WARRENVILLE-The dream of the Watchung Hills Elks Club to have one of the most picturesque outdoor settings of all the fraternal organizations in the East has gone down the drain - literally.
Located on the grounds of the seven-acre tract is one of the most beautiful man-made grottos in the East. Hundreds of feet long, forty feet high, the natural stone semicircular mass borders on what was an 18-foot deep pool, complete with a dam of which water flowed at all times.
Club officials contend that the pumping of thousands of gallons of water a day by the adjacent Warrenbrook Country Club for the first time this summer has dropped the level to nil. The latter began legally pumping 100,000 gallons a day June 1.
Wally Bryan, exalted ruler of the lodge, admitted "we are in a quandary as to our next step. We would like to work out something in an amicable manner with Warrenbrook, but so far we have been unsuccessful."
The Watchung Hills Elks Club was organized in 1961 with 109 members, according to Bryan. Two years ago it took possession of its newly-purchased grounds which front on Mountain Boulevard, almost adjacent to the Warren Township Borough Hall.
"We selected this spot because it possessed the long-forgotten grotto along with two beautiful ponds that were part of the entire setting," explained Bryan. "For our club house we utilized a building already on the property."
The club's acreage is on the former Nathan Hofheimer Estate, once a New Jersey showplace covering hundreds of acres. Hofheimer was one of the original founders of General Motors Corp. and at that time had already made a financial success in the [automobile] electric light bulb industry.
The original Hofheimer home is presently the township hall. On other parts of the former estate are a supermarket, some homes, the Warrenbrook County Club and a nursery. Until development came along, the estate, with its once beautiful well-kept grounds including a private golf course, had fallen into an almost primitive state. The grotto itself was built by help imported from overseas. It is reportedly a replica of a German grotto.
It surrounds what was a copper mine shaft. The shaft goes almost vertically underground for at least 165 feet. Old timers say that he now-flooded shafts are a mass of corridors. Actually it was the flowing water that shut down the mine in the 19th Century. At that time, it was returning a yield of about seven percent pure copper. Today, because of the copper shortage, copper mines producing only one or two percent pure copper are said to be in production, and profitably.
"The rehabilitation of the Hofheimer Grotto was the number one item on our list of priorities," Bryan explained. "It is a well-known fact that club members are generally lazy when it comes to doing work, but we found the grotto project one of the most attractive our members wanted to work on. I couldn't begin to count the hours donated to the project by the membership, their relatives and friends. It was back-breaking work to tear out the tangle of overgrown vegetation that surrounded the grotto and had grown on the beautiful stone slaps of which it was made."
"There are a dozen caverns within it that had to be weeded and made presentable. The old paths leading into it and surrounding it were cleared by hand, and this spring we were ready to begin with the final beautification. To this end we purchased two high-powered pumps which were to be utilized in creating huge fountains through a system of recirculating the ample water supply in order that the adjacent ponds on the property could be kept at their natural levels. During the past winter we worked out the full details of lighting for the grotto and its pool. Indirect lighting was designed for the many caves and a system of spotlights planned for the fountain and the pool surrounding it."
Bryan shook his head slowly in despair as he said, "it's all gone for nothing," pointing to the filthy mudhole that has resulted from the lack of water. Two mud turtles were the only visible sign of life.
A couple of neighborhood youngsters, cautiously testing the mud, asserted the grotto and adjacent ponds were "great placed to fish until they went dry. Now nothing worthwhile can live in what's left."
There are other disheartening signs of the water shortage. Pools and ponds on the site are stagnant, covered with slimy green moss. A long footbridge, once supported in the water by huge drums, has practically caved in and creates a pedestrian hazard. Once a haven for wild ducks, the water holes now have as tenants a lone trio of tame ducks which spend most of their time on the grass evidently wary of the obvious pollution in the waters. A close look at them determines the ducks are supposed to be white and not the sand color they now display.
The Elks had suggested that the grotto be turned into an amphitheatre for outdoor plays and pageants. While it would lend itself ideally to this, the fraternal organization would rather have it returned to its pristine beauty, complete with pools and ponds.
Like every old mine, there are lends that have sprung up about the grotto site. Some say at least one young explorer was drowned in the grotto waters and others who affirm that "two divers" lost their lives trying to explore the old mine. "We invite the general; public and nature lovers in particular to visit the club ground and view the situation," said Bryan. "We are sure they will see a spot of beauty they never dreamed existed in this densely populated metropolitan area."
[Newark Sunday News, 9/4/1966]