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History of the Union County Park System

from the initial planning stages in 1921 by the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects

Quote from the olmsted Brothers proposal to the Union County Park Commission, 1921

“The attractiveness of much of the County, therefore, is to be found in its pleasantly undulating topography and the quiet pastoral character of the countryside, in which the chief details of lively interest are the many streams of water and ponds along their way. These streams and ponds, under the circumstances, become particularly important in any consideration of the natural physical features of the country.”

On the heritage of the Union County Park system

“The prime legacy of the Union County Park Commission’s 50 years is the land, for with that securely in hand, nearly all else can change—the habits and desires of people, the endless growth of population, the park personnel. As long as those in charge of the parks continue to recognize that each generation finds its own way and makes its own rules, the land can only become
more important than ever.”

A reflection on Warinanco Park

“Warinanco blossomed with gardens, trees, a pleasantly long mall near the lake, winding drives for motorists, baseball fields, tennis courts, and open playing fields. Here was a park for the people, if ever there was one.”

“The availability of Union County for purposes of residence in particular, because of its gentle topography and distribution of its lines of communication, is a striking feature and is an important factor to be kept in mind in the selection, the character and the extent of any system of parks to be determined upon. That the residential population is making a fairly rapid growth at the present time may be seen from the following records of the four largest communities in the County. In the decade prior to 1920 Elizabeth incliddresed 30.3% in population, Plainfield increased 34.8%, Rahway 18.3% and Summit 35.7%, an average increase in population of about 30%”

From the report submitted to Mr. H. S. Chatfield, Chairman of the Union County Park Commission, from the Olmsted Brothers July 5, 1921

Postscript

Union County residents voted to change the county’s form of government in 1974.  As a result if that governmental reorganization, the Park Commission was abolished and responsibility for the parks transferred to the Union County Department of Parks and Recreation. Today, with more than 6,148 acres of land, and 36 parks, the County carries on the orginal Park Commission’s dream and credo, to develop a park system, “To Benefit the Whole Population.”

Background Information

By the early nineteenth century, shipping and commercial trade was the main industry in the port of Elizabeth. Rivers provided power for mills to process grain, cotton, paper, wool and lumber for the growing economy. However, residents used the same sources of water for fishing, drinking, bathing and swimming and, by the turn of the twentieth century, water pollution was a potential social issue.In 1919, James E. Warner, county sheriff and Cranford resident, wrote a letter to the Cranford Citizen urging that remedial steps be taken. The letter caught the attention of committeeman, D. C. Newman Collins, an engineer and architect who suggested that only a coordinated system of county-owned parcels of land could resolve the situation. He rallied sup-port from hundreds of supporters for the creation of a park commission, the second in the state after Essex County.

Establishment of the Union County Park Commission

When the county census of 1920 came up 100 residents short of the 200,000 required by legislation for the appointment of a park com mission, residents canvassed every household to get signed affidavits from those who had not been present during the official census. The new count of 200,157 made the county eligible to establish a commission and in 1921, the Union County Park Commission was established.

 

The Olmsted Brothers Plan

The Park Commission soon hired the Olmsted Brothers Firm of Brookline Massachusetts, the renowned landscape architectural firm originally established by Frederick Law Olmsted. The firm consisted of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870-1957), son of the man known as the founder of American landscape architecture, 1928 and his step-brother, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920). The firm designed a comprehensive system to consist of urban and suburban parks, a mountain reservation, and parkways along the Elizabeth and Rahway Rivers to create a variety of active and passive recreational opportunities for county residents. The plan represented a major development in environmental, social and urban history and supported the 20th century movement to protect natural resources and to enhance quality of life in urban areas. Development of the park system was a massive undertaking. Acquisition of land was made by purchase; corporate, private and municipal donation; and, in some cases, by condemnation. The first acquisition was a four-acre tract along the Rahway River donated by the Wheatena Company in 1922.

Both the Commissioners and the Olmsted Brothers envisioned a park system that would serve all municipalities within Union County, protect scenic areas for outdoor enjoyment and enhance quality of life for residents. The Union County Park System would become part of an interconnected regional park system linked to Essex County, the first New Jersey park system designed by the Olmsted Brothers.

Execution of the Plan

Construction of three parks was underway by the fall of 1923 with three more planned by 1929. By September 1925, the commission had amassed 2,000 aces of the 3,100 acres that had been targeted. Essential buildings were completed by 1926. Captain Lyman L. Parks was hired in 1926 to supervise a police force of 14 officers whose duties included maintaining order and administering first aid. F. S. Mathewson was hired in 1927 as the full-time Superintendent of Recreation expaning recreation opportunities and overseeing staff.  Park attendance increased by some 300% with the addition of professional staff. Park events included field and track meets, water carnivals, pet shows, battle reenactments, equestrian shows, exhibition golf matches, baseball and football championships, girl- and boy-scout activities and holiday festivals.  By 1930, seven parks were completed on a total of 4,168 acres.