By the middle of the 19th century, Americans realized that parks provided a spot of nature and greenery amidst an increasingly busy and industrialized world. Many men, women and children worked six days a week, and never had the time or resources to get away. Yes, parks were beautiful, but they were also very important for mental and physical health. Cities that wanted to thrive began looking for space and funding for public parks.
People from everywhere flocked to parks like Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Postcards of the parks were circulated throughout the country as tourists marveled at the wonders. Many cities contemplating the development of their own parks came to see both, and many others to take notes. When the city of Troy decided to establish a new park on the top of what was called Warren Hill, one of the highest points in the city, they too looked downstate to Brooklyn for inspiration. Prospect Park gave the park’s designer some great ideas to incorporate in Troy’s own park. They also cribbed the name.
When Troy’s park first opened with a grand ceremony in 1902, they even invited dignitaries from New York City to come see it. Seth Low, one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, and now the mayor of the newly established City of New York was invited, as well as the borough president of Brooklyn. Mr. Low had to bow out, however, and didn’t make the ceremony.
The park was still called Warren Park, however. The name wasn’t resonating with the public all that well, so the Troy newspapers decided to have a contest to rename the park. The most popular name chosen was Prospect Park. The name was approved by the Troy Common Council in 1902. It was very Brooklyn, and they knew it. Brooklyn got a kick out of it, and the Brooklyn Eagle quoted the Troy Press newspaper: “Prospect Park is admirable alliterative and beautifully Brooklynish” the paper announced.
As with its Brooklyn namesake, Troy opened Prospect Park long before it was finished. When the park had its opening ceremonies, almost all of the work in the park had yet to be done. The engineer /landscape architect chosen for the project was under tremendous pressure. The city had gone through a long bitter process just to obtain the land, so it had to be good. With all of the attention going to the new Prospect Park, Troy’s officials wanted the best man available for the job of planning and laying out this expensive and expansive plan. Fortunately, they had Garnet Douglass Baltimore on the job. He was a local RPI graduate, and a native son. He was also African American.
Garnet D. Baltimore was an inspiring man, and in many ways, the embodiment of the ideals of the city of Troy; a city that had nurtured the talents of a lot of very successful men and women. At the turn of the 20th century, Troy was at the height of its success, its fortunes made from metals, textiles, technology, education and commerce. To tell his story, we have to go back to the War of Independence, back to 1776.
During the Revolutionary War, a man named Samuel Baltimore was fighting for the nation’s freedom and also his own. He was a slave in Maryland, and his master had promised that if he fought as a soldier, he would be freed at war’s end. Baltimore took up the promise and fought long and hard. But his owner lied, and did not free him as promised. Samuel Baltimore didn’t wait, and took his own independence in hand and escaped up North soon afterward, and settled in the Hudson River town of Troy.
Troy had a small, but thriving black community. Slavery never really caught on in upstate New York, although the institution of slavery was legal until 1827, when it was finally and completely abolished. Most of New York State’s slaves were actually downstate in Brooklyn. The majority of black Trojans were either born into freedom, or like Samuel Baltimore, had escaped and made their way to this bustling river town where work was plentiful and slavery was not popular.
Samuel Baltimore settled in, got married and raised his family. His son, Peter F. Baltimore, became a successful barber in town, with a clientele that included many of Troy’s wealthiest and influential citizens. Peter Baltimore, like many Trojans, both black and white, was an ardent abolitionist. Troy was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and one of the city’s most important abolitionists was the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, the pastor of Troy’s Liberty Street Presbyterian Church. Like Samuel Baltimore, Garnet had taken his own independence from slavery in a remarkable story worthy of its own tale.
Peter Baltimore was a close confidant of Rev. Garnet, and was a friend of the great orator Frederick Douglass, as well. He named his son Garnet Douglass after both of them, welcoming his son into the world in 1859. The family was living at 162 Eighth Street at the time, near Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in a house that would later fall victim to ham-handed mid-20th century urban renewal.
Growing up, young Garnet was influenced by his namesakes, as well as other influential African Americans such as mathematician Charles Reason and Underground Railroad leader Robert Purvis. Since she also had family in Troy, young Garnet probably also knew Harriet Tubman. Garnet’s father and Harriet Tubman were important players in the rescue of Charles Nalle, in one of the city’s proudest moments.
