Sunday, August 18, 2019
Barnum's Bridgeport, Neighborhood: North End, Parks

Beardsley Park and Zoo

Beardsley Park :”A Place that Would Always be Theirs”

By Eric D. Lehman

After the success of Seaside Park, Bridgeport was ready to put aside more land for the enjoyment and refreshment of its citizens. When wealthy cattle baron James W. Beardsley donated over one hundred acres of land in 1878, he gave it on the condition that it “shall accept and keep the same forever as a public park.” He had been inspired one day while watching local children play outside, and decided they deserved “a place that would always be theirs.” Located at the north end of Bridgeport along the Pequonnock River, the land also contained the highest point in the city limits. So, in 1881 the designer of Seaside Park, famous architect Frederick Law Olmsted, 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 the state of Connecticut, with one of the largest greenhouses and a rare carousel.

The park itself 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. By Robin Demattia (Bridgeport: Connecticut Zoological Society, 2002.)

History of Bridgeport and Vicinity. By George Curtis Waldo. (New York, S.J. Clarke, 1917.)

— Bridgeport History Center, Newspaper clipping filr; Parks-Beardsley Park and Zoo.

Bridgeport History Center, Photographs, Beardsley Park and Zoo

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Mary Witkowski
Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.