Friday, 04 February 2011 00:00
Most readers know Lake Success as one of Long Island’s exclusive villages. Others know the area mostly as the home of a massive health care complex, with fields of hospital and medical buildings large enough that they now have their own zip code. But some people may not be fully aware that there is an actual lake.
It can be briefly glanced through the trees, as one drives south down from the LIE to the parkway along Lakeville Road, down a hill big enough that it once had a name (Success Hill, of course). If you slow down (very carefully, please), you can at times see the sun gleaming off this big basin of water, behind the wrought iron fencing and the signs posted every few feet that say “No Trespassing” and “Swimming and Fishing Prohibited.”
That little lake was once, for a little while, the most famous little lake in America. I’m not making this up.
It’s really a big pond. Around the time of the Civil War, it became fashionable in the Northeast to call big ponds “lakes,” but right up to almost the turn of the 20th century it was Success Pond, a “kettle hole” left by retreating glaciers. There used to be a bunch of these good-sized ponds stretching across the belly of North Hempstead, though Lake Success was almost twice as large as any other. Some were completely filled in for development. Others, being places of natural water accumulation, remain in greatly-reduced form as part of the county sump system or as water district supply wells or even as water hazards on golf courses. In 1845, Lake Success itself almost became part of the City of Brooklyn’s water supply system. Test trenches and equipment were installed, but it was determined that the lake wouldn’t refill fast enough as water was pumped. For a few years after, the water level was supposedly several feet lower.
Although the lake’s shores have been somewhat smoothed and landscaped, it’s still essentially the same size as it was during the Success Pond era. The irregular-shaped pond varies between about 500 and 950 feet in width and is just a smidgen under 1,700 feet long at its widest spots. The depth and some other details about Lake Success have been matters of controversy down through the generations, which we will eventually discuss.
On the lake’s western side were some additional little ponds and creeks which today we would call picturesque wetland and which farmers of centuries ago called swamp. Two ponds are still there, though also a bit reshaped, and one used to be called Lake Surprise by locals. Some of this information may come in handy later on.
In 1790, Dr. Samuel Mitchell successfully wagoned several dozen yellow perch over 30 miles from Ronkonkoma Pond or Lake or whatever. He dumped them into Success, and they took. By the end of that decade, people were showing up with fishing poles and picnic baskets. Besides the locally-famous perch, there were pike, sunfish and other critters. In 1820, the townspeople built a road that could better handle stagecoaches and a real fishing and vacation industry sprouted up.
In the first half of the 19th century, the writers of Long Island’s earliest histories and guide books fairly gushed over Success Pond. Besides the “beautiful sheet of water,” a phrase used over and over in descriptions of the mirrored pond, there was the incredible view. Standing at Success Pond, more than 200 feet above sea level, one could see the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, the New Jersey Pallisides cliffs and almost the entire Hempstead Plain. Next to the pond were lines of interesting trees, especially the ancient poplar and tulip trees, some of which were large enough to be seen by ships on the Sound and which became local landmarks in their own right. Where there were breaks in the forest, there were revealed adjacent groves of fruit trees and farm fields.
Now that we’re all on the same page about the lake itself, we can move on to who lived there, what happened there and why America took an interest.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org