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. Bushnell also believed democracy required mingling of social classes and institutions that offered psychological benefits.
He explained his vision of “an opening in the heart of the city… a place where children play… a place for holiday scenes and celebrations… where rich and poor will exchange looks and make acquaintance through the eyes… a place of life and motion that will make us more completely conscious of being one people,”.
People at first scoffed at his idea. Business leaders thought it crazy to take property off the tax rolls. And the site he had in mind had on it two leather tanneries, a soapworks, pigsties and the town dump. A railroad spur ran through it. The filthy Hog River (later Park River) ran beside 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 then supported the council’s decision on Jan. 5, 1854, by a vote of 1,687 to 683.
Designing the Park
Then nothing happened for six years. So Bushnell asked a Hartford native, his friend Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the park. Olmsted, though, had something else to do: 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 and botanist.
Weidenmann came up with a plan that included smooth borders, winding paths and clusters of trees that screened out the city’s cacophony. In 1861, the city named him park superintendent, and he also designed Cedar Hill Cemetery. Later he worked with Olmsted on the U.S. Capitol grounds and Mount Royal Park in Montreal.
The park almost lost some acreage in 1873, when the people of Connecticut voted to make Hartford the only capital of the state. Previously, the Legislature alternated between Hartford and New Haven. Plans were drawn up to site the new capitol inside the park. But at the last minute, Bushnell pleaded passionately to build it elsewhere. He prevailed. The building overlooks the park.
The Rest of the Story
In 1887, the city built an imposing triumphal arch in the park and dedicated in on the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. George Keller designed it, and his ashes were buried in the East Tower.
The river formerly known as Hog tended to flood, and in 1936 it really flooded. Then in 1938 it flooded again. So the Army Corps of Engineers buried it from the capitol to the Connecticut River. After the Corps finished in 1944, Olmsted and Olmsted (Frederick Law Olmsted’s son’s firm) redesigned the park.
Today, Bushnell Park comprises 50 acres of rare and native trees, graceful paths, a pond, sculptures, a performance pavilion and a vintage 1914 carousel. Throughout the year the park hosts festivals and musical events.
In the winter, Bushnell Park offers free ice skating and free skate rentals.
Color photographs except for Corning Fountain courtesy The George F. Landegger Collection of Connecticut Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Corning Fountain By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51017733. This story was updated in 2021.