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A day at the last cheap swimming lakes - 'retro at its finest'

Bellmawr Lake, and a handful of others that are still open for business in the Philadelphia region are increasingly rare. They offer an affordable alternative to the Jersey Shore or amusement parks for lower and middle income families.

Amare Turner, 8, jumps off a dock and into Garrison Lake in Monroeville, NJ.
Amare Turner, 8, jumps off a dock and into Garrison Lake in Monroeville, NJ.Read moreMARGO REED / Staff Photographer

It was a Wednesday morning, the day after a chaotic Independence Day at Bellmawr Lake, the pay-for-the-day swimming hole in Camden County, and Anthony Martino, a 70-year-old retired police officer, sat sentinel by the shore with a lifeguard whistle around his neck. His skin was the color of glazed chicken.

"I'm the senior lifeguard here," he said. "I'm a senior anyway."

Owner Bob Fuller, 64, was sweaty, an extension cord slung over his shoulder. He'd been at work since 5:30 a.m., cleaning up trash and wearing down his patience. And the place still wasn't clean. He said he couldn't imagine spending his summer anywhere else.

"Every day is a new adventure," observed the retired teacher. "I've been here 40 seasons. I grew up around lakes. It's what people did back in the '50s and '60s. It was lake after lake after lake."

Bellmawr Lake, a two-acre, man-made, swimming hole off Creek Road, turns 60 this summer. The lake, and a handful of others that are still open for business in the Philadelphia region, are increasingly rare. They offer an affordable alternative to the Jersey Shore or amusement parks for lower- and middle-income families.

"We never try to rake anyone over the coals," said Bob's wife, Mary. Raking coals out of the lake's many grills was one of the tasks Bob still had to get to that recent day.

Short of the Shore, swimming options that don't involve pools are limited around Philadelphia. The two largest bodies of water, the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers, don't have recreational swimming areas, and people drown in both every summer. In 2007, the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area studied whether swimming could work at a dozen sites on both rivers. Venice Island, on the Schuylkill near Manayunk, was identified as a potential swimming area, along with Pleasant Hill Park, on the Delaware, in Northeast Philly. Neither suggestion has been implemented.

"There were a lot of logistical issues with both sites," said Tim Fenchel, the association's deputy director.

Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources operates many swimming beaches at state parks, but the closest one to Philadelphia is more than an hour away.

Swimming and jumping off boulders is forbidden at the Devil's Pool in Wissahickon Valley Park, throngs of teens and families doing it anyway every weekend. Earlier this month, the Inquirer and Daily News wrote about city police cracking down at the Devil's Pool after many complaints from neighbors. Some neighbors suggested filling the hole with rocks.

Though the city lists 70 public pools and a handful of private clubs, some people are drawn to sandy-bottomed swimming holes where cedar water stains their trunks.

'We grew up around this kind of stuff and it's part of who we are," says Luis Soto, 33 of Northeast Philly.

Soto and his family had come to Lake Garrison in Elk Township, Gloucester County on July 5 to celebrate a birthday. He and Angel Rodriguez, who was manning a charcoal grill along the lake, grew up in Camden, where they were Boy Scouts.

The men said they didn't like the beach in Atlantic City. Ocean City was too expensive. They feared that their usual go-to swimming hole, Atsion Recreation Area in Burlington County, would be shut down as part of New Jersey government shutdown earlier this month. Atsion is one of several swimming beaches operated by New Jersey's Division of Parks and Forestry that offer discounted rates for state residents.

So, not wanting to cancel the birthday party, Soto and his family wound up at Lake Garrison, the picturesque, former cranberry bog that has welcomed public swimming since 1935. Lake Garrison is only 26 miles from Philadelphia but feels far afield. A log cabin pavilion serves up ice cream by the beach, where falling pine cones pepper the sand.

Fishermen have hauled some lunker bass out from beneath the lily pads in the back of the lake.

"This place is great," Rodriguez says. "There's canoes, kayaks. It has all the stuff we love."

Lake Garrison is also home to a unique summer-only community, a patchwork of tiny bungalows, log cabins and trailers that sit along the shore and in woods across the street. They're all connected by small, sandy roads wide enough for a golf cart with one sign that says "Free beer, next door" and others that tout the residents' longevity. One home has been in the same family for 75 years.

"Oh, boy, we've got a traffic jam," Martha Nealer said as another golf cart approached hers on "Shore Drive."

Nealer knows everyone. There's a "Hey, Dottie" or "Hey, Mike" every few yards. She bought the bungalow next to her mother's and more family members have homes there, too. Collectively, the seasonal homeowners compose the Garrison Lake Stockholders Corp. No one is supposed to be there past Oct. 31. Nealer is on the board of directors.

"It's like Mayberry here," Nealer said. "It's a chance to disconnect. We have one woman who comes every day just for the sunset."

On this day, about 60 people spread out across the lake, paying $7 a person to swim. A dozen workers from local farms swam in the deepest area. They spoke to one another in Spanish, tossing a soccer ball as they bobbed above the tea-colored water.

"This is an important place for the community, for everyone, the migrant workers, especially," said general manager Albert Colo'n. "It's an affordable place for people to get away."

During the recent recession, Lake Garrison dropped admission prices.

Back at Bellmawr Lake, owner Bob Fuller rattled off names of lakes that closed their swimming areas or shut down altogether: Holiday, Columbia, Crystal, Kresson, Wilson, Clementon, Blue Mirror and Worth …

Wenonah Lake in Gloucester County is still open.

Unlike state parks in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, Bellmawr Lake has a full bar. It's been open for about 20 years and a welcome change, Fuller says, from the days when the lake was BYOB and a bit rowdier.

Most customers are from Philadelphia, Fuller says, but others come from Maryland, New York and Delaware. Oddly, he said, few are from Bellmawr.

"It's kind of perfect here," Wilmington resident Camile Walker said on Bellmawr's beach.

Admission prices for adults there is $9 during the week and $11 on weekends. Customers can bring their own food and charcoal.

Brian Saunders, of Abington, Montgomery County, eyed the charcoal grill, skeptical of his daughter's all-beef patties.

"Yo, she thinks she can beat me on the grill," said Saunders, 42. He grabbed a Philadelphia Cream Cheese tub and opened the lid, revealing his secret burger seasoning. "That's called the dust," he said.

Down at the water's edge, Martino likened private swimming lakes to "dinosaurs," relics like drive-in movies and roadside custard stands and miniature golf courses. Bellmawr Lake has them, too.

"This," he said,  "is retro at its finest."