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‘Our own little natural gem’

Volunteers and the community bring Lake Lonnie back to life

Courtesy of Debra Hammond “We hope that our efforts to promote the park will bring more residents out to our own little natural gem,” Delran Green Team chair Debra Hammond said of the town’s Lake Lonnie, which reopened in early May.

Just in time for summer, Lake Lonnie has reopened, thanks to a number of volunteer groups and the support of the entire community – from the mayor and council to residents.

Last month, Delran VFW 3020 members marked a day of service by helping the township green team plant trees and install a new park kiosk to mark the official reopening of the lake.

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Courtesy of Debra Hammond
The township purchased Lake Lonnie in the 1970s with state Green Acres funding.
Courtesy of Debra Hammond

The township purchased Lake Lonnie in the 1970s with state Green Acres funding.

“This had been a swimming facility with a guarded beach, pavilions, picnic groves, restrooms and concessions from 1953 to 1968,” green team chair Debra Hammond explained.

Karl Scott began digging what would become Lake Lonnie in 1945. About eight years later, he opened the lake property and called it Lake Lonnie after his wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Bontivoglio, whose family owned Camden Iron and Metal in Camden, according to a presentation on the history of Lake Lonnie by Karen and Josh Ruza.

As many as 15,000 guests would arrive at the lake over the course of any one season from 1953 to 1968. There were six manned lifeguard stands and three diving boards.

“After the township purchased the property, it was maintained as open space and used by Scout groups for events,” Hammond noted. “In the mid-1990s, Boy Scouts started planting tree seedlings on the beach, and over time, the area became totally wooded.”

Bringing Lake Lonnie back to life took a village and a timeline of events.

Delran High School students Diego Segura and Jimmy Mitchell attended a green team meeting looking for help to create a nature trail in the park, so the team conducted a reconnaissance and cleanup on Nov. 6, 2022.

“We saw potential for a great place for residents,” Hammond said. “We decided on Dec. 30, 2022 to conduct a first-day hike, and we were pleasantly surprised at the turnout.”

The green team applied for a Sustainable Jersey small grant in 2023 to create a nature trail. Members Candy Cure and Karen Nowicki met with Kiersten Gauntt, of the Burlington County GIS (Geographic Information Systems) unit, who provided Cure and Nowicki with training on the county’s GPS equipment.

On April 23 of last year, the women mapped the StoryWalk in Delran Community Park. The units with the data collected were taken to the county and the first trail map was created. Then there was good news: The township was notified that its project was awarded a $2,000 grant funded by Sustainable Jersey and the PSEG Foundation.

During that time, Delran Fire Chief Joe Cunningham Jr. expressed concerns about access at Lake Lonnie because of the overgrowth and fallen trees. That prompted a “reconnaissance visit” – with the help of the fire department’s Kubota tractor – “to determine where further action was needed to open the trails.”

“On June 3, National Trails Day, we conducted our first trail maintenance day with members of the DFD,” Hammond explained. “Now the DFD (township fire department) has full access to Lake Lonnie and will be able to drive their Kubota rather than park and run.”

The green team held its second first-day hike on New Year’s Day with more than 50 people.

“Participants were shocked at the trash and started an impromptu cleanup of 17 bags of trash,” recalled Hammond, adding that the fire department then set up a bonfire to warm everyone after the hike.

On March 30, the team held a Love Our Parks event at three sites that included Lake Lonnie. A Delran Dunkin Donuts donated munchkins for each site, and volunteers collected 15 bags of trash at the lake. Delran High School Ornithology Club students installed bird-specific houses and bat houses constructed in the school’s FabLab.

What’s next? The installation of geocaches, which is included in the funding by the PSEG Foundation and Sustainable Jersey. Hammond said that throughout the project process, she and other green team members were surprised by how many residents didn’t know about Lake Lonnie.

“We hope that our efforts to promote the park will bring more residents out to our own little natural gem,” she said.

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