J. Horace McFarland and Wildwood
With the upcoming centennial of Wildwood Sanctuary, it's only fitting to look back and appreciate the efforts many very civic minded leaders put forth to create the unique wildlands preserved within the city of Harrisburg. I'd like to focus on John McFarland who was intimately involved in this treasure from the time he was a young man through his adult years at the turn of the 20th century when he and others became involved very intensely in the so-called "City Beautiful" movement.
Prior to this time Harrisburg was a very industrial city. Steel mills lined the area along Paxtang Creek; Hundreds of locomotives steamed through the city, north-south and east-west across the many bridges, spewing out tons of smoke that polluted the sky and air; the Susquehanna river-front was a virtual pest hole: garbage was deposited under bridges; decrepit buildings existed along the banks of the river and the whole area emitted foul odors that would sicken and repulse passersby. One can imagine the health effects this had on the populace not to mention the eyesore it must have been.
Toward the end of the 19 th Century civic leaders began to realize the serious adverse effects these conditions had on the populace as well as the negative impact it had on visitors and on the reputation of the city. McFarland traveled widely and compared Harrisburg with other cities and saw that a movement had emerged which came to be known as the "City Beautiful" Movement. This stemmed from the ever worsening impact of the industrial revolution which had brought much prosperity, but which had been allowed to evolve unchecked with little thought as to its impact on the environment and the populace. Too, the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch became widely known which revealed the dangers of pollution to public health. Wealthy people could escape the fetid squalor of the city, but still had to work there and were witness to the execrable effects on those living within.
In late 1900, McFarland and Mira Dock, another remarkable civic activist, conspired to forcefully confront the city's leaders with the unvarnished facts and propose solutions. On December 20th Dock spoke to the Harrisburg Board of Trade, members of which included many of the city's most prominent businessmen and 'mental leaders' ; and laid out the facts of the matter. She presented a series of stereopticon slides of famous river scenes in Europe and America alongside pictures of The Susquehanna much to the discomfort of the assembled throng. This speech became the talk of the town and a source of legend Soon after it was followed by a similar speech by McFarland to The Civic Club, a prominent women's organization. This tactic served to galvanize city's leaders of both genders into serious discussions and eventually meaningful reforms.
A number of nationally recognized engineers and city planners were hired to recommend improvements to sewer systems, streets, and parks among whom was Warren H. Manning of Boston who was a protégé of Frederick Law Olmstead with whom he worked in Boston to create that city's "Green Belt" among many other projects throughout the U.S. ; and James Fuertes who analyzed the sewerage problems and first envisioned diverting flood waters from Paxtang Creek through Wetzel's swamp into the Susquehanna River. Manning's plan for parks included enlarging Reservoir Park, the city's only park at that time; acquiring the entire river front including some islands and some parcels along Cameron St. But the real gem in the 'green belt' envisioned by Manning was the Wetzel Swamp area that included some 500 acres of swamp and dry land that lay along the old canal running along the west side along with bluffs bordering on the east. A 13 mile parkway was to connect these parklands.
Actually McFarland and Manning had been discussing the creation of parklands for some years through their mutual interests in horticulture and Manning had visited McFarland in Harrisburg where he was given tours of the area which led to an extensive written analysis of the problems addressed to John Hoffer, the president of The Reservoir Park Commission where he outlined some of his ideas that led to the plan proposed three years later.
In his letter to Hoffer he wrote:
A public reservation along this river with a promenade and parkway would give your citizens the benefit of the whole stretch of water from shore to shore. It would be desirable if the city could also secure control of the islands and thus prevent the removal of the existing growth upon them which adds so much to the beauty of the river landscape.
The mayor of Harrisburg at the time was a local physician, John A. Fritchey. He, and the city engineer and two councilmen signed the summary plan but there was no assurance that they would support it when it came to raise money and carry out the necessary details of implementation. The creation of the vision was one thing, to carry it through to completion was quite another. At that time the city government was in the hands of an entrenched political machine and McFarland and Fritchey were not exactly bosom buddies, in fact McFarland despised Fritchey. And there was considerable opposition to the plans by landlords and others who saw their interests threatened. In 1901 however, there had to be an election to chose a new mayor, treasurer and city controller. Thus ensued an epic campaign to convince the electorate to sweep out the old and elect a new reform minded slate.
It so happened that Vance McCormick, a member of the executive committee of the Harrisburg Plan and fund subscriber was a highly respected and energetic landowner and descendent of early ironmasters who owned a residence above the Yellow Breeches Creek in York County as well as in the city. He was a graduate of Yale and had been a star quarterback for the Yale football team during which his team amassed a total of 900 points and never was scored upon. During the subsequent run up to the election, he and McFarland waged an extremely well organized and vigorous campaign that ultimately succeeded in overturning the machine in Harrisburg. Much of the success of the campaign turned on the popularity of the proposed park system. Although the plans to improve the roads and sewers as well as the promise of pure filtered water from the river was sorely needed, it was the park proposals that caught the imagination of the populace and led to the large majorities that overthrew the machine nominated candidates. McCormick's subsequent administration was able to put through the necessary bond issues and garner funds from other sources to implement the Harrisburg Plan. In addition he succeeded in reforming other government departments such as the police department; and created a cadre of white uniformed street cleaners to maintain the new paved streets that came from the Harrisburg Plan. (It's hard to believe that only 2 short paved streets existed in the city prior to this time.) At one point, when the city council lost its enthusiasm for completing all the park improvements McFarland arranged the council to be invited to Boston to view what had been accomplished by Olmstead and Manning. The council was transported in two private Pullman railroad cars and were treated to a special dinner in Philadelphia, and a moonlight barge ride (there were no bridges from New Jersey to Manhattan then) to carry the railroad cars from NJ up to the East River, under the Brooklyn Bridge, to the New York, New Haven and Hartford terminal. They were so impressed with the beauty of what had been created in Boston, and the fact that such a ring of parks could be realized in Harrisburg at a fraction of the cost, that they were inspired to return and follow through with his project.
It's interesting to note that the successes of McCormick led eventually to his being selected by Woodrow Wilson to head up his campaign and become Wilson's confidant and advisor including going with him to Paris for the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris concluding the First World War.
McFarland went on to become a leading spokesman for the nationwide 'City Beautiful' movement that led to improvements in many of our larger cities, the results of which can be seen today, albeit in often broken-up form. Unfortunately many of the lofty plans became compromised by development and special interests during the early part of the century, so that the original concept was destroyed. Ironically this was particularly true in Boston, where Olmstead's Greenbelt was broken up.
For many decades, however, Wildwood Park provided open space, a source for many recreational activities, a zoo and an attractive venue to just relax and enjoy clean air. However, it too fell into neglect in mid century. It almost was completely destroyed development and highway construction. But it managed to survive as a relatively wild area until the present sanctuary was conceived and brought to realization in no small part by another leading citizen carrying on the tradition of J. Horace McFarland, that is Ben Olewine for whom the Nature Center is named.
The source for this article is Ernest Morrison's biography , J. Horace McFarland, A Thorn for Beauty, Chapter 5: 'Pointing the Finger of Scorn (1901-1906).