In 1850, most people saw a pigsty and a garbage dump in downtown Hartford, but a Connecticut minister saw a green oasis. Bushnell Park is today the oldest publicly funded park in the United States because of the effort of Horace Bushnell.
Horace Bushnell was a Yale-trained Congregational minister and relative of David Bushnell, who devised the first submarine for the American Revolution. Another relative, Nolan Bushnell, invented the game of Pong.
In the mid-1850s, Bushnell pushed for a publicly funded park in Hartford. He believed the city’s residents needed a peaceful green space where they could escape crowded tenements, filthy streets and polluted air and water.
His idea at first was ridiculed. Business leaders thought it was crazy to take property off the tax rolls. And the site he had in mind was host to two leather tanneries, a soapworks, pigsties and a garbage dump. A smelly river ran beside it and a railroad spur ran through it. Bushnell called the river ‘hell without fire.’
In October 1853, Bushnell presented his idea to the Hartford City Council. The next month, the council voted unanimously to spend taxpayer money to buy the land for a park. Hartford voters supported the council’s decision on Jan. 5, 1854, by a vote of 1,687 to 683.
Bushnell asked a Hartford native, Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the park. Olmsted, though, was busy designing Forest Park in Springfield, Mass., and Central Park in New York City. (Land was donated in Springfield and privately purchased in New York.) Olmsted recommended Jacob Weidenmann, a Swiss-born landscape architect.
Today, Bushnell Park comprises 50 acres of rare and native trees, graceful paths, a pond, sculptures, a performance pavilion and a vintage 1914 carousel. Near the Statehouse it is a focal point of Hartford recreational and civic activity. The smelly river was buried underground and Frederick Law Olmsted’s son’s firm redesigned the park.
Winterfest, Hartford's winter festival is open through February 1st. Bushnell Park offers free ice skating, and free skate rentals.
Color photographs courtesy The George F. Landegger Collection of Connecticut Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.