The Oldest Public Park (In America)

There’s a Dead Guy in the Arch!
Bushnell Park, Hartford

Various Visits

bpa.jpgI never thought to include a page about Bushnell Park. Then I started learning more about it when I was researching/writing stuff for some of the attractions in and near the park and said to myself, “Steve, this is worth a page. Sure you didn’t really take any pictures for this write-up and sure it’s just a giant lawn in the middle of Hartford, but do it anyway. Do it for the people. And be sure to include a random picture of a duck and turtle from the fetid park pond just below this paragraph too.”

So here you have it. And even if you have walked through at least a portion of the park a million times before, I think you’ll find this pretty cool. “This” being the conception and history of Bushnell Park. Heck, there’s a dead guy in the giant Memorial Arch!

From the excellent Bushnell Park Foundation website:

bpb.jpgHartford in the 1850s was a rapidly growing river town, doubling in population from 1850 to 1860. The city’s economy was booming, driven by industries such as publishing, insurance, banking, munitions, manufacturing and river shipping. Like many American cities of the time, Hartford was enjoying the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. But along with this growth came some growing pains, including crime, crowded tenements, poverty, poor sanitation, polluted water and air. These problems were a growing concern of civic leaders at mid-century.

Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) was the primary influence in the creation of a national park system in the United States. By 1848, he was advocating the creation of urban parks financed by private funds for the enjoyment of select groups of people. But he never advocated publicly financed parks. In 1851, a proposal was made to establish a centrally located park in New York City. And land for New York’s Central Park was privately purchased in 1853. Later that year, recognizing the need for open space in Hartford, CT, the Reverend Horace Bushnell presented an idea that had not been suggested in any other American city–the creation of a public park, financed by public funds.

Initial public reaction was skeptical. Hard-nosed business leaders were opposed to removing taxable property from the tax rolls. Furthermore, it was hard to imagine a less likely place for a green, peaceful park than Bushnell’s proposed site, which was home to two leather tanneries, a soapworks, pigsties and other livestock–even a garbage dump. A railroad spur ran through it and the smelly Park River, polluted with the city’s industrial waste, ran alongside it. Crowded tenements lined both banks of the river, with their outhouses in the back emptying directly into the sluggish current. Even Rev. Bushnell described it as “hell without the fire.”

Since this is a good picture, you know I took it from elsewhere. This time, from CTMQ reader Dick Hemenway’s ConneCTkids website. (Click that link, it’s fun.)

However, after hearing Dr. Bushnell’s presentation in October 1853, the Hartford City Council voted unanimously in November to spend public funds–$105,000-to buy the land that was to become Bushnell Park. Hartford voters approved the expenditure on Jan. 5, 1854, by a vote of 1,687 to 683, making it the first municipal park in the nation to be conceived, built and paid for by citizens through a popular vote.

But six years later, the park still had not taken shape. It was clear that a new and comprehensive park plan was needed. Bushnell asked his life-long friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, a Hartford native and world-famous designer of New York’s Central Park, to design the park. However, Olmsted could not grant Bushnell’s request since he was busily designing Central Park at the time. He recommended that the city hire Jacob Weidenmann, a Swiss-born landscape architect and botanist to design and build the park.

Weidenmann’s plan of 1861 had a distinctive natural style, which featured smoothly sculpted contours and graceful paths leading to focal points like the meandering Park River. The plan included informal clusters of evergreen and deciduous trees, which screened the sites and sounds of the city, a departure from the formal New England square or central green.

bpd.jpgAs part of the plan, Weidenmann selected 157 varieties of Trees and shrubs from North America, Europe and eastern Asia to grace the park. A total of 1,100 individual specimens were planted, creating a canopy of green covering the Park. Over the years, many important architectural features, such as the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Arch (1886), the Capitol (1876), Corning Fountain (1899), the Carousel (1974) and the Performance Pavilion (1995) were added, while other scenic elements, such as the Park River and its several graceful bridges, were demolished in the 1940s. A major transformation in the park occurred at this time when the firm of Olmsted and Olmsted of Brookline, Mass., (Frederick Law Olmsted’s son’s firm), was retained to assist the city in redesigning the Park after the burial of the Park River was completed. Although changed, Bushnell Park today remains an oasis in the heart of the city where people from all walks of life come to renew their spirit and energy.


Some notes and links –

One of CTMQ’s goals is to canoe the buried Park River mentioned just above. Though officially illegal (for now), it would be a coup-de-grace for me. Great article about it here.

