On January 5, 1854, Hartford voters approved spending over $100,000 in public funds for land that would become a municipal park. It would be the first park in the country built and paid for by the community.
In 1853, the Reverend Horace Bushnell presented the idea of establishing a park with public funds to a doubtful public. Leaders opposed it because of the potential property tax loss, and the public could not imagine Bushnell’s proposed location—a site he himself termed as “hell without the fire”—as a lush, green park. The dirty and polluted Park River ran through the area and carried with it waste from the tanneries, tenements, livestock pens, and garbage dump along its banks. The Reverend, however, convinced city leaders and the public to vote for the park’s creation.
With the plan still not realized six years after the vote, Bushnell turned to his longtime friend Frederick Law Olmsted, a Hartford native and renowned landscape architect, to help design the park. Busy with his own work designing Central Park in New York City, Olmsted recommended that the city hire Swiss-born landscape artist and botanist Jacob Weidenmann. Weidenmann’s 1861 design incorporated a natural looking landscape with paths, contours, and screens of trees to separate the bustling city from the open space. Weidenmann used 157 types of trees and shrubs from 3 continents for a total of more than 1,000 specimens throughout the park’s grounds. He also enhanced the look of the once polluted Park River.
Throughout the years the city commissioned additions. These included the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, the Horace Wells Monument, and the Corning Fountain, among others, and continued well into the 20th century. In the 1940s, after years of flooding and damage to the city, municipal engineers buried the Park River in underground channels and destroyed its numerous bridges.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, the 50-acre park in Hartford’s downtown continues to be a focal point in the city and is the site of various cultural events and activities each year.