A History of Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ

Branch Brook Park is distinguished by being the first county park to be opened for public use in the United States. It has been placed on both the New Jersey (1980) and National (1981) Registers of Historic Places. Located in the City of Newark, New Jersey and bordered at the northern end by U.S. Route 280, the park crosses Bloomfield Avenue, Park Avenue, and Heller Parkway, terminating near the Newark/Belleville line.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ - History
Ballentine Gate Entrance, Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ

The park is nearly 4 miles long and averages 1/4 mile in width. At 359.72 acres, it is the largest developed park in the County. It is featured by a combination of open meadowland and small patches of woodland on gently rolling terrain. Named for a branch brook that flowed through the valley into the Passaic River, the park was originally intended to remain in its natural state, but today is used largely for athletics activities.

Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ - History
Branch Brook Park in the Fall

The more than 5,000 cherry trees that blossom during April in Branch Brook Park are greater both in variety and number than the famed Washington, D.C., display–the result of a 1927 gift from the Bamberger and Mrs. Felix Fuld family. At its height, the Cherry Blossom Festival attracts over 10,000 people a day. In 1895, the same year the New Jersey State Legislature authorized the creation of the Essex County Park Commission, a former Civil War Army training ground was dedicated to “park use.” A large part of the land was a dismal marsh known as Old Blue Jay Swamp. To add to the dismal air of the swamp, bleak, unhealthy tenements crowded in on parts of the area. The swamp water was used for both drinking and sewage disposal. In sharp contrast, the southern portion of the proposed park contained a circular reservoir basin that supplied clean, fresh water to a “private” association of Newark citizens.

Branch Brook Park, Newark NJ
Cherry Blossoms on Morris Canal, Branch Brook Park

In July of 1895, the City of Newark transferred approximately 60 acres of this land to the Essex County Park Commission, at a cost of $350,687. “Reservoir Park” became the nucleus of Branch Brook Park. Additional acquisitions extending the park northward were aided by the generosity of “several public spirited Newark families,” such as the Ballantine Family who donated 32 acres of their property. Another 50 plus acres were given by Z.M. Keene, William A. Righter, and Messrs. Heller. The Park doubled in size through acquisitions and purchases between 1924 and 1929. Branch Brook Park, the first county park in the United States became one of The largest “city” parks in the country.

History, Branch Brook Park
Blooming Cherry Trees, Branch Brook Park

The public contributed in 1898 by voting a 1.5 million dollar appropriation for the continuation of construction work begun in 1895. Old Blue Jay Swamp was transformed into a lake, flower gardens, and expanses of lawns by 1900. The firm of John Bogart and Nathan F. Barrett had been hired in 1895, to provide plans and advise for development of the park. Their design was romantic in style and was dominated by geometrical patterned gardens and arbors. In 1898, Robert Ballantine presented the park with a handsome beaux-arts entrance gateway erected at the corner of Lake Street and Ballantine Parkway. In 1900, the cornerstone for Sacred Heart Cathedral was laid and in the same year, the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted was retained to revise the original plans for the park. It was refined into more naturalistic lines with gracefully curving paths and roadways. One of the outstanding aspects of the design was the concert area in the southern portion bordering Branch Brook Lake. Directly across the lake on a projection of land known as Meeker Mound, the Olmsted firm built an octagonal gazebo. The present greenhouse was constructed in 1910.

Branch Brook Park
A Walking Path in Branch Brook Park

A proposal for the erection of a new administration building was approved in 1914 when the N.J. Legislature passed a bill that included the necessary $100,000. The exterior was described as Italian in character with brick and terra cotta, and paintings just under the eaves of the tile roof. The architect was Harold Van Buren Magonigle from New York. In the 1920s Harmon Hendricks presented the Park Commission a gift of 20 acres of land which extended the park northward into Belleville and was eventually made into an 18-hole golf course. During WWI and WW2 the park was used as a tent city for the Army where they held training exercises and recruited volunteers from the area. Once it was a landing site for the US Postal Service. Bi-winged airplanes carrying mail landed on a short field within the park where bails of hay rimmed the end of the runway to prevent accidents. The old Morris Canal that ran alongside the Park, from Newark to the Delaware River, was abandoned and became the Newark subway. The subway became an important linkage to the Park.

Distinguishing Features of Branch Brook Park:

  • A large lake, meandering streams, and in the north, the Second River channel.
  • Spectacular view of the Sacred Heart Cathedral across the lake. . Playgrounds, ballfields, basketball, tennis, horseshoes.
  • The famed “Cherry Blossomland.” Free Cherry Blossom wallpapers from Branch Brook Park – download here.
  • Annual 10-k run at cherry blossom time.
  • Greenhouse acts as a central nursery and horticulture center for the entire park system.
  • The park system maintenance center and garage.
  • The park system administration building, built in 1915–listed on both the state and national historic registers.
  • The northern division meadow is one of the largest recreational open green spaces to be found in Essex.
  • Senior citizen center, originally a boat landing shelter.
  • Walled remains of the old Newark reservoir.
  • Near the reservoir, a mound and its retaining stone wall are designed to resemble an ancient ruin.
  • Roller rink–completed in 1995, site of the park system’s Centennial Birthday Celebration.
  • Four-mile park drive.
  • Pedestrian bridges, Park & Bloomfield Avenue bridges and the railroad bridges in the northern extension are striking architectural features.
  • Ballantine Gateway.
  • Meeker Mound Pavilion.
  • Sculptured lions which flank a formal boat landing were originally stationed in front of the old Newark Prudential building.