Why did they bury the river anyway?
CTMQ’s Bushnell Park Carousel visit

Jacob Weidenmann also designed the beautiful Cedar Hill Cemetery. CTMQ Visited, of course. George Keller designed the entrance arch to that same cemetery as well as the huge Memorial Arch in the park. And check this out:

bpe.jpg“[Keller] was a very proud man, who, despite spending his early career working in cemeteries, and designing elaborate grave markers, “had a horror of cemeteries,” as one of his children wrote. As a result, he asked to be buried in one of his favorite monuments, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. So, when he died at age 93, he was cremated and his ashes were placed behind a plaque in interior wall of the east tower. Mary, apparently thought this was such a good idea that she decided to follow his example. So, when she died in 1946, her ashes were placed beside those of her husband in the Arch.”More here on Keller and the Arch

Who was this Reverend Horace Bushnell anyway?

And I heard there was a statue of Horace Wells there? Who was he? A-ha! CTMQ learned all about him at the Menczer Museum of Medicine and Dentistry and I highly recommend checking out his rather unique grave at Cedar Hill.

Like I said, I never took specific Bushnell Park pictures. But I like this shot of me there, something you’ll hear me say once every 10 years.

There’s a statue of Israel Putnam there too, which has so many hooks into future CTMQ reports, my head spins. Get a jump on that by reading this now.

I could do this all night long – and this really was sort of my “vision” for this blog a couple years ago; that is, finding connections all around our state like this. That… and annoying the heck out of friends and coworkers. Especially with facts like, “Hey guys, did you know there are four State Champion (ie, largest/best) trees in Bushnell Park? Including a rare Chinese Toon tree?!?” It’s true – and really cool, actually. You can pick up a Tree Walk guide in various places around the Park and take the “tour.” Here’s a primer with the champion trees.

I can’t believe I just wrote all that on a subject I didn’t think I’d be including on my site. And I didn’t even touch on the State Capitol building or several of the other statues around the park.

I’ll throw in this random history of Hartford just for fun.


11 responses to “The Oldest Public Park (In America)”

  1. dick hemenway says:


    Great report as usual, but your readers might be interested in the Park River’s more colorful (or smelly) past as The Hog River – an appropriate name at the time

    For great background stories like this I suggest that you subscribe to the Hog River Journal, a Hartford Public Library publication



  3. Steve says:

    What in the world gave you the impression that this blog has anything in the world to do with your family reunion?

  4. Andrew Noone says:

    In fact, Worcester’s Elm Park beat Bushnell to the punch…Elm Park is the nation’s oldest park (if you discount commons), which was up and running in 1854.

  5. Katie says:

    No Way, Jose

    The SECOND oldest public park in America was established in 1709 in San Antonio, Texas by King Phillip V of Spain. I was trying to determine where first oldest park was located, and came upon this report. Unless this park predates 1709, you are probably not right about calling this park the first. There is one in Boston dating to the mid-1600s which I will go back and verify.

    So much for the internet and blogs. Doesn’t anyone check the facts anymore?

  6. Steve says:

    Who wants to be the one to tell Katie that Texas wasn’t a state until 1845 and therefore the claim of anything “in the nation” prior to 1845 is utter nonsense?

    Or that King Phillip V didn’t actually declare San Pedro Park a park until 1729 anyway?

    Regardless, as with all these “oldest in the nation” things, there are caveats and footnotes and specificialities galore. I know that. But in this case I think Bushnell Park has a solid base to its claim. Even over Elm Park up in Worcester.

    Bushnell is the first municipal park in the nation to be conceived, built and paid for by citizens through a popular vote. Elm Park was just some land set aside by the city to be a park and wasn’t developed until many years later. As for this Texas claim, well, there is no comparison.

    The idea that a popular vote was taken and the citizens agreen to pay for the park themselves, the city needing to buy the land and all that – that was pretty darn revolutionary in 1854.

  7. boston tree party | Katie Lazor says:

    [...] Garden. I fell in love with the trees. I didn’t know at the time that the Boston Common is arguably the oldest city park in the country, but it makes sense when noticing each tree’s unique [...]

  8. Brent says:

    Here is a list of the oldest city parks as defined by the Trust for Public Land…

    Regardless of how these parks were conceived, or paid for, etc., this is a list of pure age of parks located in current day America.

  9. Adriana says:

    what is the first public in America

  10. Chris Kelly says:

    I found your blog trying to track down what is the oldest public park. I give tours of the Arch and always say it’s the Bushnell, but now I’m seeing elsewhere Boston Common listed. I wonder if it has to do with where the funding originated, or some other technicality.

    BTW: yours is a fantastic article of the park. I read much to get to where you got.

  11. Marcos says:

    Steve, the question is very simple and basic. Oldest park in America, period. Does not matter who or what controlled the place.

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