The land we now know as Branch Brook Park was then the property of the Newark Aqueduct Board. Much of that land was commandeered in July of 1862, at the outbreak of the Civil War; known as Camp Frelinghuysen, it was used as a training ground for New Jersey volunteers. Between 1862 and 1864, six regiments encamped there before fighting in every important battle from Antietam to Appomatox.
The New Jersey State Legislature authorized a Newark Park Commission, with a mandate to locate grounds for a municipal park. Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect and designer of Central Park in New York, visited Newark and Essex County and recommended a site encompassing what is now Branch Brook Park. Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, envisioned Branch Brook Park to be a "grand central park" for the City of Newark. They understood that American cities of the 19th century were growing quickly and changing rapidly. The parks they designed embodied their view that all people, regardless of their position in society, were entitled to fresh air, quiet places and the beauty that only nature can provide.
The Newark Common Council donated 60 acres of the Aqueduct Board property surrounding the circular holding reservoir to "park use." Known as Reservoir Park, the land was left undeveloped. Much of the surrounding neighborhoods were crowded with bleak, unhealthy tenements. To the north lay a dismal marsh known as Old Blue Jay Swamp.
The Essex County Park Commission was formed to enable the creation of a county-wide park system, the first in the nation. The City of Newark transferred Reservoir Park which would become the nucleus of Branch Brook Park to the Commission at a cost of $350,687. The surrounding properties were acquired
by the County while donations of land from prominent Newark families
extend the park northward. The Ballantine Family donated 32 acres of their property and another 50 acres were given by Z.M. Keene, William A. Righter and the Messrs. Heller.
John Bogart and Nathan Barrett were chosen to provide plans and advise on the development of the park. Their design was gardenesque in style, dominated by the geometrically patterned gardens and numerous architectural elements including arbors, viaducts, gazebos and shelters that shaped the park's Southern Division.
Demolition and grading began following Bogart and Barrett's plans.
Dissatisfied with Bogart and Barrett's work, the Commission hired the Olmsted Brothers firm; John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. were Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.'s nephew/stepson and son. While their work continued that naturalistic style of landscape design championed by their father, in Branch Brook Park they were required to incorporate the elements of Bogart and Barrett's plan that had already been constructed. This led to the Olmsted firm's design concept consisting of three divisions: the Southern, from Sussex Avenue to Park Avenue, incorporating the elaborate "gardenesque" elements from Bogart and Barrett' the Middle, from Park Avenue to Bloomfield Avenue, which would be a transitional zone, mixing the exotic with the indigenous; and, as the culmination, the Northern Division, the largest and most naturalistic area of the park.
The first Chrysanthemum Show was held in the newly constructed greenhouse in the Northern Division. This annual event brought thousands to the park every fall until 1969.
The United Singing Societies donated the bust of composer
Felix Mendelssohn they won in Baltimore, MD, at that year's "saengerfest," the annual, nationwide German singing competition that generated excitement comparable to today's Super Bowl.
The grand boathouse, designed by the firm of Rossiter and Wright, was added to the southern end of the lake, replacing an earlier structure.
The Essex County Park System built its Administration Building on the parkland that had been set aside to provide a view from Councourse Hill. Designed by New Jersey native Harold Van Buren Magonigle, the exterior has eight different shades of coarse-textured terra brick and expensive terra cotta reliefs especially notable around the main entrance. Under the wide overhang of the tile roof are colorful, allegorical decorations executed by Mrs. Edith Magonigle.
Industrialist and philanthropist Harmon W. Hendricks, owner of a copper rolling mill on the Second River, donated his family home and the adjoining 23 acres to the north of Branch Brook Park. An additional 94 acres were acquired by the county to link Hendricks Field Golf Course and Bellville Park in an unbroken swath of green. This land included what was the first landing site for the U.S. Postal Service where bi-winged airplances landed on a short field with bales of hay rimming the end of the runway to prevent accidents.
Caroline Bamberger Fuld donates 2,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees to a display in Newark that would rival that in Washington, D.C. The Olmsted Brothers' firm laid out the trees naturalistically on the tiered slopes along the narrow valley of the Second River, evoking the way the trees would be seen in Japan and distinguishing Branch Brook Park's display from all others. Eventually the collection would grow to more than 3,000 trees.
The Morris Canal that ran from Jersey City to the Delaware River and formed the park's western boundary was abandoned and became the Newark City Subway. Now Newark Light Rail, there are six stops along the park that provide easy access by mass transit.
The Rossiter and Wright boathouse was deemed unsafe and dismantled. A smaller building replaced the grand structure.
More than 3,000 people attended the Fall Chrysanthemum Show in
Riots broke out in Newark and devastated the community. Many buildings were burned, boarded up and sections of the city were deserted. The National Guard was called in to maintain order and bivouacs in Branch Brook Park where Civil War volunteers mustered 100 years earlier.
Community members rallied to save their beloved park and the Friends of Branch Brook Park was formed.
The Newark Cherry Blossom Festival was established.
Branch Brook Park was placed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places.
The Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Boathouse was destroyed by fire and replaced by a concrete block structure.
Branch Brook Park Alliance (BBPA) was formed.
BBPA hired Rhodeside & Harwell (RHI), nationally recognized landscape architects, to produce a Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment and Management Plan, to serve as a blueprint for the park's restoration.
The lake edge near the boat house in the Southern District was replanted to recreate the original Olmsted plan; this pilot project was designed by RHI and funded by BBPA.
A tree inventory was conducted by BBPA as part of the Cultural Landscape Report and revealed that less than 1,000 cherry trees remained from the original gift of 2,000 trees and subsequent plantings.
Responding to community interest, the first farmers' market took place, along with other activities to help reactivate the park.
BBPA, together with the Essex County, the North Ward Center and the Newark Boys and Girls Clubs developed the Middle Division ball fields, now home to 7,500 ballplayers annually.
A grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund enabled the first planting of what would total more than 3,000 new cherry trees over the next four years.
The Ballfields in the Extension were redesigned and upgraded while the surrounding landscape is restored. The Cherry Tree Demonstration Project showed what a fully restored collection should look like with extensive companion plantings and appropriate hardscaping.
The Octagon Shelter was reconstructed. The Waterway Rehabilitation Feasibility Study was completed, setting forth a path for the restoration of one of the park's most salient features.
Prudential Global Volunteer Day drew more than 300 participants from diverse sectors of the community. A Maintenance Plan for the park was completed and implementation begun at six volunteer days.
Design work was completed for projects that will transform western lake edge in the Southern Division. The rehabilitation of the Octagon Field House in the Middle Division was completed.
Click here to access the Cultural Landscape Report, Volume 2: The History of the Park and Critical Periods of Development.