Plantings at the train station are part of historic restoration project
By Bill Woolley
A humble planting ceremony, held recently at the Lake Hopatcong Train Station, was rooted more deeply in history than most of the spectators might have imagined. Those behind the event also hope their efforts will flower well into the future.
Five chestnut seedlings were nestled into the earth with as much care as if they were newborns being placed in their mother’s arms. A handful of volunteers, led by Lake Hopatcong Foundation (LHF) Trustee Marty Kane and Landscape Design Specialist Tom Wiss of Rohsler’s Allendale Nursery, did the honors with the tender trees whose mighty ancestors once ruled the landscape east of the Mississippi River.
“Chestnut trees were once predominant at Lake Hopatcong and played a major role in America’s history,” said Kane, who is also involved in the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum. “It was a great loss to this community and the country when chestnut trees were wiped out. They were a great source of food for both humans and wildlife, provided a beautiful wood for furniture and crafts, and were a wonderful woodlands tree.”
Chestnut wood and bark is also rich in tannic acid and, according to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report titled Restoration of the American Chestnut in New Jersey, provided “more than half the tannin used by the leather industry at the turn of the century.”
In popular culture, of course, one rarely makes it through a holiday season without hearing a musical reference to chestnuts roasting on an open fire, although few have ever experienced it.
“The positive features of chestnut trees include their grandeur and the huge canopy of the trees,” said Wiss, whose family history on Lake Hopatcong reaches back to the late 1800s.
The staggering loss of chestnut trees occurred in the early 1900s when the broad swath, which stretched from Maine to Georgia, succumbed to a fungus. By 1940, the majestic trees in the eastern United States that, by some estimates, once numbered 4 billion, had been destroyed.
In the Lake Hopatcong area, chestnut trees were plentiful. Chestnut Point, named for the trees that once adorned the finger of land pointing southwest from the shore of Mount Arlington, is one of the best-known locales on the lake, according to Kane.
More symbolically, he added, chestnut trees yielded the coveted hardwood used in construction of the train station in 1910-11. That property was purchased by the Lake Hopatcong Foundation in 2012 and is being restored to serve multiple purposes.
“In addition to providing new office space for the staff, the station’s former departures hall will serve as a community center for Lake Hopatcong,” said Kane. “Classes and lectures will be offered there on a wide variety of lake-related topics, including local history and gardening. It will also serve as a one-stop source for information about the lake.”
Part of the historic restoration project includes landscaping on the grounds, which is where the chestnut saplings have taken center stage. A plan was developed by Wiss, who chairs the Landscaping Committee of the LHF, in concert with the Landscape Design program at the County College of Morris.
The intent is to use native plants appropriate for the era of the building, which is when chestnut trees came into consideration. An application was submitted to the American Chestnut Foundation, which granted the LHF five American chestnut seedlings, specially bred to be blight resistant.
The optimism evident at the recent planting ceremony, however, does not necessarily insure the long-term success of the trees. Challenges can come in the form of animals, insects, diseases and drought, but Wiss believes there is reason to be hopeful.
“I think the conditions [at the train station] are close to ideal,” said Wiss, “although there is an existing ash tree there that will have to come down in the next few years because of disease. It’s creating some shade for two of the five chestnuts which, ideally, prefer full sun.”
“As a native species, the American chestnut is well prepared for our climactic conditions,” said Kane, echoing his colleague’s optimism. “We only need to protect them against deer and other critters who love the taste of its bark and leaves. Once the trees get above five feet tall, they’re pretty much on their own.”
While five seedlings have decades of growth ahead before stretching out to their 100-foot height potential, it’s a start.
“We believe the reintroduction of the chestnut tree to Lake Hopatcong, as part of the train station restoration, is the perfect complement to our efforts,” said Kane. “It’s great to have accomplished the first step in what hopefully will be the return of the American chestnut to Lake Hopatcong.