CHAPTER XXIII. THE CENTRAL PARK.
For many years the rapid growth of the city has made it desirable that the people should be provided with public grounds, within easy reach; to which they could resort for rest and recreation. The natural features of the island made it plain that such a place of resort would have to be constructed by artificial means, and it was for some time doubted whether any site within the city limits could be made to serve the purpose.
On the 5th of April, 1851, Mayor Kingsland, in a special message to the Common Council, called attention to the importance of a public park, sufficiently ample to meet the growing wants of the city population. The message was referred to a select committee, who reported in favor of purchasing a tract of one hundred and fifty acres, known as Jones' Wood, lying between Sixty-sixth and Seventy-fifth streets, and Third Avenue and East River. This location came near being decided upon and purchased, but a quarrel with reference to it, between two members of the Legislature from New York City, called the attention of the public and the State authorities to it, and happily defeated the whole scheme. On the 5th of August, 1851, a Committee was appointed to examine whether another more suitable site for a park could not be found, and the result of the inquiry was the selection of the site known as Central Park.
A WONDERFUL WORK.
The Central Park, so called because it is situated almost in the centre of the island, is a parallelogram, and lies between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and Fifty-ninth and One-hundred-and-tenth streets. It covers an area of eight hundred and forty three acres, and is about two and a half miles long by half a mile in width.
When the site was selected and the work commenced, the whole area, with the exception of the Croton Reservoirs in the upper part, was a barren waste. It was a succession of rocky elevations, stagnant pools, and sandy plains. It was covered with a coarse undergrowth, which simply disfigured it, and was occupied by the miserable shanties of a number of Irish families, known as "squatters." By looking at the character of the land surrounding it, the reader can easily form a correct idea of the primitive character of the Park, and of the immense labor which has been performed in transforming that barren waste into the magnificent grounds of to-day.
As it was morally certain that the authorities of the city of New York would not carry on the work as honestly and as promptly as was desirable, the Legislature placed the management of affairs in the hands of a Commission, composed of prominent citizens of all parties. Under the auspices of this Commission, the work was begun in 1858, and pushed forward as rapidly as possible, to its present state. These Commissioners still have charge of it, and conduct its affairs with the same skill and vigor which have accomplished so much in the past.
The Park now contains a parade ground of fifty acres, for the manoeuvering of large bodies of troops, play grounds, base ball grounds, rides, drives, walks, etc. There are nine miles of carriage roads in it, four miles of bridle roads, and twenty-five miles of walks. It is larger than any city park in the world, except the Bois de Boulogne at Paris, the Prater at Vienna, and the Phenix Park at Dublin. A rocky ridge, which traverses the whole island, passes through almost the exact centre of the grounds; and has afforded a means of rendering the scenery most beautiful and diversified. A part of the grounds form a miniature Alpine region; another part is the perfection of water scenery; and still another stretches away in one of the loveliest lawns in the world. The soil will nurture almost any kind of tree, shrub, or plant; and more than one hundred and sixty thousand trees and shrubs of all kinds have been planted, and the work is still going on. Any of the principal walks will conduct the visitor all over the grounds, and afford him a fine view of the principal objects of interest.
All the entrances on Fifty-ninth street lead to the handsome marble arch near the eastern side. Passing through this archway, and ascending a broad flight of stairs, the visitor finds himself in the great mall, which, beginning near the principal entrance on Fifth Avenue, leads to the terrace, which is one of the chief attractions. The terrace is handsomely constructed of a soft yellow stone, carved elaborately and tastefully. Three broad flights of stairs, one on each side, and one covered stairway in the centre, lead to the esplanade below, in which is the main fountain, and at the end of which is the lake.
To our mind, this is the chief attraction of the Park. It covers an area of one hundred acres, and serves as one of the receiving reservoirs of the city. It was formerly an unsightly swamp, but it would be hard to find now a lovelier sheet of water than this. It is spanned by several handsome bridges, and the scenery along its banks is both beautiful and varied. Here the eye ranges over a low shore, covered with a rich greensward, which stretches away far in the distance; there a bold waterfall leaps over its rocky barrier, and plunges into the lake from a height of fifty or sixty feet. On one hand the banks rise up bold and rugged, with an air of sternness, and on the other the ascent is gradual and beautiful. Row-boats are constantly plying on the lake in the mild season, and in these the visitor can enjoy, for a small sum, the pleasure of a row over the lake. No one can properly appreciate the beauty and variety of the scenery of this beautiful sheet of water, without taking this little voyage.