Garnet Baltimore was raised with high expectations, and he met them admirably. He was educated in Troy, and received a bachelor’s degree from RPI in 1881. He was the first African American to do so. He went on to receive a degree in Civil Engineering, and upon graduation was employed as an assistant engineer by a company building a bridge between the cities of Albany and Rensselaer. In 1883, he was in charge of a surveying party for the Granville and Rutland Railroad, a 56 mile line of track. He followed that project by being hired as an assistant engineer and surveyor on the nearby Erie Canal.
His career was not just in the Capital Region where he was known. Canal work became a specialty, and in 1884, Baltimore became head engineer in charge of building the Shinnacock and Peconic Canal in Southampton, on Long Island. The canal cuts across the South Fork of Long Island, near the Hamptons. From that project, he supervised the building of a lock on the Oswego Canal, in Western NY. That canal connected Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The lock Baltimore was in charge of creating was a notoriously difficult one, in extremely muddy ground. It is still called the Mudlock today.
Returning to Troy, Garnet Baltimore took his skills to the land. He became a landscape architect and engineer, designing Forest Park Cemetery on the outskirts of the city in Brunswick. The cemetery’s owners wanted to outdo Troy’s famous Oakwood Cemetery, a beautiful park cemetery, the final resting place of many of Troy’s leading citizens and famous folk, including “Uncle Sam” Wilson. Garnet designed the entrance to the cemetery, planned winding trails and groves, and a receiving tomb at the entrance. Unfortunately, the project went bankrupt, and it was never completed past that point. That too, is a story worth telling for another time.
With his reputation as a civic engineer quite secure, Garnet D. Baltimore was in the perfect position to be hired to design Troy’s new Prospect Park. This being Troy, the journey was fraught with politics, and the usual battles between visionaries and cheapskates, influential citizens and pundits.
Troy already had several parks by the time the idea for a park on top of Mount Ida, the city’s highest point, was born. The city’s first park consisted of three lots given to the fledgling village of Troy by Jacob D. Vanderhayden in 1796, before the village was even officially incorporated. Today, that park land makes up Seminary Park, in front of Russell Sage College, between First and Second Streets. By the turn of the 20th century, there were several other parks in town, as well as in Lansingburgh, but there was no one great park, like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A committee called the Citizen’s Association was formed to plan and then secure land for a great park for the city of Troy.
They ended up planning a large park in the northern part of the city, called North Park. That eventually became Frear Park, and was quite different that the original planned park. A South Park was planned for South Troy, joined by a scenic roadway, but never got beyond the talking stage. Instead, the Committee decided to concentrate on the highest point in the city, on Mount Ida, a plateau where one could look out and see for miles around, as far away as Albany and the Catskills behind it, as well as across the Hudson to the towns there, as well as north, towards the Adirondack Mountains.
This was an incredible view and a great place for a park, but the land had always been in private hands. A house on top of the mountain had once belonged to the Wilson family, of Uncle Sam fame, and then had passed on to the Vail and Warren families, who built new and lovely suburban villas on the property, with wide welcoming porches so they too, could take in the stunning vistas. By the turn of the century, the Warren family was ready to sell, and in 1901, the Troy Chamber of Commerce met to consider the plan to buy the land and establish a public park. The land was now called Warren Hill.
Some of Troy’s wealthiest and most powerful men sat on the committee to choose a park site. One of them noted that the city had never spent a dollar to improve its parks, and it was about time they did. He wanted to buy the Warren property, which he said was otherwise an eyesore to the city. Others wanted to build parks elsewhere, and still others thought that the best use of city money was to improve the lands it already held, and not go out and buy more. Several of the committee men thought it was imperative to have a water feature in the park, and several of the other sites mentioned already had natural ponds. Warren Hill did not have a lake or pond. The debate raged on.
Garnet Baltimore sat in on these meetings, and he advocated for the Warren Hill property. He said it was in a central location and accessible to most people. It also had that incredible view. He had visited all of the proposed sites, and the Warren Hill location was the best, in his opinion, and could be improved to have whatever features it was lacking. The danger of landslides was always in people’s minds, as dangerous slides had killed people in the past, but he thought that a wall could be constructed to take care of that problem. He didn’t want the committee to rush to a decision, however. As a landscape engineer, he could deal with whatever they chose. He simply advised the committee that Troy proceed with building a new park.
