Episode 106: Barging Through Conflict

Written, Produced, and Edited by Sophia McRae and Mahir Khan

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Full transcript

An avid scholar and pioneer of environmental history, William Cronon writes on the importance of narrative and storytelling in understanding our co-evolution with the natural environment. To him, it is imperative in developing a unique critical inquiry that nature itself plays a major role. He says, “For scholars who share my perspective, the importance of the natural world, its objective effects on people, and the concrete ways people affect it in turn are not at issue; they are the very heart of our intellectual project.” [1] He continues to explain the importance of narrative, of the stories we tell about changing land use “into casual sequences–stories–that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings.” [1] In trying to understand and interpret these meanings, environmental histories adopt critical lenses to complicate how we remember historical events, such as considering elements such as race, gender, and class. How landscapes have played into how people design and order their societies, as well as how those societies have restructured the physical landscape, tell multifaceted stories of how different groups of people have attempted to serve particular functions. Environmental histories sheds new perspectives on the significance of these patterns of development, taking nature into consideration as a major player in the shaping of societies over time.

This is highlighted at the turn of the twentieth century in the southern part of Rochester along the banks of the Genesee River, namely via the building of Genesee Valley Park in 1888, the subsequent extension of railway lines through the area, and the addition of the Barge Canal bisecting the park in 1910. They provide a unique case study into the way in which we view and shape land to create spaces of inclusivity or exclusivity. By looking into their designs a century after their creation, they reflect our relationships to nature, the development of public and private lands, and physical manifestations of class values.

There are three major considerations of nature that are manifested in the physical landscape of this site. The development of Genesee Valley Park in Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision was an industrial project, yet it was designed to recreate pastoral fantasies of nature, alleviating visitors of the burdens of modern cities. Though it disturbed the fantasy, the railroads allowed people from all over the city and of all classes to engage in outdoor recreation in large scales for the first time. The intermingling of classes that occured in the shared public space was seen as beneficial for all–a civilizing force to improve the health and welfare of the cities. On the other hand, the Erie Canal was introduced to the park by state officials, who repurposed existing infrastructure to ensure the most efficient economic gains. Most importantly, these stories weave a narrative on the history of land use in Rochester, and sheds light on how visions of nature and relationships to the environment dictate how we choose to relate to it.

A major cultural shift in how Americans and Europeans collectively viewed nature came when the effects of the Industrial Revolution’s conquest of natural resources turned wild spaces to tamed ones. The Industrial Revolution is characterized by rapid urban growth, straining the resources of emerging and bloating cities in the 1800s. At the same time, resource extraction for industrial production led to many communities and natural environments’ exploitation and pollution. Natural spaces were being increasingly valued as antidotes to modernity, to which urban dwellers could escape from the crowd and filth of the cities. The era birthed a movement of “park-o-mania,” in which cities would convert urban areas to green spaces, while the national and state governments reserved larger tracks of “untouched” wilderness for relative conservation from economic exploits. Before such spaces were created, public green space could best be found in Victorian cemeteries, in which people could stroll and revel in nature, enjoying neoclassical sculptures and reflecting on life, nature, and death.

An 1839 engraving of Mt. Hope Cemetary, where burial grounds met public gatherings for recreation prior to the development of the parks system. [5]

Rochester was in this way no different from major cities at the time. Mount Hope Cemetery was established in 1838 and spans 196 acres of glacially-shaped land. [2] Its incredible beauty was a major attraction to people of different social classes,  It became a popular gathering place for all sorts of activity, from picnicking to political gatherings. Upon visiting Mt. Hope, famed park designer Frederick Law Olmsted was astounded to see so much activity in a cemetery, which to him should have been a peaceful, natural space for quiet repose and reflection. Invited by the Parks Commission of Rochester in 1888, he proposed a plan for Genesee Valley Park, just around the riverbend from Mount Hope. [3] Olmsted’s plans for two other parks in Rochester, Seneca and Highland parks, were also accepted by 1893. [4] Ironically enough, the offer to donate large tracts of land directly next to Mount Hope Cemetery by famed plant nursery owners Ellwanger and Barry for public parks was denied by the city a decade earlier. [4]

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Genesee Valley Park. His early vision for the park was at odds with the recreation-focused Parks Department of Rochester and the economically-focused state engineers designing the Barge Canal. [5]

Genesee Valley Park is built in Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of rural park design as a rustic, restorative retreat within a city, beneficial and accessible for all classes. Frederick Law Olmsted’s rustic vision for the city materialized in 1888, when work on Genesee Valley Park began. By the start of 1890, the Parks Commission had bought 400 acres of land for a total of $142,027.17. [4] The land was described by the Parks Commissioner:

