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Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. wanted to beautify Codorus Creek banks too

Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.'s proposal for the Codorus Creek bank
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.’s proposal for the Codorus Creek bank

You might have recently read in the York Daily Record concerning proposed improvements and beautification of the Codorus Creek through part of the city. Wouldn’t it be great if this time something comes of it?

Seemingly innumerable similar proposals have been put forth over the years, plans drawn up and meetings held. Besides the York Heritage Rail Trail, little has come of all that planning and meeting. Perhaps, since the rail trail extension will be part of the current plan, it will happen this time.

One of the most interesting stories involved the sincere efforts of community leaders in 1907 to create linear park by the Codorus. They raised the funds to bring famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to York to look at park possibilities and also access other needed improvements, such as a sewer system and paved streets. What happened to those endeavors? See my recent York Sunday News column below:

A plan to improve the Codorus—from 1907

The plans unveiled recently for a proposed linear park running by the Codorus Creek looks familiar. If you peruse the Codorus Creek file at the York County History Center and look at various old York newspapers, you see numerous similar proposals, some only a decade old and some put forth over a century ago.

A 1907 proposal, with accompanying perspective, of a creekside park from famed landscape architect, Frederick L. Olmsted, Jr. is most interesting.

The York Municipal League was organized in January 1907 by a local group after hearing an address on “The Awakening of York,” by Clinton Rogers Woodruff, Secretary of the American Civic association and the Municipal League of Philadelphia. Industrialist A. B. Farquhar was the first president of the York league. According to the York Daily, it was “Composed of public spirited men who worked only for the interests of York and its citizens. Five committees were named: Sewer, Paving, Park, Press and Finance.

The sewer committee got right to work, as sewage flowing into the Codorus was seen to be the worst city problem. The park committee, chaired by M. L. Van Baman, was soon up and running. Some tracts deemed to be good potential park sites were available, so in early April, Prof. R.Z. Hartzler, Municipal League secretary, took time from a Maine trip to stop in Massachusetts, engaging Olmsted to come to York, look at the park sites and other York problems and submit a report. Olmsted taught landscape architecture at Harvard at the time, while working on a Niagara Falls government project; Washington, D.C. and Boston parks and the Vanderbilt Biltmore estate. His York fee was $600, about $15,000 in today’s economy.

Olmsted arrived a week later, on April 10, meeting with league members and taking an automobile tour of the city. York newspapers were kept informed, so some of Olmsted’s observations were immediately published. He urged sewage treatment as top priority and was pleased with park possibilities, especially enlarging Farquhar Park, preserving its “magnificent view.” He looked at the Codorus, especially the area subject to frequent flooding. He would stop back within the next ten days for more study and to look at prospective park plans, and then would submit his report.

The league knew they had to move fast to get questions of issuing municipal bonds, to cover the costs of improvements, on the fall election ballot. They lost no time organizing presentations to various groups of citizens, even before Olmsted’s completed report was received.

The Daily detailed one program, “A.B. Farquhar Talks to Women.” Farquhar explained the possibilities at length, including sewage, street paving, park possibilities and the creek. He said parks were especially needed in densely populated areas, so that we would have “garden children, not gutter children.” Codorus improvements, after the sewage problem was taken care of, could include dredging, straightening the channel, building guard walls for flood abatement, as well as constructing a “charming walk of some miles beside an exceptionally beautiful and interesting creek… .” He said the Codorus could be “…one of the most attractive of our possessions…instead of an ugly sewer and sometimes a peril.” Farquhar told the women that they should be able to vote, but since they could not, they still could influence the men and also help raise funds to start the improvements.

Olmsted met with Farquhar in early May to outline what would be in the report. Olmsted noted that during his visits he observed “a good natured crowd” downtown Saturday evenings, shopping and socializing the whole way to the Market Street bridge. The Daily reports “He suggested that a promenade be laid out along the creek from Market Street southwardly at a sufficient elevation to be above the danger of floods. The creek banks should be nicely sodded, trees should be planted along the edge next to the wall and trees planted on the opposite bank of the creek. At the rear of the lots which abut on the promenade, an artistically constructed fence would be erected and along this fence seats should be placed. He suggested further that over these seats canopies of vines could be placed so that the “whole would be attractive and pretty.” He also urged the city to engage an experienced engineer, “the sooner the better,” to address creek flooding.

The report, 64 typewritten pages, was submitted the beginning of June. The newspapers summarized it at length, and it was typeset into widely distributed booklets. Besides heartily recommending the sewage system completion and paving streets, a good portion of the report concerned parks. He detailed the type of gravel and landscaping that should be used for school playgrounds and gave recommendations for existing Salem [Square] Park, Farquhar Park and Penn Park. He also addressed the Stewart tract near Mount Rose cemetery, which had been offered for a park. A detailed drawing was included for a proposed park on the old reservoir site, bounded by Queen, South, Pine and Boundary, which the water company had offered to transfer to the city.

The section on the Codorus Creek is lengthy. Olmsted said he had been told that “not too many years ago, the Codorus was a pretty natural park with boating,” and that it could be again, once the sewage is gone, if the city addresses the flooding and sets the boundaries wide enough on the banks to keep people from dumping rubbish and even erecting buildings there. He included a drawing of his vision of a creek bank promenade to extend initially from Market to Princess, lighted so that the Saturday night crowds could enjoy it, probably attracting new “refreshment and amusement places.”

The city placed questions for four separate bond issues, totaling $750,000 [$18,231,716 today], on the September 10 election ballot. They were: Sewage System $400,000 [$9,723,582]; Street Paving $250,000 [$6,077,240]; Farquhar Park Enlargement $75,000 [$1,823,172] and Purchase of Other Park Land and Park Improvement $25,000 [$607,724]. Rejecting tax increases to service the bonds, the majority of voters defeated all four, the sewer bond issue by the smallest margin, 2,983 to 2,381. Street paving was defeated 3,678 to 1,464; Farquhar Park enlargement 3,459 to 1,681 and other parks 3,510 to 1,343.

We know that a sewage system was eventually put into place and streets were ultimately were paved. Farquhar Park was eventually enlarged, but the Stewart and old reservoir sites were built upon. Even though the rail trail has made the Codorus embankment walkable, it still is far from the “water park” that Olmsted envisioned. Perhaps the current push will be the successful one.

(If you would like more details, an original copy of the Olmsted report booklet is in the York County History Center files.)