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A Walk With History

A Brisk Tour Of Bushnell Park - Its Key Shapers, Trees, Buried River

June 15, 2007
Story By SUSAN CAMPBELL, The Hartford Courant

It's a beautiful spring day, and Edward Richardson of Glastonbury has just climbed 96 steps to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Hartford's Bushnell Park. To the south are the gold domes of the state Capitol and the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. To the north? I-84 and the train station, and all around are the tops of the trees.

That is Richardson's special love, the park's trees. After he retired from the Phoenix insurance company in the '80s, he wrote a guide to them, and he's happy to give a brisk tour.

Brisk because there's much to see in the park.

But first? A little history: Back in the 1850s, Hartford was a happening place. In roughly a decade, manufacturing and insurance, banking and munitions concerns hummed, and the population nearly doubled. With the influx of new residents - many of them immigrants - came increased crime and sticky sanitation problems. One of the most blighted areas was where the state Capitol now stands. Residents crowded into apartments on the banks of the Park River, also known as Hog River. Nearby were leather tanneries, a soap works, a dump, and holding pens for pigs and other livestock. A train chugged through. Tenement outhouses emptied into the water.

The Rev. Horace Bushnell, a native of rural Bantam and a man much enamored with the outdoors, called the site "Gehenna [hell] without the fire."

Give city people a place to reconnect with nature, went the thinking of the day, and see an immediate improvement in urban ills.

In 1853, Bushnell, one of the better-known clergymen of his day, suggested replacing the troubled area with a city park.

Within the year, plans began in earnest for the country's first publicly funded park.

Hartford native (and Bushnell's friend) Frederick Law Olmsted was busy with Central Park in New York City; he suggested Jacob Weidenmann, landscape architect and botanist who later was the landscape architect for Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford's South End. Construction began in 1861.

The imposing memorial arch made of Portland brownstone - open for free tours every Thursday at noon - was completed in 1886. The two one-ton angels that crown it face south, the directions from which the troops would come home, said volunteer Peter Potaski of Wethersfield.

Encased in the walls of the tower are the ashes of the arch's designer, George Keller, and those of his wife, Mary. Keller, who made his living designing grave markers, nevertheless had an aversion to cemeteries. As odd as was his internment, it would have been odder to remove the remains, and their presence might have saved the arch from the mania of urban renewal of the '60s and '70s.

The Park/Hog River once ran right next to the arch, meandered around the Capitol, and headed to the West End. In the 1940s, the river was buried as part of a massive flood-control project.

Scattered around the park are four state champion trees - the biggest of their kind in the state. Richardson's favorite is a giant turkey oak - so named because of the shape of its leaves - near the carousel.

Some of the trees are original with Weidenmann, Richardson said, though no one knows which ones. Many of the park's smaller trees were planted in '92. There would have been more trees, but three of the landscaping companies hired to do the work went bankrupt, Richardson said.

Still, the remaining crop is impressive. Here's a hardy rubber tree, there a cucumber magnolia and a shaggy-barked Chinese toon.

There are offspring of the original Charter Oak, a female gingko tree, a silver linden - so named because the leaves are silver beneath.

Richardson first got interested because the Phoenix - before it moved into the distinctive Boat Building on the other side of downtown - overlooked the park, and he'd take his lunch hours there.

"I remember the gigantic elms that lined that street at the time, and I also remember crawling over huge piles of dirt in the park when the river was tunneled through it," he said.

During the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers buried the river in an underground tunnel that was 30 feet high and 45 feet wide. The tunnel runs directly beneath the park, and empties into the Connecticut River.

Later, there was talk of tunneling a road beneath the park, but park supporters argued against it.

Besides the arch, the park boasts the vintage carousel, a reflecting pool, the Pump House Gallery, a performance pavilion and a host of impressive statues, such as the Corning Fountain, in front of a sweeping slope near the Capitol, and the Spanish-American War memorial at the corner of Trinity and Elm streets. Be sure to admire the large feet of Nike, Greek goddess of war. Without those big dogs, the fierce statue might pitch forward.

For years, the park was known as that, The Park, until a few days before Bushnell's death in 1876, when the council renamed it for its originator. Yet nestled among the statues to Horace Wells, who introduced anesthesia into medicine, and one to Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam, there is no statue honoring the Rev. Bushnell. That might not bother the park's father. A few years before he died, someone asked him where he'd like to see his statue. Bushnell was supposed to have pointed with his cane and said, joking, "Put it down under the bridge yonder."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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