One of Lake Hopatcong’s most unique features is the ferry that connects Raccoon Island, with its roughly 60 homes, to the mainland. The ferry has become a landmark since its establishment in 1932. Guided by a cable, the ferry carries up to two vehicles at a time from Chincopee Road on the mainland to Raccoon Island. While most lake residents are familiar with the ferry, many may be surprised to learn that it follows the path of a bridge that once connected the island to the mainland.
As with much of Lake Hopatcong’s shoreline, Raccoon Island began to be developed in the 1880s. The fact that it was an island made little difference to early residents, since steamboats were then the predominant means of transportation and few people lived at the lake year-round. Arriving by railroad, residents and vacationers simply traveled by steamboat to hotel docks, camp sites or cottages. Travel via road was not a viable alternative as most were poorly maintained or non-existent, particularly on the west shore. In fact, not until 1925 was it possible to circle Lake Hopatcong by road.
While steamboats were the passenger taxis of the lake in those early years, transporting building supplies by boat was cumbersome and costly. Since it was cheaper to employ horses and wagons when a house was to be built, the developers of Raccoon Island built their own bridge to the island. Known as the Chincopee Bridge, it was opened in a ceremony on July 15, 1891 and was a continuation of today’s Chincopee Road. Constructed of rough-hewn timber, the bridge was high enough in the middle to allow most boats operating on the lake to pass under. While it served its immediate purpose, facilitating the construction of some 20 cottages on Raccoon Island, the bridge was not built with longevity in mind. Battered by Lake Hopatcong’s winters, it partially collapsed in 1899 and remained floating for the next few summers, slowly breaking apart much to the chagrin of local property owners and the operators of the lake’s steamboats.
Following the collapse of the Chincopee Bridge, it was widely expected that a new stronger bridge would quickly be built. Raccoon Island property owners looked to the county to replace the bridge, but the Morris County Board of Freeholders ignored their requests. This led property owners to commence legal proceedings in 1912 in an unsuccessful attempt to compel
the freeholders to construct a new bridge. A July 31, 1915 editorial in the Lake Hopatcong Breeze noted that, “It is now many years since the Raccoon Island Bridge was destroyed and as yet no attempt has been made to have it replaced. As a result of this, the people on Raccoon Island, who pay a large percentage of the taxes for Jefferson Township, including a road tax, have no roads to show for it.”
In 1920 the property owners of Raccoon Island once again took up the quest for a new bridge. Meetings were called and a bridge committee established but still no progress was made. In 1925, the
inactive Raccoon Island Association was reorganized with the construction of a new bridge its primary focus. This time the Morris County Freeholders promised to look into the matter. With the persistent advocacy of the Raccoon Island property owners and their attorney, the freeholders finally took action in 1928 and agreed to build the bridge as long as the property owners assumed its ultimate cost. As reported in the Aug. 4, 1928 Breeze: “The American Bridge Company has given an estimate of $15,000 for erecting a steel bridge across the channel. If the cost of the bridge is spread over a period of ten years, the additional taxes will be about $1,500 per year, or, as there are about 30 property owners on the island, the additional taxes would average about $50 per person. It is felt that the increased value of the property will offset the cost of the bridge. The Jefferson Township Committee has agreed to put the approaches to the bridge in good condition.”
Construction of the bridge appeared to be a certainty but this optimism was soon overshadowed by the dawn of the Great Depression. Discretionary spending by municipalities was scrapped and the ability of most individuals to pay taxes, never mind additional taxes, vanished. As the Depression continued and it became apparent that no bridge would be built, property owners developed an alternate course of action. Twelve Raccoon Island property owners formed the Raccoon Island Transportation Company with the intent of creating ferry service. A ferry was constructed for the 1932 season and named the Chincopee. Guided by a cable and powered by an outboard motor, the ferry was designed to cross the channel in three minutes and carry one 10-ton truck or two sedans.
The initial ferry was basically a floating deck with no rails to contain vehicles. It was intended as an interim measure until a bridge could finally be built. In the ensuing years, residents of Raccoon Island have periodically taken up the call for a bridge. The September 1957 issue of the Breeze noted that “Raccoon Island residents are fed up paying taxes to Jefferson Township and not getting anything for their money…some of the 60 families on the island would like to become year-round residents but cannot under these conditions.” However, no bridge has been built and as the years have passed, a majority of Raccoon Island residents appear to have become content to life without a bridge.
More than 80 years since its inception, the Raccoon Island ferry continues to operate each summer and is still run by the Raccoon Island Transportation Company. Residents pay a yearly charge while visitors pay $8 per trip to cross. The events which resulted in the Chincopee Bridge never being rebuilt and access being limited to ferry transportation has resulted in Raccoon Island maintaining a unique summer flavor reminiscent of yesteryear.