As our Brooklyn readers all know, Prospect Park was designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Central Park. That park opened in 1857 with great fanfare and much success. As well it should; Central Park is one of the great urban parks, and Olmsted and Vaux created a masterpiece of natural and enhanced landscaping that America had never seen before. When the City Fathers from across the East River in Brooklyn went to inspect the park, of course, they wanted one too.
One of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, James S.T. Stranahan, was appointed to head a parks committee that would oversee this great project. In 1860, they picked an engineer/architect to map out the project. His name was to Egbert L. Viele, and he had actually been the original architect picked to design Central Park. That is until someone called in Olmsted and Vaux, who blew Viele out of the water with their far superior plans for the park.’
Viele would get his chance in Brooklyn. He accessed the site chosen, a huge tract of swampy and hilly land not far from Green-Wood Cemetery, up until that time, the largest park area in the city. Viele planned to include many natural features in his park, including the city’s Mount Prospect Reservoir, atop Mount Prospect, the second highest point in Brooklyn.
The park would extend west towards the highest point in Brooklyn: Battle Pass, which was part of Green-Wood. Down below lay Gowanus, the site of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first decisive battle in the War of Independence, fought in 1776.
But it was the Civil War that defeated Egbert Viele. All plans for the park had to be shelved until the end of the long war, and by that time, Stranahan and his committee had years to mull over his plans, and decided to get a second opinion. As we know, they asked Olmsted and Vaux, and before the committee’s very eyes, the partners had totally redesigned the park site, dazzled the committee with their plans, and got poor Egbert fired.
The construction of Prospect Park took many years, and it wasn’t totally finished until the early 20th century, with the last major additions added by the firm of McKim, Mead & White. In 1867, the eastern portion of to the park was opened to public.
It was very well received. Work continued until the Panic of 1873, which was a serious financial depression. That halted construction for several years, especially in the western end of the park. That end of the park would not open until 1885.
When all was said and done, Prospect Park was a masterpiece. Brooklyn had wanted a better park than Manhattan’s Central Park, and they got it. The innovations that Olmsted and Vaux had initiated in Central Park were improved on in Prospect Park.
They were able to totally create their own world, by using what was left by nature and the glaciers, and sculpting the land to create natural looking vistas, forests, streams and gardens. An enormous great lawn was laid, pathways were cut and paved, and all kinds of small buildings, benches, bridges and other features were incorporated into the design.
Parks provided a spot of nature and greenery amidst an increasingly busy and industrialized world. Many men, women and children worked six days a week, and never had the time or resources to get away. Yes, parks were beautiful, but they were also very important for mental and physical health. Cities that wanted to thrive began looking for space and funding for public parks.
People from everywhere flocked to the park, and it was as successful as the Parks Committee imagined it would be. Postcards of the park were circulated throughout the country as tourists marveled at the wonders of Prospect Park. Many cities contemplating the development of their own parks came to see Prospect Park and take notes.
When the city of Troy decided to establish a new park on the top of what was called Warren Hill, one of the highest points in the city, they too looked downstate to Brooklyn for inspiration. Prospect Park gave the park’s designer some great ideas to incorporate in Troy’s own park.
When Troy’s park first opened with a grand ceremony in 1902, they even invited dignitaries from New York City to come see it. Seth Low, one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, and now the mayor of the newly established City of New York was invited, as well as the borough president of Brooklyn. Mr. Low had to bow out, however, and didn’t make the ceremony.
The park was still called Warren Park, however. The name wasn’t resonating with the public all that well, so the Troy newspapers decided to have a contest to rename the park. The most popular name chosen was Prospect Park. The name was approved by the Troy Common Council in 1902.
It was very Brooklyn, and they knew it. Brooklyn got a kick out of it, and the Brooklyn Eagle quoted the Troy Press newspaper: “Prospect Park is admirable alliterative and beautifully Brooklynish” the paper announced.
As with its Brooklyn namesake, Troy opened Prospect Park long before it was finished. When the park had its opening ceremonies, almost all of the work in the park had yet to be done. The engineer /landscape architect chosen for the project was under tremendous pressure.
The city had gone through a long bitter process just to obtain the land, so it had to be good. With all of the attention going to the new Prospect Park, Troy’s officials wanted the best man available for the job of planning and laying out this expensive and expansive plan. Fortunately, they had Garnet Douglass Baltimore on the job. He was a local RPI graduate, and a native son. He was also African American.
