Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hamilton Park

You might think that Hamilton Park was named for Alexander Hamilton, but it was actually named for a local silver manufacturer whose wife donated the land to the city.

David Boughton Hamilton (1824-1898) was the president and treasurer of Rogers & Bro., best known today for their silver-plated flatware, which is still popular with collectors. Hamilton and the Rogers brothers came to Waterbury in 1858 to start the Rogers Brothers manufacturing business. After Hamilton's death, the company merged with others to become International Silver Co.

Silver Street takes its name from the Rogers and Hamilton silver-plating factories which were located next to the land that became Hamilton Park.

Detail of 1899 map of Waterbury showing factories on Silver Street.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

David B. Hamilton served during the Civil War and was honorably discharged due to disability in 1863 as a captain. He was also politically active and served on various boards and commissions in Waterbury. At the time of his death, he was a shareholder in The Bridgeport Brass Co., Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Co., Waterbury Farrel Foundry & Machine Co., Waterbury Lumber & Coal Co., Meriden Britannia Co., Rogers & Brother, Rogers & Hamilton Co., and several others.

Hamilton married three times: his first wife was Mary Anna Rogers, who died in 1859. He met his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Birely, while he was in Maryland during the Civil War; she died in 1870. Hamilton's third wife was Isabel Lord Ely, who gave the land for the park in his memory.

Capt. David B. Hamilton, illustrated in Anderson's History of Waterbury, Volume II

The Hamiltons lived on East Main Street; their homestead extended through to Maple Avenue and contained four houses and barns. Amazingly, the barns are still there and two of them are in immaculate condition.

Hamilton homestead barn, between East Main Street and Maple Avenue.
Photo edited to hide the not-so-innocent (there was a woman seated in front of the barn who refused to believe that I wanted a photo of the barn; she was certain that I was there to photograph her car, which makes me wonder how much she owes in back taxes on the vehicle....)

Hamilton homestead barn, between East Main Street and Maple Avenue.

Hamilton homestead barns, viewed from Maple Street.

The former Hamilton homestead lot ran from East Main Street to Maple Avenue
Detail of 1899 map of Waterbury, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Hamilton Park started with 45 acres donated by Isabel Hamilton in 1898. Other than the Green, it was the first public park in Waterbury. At first, City officials didn't see the importance of a public park, but City Engineer Robert Cairns did, and he was able to convince others to move forward with developing Hamilton Park. By 1913, Hamilton Park had become "the great breathing place of the city" (Pape, History of Waterbury and the Naugatuck Valley, Vo1. I, p. 55).

In 1903, landscape architect George F. Pentecost, Jr., based in New York City, was hired to design the layout of Hamilton Park. A copy of his design, at the Mattatuck Museum, shows walking trails meandering through the woodlands, a baseball field with grandstand, a rustic pavilion, ponds, and a flower garden.

The original landscape plan for Hamilton Park.
Copy in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum

Detail of the original landscape plan for Hamilton Park.
Copy in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum

Detail of the original landscape plan for Hamilton Park.
Copy in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum

Detail of the original landscape plan for Hamilton Park.
Copy in the collection of the Mattatuck Museum

The westernmost entrance to Hamilton Park is marked by a boulder and a plaque commemorating David Hamilton, placed there sometime around 1902, when that 2-acre plot of land was added to the park. The park was expanded further in 1915, when the City acquired another 20 acres or so. Caroline A. Platt assisted with the purchase, donating $2,500 so that the City could meet the seller's asking price of $17,500.

In 1916, the Goss family donated 18 or 24 acres for Hamilton Park to be used as a bird sanctuary in perpetuity (the Board of Education has tried to take the land for a school on at least two occasions since then).

In 1917, American Brass Company donated five acres which included the site of Waterbury's first brass mill.

Today, Hamilton Park covers a total of 93 acres.

A swimming pool opened in 1907. The playground was enlarged in 1909 and new paths were laid out. A zoo was added at this time; in 1910, the Hamilton Park Zoo had two monkeys, four raccoons, one possum, one red-tail hawk, one fox, four grey squirrels, and twenty guinea pigs. Two swans were added to the zoo in 1912. A later addition of a bear made the zoo a memorable attraction.

Hamilton Park has changed numerous times over the past century. The zoo is long gone, as is the rose garden. Other features, like the baseball field, swimming pool, and playground, are still flourishing.

Hamilton Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

Hamilton Park Memorial Plaque, c. 1902

The Liberty-Victory House was moved to Hamilton Park from the Green after World War II. During World War I and II, the little house was used for bond rallies on the Green. It has since been joined by a World War I German 7.7cm FeldKanone 16 (field gun).

Hamilton Park, Memorial Day Weekend, 2017

Next to the Liberty-Victory House is a massive hub for a water wheel. A century ago, this was part of a wood water wheel, 30 feet in diameter, famous for being the water wheel to the first brass mill in the U.S., believed to have been in use as early as 1845. The City's Park Department acquired the wheel sometime around 1914.

The wood was allowed to rot away, and eventually the metal hub was moved from Hamilton Park to Waterville. In 2013, State Representative Selim Noujaim arranged to have it returned to Hamilton Park, where it now rests.

