Thursday, October 17, 2013

Exploring the nation's first county park... in Newark

As we've traveled the state, we've been impressed by the consistently good quality of New Jersey's county parks. In the more urban areas, particularly, they offer residents a place to enjoy open space, recreation and perhaps a bit of nature not far from their own front doors. You could say that they're a common community back yard.

What I didn't realize was that the nation's very first county park is in New Jersey. The land that's now Branch Brook Park in Newark's North Ward was dedicated to its current use in 1895, instantly turning an old Civil War Army training ground into the forerunner of the open spaces we all enjoy today.

Well, "instantly" is a bit of an exaggeration. The original plot was partially a marsh called Blue Jay Swamp, which had become both a source of drinking water and a dumping place for sewage after it was deemed unsuitable for development. Further adding to the rather depressing scene, the tract was hemmed in by crowded tenements. This was balanced, somewhat, by the addition of a more pristine 60 acres that the City of Newark sold to the county for park use. Before the land transfer, it had been known as Reservoir Park in recognition of the basin that had supplied water to the city's more privileged residents.

The concept of a great park had actually been hatched in 1867, when the New Jersey Legislature created a Newark Park Commission to determine a place for open space within the rapidly-developing city. Already well known for their work in other cities, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux recommended using much of what's now Branch Brook Park, but it took several years before the idea could come to fruition.

A small sample of the famed Branch Brook Park
 cherry blossoms
During the initial planning phases, the county hired landscape architects John Bogart and Nathan Barrett in 1895 to design a park replete with formal gardens, but that plan was scrapped just five years later when the Olmsted firm was hired. Though its founder had already retired due to poor health, his sons shared his more naturalistic approach to park planning, evident in Branch Brook's lovely meadows, fields and rambling paths. Several prominent Newark residents contributed adjacent land, growing the park to its current size of almost 360 acres. Brewery family scion Robert Ballantine added his own flourish with a grand entrance gate at Lake Street and Ballantine Parkway.

The most notable gift, however, is the one which continues to draw thousands of people specifically to see it every spring spring. It's the park's stunning array of nearly 4000 blossoming cherry trees, a collection larger than that planted along Washington D.C.'s Tidal Basin. Caroline Bamberger Fuld, a member of the city's department store dynasty, started the display with a gift of 2000 Japanese cherry trees in 1927. Planted in the same motif as they would be arranged in their native country, the Branch Brook trees stand beautifully against the park's sloped terrain. While several succumbed to the elements over the years, they've been replaced and augmented with even more trees since 2006, raising the total to nearly 4000.

Whether you decide to go during the cherry blossom festival or another time of year, the four-mile long, quarter-mile wide park offers beautiful views and a nice walk on a weekend afternoon. Its charms are well-recognized, too: the American Planning Association recently named Branch Brook Park as one of the Great Public Spaces for 2013. And if you decide to take a look for yourself, you can get there easily via another Hidden New Jersey favorite, the Newark City Subway.

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