By Eric D. Lehman
Before the Civil War, no one in town gave much thought to the stretch of rocky land between Bridgeport Harbor and Fayerweather Island at the mouth of Black Rock Harbor. Barely good enough for cows, the land remained inaccessible to horse and carriage until the Union soldiers of the Connecticut 17th mustered there before taking the train to the war. Then, the Bridgeport Standard began a series of articles urging the creation of public parks in the rapidly growing town. In 1864, citizens like Nathaniel Wheeler, P.T. Barnum, and Colonel William Noble bought and donated land along the shore to the city.
For the planning of this park, Nathaniel Wheeler turned to the architectural firm of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, which planned Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. By 1867 Olmsted’s firm had finished their plans, which included a seawall, a horse track, and pedestrian walkway, the only “rural marine open space” in the United States. Engineers drained the marshy borders, diked huge sections, and created circular drives and grassy lawns for the pleasure of Bridgeport’s citizens. Olmsted himself described the finished product as “a capital place for a drive or walk…a fine dressy promenade.”
At the time, Bridgeport contained only 15,000 people, but this foresight provided green space as the population multiplied eight times over the next fifty years. Seaside Park became a center of activity for the city, with trotter and sulky racing, “base ball” games, and a merry-go-round for children. P.T. Barnum liked it so much he designed his summer residence, “Marina Park,” to look out on “large lawns, broken only by the [center]grove, single-shaded trees, rock-work, walks, flower-beds, and drives.”
The park quickly became a haven for monuments. In 1876 the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated to the American war dead. A statue of Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, had been slated for Central Park in Manhattan, but found its way to his home turf of Bridgeport instead. After P.T. Barnum’s death, a bronze statue of him by sculptor Thomas Ball was added on the showman’s favorite spot. Finally, the Perry Memorial Arch was built in 1918, designed by Henry Bacon, who also planned the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. The magnificent arch became a symbol for both the Park and Bridgeport itself.
As the years passed more and more land was donated. Much of the marshland to the west was reclaimed, incorporating Fayerweather Island into the park in 1911. People used the horse track to race their new cars, including the Bridgeport-produced Locomobiles. Today, the 375 acre park is on the National Register of Historic Places, and remains one of the only parks of its kind in the United States, a tribute to the foresight and planning of Bridgeport’s citizens.
Want to learn more about Seaside Park? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:
— Struggles and Triumphs. By P.T. Barnum. (Ed. John G. O’Leary, London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1967.)
— “National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Seaside Park”. By Alison Gilchrist. National Park Service. http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/82004373.pdf. November 1981.
— Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City. By Eric D. Lehman (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.