Water Wheel Hub, Hamilton Park
Photo taken Memorial Day Weekend, 2017

Hamilton Park Water Wheel, c. 1900
Collection of Mattatuck Museum

Hamilton Park also features a Spanish-American War plaque, cast from metal salvaged from the USS Maine, whose destruction at Havana in 1898 launched the war. The current plaque is a replacement, courtesy of the US Navy, for a plaque that used to be on Plank Road at Hamilton Park, but was stolen. The original plaque was installed in 1921 by veterans of the Spanish-American war. Waterbury's Veterans Memorial Committee and the East End Community Club teamed up in 2012 to install the replacement plaque in front of the Victory House at Hamilton Park. 

The plaque was designed by sculptor Charles Keck, assistant to Augustus Saint Gaudens, whose influence on the design is strong. 

Spanish-American War Plaque, installed in 2012.
Photo taken on Memorial Day Weekend, 2017

Hamilton Park Bath House and Swimming Pool, 1940s
Parks Department Archive, Silas Bronson Library

Before the swimming pool was built, kids would swim in a small man-made "lake."
This postcard is from about 1910.

Postcard of The Fountain at Entrance to Hamilton Park, c. 1907

Early spring buds next to the Fountain, with the bridge for Silver Street Expressway,
a relatively new road, in the background. The bridge was designed in the late 1940s by George L. Dunkelberger, who also designed bridges for the Merritt Parkway.

A path around the fountain pond is still usable.

Ducks napping next to the fountain pond.

Seven Angels Theatre was originally a Dance Pavilion built in 1925, designed by architect Fred A. Webster. The building was a dance hall for decades. It was altered and renovated several times.

Ice skating at Hamilton Park during the 1930s. The Dance Pavilion is on the right.
Parks Department Archive, Silas Bronson Library

The former ice rink is now a football field, soccer field, and picnic field.

The larger pond at Hamilton Park. The water was very low when I visited yesterday.

One of the rustic bridges at Hamilton Park. Similar bridges can be found at Fulton Park.

Another view of the pond yesterday.

There was some duck drama -- a female duck raced away from the main group, pursued by two males. The three quickly returned to the group of ducks and geese.

Two of the ducks turning around to go back to the main group, while the third duck is just catching up to them.

Three turtles floating near the surface of the pond to soak up the sun's warmth while staying out of reach of the people on the shore.

The larger rustic bridge at Hamilton Park, c. 1910.

The same bridge today.

I was surprised to find this collection of children's shoes and socks next to the stream, but no other sign of children anywhere. How far could they go without shoes on?

Turns out they didn't go very far! As I looked around, I suddenly heard a child telling me not to touch their stuff. I promised I wouldn't, and they were noticeably pleased.

Just enough rocks so you can hop across the stream without getting wet.

Another one of the shoeless children photobombing my picture of the rustic pavilion overlooking the baseball field.

The pavilion when it was new. Postcard view c. 1910.

I love seeing a group of kids (and one adult) feeling so comfortable in the park that they can leave their shoes and bicycle unattended while the play on the hillside overlooking the stream.

The baseball field. No grandstand, just one small bleacher.

Interior of the rustic pavilion.

View of the baseball field from the pavilion.

The meadow between the baseball field and the stream.

Playground at Hamilton Park

Horseshoe Pit

Sprinkler pad next to the playground

One of the important original features of Hamilton Park was the woods. The park was designed with meandering paths through the woods so that city dwellers could experience a natural forested setting without having to leave Waterbury.

The paths are no longer maintained, but they are still well-used. Speaking as someone who leaves Waterbury regularly to go hiking on the Blue-Blazed Trails, it would be fantastic if a volunteer group organized to maintain the Hamilton Park trails. Done well, the trails could be a popular feature drawing people from all over the city and suburbs. The park is small, but there are many other small parks with great woodland trails. Some are educational, with plaques explaining the natural features.

If someone were really ambitious, and the City agreed to work with them, Hamilton Park could become an arboretum, with dozens of different types of trees. For example, there is an arboretum and bird sanctuary in Short Hills, NJ which has over 40 species of trees, many species of birds, and various other interesting wild plants. That arboretum is on 16.5 acres of woodland and has 3 miles of trails. Hamilton Park, with 93 acres, could have many more miles of trails than that, making it easy for people to go for a long walk or jog through the woods without leaving Waterbury.

Just as Fulton Park has a Conservancy/Friends group, Hamilton Park could benefit from one too. If enough people are motivated to help out, the park could become truly spectacular.

Path through the Woods, Hamilton Park. Postcard, c. 1910.

An informal trail at the end of Idylwood Avenue led me up a hill to this view of I-84.

Charred earth and branches are a reminder of a brush fire, which I assume is the one that happened on May 8, 2016.

The brush fire ran along the fence separating the park from the highway. Before the Europeans arrived, the Native Americans kept the woodlands cleared of brush through controlled fires. Seeing how open the area is two years after the brush fire, I can definitely see the advantages to that form of forestry.

A former pond, with what looks like rubble from earlier highway projects.

Part of an official trail, no longer maintained, although someone did set up a plank to use as a bench.

The path through the woodlands. Properly maintained, this could be really lovely year round.

An impressive old tree along the path.

The end of the official trail, taking me back to Idylwood Avenue.


Anonymous said...

It has become a trash dump since I last promoted the park. The pavilion has leaves and graffiti along with broken glass. I can't do the work alone and am SAD that all the progress STOPPED

Peter said...

Interesting article about the Mad River.