Walking Back

Walking Back

The wooded “west bluff” of Edgewood Park rose to our right, with Iris Pond and wetlands extending to our left. We continued over dirt and boardwalk paths to the Mid Bridge, the successor to a 1920 footbridge built when the public requested a shorter, or at least dryer, means of crossing the West River.

Here, near the park’s geographical center, Stephanie FitzGerald—a long-time Edgewood resident, coordinator of the Friends of Edgewood Park Green Team and the leader of this walk for the Donald Grant Mitchell Bicentennial Celebration—held up copies of two maps from the late 1800s. Strikingly, the river used to stray and meander here, unlike the straight shot we know today. The maps were created by Mitchell—the writer, cartographer and landscape designer who planned many of New Haven’s public parks, including this one, for which he donated 60 acres.

From the bridge, we hiked up the eastern bluff, where FitzGerald tantalized us with a variety of historical tidbits. For example: Why is West Park Avenue located at the eastern edge of Edgewood Park? Because it bordered the western side of bygone Hamilton Park, which included a horse racing track.

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We then stopped at the site of New Haven’s third Almshouse, near what is now the intersection of Brownell Street and Edgewood Avenue. Except for the photo FitzGerald shared with us, there was no trace of the building, built in 1850. Instead, picnickers, bikers and dog walkers enjoyed the cloudy afternoon.

Soon we passed under the shade of a magnificent Black Oak—later, Urban Resources Initiative director Chris Ozyck told me he suspects the tree has been there since before the park existed, estimating its age at over 200 years—and walked by New Haven’s oldest splash pad, the bold 1979 sundial sculpture that, according to FitzGerald, is slated to have its sprinkler system restored in the next year or two.

Just past the sundial, we found Edgewood’s original entrance at Stanley Street and Ella T Grasso Boulevard, where a simple sidewalk now leads into the park. Next to the entrance, an 80-foot well was dug in 1901 to provide drinking water for the public. We looked at a 1907 photo of the pump surrounded by thirsty parkgoers and noted that part of the original stone wall had survived.

Here, FitzGerald paused to give us some broader background. As New Haven’s population boomed from 20,000 in 1850 to 110,000 in 1900, Mitchell was among those concerned with preserving green spaces for public use. In 1877, he “designed and planned East Rock Park, New Haven’s first park (after the New Haven Green),” according to notes FitzGerald emailed me later. Then, in 1886, an alderman who lived on nearby Stanley Street advocated for the development of what would become Edgewood Park. In 1888, Mitchell used ink and watercolor to create a design, which was implemented once the park was formally established the following year.

After Mitchell’s death in 1908, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. changed and added to the park. In 2022, we headed down Olmsted’s wide carriage road to the Duck Pond and on to the 1920 Edgewood Avenue Bridge, elegant and graffitied, where we sheltered when it began to rain. We looped back to the parking lot off West Rock Avenue near Whalley, where FitzGerald handed out a gift drawn from the collection of the Beinecke library: a gorgeous poster-sized copy of one of Mitchell’s maps, rendered circa 1870, with the land that became Edgewood Park at its center.

If you’re curious about Mitchell’s other contributions to New Haven, Channing Harris, a landscape architect, will discuss the major features Mitchell designed for East Rock Park at 1 p.m. on June 11, followed by a walk led by the Friends of East Rock Park. If it’s like our walk through Edgewood Park, you’ll come away refreshed by the greenery and inspired by the history.

Written and photographed by Heather Jessen.

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