As part of the Raider of the Lost Art “Where are we #PARKed?” series I am starting off with the history of Newark’s largest parks, Branch Brook and Weequahic Parks. Before discussing these landmark parks, its important to understand the urban parks movement that birthed them. Believe it or not, cemeteries were America’s first public parks. In the first half of the nineteenth century, cemeteries, as we know them today – spread out, rolling hills – did not exist. Urban cemeteries were crowded and often contaminated drinking water and spreading disease. Cemeteries were moving to the outskirts of cities, like Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They soon became a grassy, tree-lined, open space for contemplation and for recreation where urbanites could escape the hustle and bustle of the crowded downtown. This is no longer a common practice, but some are attempting to revive it. In some instances, cemeteries in more urban settings were transformed into formal public parks, like Chicago’s Lincoln Park.
BRANCH BROOK PARK
In Newark, Branch Brook Park is the largest (359 acres) and first park open to the public as part of the county system. The location of Branch Brook park served as a training camp for New Jersey volunteers in the Civil War. There was no formal plan for a park until 1867, when the state legislature, creating a new Newark Park Commission, sent famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to find a location for a grand public park. It would take another 30 years for construction to begin. In this time, the Newark Commission would acquire the 60 acre Reservoir Park in the city’s north ward, which included the Old Blue Jay Swamp. Additionally, after the formation of the Essex County Parks Commission in 1895, the land was transferred from the City to the commission with prominent Newark families in the north ward contributing an additional 82 acres. Construction began the following year, based on plans from John Bogart and Nathan Barrett. However, dissatisfied with the work, the Commission returned to the Olmsted firm, this time under the guidance of Frederick’s nephew and son, John and Frederick, Jr. In the 1920s the park added an additional 117 acres. In 1927, its iconic cherry blossoms were donated by Caroline Bamberger Fuld, inspired by a trip to Washington, D.C. The collection has grown to more than 3,000. Left as a shadow of its former self through the riots, and in 1999 the Branch Brook Park Alliance formed. In the last 15 years, the park has undergone an expansive multi-million dollar restoration. In early spring, I visited while the blossoms were in full view and it was extraordinary.
Weequahic (alleged to mean “head of the cove” by the Lenni Lenape) Park lies in Newark’s south ward. It is the second largest park (311 acres). According to the Essex County Parks Website, “the first twelve parcels of land—some 265 acres of farmlands, fairgrounds, and swampland—were purchased between 1896 and 1899 at a cost of $220,000”. Those fairgrounds were used for agricultural fairs, horse racing and later car racing. President Grant came to Newark in 1872 to see the races when he attended the city’s industrial exposition. However, there were questions about the usability of the land. Being bisected by both Route 22 and the Lehigh Valley Railroad line, the park is more like two adjacent parks in some ways. Additionally, when the land was first acquired, there were questions about who would want to enjoy a park that included a bog. Nevertheless, the Olmsted brothers, again tapped as the architects for the project, completed a design in 1901. There plan focused on Weequahic Lake (expanded through a dam system) and maintained Waverly Fairgrounds, a small 1/2-mile trotting track.
In 1916, Divident Hill, the highest point in the park, and a location that back in 1668 had marked the border between Newark and Elizabeth, had a pavilion completed on top of it to mark Newark’s 250th Anniversary. Later in the 1960s, the George Low, Sr. – designed nine hole golf course was expanded to 18, and remained the oldest public golf course in America. The park’s legacy lives on, as it is still frequented by sports leagues, golfers, and Newarkers everyday.
Today’s brief history of Branch Brook and Weequahic Parks, creates the legacy of two iconic public parks not just in Newark, but for the country. I hope that if you are ever in the Brick City, that you remember to stop by both of these beautiful and historic parks. As we continue on this “Where are we #PARKed?” tour, we will look at some of Newark’s smaller, downtown parks and some of the public led-revivals of parks lifelong residents did not even know existed. I hope you’ll come along!