GVP, with its wide and undulating meadows shut in by thick plantings which skillfully conceal the boundary limits; the broad and quiet river in perfect harmony with the long stretch of meadowns through which it flows; the native forest which helps fram the beautiful picture- al combine to create a charming pastoral park. It is what it’s designers intended it to be — a restful place. [3]

In this way it seems like a small construction, planning paths for cyclists and walkers, picnic groves with pavilions, and specific (yet limited) recreational facilities. Olmsted’s plans to channel pastoral beauty and natural landscapes were anything but natural, however. In reality it was a massive undertaking, as some of the the preliminary groundwork was described:

Fourteen thousand linear feet of roads were graded and 44,231 feet of drain tile were laid. An arch culver of 5-foot span was built across a small stream near the refectory. 62,500 small trees were planted in the forest plantation along the Erie railroad and the Westfall Road. 10,500 shrubs and 10,000 willows were planted along the forest plantation and along the river bank. The trees were small, not exceeding three feet in height. In addition to the small trees, over 200 trees from 7 to 12 feet in height, were planted along the drives and river banks. 3,100 cubic yards of gravel were hauled on the park roads. [3]

Olmsted had planned parks in which he felt people could discover nature around corners and revines, filling the parks with forests, meadows, waterways, and lush foliage. In so doing, “the desired impression was of a landscape untouched by human hands.” [5] As he did in Central Park in New York City, Olmsted introduced a flock of sheep and a shepard to GVP in 1893, harkening back to what he had seen during travels to Great Britain. [4] In the same year, the park included enclosures for white-tailed deer and American elk, as well. [3] These enclosures encapsulate popular opinion at the time: nature is something to be celebrated and wondered at, as long as it is controlled and tamed.

Park advocates also felt that public green spaces were a space of civilizing, bourgeois values, thus helping the working classes to alleviate themselves of the dirty conditions of poverty. Catherine McNeur writes on the building of Central Park in New York City in her work Taming Manhattan, which involved several of the same actors as in Rochester. She writes that a popular belief at the time linked environment, social class, and morality together. In this way, the poor of a city adopt animalistic tendencies by living in the same conditions as them, literally and figuratively. Thus, those living in urban slums had a lower sense of morality, leading to crime, violence, and disease, among other problems of poverty. She writes, “A park would save the city’s public health and culture, while benefiting all New Yorkers, ‘rich and poor.’” [6] McNeur cites a horticulturist of the time and a friend of Frederick Law Olmsted, Andrew Jackson Downing, in his descriptions of the tainted visions of the poor. He wrote, “The higher social and artistic elements of every man’s nature lie dormant within him… and every laborer is a possible gentleman, not by the possession of money or fine clothes–but through the refining influence of intellectual and moral culture.” [6] City green spaces were seen as an opportunity to escape from the filth of the industrialized city, offering clean air and civilized values to its visitors.

Offering recreational attractions in the park created spaces in Rochester where people of all backgrounds could intermingle. Frederick Law Olmsted was a proponent of recreation in parks, even being one of the first advocates for female cyclists. Within the first decade of GVP’s opening, however, such extensive facilities were added, such as a playground, a tennis court, 9 holes of golf, a running track with seats, a polo ground, gymnastics and ball grounds, locker rooms, a boat house, and a skating rink. [3] The Rochester Athletic Club and the Genesee Canoe Club built their facilities in the park, and a merry-go-round and refreshment stands were added, as well. [3] Through the beginning of the twentieth century, more facilities were added, such additional tennis courts and locker rooms for men and women, more bicycle paths, a swimming pool, and the golf course was expanded into 15 holes. This was once again expanded in 1917 and a second course opened in 1929: it remains one of the United States’ few municipal golf courses. The park commissioners commented, “our citizens have come to have a strong personal and civic pride in our public pleasure grounds. Nothing by the municipality is so essentially owned and occupied by the people as the parks.” [5]

Rochester citizens ice skating in the Genesee Valley Park during the 1940s. This was one of many recreational activities available to parkgoers early in GVP history. [5]

This influx of activity was in large part brought upon by the introduction of the railway network into the park, allowing thousands of visitors greater accessibility. The Rochester Railway Company extended their Plymouth avenue car line to the entrance of the park in 1892, and a year later extended the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railroad lines to the Elmwood Avenue Bridge, bordering the Northern side of the park. [3] This was allowed by the Parks Commission only with a fixed rate of 5 cents per fare and agreed to run only “as demands of the public shall require,” [3] as there was a central assurance by the Olmsted firm “to provide facilities available to all people, not just the privileged.” [4] Ultimately, the Olmsted firm was largely unhappy with the introduction of the railroad and increased activity, as they felt it too disruptive of the pastoral atmosphere in which they had envisioned for the space. [4] In fact, Olmsted had had a small forest to be planted surrounding the pre-existing tracks through the park in order to best attempt to hide elements of an industrial area. The increased recreational facilities continued to disrupt several such plantings, and also required new trees to be planted in order to cover up the facilities, further souring Olmsted’s original plans.