Garnet D. Baltimore was an inspiring man, and in many ways, the embodiment of the ideals of the city of Troy; a city that had nurtured the talents of a lot of very successful men and women. At the turn of the 20th century, Troy was at the height of its success, its fortunes made from metals, textiles, technology, education and commerce.
The War of Independence that had so inspired Egbert Viele for his version of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park had long reaching consequences for one of Troy’s sons. During that war, a man named Samuel Baltimore was fighting for the nation’s freedom and also his own.
He was a slave in Maryland, and his master had promised that if he fought as a soldier, he would be freed at war’s end. Baltimore took up the promise and fought long and hard. But his owner lied, and did not free him as promised. Samuel Baltimore didn’t wait, and took his own independence in hand and escaped up North soon afterward, and settled in the Hudson River town of Troy.
Troy had a small, but thriving black community. Slavery never really caught on in upstate New York, although the institution of slavery was legal in the state until 1827, when it was finally and completely abolished. Most of New York State’s slaves were actually downstate in Brooklyn.
The majority of black Trojans were either born into freedom, or like Samuel Baltimore, had escaped and made their way to this bustling river town where work was plentiful and slavery was not popular.
Samuel Baltimore settled in, got married and raised his family. His son, Peter F. Baltimore, became a successful barber in town, with a clientele that included many of Troy’s wealthiest and influential citizens. Peter Baltimore, like many Trojans, both black and white, was an ardent abolitionist.
Troy was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and one of the city’s most important abolitionists was the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, the pastor of Troy’s Liberty Street Presbyterian Church. Like Samuel Baltimore, Garnet had taken his own independence from slavery in a remarkable story worthy of its own tale.
Peter Baltimore was a close confidant of Rev. Garnet, and was a friend of the great orator Frederick Douglass, as well. He named his son Garnet Douglass after both of them, welcoming his son into the world in 1859. The family was living at 162 Eighth Street at the time, near Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in a house that would later fall victim to ham-handed mid-20th century urban renewal.
Growing up, young Garnet was influenced by his namesakes, as well as other influential African Americans such as mathematician Charles Reason and Underground Railroad leader Robert Purvis. Since she also had family in Troy, young Garnet probably also knew Harriet Tubman.
Garnet’s father and Harriet Tubman were important players in the rescue of Charles Nalle, in one of the city’s proudest moments. The tale of the rescue of a fugitive from slavery who had settled in Troy was told here on Brownstoner, and the links are listed below.
Garnet Baltimore was raised with high expectations, and he met them admirably. He was educated in Troy, and received a bachelor’s degree from RPI in 1881. He was the first African American to do so.
He went on to receive a degree in Civil Engineering, and upon graduation was employed as an assistant engineer by a company building a bridge between the cities of Albany and Rensselaer.
In 1883, he was in charge of a surveying party for the Granville and Rutland Railroad, a 56 mile line of track. He followed that project by being hired as an assistant engineer and surveyor on the nearby Erie Canal.
His career was not just in the Capital Region where he was known. Canal work became a specialty, and in 1884, Baltimore became head engineer in charge of building the Shinnacock and Peconic Canal in Southampton, on Long Island.
The canal cuts across the South Fork of Long Island, near the Hamptons. From that project, he supervised the building of a lock on the Oswego Canal, in Western NY. That canal connected Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The lock Baltimore was in charge of creating was a notoriously difficult one, in extremely muddy ground. It is still called the Mudlock today.
Returning to Troy, Garnet Baltimore took his skills to the land. He became a landscape architect and engineer, designing Forest Park Cemetery on the outskirts of the city in Brunswick. The cemetery’s owners wanted to outdo Troy’s famous Oakwood Cemetery, which, like Brooklyn’s Green-Wood, is a beautiful park cemetery, the final resting place of many of Troy’s leading citizens and famous folk, including “Uncle Sam” Wilson.
Garnet designed the entrance to the cemetery, planned winding trails and groves, and a receiving tomb at the entrance. Unfortunately, the project went bankrupt, and it was never completed past that point. That too, is a story worth telling for another time.
With his reputation as a civic engineer quite secure, Garnet D. Baltimore was in the perfect position to be hired to design Troy’s new Prospect Park. This being Troy, the journey was fraught with politics, and the usual battles between visionaries and cheapskates, influential citizens and pundits, as well as the land itself. The conclusion of the story, next time.
A great deal of my research on the park itself came from four expansive articles penned by the great Troy historian Don Rittner. They can be found on his Times-Union blog linked here. They are worth taking the time to read in full, as they are chock full of information well told, with lots of illustrations.