State park drownings prompt safety review

Three people have died at nearby lakes that are off-limits to swimming


Photo of deceased man, Slawomir Klecha
Photo of deceased man, Slawomir Klecha

BEAR MOUNTAIN – In the aftermath of three drownings this summer at state park lakes where swimming is prohibited, parks officials plan on conducting a review of warning signs in the parks and their safety outreach efforts.

“Our parks are beautiful, but they can also be dangerous if the right precautions are not taken,” said Randy Simons of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. “We do have appropriate signage now, but we are going to take a look at the signage and analyze what we could do better.”

This summer has been a deadly one on the waters of Bear Mountain State Park and the adjoining Harriman State Park.

On Sunday, a 26-year-old New Jersey man drowned in Silver Mine Lake in Harriman, just over the Rockland County border in Orange County. This followed the June 24 death of a Brooklyn boy and the July 4 death of a New York City man, both at Hessian Lake at Bear Mountain. Swimming is not permitted at either Hessian Lake or Silver Mine Lake.

In contrast, there were no drowning deaths in the parks in 2012.

In Sunday’s incident, Slawomir Klecha, 26, of Wallington, NJ, fell off an inflatable mattress he was using on the waters of Silver Mine Lake. A park patron pulled Klecha out of the water and after emergency treatment at the lake he was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, where he was pronounced dead.

Klecha, a native of Poland who came to the United States with his family in 1998, was a 2006 graduate of Wallington (NJ) High School. Family members described him as hard-working young man, having recently obtained a commercial driver’s license so he could drive trucks.

The 84-acre Silver Mine Lake is a man-made lake that was created in 1934, when the Bockey Swamp was flooded. The lake is shallow along its edges and has a maximum depth of about 25 feet. Picnics, hiking, fishing and boating – with a boat permit – are allowed at the lake. However, retired park police office Andy Smith of Stony Point said Silver Mine Lake is not one of the most popular recreational spots in Harriman State Park.

Smith noted that the waters of Silver Mine Lake, because of the swampy area, are murky. While the lake has Largemouth Bass, Chain Pickerel, Yellow Perch, Rock Bass and Sunfish, Smith said the area is more popular for hiking. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference describes the trail in the area – with great views of the lake and nearby Black Mountain – as a two-hour circuit that is of moderate difficulty.

Silver Mine Lake is one of more than 300 Lakes in Harriman State Park. Parks spokesman Simons noted that swimming is only allowed at two of those lakes – Lake Welch and Lake Tiorati.

Simons explained that signs throughout the park system warn users against swimming in unprotected areas, and park personnel also are constantly interacting with park users to make sure they understand the rules – and dangers – of the sprawling recreational area.

“We are looking at whether we need to have better messaging about the dangers,” Simons said.

In addition to its safety efforts at state parks such as Harriman and Bear Mountain, Simons said New York State is reaching out to communities where park users live. He noted that a free state recreational program in New York City this year has taught 500 children how to swim and the state is looking to expand that program next year.

“Safety is on the top of mind right now,” said Simons, noting that his agency is also looking for better ways of getting its safety message out to park users, such as through social media and the traditional media.

For the rest of this summer, Simons explained that state parks officials and police are bracing for the next heat wave that hits New York, which will bring out a new wave of park visitors who may be unfamiliar with park rules and dangers.

While Sunday’s death at Silver Mine Lake is in a secluded area off Seven Lakes Drive, the first two deaths this summer came at the very busy Bear Mountain State Park, where Hessian Lake is located next to the Bear Mountain Inn. There are row boat and pedal boat rentals at the lake, but swimming is not permitted.

Despite the two drownings this season at Hessian Lake and signs prohibiting swimming, parks officials continue to have incidents in which they are chasing swimmers out of the lake. At Bear Mountain, swimming is available at the park’s pool a short distance from the Bear Mountain Inn.

The Hessian Lake incidents this season claimed the lives of Jean Fritz Pierre, who was a ninth-grader at the International High School in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and Refugio Jimenez, a 46-year-old Manhattan resident. Pierre went into Hessian Lake to cool off toward the end of a school trip to the park with 47 other students and 11 adults.

Pierre and a friend had strayed away from the rest of their group.

Jimenez was at Bear Mountain celebrating the Fourth of July with his family. Witnesses said he swam across Hessian Lake successfully but got into trouble as he tried to swim back across the lake.

Silver Mine Lake: Is there any silver?

Silver Mine Lake is one of the man-made recreational areas in Harriman State Park and gets its name from legend of a lost Spanish silver mine at nearby Black Mountain.

Is there a mine? Was there ever any silver?

Those are questions that retired park police office Andy Smith of Stony Point says have been a matter for folklore and speculation – and even some exploration – since the 1700s.

When Silver Mine Lake was created from a swamp in 1934, Smith said the new lake was going to be called Menomine Lake, but the name Silver Mine Lake was chosen because of its proximity to Black Mountain.

Smith says the legend of the silver mine dates back to the 1720s and Caldwell’s Tavern at Caldwell’s Landing at Jones Point. Patrons of the tavern reported seeing a ship come in with mysterious men they thought were Spaniards, who disappeared into the hills and would later return to the ship with many heavy sacks.

In one of the encounters at the tavern, as legend goes, one of the mystery men showed off the shiny contents of one of the sacks after much drinking.

“Someone saw something shiny that looked like silver,” Smith said.

Smith said local residents told stories of the men returning every year and going off into the mountains. As the story goes, Smith said, locals eventually found a site at Black Mountain where the “Spaniards” had been.

However, the supposed mine the men were working was never found.

The legend of a load of silver existing so close to New York City, Smith said, has led to modern attempts to find the hidden wealth. Smith said that as the Civilian Conservation Corps was working in the mountains during the 1930s, a group of men conducting a large-scale mining operation was discovered. He said they were looking for the hidden silver.

At the time, Smith said, there was so much blasting going on in the area that the blasting being done by this group had gone unnoticed until they group was spotted by accident. Their efforts were halted.

As recently as the 1980s, Smith said, a modern explorer sought permission to mine for hidden treasure but was turned away by park officials. Is there silver? Well, Smith said some mineral tests have shown a presence of silver. But no one has ever found large deposits.

Were those mystery men from the ship at Caldwell’s Landing even Spanish? Maybe, maybe not.

“The people at the time thought these guys looked Spanish and they spoke a language they thought was Spanish,” Smith said.

During his career in the parks, Smith recalled meeting many hikers who hoped they would stumble upon the lost Spanish mine as they explored the area near Silver Mine Lake and Black Mountain.

View silver mine lake map here.

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