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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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The Lake Success Horror IV: A Town Commons

The Brooklyn Eagle, which in 1902 considered itself to be Long Island’s newspaper of record, described Lake Success as “the favorite retreat for boating and skating parties for years among the country folk thereabouts.” The lake was also the final vestige of the old Town of Hempstead and the shared natural resources around which the town developed.

When the state legislature split North Hempstead from South Hempstead in 1784, it only split them politically. The fisheries, clam and oyster beds and public meadows would continue to be shared by residents of both towns. After more than 40 years of bickering, the courts finally granted a total divorce in 1828. The advancing economy of North Hempstead was no longer geared to the salt marshes and meadows, but to selling excess bounty in the busy markets of Flushing, Jamaica and Brooklyn. In 1830, North Hempstead became the first New York town to sell off its common lands.

The town still owned many patches of land, and it owned every appreciable body of water. Lake Success came to play a practical role in the lives of hundreds of local families.

Each winter, the large pond froze over and produced about 45 acres of thick, fresh, clean ice. Town residents were welcome to come to the lake, or hire someone to go there, and “cut up a liberal supply” of ice to store in their icehouse until summer. “No ice wagon has ever invaded Great Neck,” beamed one newspaper.

In the late 1890s, the “Ice Trust” became a major issue in New York politics. The Consolidated Ice Company and its allies formed a “combination” that drove up the price of ice to businesses and households throughout the region. When it was announced that ice would hit an outrageous 40 cents per 100 pounds, the butchers of Manhattan and Brooklyn launched a plan to import ice from Lake Erie. There was a running battle in the streets of Brooklyn between drivers of Consolidated Ice wagons and drivers of a handful of independent dealers trying to hold out. But there was plenty of ice for those who needed it at Lake Success.

In a way, the greatest threats to Success Pond were the stories that were told about it. It was said that an unseen tunnel beneath the surface tied the pond to the Sound or perhaps New England (it wasn’t until 1906 that the nature of our underground aquifers was finally confirmed). Some of the stories about the Lake Success tunnel were very specific (it was six feet, six inches wide and near a specific spot). The river flowed into the lake or flowed out of the lake depending on the story. Maybe it went back and forth with the tide.

The keepers of the lakeside hotel told stories about the 65-pound turtle once found there, briefly kept as a pet. In some versions, they painted its shell, for some reason, and set it off into the lake; in another version it escaped dragging a train of boxes to which it had been tied. Sometimes it disappeared forever, probably on its way underground to Connecticut, sometimes it showed up in Little Neck Bay. Depends on how long they wanted the secret tunnel. Then there was the entire wagon and horse team that crashed into the lake, was mysteriously sucked down and, in one version, was later found floating in the Sound.

Stories about an unlimited supply of water to the lake kept attracting engineers of the City of Brooklyn, which became the Borough of Brooklyn in 1898, and which had overpumped and ruined parts of its share of Long Island’s aquifers. An 1845 pumping test didn’t work out, as the lake drained much faster than expected, but they showed up again in 1900, making noise about annexing Success as an emergency reservoir.

At the same time, some Great Neck property owners were suggesting that a waterworks be built on the convenient lake to supply the rapidly suburbanizing peninsula.

But, as the Eagle commented in 1900, there would be plenty of time to decide these things: “The lake would not move and the waters could be had whenever necessary.”

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net