Central Park: A Magnificent Pleasure Ground

 

 
 
  Article Tools

Print This Page

E-mail This Page To A Friend

For many years the rapid growth of the city has made it desirable that the people should be provided with public grounds, within easy reach; to which they could resort for rest and recreation. The natural features of the island made it plain that such a place of resort would have to be constructed by artificial means, and it was for some time doubted whether any site within the city limits could be made to serve the purpose.

On the 5th of April, 1851, Mayor Kingsland, in a special message to the Common Council, called attention to the importance of a public park, sufficiently ample to meet the growing wants of the city population. The message was referred to a select committee, who reported in favor of purchasing a tract of one hundred and fifty acres, known as Jones' Wood, lying between Sixty-sixth and Seventy-fifth streets, and Third Avenue and East River. This location came near being decided upon and purchased, but a quarrel with reference to it, between two members of the Legislature from New York City, called the attention of the public and the State authorities to it, and happily defeated the whole scheme. On the 5th of August, 1851, a Committee was appointed to examine whether another more suitable site for a park could not be found, and the result of the inquiry was the selection of the site known as Central Park.

A Wonderful Work

The Central Park, so called because it is situated almost in the centre of the island, is a parallelogram, and lies between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and Fifty-ninth and One-hundred-and-tenth streets. It covers an area of eight hundred and forty three acres, and is about two and a half miles long by half a mile in width.

When the site was selected and the work commenced, the whole area, with the exception of the Croton Reservoirs in the upper part, was a barren waste. It was a succession of rocky elevations, stagnant pools, and sandy plains. It was covered with a coarse undergrowth, which simply disfigured it, and was occupied by the miserable shanties of a number of Irish families, known as "squatters." By looking at the character of the land surrounding it, the reader can easily form a correct idea of the primitive character of the Park, and of the immense labor which has been performed in transforming that barren waste into the magnificent grounds of to-day.

As it was morally certain that the authorities of the city of New York would not carry on the work as honestly and as promptly as was desirable, the Legislature placed the management of affairs in the hands of a Commission, composed of prominent citizens of all parties. Under the auspices of this Commission, the work was begun in 1858, and pushed forward as rapidly as possible, to its present state. These Commissioners still have charge of it, and conduct its affairs with the same skill and vigor which have accomplished so much in the past.

The Park now contains a parade ground of fifty acres, for the maneuvering of large bodies of troops, play grounds, base ball grounds, rides, drives, walks, etc. There are nine miles of carriage roads in it, four miles of bridle roads, and twenty-five miles of walks. It is larger than any city park in the world, except the Bois de Boulogne at Paris, the Prater at Vienna, and the Phoenix Park at Dublin. A rocky ridge, which traverses the whole island, passes through almost the exact centre of the grounds; and has afforded a means of rendering the scenery most beautiful and diversified. A part of the grounds form a miniature Alpine region; another part is the perfection of water scenery; and still another stretches away in one of the loveliest lawns in the world. The soil will nurture almost any kind of tree, shrub, or plant; and more than one hundred and sixty thousand trees and shrubs of all kinds have been planted, and the work is still going on. Any of the principal walks will conduct the visitor all over the grounds, and afford him a fine view of the principal objects of interest.

All the entrances on Fifty-ninth street lead to the handsome marble arch near the eastern side. Passing through this archway, and ascending a broad flight of stairs, the visitor finds himself in the great mall, which, beginning near the principal entrance on Fifth Avenue, leads to the terrace, which is one of the chief attractions. The terrace is handsomely constructed of a soft yellow stone, carved elaborately and tastefully. Three broad flights of stairs, one on each side, and one covered stairway in the centre, lead to the esplanade below, in which is the main fountain, and at the end of which is the lake.