Yet another conflict disrupted Olmsted’s pastoral dream, when the plans for a new Barge Canal construction were made to bisect the park, merging the canal waters with the Genesee River.  An atlas entitled, New York State engineer and surveyor Report on the Barge Canal shows of maps of the canal system, including several proposed alternate routes that the new Barge Canal could take in relation to the first Erie Canal. [7] One particular panel shows five of the proposed routes around the city of Rochester. Each of the alternate paths beyond that which cut through GVP involved corners and angular turns, or required the additional building of aqueducts. [7] The Erie Canal had originally breathed life into the city: it ran through its downtown district at High Falls, delivering agricultural commodities such as flour and other grains. With the rise of railroads and shift in agricultural production around Rochester, the Barge Canal’s industrial activities were rerouted around the city.

The proposed routes of the new Barge Canal by the New York State Canal Survey. Two proposed routes (A and B) used much of the existing infrastructure of the original Erie Canal. The other three (C, D, and E) proposed moving the canal away from the city to maximize engineering efficiency. The final decision consisted of a combination of the proposed routes C, D, and E. [7]

The last section of the Barge Canal across the state to be constructed was this section across Genesee Valley Park, largely due to its contentious nature. It was at last chosen and the two waterways were linked by May 10, 1918. [4] This was officially announced in 1903, the same year that the Genesee Valley Park was hit by a large flood. The region is in a floodplain, which had posed problems to the park before, namely with high waters in 1896. [3] The 1903 flood was worse than the park had yet endured, and considerable repairments had to be made. The water had damaged the roads and paths, ruined the merry-go-round, and caused considerable erosion to embankments and trees. [3] As a part of the agreement with New York State to build the Barge Canal, they included the building of a dam to help alleviate the area of its susceptibility to flooding. A Barge Canal lock with two stopgates is situated on the east end of intersection with the Genesee River. Furthermore, the project required many of the train lines to be taken out of the Genesee Valley Park, eventually satisfying the Olmsted Firm. The firm made suggestions for a series of arched, stone pedestrian bridges to span the barge canal, once-again beautify the park land. This was in order to do what they said was “the best of a bad job.” [5]

Today, park visitors make use the golf courses and picnic groves, although Genesee Valley Park has far fewer amenities than it did in the early 20th century. Nevertheless it remains a unique municipality, granting the public in surrounding neighborhoods access to green spaces. The Barge Canal site today is hardly used for its original purpose, but is a fascinating manifestation of converging ideas about nature, industry, and land use. The interstate highway system now runs adjacently to the canal, while old railroad bridges remain rusted in place, overgrown with small plants and converted to pedestrian walkways. The land is a physical timeline of the last two hundred years of transportation and infrastructure change. It serves as a palimpsest of history: each layer representing the different ways in which Rochester officials have tried to manipulate or replicate nature to serve individual purposes.

Works Cited:

[1] Cronon, William. “History: A Place for Stories.” The Journal of American History, Volume 78, Issue 4, 1992.

[2] Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery. “America’s First Municipal Cemetery.” fomh.org. Accessed November 2017.

[3] Park Commissioners’ Report, Rochester New York, 1888-1904. Rochester Department of Parks, 1904. University of Rochester Rare Books and Special Collections, November 2017.

[4] Wickes, Marjorie, and Tim O’Connell. “The Legacy Of Frederick Law Olmsted.” Rochester History 50, no. 2 (April 1988): 3-23. America: History & Life, October 2017.

[5] Comeau, Katie Eggers. “125 Years of Rochester’s Parks.” Rochester History 75, no. 2 (Fall 2013): 1-29. America: History & Life, October 2017.

[6] McNeur, Catherine. Taming Manhattan: Environmental battles in the antebellum city. Harvard University Press, 2014.

[7] “Alternative Routes Rochester and Vicinity,” New York State Engineer and Surveyor Report on the Barge Canal, New York State Engineers, 1901. University of Rochester Rare Books and Special Collections, November 2017.

[8] Stone, Albert R.. “Barge Canal ‘stopgates.’” Albert R Stone Collection, 1919.  Rochester Museum and Science Center Negatives Collection, rmsc.org. Photograph.

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