By Clifford Zink
“The water is very clear and free from any possible contamination,” reported the Princeton Standard when Stephen Margerum completed his earthen and stone dam to form Mountain Lake in 1884. Margerum owned a quarry on Harrison Street just north of Nassau Street that is today’s Quarry Park, and he had started his Riverside Ice Company in the 1870s to harvest ice from the Millstone River in any area now covered by the east end of Carnegie Lake.
Margerum advertised that his “Wagons deliver Stone and Ice daily in all parts of the city” of Princeton. He renamed his business the Mountain Lake Ice Company in 1887 and his son James took it over in 1902. James built the Upper Dam to create a settling pond above the ice pond. In 1906 he sold the business to H.C. Bunn and other Princeton businessmen, and they renamed it the Princeton Ice Company. Bunn built an ice elevator and additional ice houses and he expanded the upper lake.
After the company ceased ice harvesting in the mid 1920s, thanks to the advent of refrigerators, Bunn opened Mountain Lake as a “community swimming beach,“ as the Princeton Standard reported in 1925. Edgar Palmer, Princeton University Class of ’03, bought the property in 1929, and used it occasionally for alumni gatherings. In the 1930s Palmer developed Palmer Square in the middle of town, and he built the Upper Sedimentation Pond at Mountain Lake to reduce sediment build up in the Lake.
J. Dudley Clark bought the property in 1946 and commissioned the architect Rolf Bauhan to build a house for his family in 1957. When a housing development was proposed around the lake in the mid-1980s, the Friends of Princeton Open Space raised funds to preserve the property, and Princeton Township bought it in 1986.
By the early 2000s, after 100 years of service, the Mountain Lake dams had severely deteriorated and sedimentation filled much of the Lake and Pond. Princeton Township embarked on a multi-year rehabilitation project that required a careful balance of complicated N.J. dam safety, land use, wildlife, and historic preservation regulations.
Princeton Township Engineer Robert Kiser, who led the project from start to finish, will introduce a presentation on the history and rehabilitation of Mountain Lake tomorrow (Nov. 15) at the Princeton Public Library at 7 p.m. Christine Lewandoski, the Princeton Township Historic Preservation Officer, will discuss the history of the Township’s stewardship of the Preserve and the long-term effort to rehabilitate the dams to meet historic and archaeological requirements. Clifford Zink, the Princeton township historic preservation consultant and the author of this post, will discuss the ice harvesting history and archaeology of the site and the rehabilitation and interpretation of its historic components. Deanna Stockton, Princeton Township Assistant Engineer and project manager, will discuss the engineering and dredging challenges and the scope of the rehabilitation work.
Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor who supported the rehabilitation, once again “The ponds are filled with fresh, pure water,” as the Princeton Packet noted in 1925, and Mountain Lake is once again the glistening centerpiece of Princeton’s open space.