The Lake


To our mind, this is the chief attraction of the Park. It covers an area of one hundred acres, and serves as one of the receiving reservoirs of the city. It was formerly an unsightly swamp, but it would be hard to find now a lovelier sheet of water than this. It is spanned by several handsome bridges, and the scenery along its banks is both beautiful and varied. Here the eye ranges over a low shore, covered with a rich greensward, which stretches away far in the distance; there a bold waterfall leaps over its rocky barrier, and plunges into the lake from a height of fifty or sixty feet. On one hand the banks rise up bold and rugged, with an air of sternness, and on the other the ascent is gradual and beautiful. Row-boats are constantly plying on the lake in the mild season, and in these the visitor can enjoy, for a small sum, the pleasure of a row over the lake. No one can properly appreciate the beauty and variety of the scenery of this beautiful sheet of water, without taking this little voyage.

There is another and a smaller lake near the Fifth Avenue entrance. It is near the wall on Fifty-ninth street, and lies down in a deep hollow, formed by high, rocky sides, which give it a wild, mountainous appearance.


Pleasure Seekers

In fair weather the Park Commissioners cause free concerts to be given on the mall every Saturday afternoon, by one of the best bands in the city. The music is of a high character, and thousands flock there to hear it. The Park is full of visitors on fine afternoons, and the boats on the lake are crowded. The horses and equipages of the wealthier classes form one of its greatest attractions on such occasions. They come in great numbers. All the celebrities of the city, and many from other parts of the world, are to be seen here, and the horses now compare favorably with those of any other American city. Previous to the opening of the Park, there were no drives around or in New York, and the horse-flesh of the Metropolis was the laughing-stock of the country. Now the case is different.

In the winter season, when the lake and ponds are frozen over, the skating is the great attraction. Large sheds are erected at the principal points, containing private apartments for the sexes, restaurants, cloak-rooms, and places for warming and putting on or removing skates. The ice is carefully examined, and the dangerous localities are plainly marked. Every precaution is taken to prevent accidents, and means of assistance are always at hand. When the ice is in good condition, a large ball is hoisted on the Arsenal, and little flags are fastened to the various street cars running to the Park. In this way the news is soon scattered through the city, and crowds of persons flock to the Park to enjoy the sport. The scene is both brilliant and exhilarating. The Commissioners prepare a code of liberal rules for the government of skaters, and place them at conspicuous points. All persons going on the ice are required to comply with them, on pain of exclusion from the sport.

Good sleighing is rare in the Metropolis, but when it is to be had, the best is always in the Park.


The Arsenal

This building is situated on Fifth Avenue, just within the Park enclosure. It was originally used for the purpose designated by the name it bears, but is now a free museum of natural history and art. It contains the nucleus of the Zoological Garden, which is now in course of construction near the centre of the Park, on the line of Eighth Avenue, and though the collection of animals, birds, etc., is small, it is very interesting. In the upper part of the building are the models of the sculptor Crawford, presented to the city by his widow, and many other interesting specimens of art.


The Croton Reservoirs

These are located in the upper Park, and cover a considerable area. From the hill on which they are situated, a fine view can be had of the lower Park, stretching away in its beauty for over a mile. These reservoirs receive the water direct from the aqueduct, which brings it from Croton Lake, and pass it into the distributing reservoir on Forty-second street.

The scenery of this part of the Park is wild and romantic. It is said that "the deep gorge, called McGowan's Pass, dividing this northern portion, is the valley which, by means of its darkly wooded hillsides, sheltered the secret messengers passing between the scattered parties of the American troops who, during the few days intervening between their disheartening rout on Long Island and the battle of Harlem Plains, rallied about the range of hills extending from Fort Washington to Bloomingdale." A small part of the "Old Boston Road" is still to be seen in this portion of the Park, and in the distance a view is obtained of the High Bridge and Westchester county, while Washington Heights rise beautifully to the northward. To the eastward we see the white sails of the vessels in Long Island Sound, and get a faint glimpse of the town of Flushing on Long Island, and New Rochelle on the mainland.


