History of Wildwood Park

Historical Photos

Although the Benjamin Olewine III Nature Center is a relative newcomer to the Dauphin County landscape, the park surrounding Wildwood Lake has been operating for more than a century, in many shapes and sizes.


Wildwood Park began as the decidedly unglamorous Wetzel's Swamp. In 1901, the City of Harrisburg established Wildwood Lake as part of the City Beautiful movement, a nationwide reform effort conceived by social reformers to build civic loyalty and a sense of community among urban dwellers.

At the turn of the century, plans for a county park kicked into high gear. Between 1905 and 1913, land for a marvelous park was gradually acquired. Wildwood's first paths were opened in 1907, a baseball field was created in 1908, and a boating concession was started in 1909. That very same year, the tug of development almost vanquished the park, as the Park Commission considered, and then ultimately, defeated, a plan by City Council to take some of Wildwood's park land and assign it for industrial use. In 1914, the City of Harrisburg annexed the land.

Reflections on Wildwood Lake

I did not want the job, but I realized that I was the only employee in the office who knew how to handle the species of Pennsylvania wildlife that would be put in the cages.

Read Zoo at Wildwood Park by Harold L. Plasterer

Through the 1920s, '30s and '40s, the swampy parkland took on a circus-like atmosphere, with a zoo, riding stables, and boating operating on the site. The zoo included a mink, black bear, white-tailed deer, mountain lion, muskrat and raccoon.

During the Depression, the Work Progress Administration completed many projects at the lake, building trails, picnic facilities, ballfields and a caretaker's house. The park was a popular destination often frequented by neighboring residents.

But the park's popularity waned over time, and by the 1940s, the Harrisburg Zoo closed under the weight of financial pressures. By 1959, park usage had declined dramatically, as did the maintenance of the park. Tragically, part of the park was used for outright dumping.

Reflections on Wildwood Lake

It was just as well that we were poor and didn't have fishing rods. A throw line fit nicely in one of our pockets.

Read Wildwood Lake by Floyd J. Demmy

In 1964, the National Audubon Society began studying Wildwood and proposed the creation of a nature center and programming, although the society's dream was not fulfilled until decades later. That same year, the Harrisburg Area Community College was deeded 157 acres of Wildwood Park. Through the 1960s, the dumping of trash at the park continued.

In 1976, the Dauphin County Commissioners and Harrisburg City Council agreed to the Wildwood Park transfer agreement, and the park was acquired for the princely sum of $1. In 1977, the Dauphin County Commissioners adopted a $1 million development plan that included a nature study center. Only a year later, the Commissioners withdrew their support for the project. In the 1980s, momentum for a park improvement project grew, and grants helped to improve the parking lots, bike paths and canoeing facilities. That same year, the Harrisburg Marathon started.

American Lotus

The private, nonprofit "Friends of Wildwood" was organized in 1987 to promote the enhancement of the park. In 1988, the "Year of Wildwood" was proclaimed. Recreational programs were expanded, and work began in earnest to rebuild Wildwood's infrastructure and image. In 1989, the American lotus -one of the staples of Wildwood's natural menu- was declared an endangered plant species, solidifying Wildwood's unique place in history as a home of rare natural beauty.

In 1992, the first semi-annual Friends meting was held. Food distribution king Ben Olewine established a trust for the creation of a nature center in the park and generously donated $827,000 toward the project. At about this same time, Wildwood Lake Nature Center was renamed Wildwood Lake Sanctuary.

In 1993, the capital campaign for the nature center kicked off. While money began to pour in, so, sadly, did the wrath of Mother Nature. Blizzards, heavy rains, flooding and mudslides remained a persistent problem for the historic site.

Reflections on Wildwood Lake

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 foolow through with his project.

Read J. Horace McFarland and Wildwood Sanctuary by Ernest Morrison

Olewine Nature Center

As a triumph of the spirit and a tribute to the dedication of so many, the $4.2 million Olewine Nature Center was opened in December 1999, as a 12,000-square-foot educational facility utilizing the latest green-building technology and dedicated to the study of wetlands and aquatic life. Just a stone's throw away from both factories and forests, this low-lying building at the southern end of Wildwood Lake features classrooms, bird viewing decks, offices, a nature shop, a library, exhibit areas, a laboratory and a weather station.

Today, Wildwood remains a cherished retreat for nature lovers, bird watchers and exercise enthusiasts. It is run by the Dauphin County Parks and Recreation Department, with help from the Friends of Wildwood. Wildwood Park is one of Pennsylvania's premier centers for environmental and ecological nature studies, educational opportunities and outdoor recreation.

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