The debate went on. Those were opposed were really opposed, and were very vocal to the press on that point. They felt the site cost too much to buy, and would be too costly to develop. One committeeman called the hill a 75 acre inaccessible sand pile, which he thought would probably come down on the city. Another individual accused those who wanted to buy the Warren property as being secret agents for the Warren Estate. Personal remarks were made, apologized for, and then vociferously rebutted. Trojans have always been very good at this. Several others wanted the city to have several new parks; a northern park for those in Lansingburgh and North Troy, a more central Warren Park, and a southern park for those in South Troy. Why did it have to be one or nothing, they asked?
Those who were concerned about the poor tended to advocate for the Warren Park. Rich people were not going to use the park that much, they argued. They left town in the summer, and didn’t visit the park when they were home. Any city park needed to be for those of lesser means, so they could get out of the sweltering heat of the city in summer and enjoy nature’s bounty. The Warren Park site, high above the city, would be the ideal place to do this. In spite of this worthy argument, there was still one official who didn’t want any parks at all, anywhere, as he said they “were the gathering places of vagrants and hoodlums.”
In the end, in spite of the rancor and disagreement between all concerned, the measure was passed, and the city paid $110,000 for the Warren property on top of Mount Ida. The sum was considered a good deal, as the land had been appraised for $30,000 more several years before. After all of the costs were considered, the land surveyed, and more experts consulted, the city handed over a check to the Warren estate, and Warren Hill Park now belonged to Troy.
Garnet Baltimore was appointed the official landscape engineer for the park, and work began as soon as the ink on the deed dried. It would take many years to complete the park, which was opened before very much was even done. After dithering around, and arguing about the park for years, Troy was now fully committed to the park. The grand opening was planned for July 4th, 1902.
That day, bands and regiments marched, a large American flag was planted on top of the hill, there were fireworks, a cannon salute from across the river at the Watervliet Arsenal, and patriotic fervor all around. The local paper editorialized, “The local celebration of the Fourth of July, with the flag raising in the new park on Warren Hill, stands for freedom. It means free air and free parks, and what boon of liberty is greater than to have the earth and the sky free?”
Garnet Baltimore had his work cut out for him. In preparation for transforming this former farm into a modern city park, he went on his own Grand Tour. He visited Central Park in Manhattan, the Bronx Zoological Gardens and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. He also toured the city parks in Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island. He noted in a report he prepared for Troy’s officials that the popularity of the parks in these cities were enhanced by opportunities for music, boating, tennis, croquet, and other activities. He also noted that the best of these parks allowed nature to be nature, only subtlety and masterfully guided by the hand of man.
He wrote in his 1903 Report of the Landscape Engineer on the Parks Systems of Various Municipalities “It is the calling and duty of the Landscape Engineer to devise ways of arranging land and its
accompanying landscape so that whatever the particular purpose in view may be, the result shall be as thoroughly beautiful as possible.” Of course, that meant that he needed money and staff to do the job. Baltimore filed several reports asking for the staff and money to get the job done as quickly as possible so that people could enjoy the park.
Unfortunately, from a logistics standpoint, people were already up in the park from the very beginning. The old Warren and Vail villas on the property had been appropriated into the park. The Vail house was now called “the Casino,” and was a refreshment stand and respite station. The Warren house, a beautiful Carpenter Gothic mansion designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, was renamed “the Cottage,” and was used as a museum and school.
The city had just thrown open the doors to the Casino, without any improvements or modifications. Baltimore was not pleased. He wanted the Casino closed until it could be modified and fixed up. He noted in a report that he didn’t want any part of the park to look shoddy and substandard, and the Casino was a mess.
Landscape Engineer Baltimore did not want to do a haphazard job. He was a perfectionist, and this park was already going in directions that he did not approve of. In their rush to open, the city had made some perfunctory changes to the old Warren farm site, opened up an entrance road, and prettied the place up so that they could have a grand opening. The Vail family villa at the top of the hill, renamed the Casino, had been turned into a comfort station and snack bar, but they had just taken the house and opened it. Imagine what anyone’s old house would look like if all of a sudden thousands of people had marched in to eat sandwiches and then use the bathroom? Baltimore was appalled.
