HOWELL – Alfred C. Sauer Park, more commonly referred to as Echo Lake Park, is a small municipal park that has a variety of activities for locals. But this hidden gem, which sits less than one half mile from the bustling corridor of U.S. Highway 9, was only made possible through the extraordinary efforts of two individuals. While it is generally regarded as a garden spot in the township, it wasn’t always so.
“It’s one of our most beautiful properties in our town,” said Councilwoman Suzanne Brennan, speaking about Echo Lake at a recent Howell Township Council meeting. “No matter how many people use it, I don’t think it’s ever enough because it really is quite [an] exquisite place to be.”
There are numerous sites named Echo Lake around the United States, and curiously, several in New Jersey alone. But one in particular, tucked away in Monmouth County, appears to have been conceived by one township resident and saved by another.
Situated on Maxim Southard Road between Lanes Mill Road and Locust Avenue in Howell, the park has two parking areas, located on the north and south sides of the lake. Fed by a nearby brook, the five-acre lake may be more correctly identified as a large pond.
The lake was created by the land’s former owners, Mary and Alfred Gunther, who constructed a wooden dam to divert water from the Polyprod Brook to slowly fill the lake. According to the Vice President of the Howell Heritage and Historical Society, Ann Malsbury, the lake has been around for some seven decades, with newspapers referencing Echo Lake back into the late 1940s. Malsbury, whose cousin was a frequent guest of the Gunther family, indicates that the spot was privately owned and enjoyed for some 30 years.
“My cousin knew them,” Malsbury said. “She would visit at their house and when it was time to go home, Al would drive her home. She was a kid then.”
With a nearby freshwater stream that traversed his property, Gunther conceived of the idea to have the water retained, thus filling a sizeable portion of the area to provide an aquatic playground within the tranquil setting.
“My cousin said that [Gunther] built it for the locals,” Malsbury said. “For people to come and have a nice time. They could picnic, and they could swim, and get together. It was always called Echo Lake as far back as she could remember.”
But after some 30 years, the Gunthers were looking to sell the land, and as the township’s population was on the rise, it is conceivable that the area may have been drained and used for residential homes. Before that happened, however, Howell Township saw the property’s value and beauty, and moved to acquire the land and preserve it under New Jersey’s Green Acres Act.
Instituted in 1961, the Green Acres Program is a statewide effort to work with public and private partners to preserve open spaces, conserve undeveloped land and provide New Jersey residents with permanent recreation areas. In its sixty years of existence, Green Acres has worked to protect more than half a million acres of open space in the Garden State.
After becoming a public park, Echo Lake was enjoyed for swimming and fishing, but slowly fell into disrepair. Fishing decreased and swimming was banned due to declining water quality. Bacteria levels rose and the water had become choked with undergrowth that made it uninhabitable for many fish. The depth of the lake dropped to just three feet, and without the life-sustaining water, the park eventually fell out of favor with residents. What was once a private dream spot had become a public nightmare, as the lake was beginning to transform into a swamp.
It took the extraordinary efforts of local Howell resident Albert Sauer to bring the lake back from the brink. Sauer, a World War II veteran who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, was one of the founding members of the Echo Lake Restoration Committee. Through his efforts and other like-minded citizens, he brought the park’s condition to the attention of local township officials. Eventually the State of New Jersey provided a $150,000 grant, which was used to dredge and restore the lake and surrounding grounds to its former beauty. With the cleanup, the fish and wildlife returned, along with delighted residents.
Sauer died in 2014, but his conservationist spirit lives on in the township’s Environmental Commission, as well as the Lake Restoration and Wildlife Management Committee, both of which he served on for years. Due in large part to his efforts to save the area and restore it, the park was renamed as “Albert C. Sauer Park at Echo Lake.”
The grounds of the park rise up slowly from the lake, and with the backdrop of trees behind it, the sounds of waterfowl resonate like a Roman amphitheater across the surface of the water. But while the moniker clearly suits it, no one seems to remember just how Echo Lake got its name. It is generally believed, however, that the origin of the name likely lies with Alfred Gunther, given that he was the original owner of the site.
While swimming nor motorized boats are not permitted now, the lake is available for those wishing to kayak or canoe. Fishing is actively enjoyed at the lake, and the waters are stocked with trout by the New Jersey Bureau of Fresh Water Fisheries each spring, just in time for the season’s opening day in April.
The grounds also feature a playground for youngsters, a gazebo, picnic benches, restrooms and a short (two-tenths of a mile long) nature trail that runs through the woods behind the lake. Here, one can find a duck blind build by local Eagle Scout Timothy Kinney, which allows nature lovers to watch the many ducks, geese and other species that frequent the area.
Most prominent at the site is the glass-enclosed pavilion which may be reserved for use by the public for special events. The spacious interior of the structure even features a fireplace, and served as the launch point for Howell Township’s 2022 Clean Communities event on April 9.
Alfred C. Sauer Park at Echo Lake is located at 1225 Maxim Southard Road in Howell Township and is open from dawn until dusk.