JCHS Reminiscences

Thompson’s Christmas Present to Watertown

By Agnes L. Blake and Margaret W. M. Shaeffer

The following history of the development of Watertown’s John C. Thompson Park is taken from an article prepared by Agnes L. Blake and Margaret W. M. Shaeffer and first published this spring in The Upland Plover, publication of The North Country Bird Club, Inc.

The more we know of our city park, the more we will treasure it, it is to be hoped. It was a gift of John C. Thompson of New York City, president of the New York Air Brake Company. The philanthropist chose to remain unidentified while various friends of his owned and oversaw the work going on in the area of the park from 1900 to 1916. The Olmsted Brothers, one of the nation’s most famous landscape firms, had been re­tained to design the park.

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and John C. Olmsted were, respectively, son and nephew (as well as stepson) of the famous Frederick Law Olm­sted, writer, journalist, and social critic who was, above all, the country’s outstanding landscape designer. His sesquicentennial was celebrated in the spring of 1972. As we are today, Olmsted was concerned for the qual­ity of urban life —”. .. Sympathetic cooperation with Nature” he called it. His two sons were active in the 1890s and took control of the firm after their father retired in 1895. There is no doubt at all that the father’s influence was seen in the sons’ work.

Mr. Olmsted, Sr., had designed over 40 public parks, private estates, and suburban villages as well as the first “green belts” in urban surround­ings. His designs include New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and others widely scattered across the country—parks in Boston, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Chicago, the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Mount Royal in Montreal are attributed to him. From his drafting board had come designs for college campuses—Amherst, Trinity, West Point, Stanford, and for the Capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. According to an article in Life magazine, Frederick Law Olmstead is re­garded as “the first and foremost environmentalist.”

Our park, which was called “The City Park” in the early days, was a Christmas gift to Watertown in 1916 and it was not until Mr. Thompson’s death in 1924 that it became known officially as “The John C. Thompson Park.”

To quote from the letter accompanying the gift: “The only condition of the gift is that the park shall never be used for any other purpose than a public park. It may be maintained, neglected, or closed, but no part or portion shall be sold or given away, leased or rented. No fee shall ever be charged under any pretense, unless such fee is used for park, charitable, or philanthropic purposes.”

At the time of the conveyance of the gift to the Mayor and Common Council, the trustee, George C. Sherman, pointed out in the Watertown  Daily Times that “. . . during the 15 years the park had been in existence, this unknown donor had provided the funds with which the park was kept in a proper state of repair and the only expense of the city has been the employment of one park policeman.” He said, “The debris left by pic­nickers—paper boxes, egg shells, and other rubbish which had been strewn around, despite the fact that rubbish barrels were placed at fre­quent intervals, had been carefully gathered up, but not a single ‘Keep Of the Grass’ sign had ever been displayed.” Of the total 600 acres held by Mr. Sherman, the gift of 190 had by then been improved with the expen­diture of $500,000—no small amount for those days. Twenty-five thousand dollars was spent on the roads in 1916 and $6,000 each year for mainte­nance and gardeners. Anyone looking at the old photographs depicting the early period of construction will be impressed with the gigantic task of piping water, building roads, walkways, glens, and terraces to produce vistas which today look so natural, but are in truth developed from the plans of two of our country’s famous landscape architects.

During the summer of 1905, many rustic walks had been constructed. Two carloads of rhododendrons had been planted and several other carloads of shrubs. It must have been a lovely spot then, as now. In the years around 1920, the stand of evergreens near the Gotham Street entrance was planted by school children in observance of Arbor Day.

In August of 1913, the famous Shakespearean “Ben Greet Players” gave a matinee and evening performance on the terrace below the Pin­nacle. This spot could be approached by path from Park Circle or down the so-called “Baby Carriage Steps” to Shady Walk.

In 1916, Edmund J. Sawyer, under the auspices of the Watertown Bird Club, illustrated and published the Land Birds of Northern New York — A Pocket Guide to Common Land Birds of the St. Lawrence Val­ley and the Lowlands in General of Northern New York. Mr. Sawyer, who lived for a time in Watertown, entitled one of his chapters “Birds of the City Park, Watertown, N.Y.”

Through the years many have enjoyed band concerts, wading, swim­ming, sliding, skiing, skating, lawn tennis, bowling on the green, and many other pastimes on these acres.

In Thompson Park we have a gem, a work of art, as well as a resource for body and mind. With a clear understanding of its intangible value, we should take pride in preserving and maintaining our heritage for future generations.

Except taken from 1974 Jefferson County Historical Bulletin

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