The area that would become Mountain Lakes was originally home to the Lenni Lenape Indians, who dominated the region from about 5,000 B.C. to the last part of the 17th Century. From 1664, as the Indians began to move westward, until 1910, the year that the development of Mountain Lakes began, land titles and boundaries were shifted through disputed ownerships and deeds of dubious legality.
In the late 17th Century, the area was known as Old Forges. By 1700 it was part of Whippanong, then the Hanover area, and by 1759 it had become part of the Great Boonton Tract. The area began to attract settlers in the 18th Century, as Old Boonetown, now Boonton, became a center for iron works and gristmills. Workers, traders, and farmers, primarily of English and Dutch origin, established their families and built homes, some of which are still standing. In 1798 a small portion of now Mountain Lakes was part of Boonton Township, and the rest was included in Hanover Township, an arrangement that would last until the incorporation of Mountain Lakes Borough. Historically, the land was cleared and farmed extensively by the early settlers. It began to return to woodlands after the Civil War, when coal largely supplanted wood and charcoal for domestic and commercial purposes, and area forests began to regenerate.
During the time of ice boxes in 1893, the Fox Hill Ice Company built Crystal Lake along with a 100 foot barn-like ice house to allow the workers to slide the ice blocks inside. A few years later, Sunset Lake was built with an ice house along present day North Pocono Road. The Company also built a railroad spur to provide access to the lakes at what is now West Shore Road. The ice was harvested every winter and shipped to New York City.
In 1908, surveyor Lewis Van Duyne of Boonton approached Herbert J. Hapgood with the idea for development of the then virgin area located on the eastern face of the highlands overlooking the Passaic River Valley. Van Duyne had become familiar with the area while surveying for the future Jersey City Reservoir. That year, Van Duyne and Hapgood began to purchase the land that would become Mountain Lakes. At a purchase price of $15/acre, the land consisted of swampy meadows and woodlots which were losing their value with the increasing popularity of coal. Van Duyne and Hapgood, however, saw value in the development of the area based upon its natural beauty and its proximity to the Lackawanna Railroad. Hapgood, together with his landscape engineer, Arthur T. Holton, had a vision. He wanted to build homes in a popular, marketable mode. So he set out to build a gracious planned community to provide future homeowners with comfortable family-oriented homes.
Work on Mountain Lakes Residential Park began in the winter of 1908-09 with the commencement of clearing and the construction of the basic elements that would set its character as a residential park community: the roads and dams. Man-made lakes were created (Mountain and Wildwood) which formed the focus for the design of the community around which roads and residential lots were laid out. Home construction began in 1910 and the first residents arrived in 1911. The beginning of trolley service in 1910 was a significant asset not only for the new residents but for the workmen clearing the site and building the homes. The trolley was a single track connecting Denville to Boonton and ran along what is the present day Boulevard, stopping at all major intersections.
As the first houses were built, residents ventured out from New York to escape the city heat. The first family, the Lawrence W. Luellens, moved into 46 Dartmouth Road on March 11, 1911. By the end of June, some fifty families had taken up residence. After the railroad station was completed in November of 1912, commuters were ready to take advantage of a direct train line to New York. By the end of 1912, two hundred Hapgood homes were sold and occupied. In 1914 commerce came to Mountain Lakes with the opening of a grocery store on Midvale road by Joseph Yaccarino. This establishment was soon followed by a drugstore, a luncheonette, a taxi service, a dry cleaning and tailor shop and the town library. Half the stores were later destroyed by fire. 1914 also saw the opening of the private Mountain Lakes Club as well as the local post office and the cornerstone of the Community Church.
Nearly 500 homes were constructed between 1911 and 1923 when Hapgood’s operation declared bankruptcy due to declining sales and a bad business deal concerning Route 46. Hapgood fled to South America and the remains of his company were re-established under the new Belhall Company. The company was only able to build a small number of houses of Tudor, Norman, English cottage and Colonial style until it too went bankrupt during the Depression. Two decisions by the Borough at this time gave the town the ability to maintain a natural and serene environment. The Borough purchased 250 acres of woodlands around Birchwood and Crystal Lakes and gained titles to the remaining undeveloped lots in 1938. With an area of just 2.9 square miles, 9 lakes and many acres of woodlands, the rustic character of Mountain Lakes was established.
Trolley service ended in 1928 when the Borough became an automobile-oriented community. Roads were paved and area highways improved and the trolley track was replaced by a broad sidewalk along the Boulevard. A souvenir of that time is the unique row of trees that were planted along the former trolley line in the early 1930’s. The idea and financial support were provided by a school board member and Bell Labs engineer known as Mr. “A”. Five different species were planted in a repeating sequence by a volunteer workforce. The cost of the trees was 15 cents each.
The last major development came after World War II when the Fox Development Company erected some 67 smaller homes on a large, relatively flat tract of land between the railroad and Intervale Road. Known as the “Village,” these homes filled an important demand for housing for returning veterans and their young families.