By Eric D. Lehman
Wealthy cattle baron James W. Beardsley was watching children play outside one day when inspiration struck. He decided they deserved “a place that would always be theirs.”
So, in 1878 he donated to the city more than 100 acres of land at the north end of Bridgeport along the Pequonnock River, on the condition that it “shall accept and keep the same forever as a public park.”
Beardsley Park was born.
In 1881, famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who had previously designed the city’s successful Seaside Park, created a plan for a “pastoral” park, using the existing contours of land in what was called “rustic arrangements of boulder and parterre.”
Soon, citizens relaxed on lawns shaded by European beeches and took dips in the wide expanse of Bunnell’s Pond. A replica of William Shakespeare’s home, the “Anne Hathaway Cottage” was built in the park on the 300th anniversary of the author’s death.
In the years in which Barnum and Bailey circus had its winter quarters in Bridgeport, animals like zebras, camels, and elephants were exercised in the park. This heralded the park’s future, and in the year 1920, City Parks Commissioner Wesley Hayes began the process of creating a zoo.
Beginning with exotic birds from local citizens and circus retirees from Barnum and Bailey, the zoo grew quickly.
At first, it was a “drive-through” zoo, where visitors could literally see the exhibits without leaving their cars.
The city invested $50,000 to build a large greenhouse, and some animals stayed in its warm confines during the winter months. Soon, monkeys, leopards, and llamas joined more unusual animals like silver foxes and tree ducks.
In 1997, the Connecticut Zoological Society bought the zoo from the city and runs it as a nonprofit institution. Today, it is still the only zoo in Connecticut, with one of the largest greenhouses and a rare carousel.
Today, Beardsley Park remains a place of refreshment and relaxation for the city’s residents. As designer Frederick Law Olmsted said, it is “just such a countryside as a family of good taste and healthy nature would resort to, if seeking a few hours complete relief from scenes associated with the wear and tear of ordinary town life.”
A statue of James Beardsley by Charles Henry Niehaus was erected in 1909 and remains at the entrance to the park, watching over the land he donated, land that will “always be theirs.”
Want to learn more about Beardsley Park and Zoo? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:
- Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City. By Eric D. Lehman (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.)
Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo: the First Eighty Years, Established 1922, by DeMattia, Robin F. Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Co. Publishers, 2002.
- Dolly Curtis Interviews: Dr. Howard Hochman, Veternarian for Beardsley Zoo, Bridgeport, CT, 2000 , . Easton, CT: Curtis/Cromwell Productions, 2000
- Dolly Curtis Interviews: Greg Dancho – the New Carousel at the Beardsley Zoo , . Easton, CT: Dolly Curtis Interviews Television Programs , 1995
- Dolly Curtis Interviews: Greg Dancho – Beardsley Zoological Gardens, Easton, CT: Curtis/Cromwell Productions, 1994.
- Newspaper Clippings, Bridgeport History Center: “PARKS – Beardsley Park (Zoo)”
- Vertical File, Bridgeport History Center: “PARKS – Beardsley Park (Zoo) and (Carousel)”
- Bridgeport General Photograph Collection, Bridgeport History Center, various images
- Postcard Collection, Bridgeport History Center, various images
- The Story of Bridgeport, by Elsie Nicholas Danenberg; illustrations by Jesse Benton. Bridgeport, Conn.: Bridgeport Centennial, Inc., 1936
- Bridgeport: a Pictorial History, by David W. Palmquist; design by Jamie Backus Raynor. Norfolk, VA: Donning, 1981; 1985
- A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, by Rev. Samuel Orcutt; published under the auspices of the Fairfield county historical society. New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor; published under the auspices of the Fairfield County Historical Society, 1886. 2 v. (viii, 1393 p.): ill., plates, ports., folded maps ; 26 cm.
Notes: Vol. 2 contains also histories of Huntington, Trumbull and Monroe, towns incorporated from old Stratford. Epitaphs from the various cemeteries are included.
Genealogies: v. 2, p. 1113-1358.
- History of Bridgeport and vicinity, ed. by George C. Waldo, Jr. New York; Chicago: S.J. Clarke Pub., 1917. 2 v., plates: ill., ports. ; 28 cm.
Notes: Vol. 2 contains biographical sketches. Includes one chapter each on the towns of Stratford and Fairfield.