The Cursed Reservoir of New Jersey

Sometimes even the most peaceful and tranquil of places can have an underlying current of menace just under the seemingly pristine veneer. These are places where peace and beauty walk hand and hand with darker, more dangerous, and indeed more mysterious forces. For one popular and scenic fishing paradise in the U.S. state of New Jersey, all is not languid sunny days fishing the azure waters, as lurking beyond the surface are perhaps forces beyond our understanding.

Clinton Township, in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, is home to the popular fishing spot Round Valley Reservoir, which at 2,350 acres (8 km2) in area and up to 180 feet (55 m) deep, is New Jersey’s largest and deepest manmade lake, and is the second largest lake in the state, period. The reservoir was created in 1960 by the New Jersey Water Authority, which flooded a circular valley- hence the reservoir’s name- surrounded by Cushetunk Mountain after constructing two large dams. Originally formed to provide water to central New Jersey, namely communities in Bergen and Essex Counties, Round Valley Reservoir was opened to fishing in 1972 and the lake and the scenic surrounding wilderness areas of the Round Valley Recreation Area offer SCUBA facilities, boating, camping, hiking, and biking trails, as well as various other outdoor activities. The opening of the lake to fishing in particular boosted the lake’s popularity, as it was well stocked with a variety of fish species and is one of only two lakes in New Jersey that has a population of lake trout. The variety of fish here, including bass, pickerel, catfish, American eel, yellow perch, brown trout, and rainbow trout, the state records for many of which have been caught here, as well as the remarkably clear blue water into which one can peer all the way down to the bottom in depths of around 20 feet or even more, have made Round Valley Reservoir a fisherman’s haven.

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Yet behind this picture perfect outdoor heaven is a darker, more insidious and mysterious feature of the lake; various unexplained deaths and disappearances of fishermen, swimmers, kayakers, and hikers, among others, some of whom have gone missing without a trace. Most of these have been attributed to drowning, but some were apparent suicides and others were seemingly just freak accidents. In total, there have been at least 26 deaths and disappearances in the area since 1971, and such cases have become so numerous over the years that the area is sometimes ominously referred to by locals as the “Bermuda Triangle of New Jersey.” Six of the victims’ bodies have never been recovered, and possibly even more.

One of the first famous cases of a mysterious disappearance in the reservoir occurred on May 4, 1973, when Thomas Trimblett, 23, and his brother-in-law Christopher Zajaczowski, 22, were out on the lake fishing in a 12-foot aluminum boat. At some point, the boat inexplicably capsized and the two men went under to never be seen again. Extensive search and rescue efforts to find the two only turned up the boat, an oar, some fishing tackle, and two, unused life jackets. The two bodies have never been found.

After that, cases of people mysteriously vanishing in or around the lake started to pour in. A mere four years later, Craig Stier, 18, and Andrew Fasanella, 20, were last seen traveling along the north shoreline of the reservoir and seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. A few days after they were reported missing, their empty canoe washed up on shore yet the bodies have never been found. On March 14, 1989, a  John Kubu, 37, and his friend Albert Lawson both vanished while on a fishing trip on the lake. Although Lawson’s body was eventually recovered in 1993, the body of Kubu remains at large. In another strange case, on Oct. 22, 1993, Jeffrey Moore, 27, and friend Raymond Barr were out on the lake for a relaxing day of fishing when their boat inexplicably capsized in clear, calm conditions and in full view of other boaters in the vicinity. One of the nearby boaters rushed to the rescue and managed to pull Barr from the water, but Moore was nowhere to be found despite a frantic search of the area. Moore’s body has never been recovered and there has never been any trace of what became of him.

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Over the years, there have been several attempts to delve into Round Valley Reservoir’s depths in an attempt to locate the missing, yet success has proven to be elusive. In 1977, a battery-powered submersible typically used for oil rigs was brought to the lake to scour the bottom in the macabre search for missing bodies. The sub was state-of-the-art and piloted by a seasoned operator, Andre Galerne, who had once worked with none other than deep-sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, yet even after a week of exhaustive searches no bodies were found. In 1999, State troopers specially trained in underwater recovery launched a meticulous hunt for bodies in the lake’s depths, but the efforts were hampered by large amount of underwater growth and submerged tree trunks, as well as darkness down in the deeper parts of the lake. A submarine was used to look for bodies again in 2006 but again no sign of any of the missing persons was uncovered. There have also been numerous search efforts using divers as well as land searches conducted over the years, typically when water levels are lower than usual and using dogs trained to sniff out cadavers, pieces of bone, teeth, and scraps of clothing that may have belonged to the missing along the receding waterline.

While many of these official searches have failed to produce any results, there have been a few success stories. In 2013, the body of missing fisherman Kenneth Rohatyn, 56, was discovered in about 70 feet of water when a State Police Marine Unit picked up an anomalous reading on sonar and subsequently sent in recovery divers. The fisherman had been fishing in a canoe about 20 yards from shore when he disappeared, and it was a mystery as to how he had fallen into the water. In another case, in 2014 the body of a missing kayaker was recovered in 51 feet of water after an intensive search by multiple emergency units such as water rescue units and divers. The man had apparently fallen from his kayak near a boat ramp yet had failed to reach the nearby safety before vanishing beneath the surface. A New Jersey registered car, most likely the victim’s, was found abandoned in the boat ramp’s parking lot. In July, 2014, another body of a kayaker, Chen Shao, 24, was found 150 yards off shore after he had fallen from his kayak. The witness who saw the incident claimed that the man had struggled to get back into his kayak after falling in but was somehow unable to do so and had sunk beneath the water as the kayak slowly drifted away. Police spent 6 hours searching for the body with sonar and other equipment.