In a report to the city, in which he made many different recommendations and presented a budget, he said, “Sunday the building which it is intended to devote to the purposes of a casino was opened as a refreshment stand. No effort was made to make the surroundings attractive or inviting. I was unable to find that any contract had been entered into or restrictions placed upon the conduct of the management by the Commission.
It is an imperative obligation of those to whom the welfare of the park is intrusted that no feature be tolerated which would tend to cheapen or belittle the character of the park. I therefore recommend that this building be closed until it is properly prepared by the Commission for the purpose intended and then conducted as a strictly first class casino.”
Work started on the park. Baltimore had to plan out miles of drainage pipes and sewer lines, they had to provide electricity and lay conduit, grade and level the land, build roads, uproot trees and plant new ones, shore up steep inclines, build shelters and service buildings, build a system of plant maintenance and promulgation, plus install playground equipment, fountains, lawns, flower beds, paved and graveled pathways, and dig out and fill a new pond. It wasn’t going to be a quick job.
In January of 1904, the Troy Daily Times published a supplement to the Sunday paper celebrating the city’s parks system. Regarding the new park, which had since changed its name from Warren Hill Park to Prospect Park, the paper noted:
“Prospect Park is of course the main recreation ground of its kind in the city, and interest is centered in every step of its progress toward the beautiful part of the system that it will surely be. About 500 trees and stumps were cut down, roads were located, drains laid and excavations made for an artificial lake.
The width of all roads were fixed at twenty-five feet, while the paths are eight, ten and sixteen feet in width, dependent upon their location. The roads are macadamized and make about one mile has already been completed. About the same amount of walk has also been laid. Prospect Lake will shortly be an actual water handling body, the construction of a dam and the removal of a few additional yards of earth only remaining to be done.”
The Victorian notion of parks had been to establish public garden spaces where people strolled around or sat on benches and simply enjoyed their surroundings. Perhaps they would attend concerts performed in bandstands, or bird watch or some other rather passive activity. The 1880s brought in the idea of playgrounds for children, a new concept for young people to be children, instead of the tiny adults they were expected to be.
Considering that many children were working full time in factories by the time they were nine, there wasn’t much of a childhood there in the first place. The upper class women’s clubs in America were very influential in creating playgrounds in our parks. Troy’s Women’s League was a great help to Baltimore in getting the park completed and equipped with activities and playground equipment for the children of Troy. In 1906, part of the grounds behind the old Vail house was made into a dedicated playground. The house was renamed the Memorial House, and in the cooler months also housed a kindergarten.
He also had to deal with the land itself. Even when the plateau of the park was finished, complete with an overlook tower, he still had to figure out what to do with the sides of the hill, as they were rocky, bare, and prone to landslides. He urged the city to buy the lands around the hill and address the problem with supporting walls and aggressive plantings to stabilize the grounds. There was also a leak in the artificial lake. The problem was addressed, the leak found, and plugged.
Baltimore had also noted in his tour of other parks that America was also becoming more active in the park. People wanted to play sports, and be physically active in the park, not just sit there and enjoy. If a park was going to be successful and modern, it would have to include facilities like tennis courts, baseball diamonds, playing fields, and swimming pools. Baltimore included plans for many different activities, and was actually able to get most of them in the park by the time he was finished. The last major project was an above ground swimming pool and pool house, which was constructed in 1926, completed long after Baltimore had moved on to other things.
Prospect Park took years to complete, and there were all kinds of issues in the completion of such, but it was a rousing success with the people of Troy. There are dozens of postcards showing crowds of people flocking to the park and taking part in all kinds of activities. The children had their playground spots, and adults could play lawn sports and participate in sports teams. Concerts and festivals took place in the park, and as Garnet Baltimore reported in 1909,
“Parks are the strongest factors for the upbuilding of the masses; their influence reaches up into the home of wealth and bids the inmates share its beauty. It stoops gently over the cradle in the home of poverty and sustains the wearied mother while she baths her babe into its healthful air and invigorating shade. Thus, ever drawing us back to nature it makes possible communion with the infinite.”
