Some people might consider Thomas Alva Edison the most versatile man in America, at least in his time. But Edison himself coined that term to describe his good friend, Hudson Maxim.
A nearly standing-room-only crowd at the Jefferson House on Thursday, August 30, learned the reasons from Martin Kane, president of the Lake Hopatcong Historical Society, who presented one of his popular slideshows.
Lake natives know that the circular stone structure in Maxim Cove was Maxim’s observatory and icehouse, and they know that his house and elaborate stone boathouse were nearby. Hopatcong school children know that a school is named for him. But few know the extent of his contributions to the lake area and the world.
(The Maxim company – maker of industrial noise suppressors – is actually named for his nephew, Hiram Percy Maxim.)
Born in Maine in 1853, Hudson Maxim invented coffeepots and developed a penmanship book in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Later, he went to Europe and joined his older brother, Hiram Stevens Maxim, in the streetlight business, which evolved into an armament business. Hudson was involved with sales, and then discovered an ability with explosives and propellants.
In Europe, Maxim met his second wife, Lilian Durban, when she was 21 and he was 43. They married in 1896 and moved to a townhouse in Brooklyn. Maxim operated a couple of explosives ventures in Howell Township, but northern New Jersey was the center of the explosives industry: Picatinny Arsenal in Jefferson, Hercules Powder Company in Kenvil, and American Forcite Powderworks (later Atlas) in Landing. Maxim was working for DuPont, which sent him to American Forcite just as the Lake Hopatcong area was beginning to be developed as a resort.
Explosives were not always good to Maxim, who lost his left hand in an explosion in the 1890s. He was never one to trust doctors, possibly because of having lost two brothers in the Civil War and two sisters in their 20s. Of the eight children in his family, only three survived well into adulthood.
The Maxims bought property on Old Lakeside Boulevard before Sharps Rock in 1901, eventually owning two and a half miles of lakefront. He planned to develop 650 acres around the lake, although the lots that look so neat on the development plan are actually quite steep, and many would have been hard to build on. A silent movie was filmed on Maxim’s land. Some still photos remain from the movie, but no actual film footage.
The couple built a house in 1904, an iconic boathouse in 1906, and three guesthouses, two of which survive. Among their guests were Admiral Richard Byrd, right after his successful trek to the North Pole, and Annie Oakley, who had retired to Nutley after her years with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The Maxims began spending more time at the lake and less in Brooklyn. Eventually they became year-round residents, which was unusual in the early 20th century. They loved to entertain, often with Maxim doing the cooking.
He was involved in the community, serving on the Hopatcong Borough Council for 16 years. In addition, Maxim was interested in recreation. He loved to fish on the lake and play tennis, and was fascinated by the moves of wrestling. He played chess and invented a board game he called War.
One of his most significant causes was the decommissioning of the Morris Canal. “The people of the Canal Society hiss when they hear the name Hudson Maxim,” said Kane. If not for Maxim, there might have been another use found for the canal, but he worked long and hard for it to be completely closed by distributing pamphlets, writing letters to the editor, and more.
Kane reminded lake residents of how they feel when the water is low but still must pass over the dam to feed the Musconetcong River, and then asked them to imagine how low the lake would be if it had to feed the canal as well. The railroad had already cost the canal its economic viability, Kane pointed out. When it was decommissioned and the fountain installed, Maxim was satisfied that the lake would be in good shape.
The versatile Maxim spent 10 years researching and writing a book titled The Science of Poetry. After its publication, he was visited by Edwin Markham, whose poem on Abraham Lincoln he greatly admired. Another of Maxim’s famous friends – perhaps the most famous – was Theodore Roosevelt. Legend has it that Roosevelt visited him at the lake, but Kane said no photos have been found to back that up.
One of Maxim and Roosevelt’s shared causes was America’s lack of preparedness after the Spanish American War. Maxim wrote a book titled Defenseless America, which illustrated how a foreign armada could sail into New York Harbor with heavy artillery and devastate the city, giving the invaders ready access to the munitions industry in northern New Jersey. The book was published in March 1915; by September, a movie titled The Battle Cry of Peace was released, based on the book.
Maxim visited Woodrow Wilson in the White House and spoke at Carnegie Hall on the topic. He was on the Naval Advisory Board, helping to bring the country’s defenses up to an appropriate level.
He was passionately in favor of women’s suffrage and against Prohibition. He lived to see women get the right to vote, but died in 1927 at the age of 74, before the repeal of Prohibition.
Maxim and Lilian had no children. His son from his first marriage had two daughters, but neither of them had children; so the family has died out, said Kane.
Both Maxim Glen and Modick Park in Hopatcong were donated by the family. In addition, Maxim provided the land for a public school, now called Hudson Maxim Elementary School, and for a church. The house was offered to the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, which was unsure of its ability to maintain it. The house was eventually taken down, leaving only some foundations.
Kane noted that Maxim had used an old mine shaft on his property to store explosives, to the surprise of later owners. In the 1950s, the owners of the elaborate boathouse, unhappy with their taxes, blew it up – appropriate for a Maxim property.