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Some of the bodies of missing people are found not by authorities engaged in active searches, but rather by regular people who just happen upon them. In 1989, two amateur divers were 50 feet down in the lake when they came upon the gruesome discovery of a human skeleton that was still wearing green rubber boots and covered in tattered bits of clothing. The body was later identified as a fisherman who had been missing since 1976. Spookily, the body of another missing fisherman who had been with the victim at the time of his disappearance was found in a similar manner just 11 months later. In March of 2012, a hiker on Pine Tree Trail noticed a body bobbing around out in the lake and called the police. When the floating body was later recovered it turned out to be that of a white male in his 20s or 30s, although the identity of the victim was a mystery, as was the reason for how he had wound up in the water. Authorities have claimed it was an apparent suicide. In another, even creepier incident, in May, 2012, a fisherman by the name of Edward P. Woodell Jr. was out for a relaxing day of fishing when he caught more than he bargained for. The man’s hook snagged something in the water, and when he pulled it in, the shocked fisherman found there was a boot on the end of his line containing the partial skeletal remains of a human foot. Police units proceeded to scour the area for more remains, but there was no trace of any more. It is still unknown who the foot once belonged to, how the mysterious victim died, or indeed where the rest of the body is.

The large amount of deaths and disappearances at Round Valley Reservoir has given the place a menacing air of mystery, and many rumors and legends have sprung up around it. Some believe that the reservoir was built over sacred Native burial grounds and is cursed by vengeful spirits. Indeed, the land the lake was created on was long inhabited by the Lenape Indians, making it very possible that indeed there are ancient burial grounds here somewhere beneath the lake’s placid waters. Others believe that some sort of lake monster has made its home in the lake, a rather absurd idea considering Round Valley Reservoir is a manmade lake.

One very prominent legend concerning the lake concerns the existence of a whole ghost town lying at the bottom, complete with buildings, homes, silos, fences, roads and trees, submerged deep in the lake’s cold, dark waters. This idea also has some plausibility due to the history of the lake’s creation. When the plans to flood the valley in order to make the reservoir and address water shortage issues were put into effect, there were locals who opposed the project and resisted selling their land to the government. When the state moved in and began purchasing properties and land in earnest, many residents ended up facing an ultimatum; either move their homes at their own expense or leave them behind. It is said that although many abandoned houses and structures were demolished or salvaged before flooding of the valley began, others are rumored to have remained standing when the water came pouring in and so it is perfectly feasible that there could be a submerged ghost town in the lake to some extent. Some rumors are that actual ghosts roam this town and are the ones responsible for the mysterious deaths and disappearances in the lake. These rumors are further fueled by the reports of people falling into the lake who are inexplicably unable to exit the water even in calm conditions or when nearby safety, almost as if they are being pulled down by unseen hands.

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Besides malevolent spirits, curses, and underwater ghosts, the real reason for the deaths and vanished people is likely something more mundane and tied to the unique nature of the lake and its locale. Round Valley Reservoir is situated in the middle of a circular valley, which is conducive to producing sudden, powerful gusts of wind that are magnified within the valley’s confines. These winds are known to reach speeds of up to 40mph or more, and whip up out of nowhere to produce waves of surprising size, which could in turn be responsible for some of the reports of capsized boats. These fierce winds are known to howl into the lake out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.

The lake’s very cold temperatures, which originate from its depth and altitude, also can be deceptive as the water is frigid even on warm spring days, and conspires against anyone unlucky enough fall in. Once in the icy water, which saps body heat 32 times faster than cold air, the cold quickly shocks the body, causes spasms, and numbs or cramps up extremities to the point that it is difficult or impossible to grasp the side of a boat or other possible safety such as a life jacket or rescue line. This might certainly give the impression that some ghostly aggressor is holding someone down or preventing rescue. The victim might also panic and thrash or kick about in the water, which actually causes the body to lose heat even faster as the blood pumped to extremities is quickly chilled. Disorientation and severe pain set in within mere minutes, and hypothermia, unconsciousness and death are not far behind unless the victim can exit the water quickly, something that strong winds would inhibit. Even very strong swimmers can be overwhelmed by such conditions in short order and the problem is compounded by the abrupt, strong, unforgiving winds and the large number of people who do not wear life vests on the lake.

The cold water can also explain the mysterious disappearances of bodies that are never found, as it tends to stave off decomposition and the resulting gasses that would normally float a body to the surface where it would be more likely to be found. On the bottom, a corpse is also likely to become entangled in the many twisted trees still remaining on the bottom of the reservoir from before the valley was flooded, making them hard to spot for divers and obscuring them from sonar.

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In addition to cold water and sudden, violent weather changes, the lake’s circular shape also distorts perception of distance for people out on the water, giving the illusion that they are closer to shore than they really are. This optical illusion could contribute to people drowning once they fall in, as they may be under the impression that they can swim to shore, when in reality they are too far to make it in the frigid water before their body gives out. The tricks the circular lake plays on the eyes also may give a false sense of security for people that are in boats that are too small for deeper, choppier water. Regulations at Round Valley Reservoir state that only non-motorized and very small motorized boats up to 10 horsepower are allowed on the lake, making these craft more susceptible to the sudden gusts of wind and large waves that can appear here at a moment’s notice. It seems that a combination of small boats, abnormally high winds, and cold, hypothermia inducing water may have a large role in the number of deaths that occur at the lake.

Yet, the rumors persist that some evil, paranormal force is at work here, and that this lake is a cursed, haunted place that is to be approached at one’s own risk. What causes the deaths and disappearances here at this otherwise scenic fishing locale? Are there ancient curses from long lost burial grounds, vengeful spirits, or some other dark forces at work here? Or is the lake simply cursed with a bad combination of physical factors and geography? Whatever the reasons, it seems that the mysterious and sinister legend of Round Valley Reservoir will likely persist for some time.