By the time Baltimore had finished the park, it was 84 acres of what was described as “elegant beauty.” He left it in the hands of the city and the Parks Department, and was on to his next project. He was called upon to design Forest Park Cemetery in nearby Brunswick. The cemetery went bankrupt before he could finish the project, but his work is still there, in the form of the entrance and burial crypt.
He was associated with cemeteries for the rest of his career. He laid out Graceland Cemetery in Albany, as well as cemeteries in Amsterdam, Hoosick Falls and Glens Falls. He was a consultant for Oakwood Cemetery in Troy for over thirty years, and is buried there with his parents, three siblings and wife Mary Lane. The couple had no children. Oakwood is this city’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a beautiful park cemetery, the final resting places of some of Troy’s most famous citizens.
He remained a Consulting Engineer for the City of Troy for many years. In that capacity, he was called on to make maps and surveys for attorneys for accident scenes and crimes. He also testified as to his results in many Troy court cases and in other cities. He also was the landscape engineer for St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy, and was a member of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers.
Among his other contributions to life in Troy, he was chair of the Civic Art Committee of Troy in 1912-13; he organized a Troy Night at the Troy Music Hall in 1913 that led to new ornamental street lighting and other city improvements. He was very active in RPI alumni activities throughout his life, and was a member of the Troy Alumni Club and the secretary of the Alumni Association’s 50 Year Club, a position he held until his death in 1946.
Unfortunately, he also lived long enough to see his beloved park go downhill fast. He wrote to the Troy Record in 1943, lamenting the deterioration of his hard work.
“But today every official element of beauty has been destroyed or removed. The Warren mansion, that unique structure (which could easily have been restored with WPA funds) was torn down at the whim of an iconoclast; the Vail mansion burned by vandals; the Bascom fountain, donated to the park by the generosity of Mrs. Bascom, dismantled and removed; the band stand eliminated; the paths neglected and overgrown with grass. Not a comfort station in all the broad area. Is the civic pride of Trojans so deadened that no murmur of regret is heard at this willful neglect?”
Garnet Douglass Baltimore died on June 12, 1946. He was 87 years old. His death was heralded on the front pages of the Troy Record. He died in the home he had grown up in, only a few blocks from his beloved RPI. The paper printed a story about his life, and had a large photograph. In an editorial piece, they said, “There was a time when he was in the thick of municipal affairs. He was architectural Engineer at Oakwood Cemetery. He laid out Prospect Park. He was probably the greatest surveyor in the city’s history. He was as much a part of Troy as the monument.”
If every African American could have been a Garnet Baltimore, if every city could be a Troy, how much better would the world have been? He enjoyed a miraculous life free from preconception and prejudice. He never denied who he was, but he also never let other people define him. He did his job, expecting the respect due his position and experience, and he got it. He was one of the most famous and well-liked people in Troy during his lifetime and afterward. He also worked outside of his home town, and took that respect with him. There are no records of people complaining about working with or under a black man, or questioning his competence. It was remarkable, as was he. It is also a goal we all strive for.
RPI has sponsored the Garnet Baltimore Lecture Series since 1990 in his honor. They present distinguished African American speakers and honor achievement in the sciences and engineering. In 2005, Troy Mayor Harry Tutunjian ceremoniously renamed the block the Baltimore house once stood on, Eighth Street, between Congress and Hoosick Streets as Garnet Douglass Baltimore Street, “as a lasting tribute to a Trojan who gave so much to his community."
On August 13, 2018, the date of this post, Mayor Patrick Madden, representatives of RPI, the state, residents of South Troy and other friends will be on hand to re-open a renewed hiking trail leading from South Troy to Prospect Park. It will be named after Garnet Douglass Baltimore. It's another honor befitting one of the Troy's finest sons, a man who deserves even more recognition. His legacy is a hopeful sign in our troubled times. I hope new attention to Mr. Baltimore also leads to his park, which deserves to be once again, a source of inspiration in Troy.
A great deal of my research on the park itself came from four expansive articles penned by the great Troy historian Don Rittner. They can be found on his Times-Union blog.
They are worth taking the time to read in full, as they are chock full of information well told, with lots of illustrations. This article was originally a three-part article written for brownstoner.com. It has been condensed here into one article, with new illustrations.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.