A TikTok video that went viral in 2020 attracted thousands of people – mainly New Yorkers tired of being stuck indoors during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – to the quaint borough of High Bridge, Hunterdon County, to visit the historic but rehabilitated Lake Solitude Dam. The town was overwhelmed with trash, empty alcohol containers and cars parked erratically as the aquatic scenery was exploited.
Locals say visitors following their phone’s GPS didn’t help stores and restaurants in the historic downtown do much added business. The dam, originally built in 1909 to provide power for Taylor-Wharton Iron and Steel Company, was listed on PNJ’s 10 Most Endangered List in 2008 and was noted at the time as an asset to High Bridge that could, if properly repaired from its diminished state, “do nothing but spur tourism and local business, and has the potential to revert to its historical origins by providing hydroelectric power.” High Bridge’s adjacent recreational assets and landscapes were connected to the appeal of keeping the dam up.
In 2013, through a 2% loan from the State secured in 2010, High Bridge Borough completed a rehabilitation project that cost over $3.5 million, with $2.4 million spent on construction. Almost a decade later more decisions are ahead for High Bridge, to consider the dam’s future as it remains a ‘high-risk’ structure.
The borough sits at the north edge of a rural county attempting to capitalize on its natural landscapes and rich history, as tourism marketing efforts expand under a new branding umbrella, “Explore Hunterdon: The Other Side of Jersey.”
High Bridge Mayor Michele Lee discussed how several West Jersey waterfronts, including Delaware River towns, saw the same problem of a summer 2020 influx “just to cool off” in a place people discovered online for an escape about an hour or two away. The borough planned to calm the issue in 2021, developing plans to direct traffic to new designated parking areas. But the masses didn’t arrive without a second viral video as a “driving factor.”
“We had to act to stop the crowds of people parking and gathering at the dam – people can’t just put things in the ground and we need to be very conscious of what is underneath there to maintain the integrity of the dam. It’s designated as open space and the park can’t just be closed. In early 2021 we got our parking plans organized, working with the Solitude Village Condominium Association and our Public Works department. We converted one location into a temporary parking area. THANKFULLY we didn’t see similar size crowds from 2020 again,” she commented.
Mayor Lee discussed the accessibility of some of the best trails New Jersey has to offer, with the acclaimed Columbia Trail as well as nearby bike trails. High Bridge has steady tourism, but hopefully the dam and the overall landscape continues to attract people – for the right reasons.
“If people came to the trail on bike or parked their car in the High Bridge Commons, they can ride early and stop for lunch in our downtown. They could go out to the Nassau Trail (for mountain biking) on the other side of Lake Solitude. We have recently added flow trails (skill practice courses) uphill. That was developed in partnership with JORBA, as they matched every dollar raised for the project and volunteers built the park,” she said.
High Bridge has an active Historical Committee that diligently pursued restoration of the Solitude House since 2019. Hunterdon County is committed to land and water resource preservation, an integral part of the recent Highlands Master Plan Element and Highlands Conformance Plan process.
The borough notes the popularity of High Rail Brewing Co. as Hunterdon County has promoted the new HunterdonBeerTrail.com to connect craft brewers. Right across the street from it is NJ Transit’s railway station (High Bridge) which is the last stop of the Raritan Valley Line.
Mayor Lee says she contemplates whether or not removal of the Lake Solitude Dam would have been the more viable economic and environmental option. The remnants of Hurricane Ida last year on September 1 and 2 devastated other parts of Hunterdon County and central Jersey, and the mayor recollects two storms where water levels at the dam rose too high.
“It’s been scary at times. At some point it can get too high and become unsafe. That being said, the dam remains a beautiful area and an asset. It would be amazing for High Bridge to attract visitors without having any negative environmental impacts the mad dash in 2020 showed us – we hope to see tourists come in for the benefit of our Main Street businesses. Outdoor recreation abounds here, but it has been tough to find a balance,” she explained.
Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki Massand serves in municipally-appointed roles as chairperson of the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as the township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission.
In December 2021 Rikki completed a certificate in Historic Preservation from Rutgers Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, building on degrees he previously earned at Columbia University and Quinnipiac University while examining historic buildings, land use and planning policies and tourism potential in New Jersey.
Rikki’s passion as a regional historian and local advocate in preservation is integrated into an 18-year journalism career. He’s the Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County, and he covers Hunterdon County government, nonprofits and economic development for Flemington-based media. Rikki’s work has also appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News and more.