Transverse Roads

It was foreseen when the Park was laid off, that as it would extend for so long a distance right through the centre of the island, it would be necessary to provide means of communication between the eastern and western sides of the island, without forcing persons to pass around the upper or lower ends of the enclosure. At the same time it was felt to be desirable to make these roads as private as possible, so that the beauty of the Park should not be marred by them, or by the long trains of wagons, carts, and such other vehicles as would pass over them. The genius of the constructing engineers soon settled this difficulty. A system of transverse roads was adopted and carried out. There are four of them, and they cross the Park at Sixty-fifth, Seventy-ninth, Eighty-fifth, and Ninety-seventh streets. They are sunken considerably below the general level of the Park, and are securely walled in with masonry. Vines, trees and shrubbery are planted and carefully trained along the edges of these walls, which conceal the roads from view. The visitors, by means of archways or bridges, pass over these roads, catching but a momentary glimpse of them in some places, and in utter ignorance of them in others.


The Zoological Garden

This, when completed, will be one of the principal attractions of the Park. It is located between the Lake and Eighth Avenue, and work is now going forward upon it to prepare it for the reception of the animals. It is very rocky and wild, and has many natural advantages for the purpose to which it is to be applied. It lies just outside of the main enclosure, and will be connected with it by means of a tunnel under the avenue.


Internal Administration

The original cost of the Park was nearly five millions of dollars. The total cost to the present time has been nearly nine millions. About half a million of dollars are annually spent in improvements and in keeping the grounds in order.

The control of affairs is vested in a board of eight commissioners, but the general administration is conducted by the Comptroller, Mr. Andrew H. Green.

The discipline is very rigid. A force of special policemen, who may be recognized by their gray uniforms, has been placed on duty in the Park, with the same powers and duties as the Metropolitan Police. One of these is always on duty at each gateway, to direct visitors and furnish information, as well as to prevent vehicles from entering the grounds at too rapid a rate. Others of the force are scattered through the grounds at such convenient distances, that one of them is always within call. None of the employees are allowed to ask or to receive pay for their services. Their wages are liberal. When an article is found by any of the employees of the Park, it is his duty to carry it to the property clerk at the Arsenal, where it can be identified and recovered by the rightful owner.

Improper conduct of all kinds is forbidden, and promptly checked. Visitors are requested not to walk on the grass, except in those places where the word Common is posted; not to pick flowers, leaves, or shrubs, or in any way deface the foliage; not to throw stones or other missiles; not to scratch or deface the masonry or carving; and not harm or feed the birds. No one is allowed to offer anything for sale within the limits of the enclosure, without a special license from the Commissioners. There are several hotels, or restaurants, in the grounds. These are conducted in first-class style by persons of responsibility and character. Private closets for men, which may be distinguished by the sign, "For Gentlemen only" are located at convenient points throughout the Park, and cottages for ladies and children are as numerous. These latter are in charge of a female attendant, whose business it is to wait upon visitors, and care for them in case of sudden illness, until medical aid can be procured.

Carriages for hire will be found at all the principal entrances to the Park. The Commissioners have no control over these vehicles, and the visitor must make his own bargain with the driver; a matter to which he had better attend before entering the vehicle, for these Jehus know how to drive a hard bargain.

The effect of this magnificent pleasure ground has been most salutary. The thousands of poor persons in the great city have the means of breathing the pure fresh air, and enjoying the beauties of nature, on all their holiday occasions. The health of this part of the population has improved very greatly, and the people of all classes have been correspondingly benefited. Every inhabitant of the great city has an especial pride in the Park, and, thanks to this feeling, the Commissioners have little or no trouble in enforcing their regulations. There have been no acts of rowdyism or lawlessness within the enclosure, for even the most depraved feel themselves compelled to respect the rules of the place. In a few years the streets facing the walls will be occupied with magnificent residences and public buildings, and the neighborhood will be the most delightful on the island.

 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Central Park: A Magnificent Pleasure Ground
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries and Crimes of New York City, by James Dabney McCabe (aka Edward Winslow Martin) Published: Philadelphia, Chicago, Jones Brothers & Co., 1868
Time & Date Stamp: