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Delaware Park’s Dell and Green

The year was 1888, the Park had gone through a series of issues, each of which was addressed by Superintendent William McMillan. McMillan was the engineer responsible for taking the drawings made by Frederick Law Olmsted and making them a reality.

McMillan had a major impact on the parks – how the hills were shaped, where the paths were finally placed, what materials paths were made from, where plantings were placed, and even what the species of trees and shrubs were used.

He took this role even further. McMillan would count the number of visitors, to see if the finished park facilities were acceptable.

Initially only wealthy people would use the park, as the cost of transportation was too expensive for many. McMillan petition to have a streetcar extended up Elmwood Avenue, so that inner-city families could reach the Park.

Once the trollies began rolling in, so too did the masses of children. This led to another issue, the first was that the picnic ground right next to the Casino was crowded. The other issue was that the children ran through gardens and shrubs, walked off paths, picked the flowers and well you knowstomped on everything. McMillan did not seem to regret his effort to bring children to the Park – instead, he recognized the need for them to have free rein over their own space. The solution? To have the City acquire the 12 acres that ran from Lincoln Parkway to Delaware Avenue (where the rose garden, playground, ivy bridge, and soccer field exist today) and convert this space into a picnic ground with a childrens dell and green playground.

Addition to the Park: The principal new work undertaken during the year is the improvement of the twelve acres lately added to the south boarder of the Park, easterly of Lincoln parkway. The addition nearly doubles the area of woodland and green available for picnic purposes: an enlargement much needed in view of the disagreeable crowding which had been frequent for several years past on the grounds used as a ‘common’ across the narrow depression, or dell, which divides the easterly part of the new grounds, a massive stone arch has been built, affording an interesting view of the dell, and nearly direct access to the level plot of lawn on its easterly side known as the ‘Childrens Green.’ A complete system of foot-paths, of good width and carefully constructed, has been laid out along this dell and the brows of its sloping banks, by which facilities for agreeable rambles are provided. The plan, in general accordance with which these grounds have been improved, was furnished by Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of the Park system.

– McMillan 1888

Lets back this story up. The plan was to purchase the twelve acres of land – between Lincoln Parkway and Delaware Avenue – that runs along Rumsey Road. The vision? To create a place for families to picnic, ramble, and play. It would become one of Buffalos most expensive picnic and childrens playgrounds in the city. But they had their reasons, with much of it having to do with class segregation. Delaware Park had, for some time, suffered from being an elite park not by design but by default, accessible to only those who could afford a carriage, horse, or at least the ability to rent a taxi. This suppressed early visitor counts as compared to the more accessible parks closer to downtown. Superintendent McMillan decided that segregation of people into respective parks was not acceptable, and complained to the commissioner of Parks in the most polite of 19th century ways – that a street car was sorely needed to transport working men and their children to the park.

Street Cars: The improvement made last year by the street-car company in the service of all its lines to the park deserves notice and commendation. The opening of the Elmwood Avenue line and the Jefferson street line, and the installation of the electric line in place of horses on the Cold Spring branch, have nearly doubled the facilities formerly furnished. It is gratifying to record that there was at once apparent a corresponding increase in the number of people entering the park by the street-car gate.

– McMillan

At first McMillan was thrilled to see the Park filled with diverse people. However, the diversity came with increasing child population which trampled the plantings along the lake side, and destroyed the greenery. It was costing the City and stressing the plant nursery. The pressure on the cost of labor was growing. McMillan used the issue of overcrowding as a pressing point to the Commissioner. At the time, the rose garden, playground, ivy bridge and soccer field did not exist and the land was owned by the Rumsey family.

McMillan latched onto a thought Olmsted had a few years prior, to purchase the woodland with a large ravine that was part of the Rumsey parcel. It wasnt easy. It took repeated nuanced suggestions in annual reports to the City, but the Park Commissioners eventually gave in to McMillans persistent requests.

Commissioners to appraise the value of the twelve acres of land on the south line of the park, easterly of Lincoln Parkway, were appointed by the Superior Court on June 21, 1886The Commissioners fixed the award at $30,000, but they state in their report that the evidence produced before them showed the land to be worth much more, as much as $50,000 at leastTo prevent the entire failure of the proceedings, the owners of the property agreed to accept the amount of $30,000 as a just award

– McMillian

Lets stop for one second. $30,000 was incredibly expensive for 12 acres of land in 1886 as it is roughly $830,668 in todays market. Imagining $30,000 in the 1880s needs a historical comparison. In the same report, McMillan spent $16,627 on labor, $8,988 on teams (pulled wagons), $3,500 on staff salaries, and park police cost $4,190. Comparatively, a pair of mens work-boots in up-state NY cost $3 to $4. Four dollars could also buy a person two pounds of coffee or take a family of four on a round trip using a streetcar to Delaware Park.

When the approvals were in, McMillan sent an invite to Olmsted to visit Buffalo, to look at the natural landscape that summer. While Olmsted was given great leeway for the design of the parks in Buffalo prior to this point, McMillan had specific ideas for the function of the new addition and how it was to be executed. With ideas and determination, McMillan traveled to Massachusetts to exchange viewpoints with Olmsted the following winter.

Additional Park Lands: Two slight additions to the Park System were made by purchase during the year. One of these containing twelve acres is situated on the south boundary of the Park, east of Lincoln Parkway. Part of it is natural grove, and part the sloping banks on each side of the pleasantly winding ravine. When property laid out and planted, this plot will add much to the convenience of all persons frequenting the picnic grounds, the area of which has been far too smallI was authorized to confer with Mr. Olmsted in relation to the matter, and to invite him to visit Buffalo,Mr Olmsted visited Buffalo in August,In December I went to his home, near Boston, taking with me maps of the several plots in question. After a general interchange of views the main outlines of design were determined for plans of the Terrace Parks, PottersField, Days Park, and the new Territory [12 Acres] at the Parkwill probably be able to submit the plans for your approval in time for the next seasons work, together with some notes thereon, and on the Park System generally.

– Superintendents Report, Park Farmstead, Jan. 4, 1887, for the year 1886.

In the end, McMillan got his cake and ate it too. The diversity of the Park began to increase, he got the childrens dell and green, and he was proud of his ‘park within a park’ for families.

In 1888 he states that, In May, the new addition of twelve acres on the south boundary of the Park was planted with stock specially prepared for the purpose by several years cultivation in the Park Nursery…”

Ill leave you with the final construction report from McMillan. From the Report of January 1889, for previous year:

New Grounds of the Park: Throughout the season a large force of men and teams was constantly employed on the newly acquired strip of twelve acres on the south border of the Park. The rough and irregular character of these grounds made much excavation and filling necessary to form an even surface and change to pleasing slopes the water-worn sides of the ravine which divides the eastern section. To save the top soil for new surface nearly the whole of it had to be handled twice. In the old grove on Lincoln Parkway few trees were in a thrifty condition, or in position where the requirements of the plan made it possible to save them. The crooked ravine, which cut into separate halves a part of this ground, has been changed into a pleasant little ‘dell,’ with a winding foot-path running through it. The opposite sides have been connected by a stone arch [Ivy Bridge], built at a point where little artificial embankment was necessary. On the line of the walk in the dell the span is fifteen feet wide, thirty feet long, and thirteen feet high in the clear. Transversely to the dell, at a height of sixteen feet above the lower walk, the arch carries a walk which connects the two banks, thus affording a nearly direct pathway from the street car entrance of the Park to the Childrens Green.

The stones of this structure are of large size and laid in regular courses of rock-faced masonrythe stone being the flint rock of the quarries on Steele street. The soffit of the arch is built with limestone from the Park quarryThe top of the archon each side of the upper walk a planting space of eight feet wide adjoins the low parapet, which will be effectually screened by shrubbery. Ivy and other vines will be planted along the wings, so that the whole structure will be as unobtrusive as possible.

To give convenient access to all portions of the grounds, and ample accommodation for occasional throngs without tempting them to trespass on the spaces reserved for greenward and shrubbery, a complete system of broad walks has been constructed. They have a stone foundation, nearly a foot deep, with a surfacing of fine gravel, about three inches thick. Where the incline is steep enough to cause a wash in heavy rain-storms, a paved gutter has been laid on each side.

This new section will be a valuable addition to the Park. The picnic-ground is considerably enlarged[er], the Childrens Green is more easily reached, and the borders of the new walks offer more intricacy and variety of scene within a small compass than any other portion of the Park.

– McMillian 1888     

Written by Tara Mancini

Tara Mancini

Tara Mancini's interest span from Microbiology and Chemistry, Research and Development, Manufacturing, Quality Assurance, and Process Improvement Analysis to New York History, Early Civilizations and Child Development and Education.

Part of the Quality Assurance jobs was food taster, both sweet and savory. When I travel I make a point of eating everything.

Recent projects include founding the Friends of Schenck Hose in Buffalo, NY - an 1823 pioneer and farm estate - that seeks to restore and put into adaptive reuse the historic buildings to recently being awarded a patent for a new chemical production system.

Specialties: Operations, Plant Start up, R & D, Pilot plant testing, operations, quality, Sales and Marketing, Production line or plant start up, streamline production, material waste management, recycling, process improvement, Biodiesel, Renewable Energy, Project Development.

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