James J. Braddock Park in North Bergen has seen some unusual occurrences since it was established in 1910 – from a famous UFO sighting in 1975 to people finding piranhas and exotic creatures in the lake. The park, stretching from 79th Street to 92nd Street, is much bigger than most Hudson County parks, and on a given day, it’s home to a diverse cast of characters.
“It’s a little community where a lot of people know each other.” – Arthur Presslaff
A passed-down history
The park was established just over 100 years ago. Formerly known as “North Hudson Park,” it was later renamed James J. Braddock North Hudson Park after the famed “Cinderella Man” boxer of the same name.
Besides the lake, the park contains tennis, basketball, and handball courts. It also has a cast of regulars.
Among them is Arthur Presslaff, known to other park dwellers as “the Bird Man.”
A war veteran who claims to have an intuition with animals, he has been coming to the park for over 60 years.
“It’s amazing,” said Presslaff, who visits the park on most days. “The birds sit on your head even though you don’t feed them.”
According to Presslaff, the park has evolved a lot over the years. Originally a natural body of water, the town added a reservoir that doubled the size of the lake.
“This is a natural lake,” said Presslaff. “They made it twice as big and added up the part that’s on the northern end.”
Presslaff said that park-goers may not realize that trains used to run right over the lake.
“There used to be a trestle,” said Presslaff, who mentioned that his knowledge comes from the generation of park-goers before him. “If you ran into the woods you could see some of the pilings that are still remaining.”
(Old railroad ties were recently found during renovations; see sidebar.)
Presslaff said people were once allowed to ice skate along the lake in winter, and could rent paddle boats in the summer.
“In the winter they had a machine that would shave the ice, and there was a gentleman that would rent out skates if you didn’t have your own,” he said. “Everyone wishes they could bring them back.”
Most UFO sightings
Marcus Rehfeld of West New York had more information to share about the park.
“In the ’80’s it was drained,” said Rehfeld, referring to the lake. He said that they did this in order to install fountains that would add oxygen to the water.
The park has not been without its fair share of controversy.
In 1975, two people reported seeing a UFO in the area of the park. Numerous accounts of this sighting can be found on the internet.
Since the sighting was documented, North Bergen has become the town with the highest total of reported UFO incidents in the United States, according to the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle.
As it turns out, aliens, bird-men, and trains aren’t the only odd things that supposedly could be found in the park over the years.
The curious ecosystem
Confusingly enough, according to both Rehfeld and Presslaff, many of the creatures found in the park are not typically native to the area.
Sightings of piranhas, rare Asian ducks, and even snapping turtles have been reported. Often, a resident has come upon these creatures by accident.
Sometimes, the animals are pets that people dump in the lake.
According to Rehfeld, turtles, arguably the most common creature found in the lake, are the mainstay of the reservoir simply because they are illegal to keep as pets in New Jersey, so people dump them.
Presslaff said he has rescued dogs, cats, domestic ducks, and other animals that have been left in the park.
Besides a fragile ecosystem for abandoned pets, the lake is also home to trout and carp which, according to park-goers, are supplied by the county. Those with a license are permitted to try their luck at fishing.
“There’s good fishing in that lake,” Presslaff said, “believe it or not.”
Presslaff said the park is a community of its own.
Joggers and church group
Sure enough, around noon, the park was filled with joggers, dog-walkers, families, and even a large missionary church group filled with marching musicians – all of whom, to Presslaff, are part of an everyday community.
“It’s a terrific park,” said Presslaff. “It’s like a little community where a lot of people know each other.”
Near the entrance, an elderly woman was helped to her feet by police after falling off a NJ Transit bus. She refused to be taken away by an ambulance. Perhaps she was just overly eager to enjoy her afternoon in the park.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Passive area won’t be a sports field
Dumped animals and UFOs may have caused controversy in North Hudson Braddock Park over the years, but the area also saw a more recent debate. The county had planned to install a 1,500 seat football and soccer field at the park near Woodcliff Avenue.
However, due to the discovery of contaminated soil, the plans were scrapped. Among the finds were old tires and railroad ties from decades ago.
“The project is currently going through environmental remediation,” said Jim Kennelly, a spokesman for Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, last week. “The environmental remediation requires testing of materials as they come out of the ground.”
Kennelly said that now, the area will be turned into a mostly passive park, with a nearby fenced-in synthetic field as well as a bathroom building.
The county is also considering setting aside a small space to honor veterans, as has been suggested by residents.