Let’s travel back 100 years to 1910 in New London. The city was in its heyday as new neighborhoods expanded from downtown and the busy harbor and train station.
Prosperous factories were scattered through the neighborhoods and people walked to work, or took one of the many trolleys radiating out from the Parade, connecting neighborhoods throughout the city.
In 1908 Frank Brandegee and Sebastian Duffy Lawrence purchased 11 acres of waterfront property, known as Lewis Woods Grove and gave the property to the city to expand Riverside Park. Their gift included this statement:
“…being impressed with the importance of preserving forever to the people access to the beautiful waters adjacent to our maritime location and with the values of large open places of wooded land to the health and comfort of the public, we tender herewith as a gift to the City of New London a deed of the above described land...”
Children in 1910 knew nothing of TIVO, texting, or video games; they didn’t even have a radio! In 1910 the park didn’t have picnic tables, swings or playground equipment – it did have 200 chestnut trees, beech, oak and maple trees. Along the rolling hills, sloping lawns, great granite outcrops, visitors could enjoy beautiful views of the Thames River. There was 450 feet of waterfront and beach. It was a fabulous playground for flying kites, playing a multitude of games such as tag, hide-and-seek, Mother May I?, marbles, and jacks, among the many simple pleasures of childhood long past.
Through the early years the city made substantial investments in Riverside Park enhancing uses with picnic tables, playgrounds, a goldfish pond, even an eagle in a cage near Adelaide Street. In the 1920s a Municipal Tourist Camp for Autoists was very popular, attracting people from across the country. The camp had a general store as well as a very popular improvement – shower baths for the travelers.
A tree planting program was undertaken in 1931, Girl Scouts held a special ceremony on May 9, and planted eleven Austrian pines on a slope near the firemen’s monument. In 1933 a rare Rock Chestnut Oak was planted near the entrance to Riverside Park. I wonder if it is still there?
A photo in The Day of August 30, 1934 shows the long pier built out from the bathing beach with a diving tower and raft. Families from East New London enjoyed these splendid facilities which included by 1940 a high bridge over the rail tracks as well as a bathhouse.
When did the long, slow, deterioration of Riverside Park begin? With the construction of the Gold Star Memorial bridge in 1943? Or the Winthrop Urban Renewal Plan in 1962? Or does life in the second half of the 20th century account for much of the change? Many families left the city for the suburbs. Children have forgotten the simple games of yesterday and their entertainment needs include all our 21st century technology. Adults have less leisure time as cars and superhighways whisk families to distant vacation spots. Ocean Beach is a major attraction and accessible for city residents. Our way of life has changed enormously in 100 years.
So what should we do with Riverside Park today? It could be a very important resource as economic development and changing social patterns in the 21st century bring people back to the city. As urban living becomes more popular the amenities of city life will include the importance of nearby, convenient open space. Riverside Park, for all its problems today, is a resource for the future. It should be held in trust for the children of tomorrow who will need access to its rolling hills, its water views, and even a restoration of the beach.
The gift to the city by Frank Brandegee and Sebastian Duffy Lawrence should be held and appreciated by the citizens of New London for another 100 years.
Sandra Kersten Chalk
New London Landmarks