Frederick Law Olmsted designed our Buffalo Olmsted Park System to be a refuge from the stress of city life — a source of contemplation, mental calming and refreshing activities. But at times in the past, the parks had to be more than a natural resource for a thriving community; they needed to offer some hope in times of trouble. The year 1873 was such a time.
The financial panic of that year was caused by over-speculation in railroad expansion and defaults on poorly secured bank loans. Banks failed and a cascade of business closings followed. The effects of the panic lasted well into 1879.
Most safety net programs for the unemployed, elderly and disabled were not in place until the 1930s. A network of churches and charitable organizations tried to mitigate some of the worst impacts, but help varied greatly by location. Many local governments, including Buffalo, appointed “poormasters” or “overseers of the poor” to verify need and issue work permits to employ men in public works projects. These efforts were often inadequate. Conditions grew so dire that some women resorted to prostitution and destitute parents gave their children up to orphanages. Malnutrition and death from lack of medical care and even from starvation occurred.
As noted in the Buffalo Parks Commissioners Report for 1874, the effects of rising unemployment were becoming obvious. By autumn of that year, large numbers of families faced the prospect of a Buffalo winter without any income. The Buffalo Common Council adopted a resolution requesting that the parks commissioners issue $100,000 in bonds to hire men over the winter to complete park projects that would normally be scheduled for the next year. The poormaster would certify the most needy, and an average of more than 200 men per day were put to work.
The commissioners’ annual report for 1875 described the increasing desperation of the unemployed: “During the winter of 1874-75, a large portion of our population, who depend upon daily labor for daily bread, were unemployed. The Office of the Park Superintendent (William McMillan) was daily besieged by this class — coming in crowds in the early dawn of winter morning, besieging work in terms which proved the dire necessity which had driven them forth in the hope of obtaining employment. The Park was their objective point. It was a public work, and where else could they look for employment with less risk of being denied.”
The Buffalo parks continued their role as employer of last resort, issuing supplemental bonds of $100,000 each in 1875 and 1876 — equivalent to more than $4 million in today’s funds. The daily wage rate was $3 for teamsters, $2 for foremen, and $1 for ordinary laborers, just enough to survive those hard times. William McMillan, the parks superintendent, was able to report that, “During these two months of mid-winter, as also during the last months of the previous year (1874), an average number of 200 men had been employed daily. By occasional changes in the personnel of the force, over 800 men shared in the work.”
By 1879 the crisis had eased and employment levels recovered. Unfortunately, the causes of the 1873 panic were not corrected and in 1893 they returned in full force. The same rampant speculation and unsecured loans repeated the cycle of 1873, setting off a series of bank failures and business bankruptcies. Unemployment and lack of sufficient safety nets again left many families destitute. It turned out to be the worst depression of the era.
The Parks Commission was again called on to help with an appropriation of $40,000 from the Buffalo Common Council for an emergency employment fund. The parks commissioners wrote: “At the annual meeting (1893) our attention was directed to the prevalent distress among our citizens of the laboring class, and to the efforts that were being made to provide work for the needy and worthy among the unemployed.” Once again, the parks employed more than 200 men per day on a rotating basis to support as many households as possible.
The ultimate local symbol of desperation occurred at the Parade Park (later Humboldt Park and now Martin Luther King Jr. Park) on Memorial Day, May 30, 1893. Purcell Thomas, a self-styled aeronaut, made an agreement with the Schwabl brothers, who ran a beer garden restaurant in the Parade House on the park grounds. Purcell and his wife were to take two jumps each from the 50-foot peak of the building, using an oversized umbrella to float gently down. The brothers agreed to pay $2.50 per jump — two jumps for Purcell followed by two for his wife, for a total of $10. They were in dire need of the money to feed their four children and pay the rent on their Clinton Street tenement.
Purcell climbed to the peak of the highest gable, unfurled his umbrella and leapt. But the umbrella never caught the air for lift. Purcell fell straight down, cracking his skull so severely that he died two hours later at Buffalo General. The tragedy was witnessed by his wife and children in the crowd. Thirty thousand people were in the park that Memorial Day to watch the bicycle races, baseball games and celebrations. Thousands watched as Purcell made his desperate jump. Her 25-year-old husband’s efforts netted his widow $2.50 and left her, as the newspapers described, in “poor circumstances.”
Our Olmsted parks are not just a passive presence but a dynamic reflection of our times. They have played an active community role in good times and bad. These most democratic of our local institutions are freely open to all as Olmsted intended.
This year’s Olmsted Parks Gala will take place from 6 till 9 p.m. Friday, September 8, in Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Its “Denim and Diamonds” theme carries over to the “Afterparty for the Parks” from 8 till 11 p.m. For those not wishing to attend the gala, a $50 ticket will get you three hours of desserts, an open bar and dancing, with proceeds to support your parks. Go to the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy website —— to sign up, and give a thought to aeronaut Purcell Thomas all those years ago.
Next: Where have you gone, Calvert Vaux?
Lead image Tompkins Square Riot 1874