A Brief History of Lake Katonah

LKC_history3Our lake, something like the mythical village of Brigadoon, kept appearing and disappearing, at least on the maps.  An 1851 map shows no lake, but it appears on a map of 1867. This 1867 map shows a “saw mill” on the site of the present clubhouse.  An 1891 map depicts a swampy area, but on a 1915 map, all traces of water disappear again.
Then in 1926, a developer (Ward, Carpenter & Co. of White Plains) decided it was time to make use of the superb natural setting of our area, and purchased from the Brady estate 125 acres of land including a lake of “8-1/2 acres” (smaller than the present-day 26 acres, but at least it had reappeared).  Much more of the surrounding area was free of trees than at present; aerial photographs show the whole area beginning at Sunny Ridge to be meadow divided by stone fences, and this meadow extended well beyond Mount Holly Road.
The open land does not appear to have been given over to crops, and was most likely used for grazing.  The dairy industry had been in decline in this area for many years, so that grazing was probably on a small scale.  The last vestiges of it in this area were on the former McCagg property on Todd Road where one or two cows helped keep the summer grass trimmed.
In developing the community, Ward permanently dammed the lake – which enlarged it to its present size – laid out the surrounding land in roads and building sites, installed a water supply system, and finally, in 1927, built the clubhouse and several model homes.
The original intention of the developers was to build a community of summer homes for New York City residents.  In the advertising literature, comparisons were made with Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and the Adirondacks, and there were many photographs of happy residents in their tank-top swimsuits and baggy golf pants, cavorting enthusiastically.  There are also many pictures of these early residents doing the same things we do (although less frequently now): swimming, boating, fishing, playing tennis and ice hockey, sleigh riding and ice skating.  Some of the original model homes depicted are now occupied by the Neuburgers and Gerlachs.
The Lake Katonah Club Inc. was incorporated in 1928 and manages the business of the community to this date.  Working under a constitution and by-laws, the members yearly elect a President, Board of Governors and other officers.
Todd Road (Weeks Street) remained one lane during the first few years of the Club’s existence, and was sometimes impassable in the spring.  Upper Lake Shore, particularly in front of the present Dorta house (49 Upper Lake Shore), was an especially difficult place.  Since the roads were owned by the Club, the Town did not service them, and the caretaker would try to fill the worst places with gravel shoveled from a wheelbarrow.  Nor was there any plowing after a snow; residents had to break a trail on their own.  Since there was practically no traffic in the winter, children used the main hill on Sunny Ridge as a sledding and ski run down to Todd Road.  As far as skating was concerned, the Club owned some big, wide shovels and always kept one or two large areas of the lake cleared.
Early on, the present site of the tennis courts was used for pasturing horses by the people who rented what is now the Cusick/Peabody house.  For a while there were also some clay tennis courts fenced by chicken wire on this site.  Later they were replaced by a ball field, and eventually back into the hard surfaced courts we know today.

By the mid 1930’s there were 59 houses at Lake Katonah, most of which were occupied only in the summer.  Since there were few families in winter, they all knew each other well.  It also meant that relatively few children went to the local schools in Goldens Bridge and Katonah.  Among these early all-year-rounders were the Winter family, who are now into their fourth generation on the lake.
Looking at photos and material from this time, one can see that in the non-winter months, with the increase in population, social events were more numerous than today, and included such activities as tennis tournaments, swimming and canoe races, buffet suppers, dinner dances, masquerade parties, barn dances and parties for the various holidays.  Bridge parties also seem to have been very popular.

lkc_history4At that time there was a boardwalk at the beach, and an open dance pavilion next to the clubhouse.  The original caretaker’s cottage was not winterized, and the caretaker had to move into the clubhouse during the cold months.  Even the mail was not delivered in winter and had to be picked up from the Goldens Bridge post office.  For many years, mail was delivered to a rack of mailboxes on Todd Road, which was a neighborhood gathering place.

At that time the Saw Mill Parkway ended at Chappaqua, deepening the sense of rural seclusion.  I-684 was not yet even a gleam in a civil engineer’s eye.  Not that we were completely cut off or without advantages: train commutation cost $16.09 a month, and a commuter bus service ran from Lake Katonah to the Goldens Bridge station.

As the Depression deepened in the 1930’s, the developers of Lake Katonah underwent the same sort of financial difficulties the rest of the country was experiencing.  All the community property (clubhouse, water system, lake and roads) went into the hands of trustees appointed to protect certificate holders in defaulted mortgages.  At least twice in the 30’s and 40’s, small groups of homeowners came to the rescue and raised enough money to save the clubhouse, roads, water system, playground and the lake itself, so that in 1942 the Lake Katonah Club Inc. was able to purchase these facilities for a total of $10,000.

After World War II, young families came into the area looking for affordable houses, or for that matter any house at all, since there was such a shortage at the time.  They rebuilt and remodeled many of the summer cottages, turning them into snug, year-round dwellings.  Since the clubhouse had been little used during the war, and had begun to deteriorate, it took a great deal of volunteer work to get it back into condition.
The postwar baby boom also reached Lake Katonah.  By the time the 40’s ended, there could be no doubt that it was a well-established, year-round community with many young families, ready to sail bravely into a new era.  At that time, both elementary and high school classes were located in the building that presently houses the Katonah Elementary School.  The increasing population pressure on the schools was finally relieved when the John Jay Senior High School opened in 1955.
Despite the smooth progress, the lake was not without its occasional disasters.  In March 1944, for example, as a result of unnoticed erosion due to a leaky drinking fountain along the old, now enclosed porch of the clubhouse, the dam against which the clubhouse is constructed was breached, and despite frantic efforts to sandbag the leak, most of the lake drained out.  After temporary repair work, more permanent measures were undertaken in the early 1950’s in the form of 3,000 cubic yards of sand, which solved the seepage problem and gave us the base for the pleasant sandy beach we enjoy today.  Over the years other leaks have been found (fortunately in time) and plugged before they enlarged beyond control.
In the 1950’s, children’s activities, particularly during the summer, were much more centered at the lake than they are now.  There were no area day camps, nor had the town park with its swimming pool yet been built.  We had our own day camp in those days, which lasted for eight weeks during the summer.  Surprisingly, the number of houses on the lake had not increased that much, up only to 65 in the mid-1950’s, from 59 in the 30’s.

We can envy the residents of that time their $100-a-year maintenance charges, but we need not covet their water system.  There was only a single well, and not a very good one at that, and when there was a dry season it was sometimes necessary to pump water from the lake itself.

The 1970’s brought a great deal of progress for Lake Katonah. The Town took over the roads, saw to their upkeep and installed underground drains and culverts.  The clubhouse and caretaker’s house were enlarged, a second well was sunk and new water towers installed to replace the leaky old wooden tank at the top of the hill.

Our attention continues to focus on the physical condition of the lake itself.  Seasonal treatment has helped to prevent eutrophication and the proliferation of weeds.  There has also been some dredging of the bottom, and discussion continues whether more is feasible.
From a small collection of summer cottages built more than 80 years ago, we have expanded to a community of 108 houses.  Not everyone sees such growth as progress, and many wonder what strains it puts on the ecology of land and lake.  But we are close to the limits of growth, and perhaps this will allow us now to turn our attention even further to preserving and enhancing what we have – ecologically, architecturally, and aesthetically.
What we have always had, and are trying to perpetuate, is a community of people from many walks of life – each contributing something to the whole.  Our setting and organization have enhanced this sense of community.