunrise and sunset, and if you can tune out the sounds of nearby highway traffic, you might be able to imagine what it was like long ago. This entire experience of learning the local history, and the obstacles to restoration, has convinced me of one thing: whether or not it makes sense to restore Gropp Lake, we should always make an effort to understand what came before—and what’s been left behind.
Peter Dabbene’s website is peterdabbene.com, and his previous Hamilton Post columns can be read online. His story “The High Price of Personal Hygiene” can be read at decasp.com. His graphic novels books are available through Amazon.