John Mullaly and the New Parks Movement
John Mullaly (1835-1915), a resourceful and determined citizen activist, is often referred to as the “Father” of the Bronx parks system. A journalist by trade, Mullaly was the catalyst behind the acquisition of land that ultimately became Pelham Bay, Bronx, Van Cortlandt, Crotona, Claremont, and St Mary’s Parks, as well as the connecting Mosholu, Bronx and Pelham, and Crotona Parkways.
In his unwavering effort, Mullaly wrote pamphlets and newspaper articles, attracted influential supporters, garnered signatures for petitions, lobbied government officials, and assisted in preparation of court appeals. The campaign that began in 1881 with the first meeting of the New Parks Association culminated with the passage of the New Parks Act of 1884 to set aside land. However, numerous appeals ensued. Once the final appeal was denied in 1887, land acquisition began in 1888.
In the late 19th century, lower Manhattan was teeming with immigrants in crowded tenements. It was evident that the city would continue to grow and that the population would spread northward across the Harlem River. Mullaly believed it was essential to anticipate parkland needs for this new area, which would eventually become the borough of the Bronx. Having served as Health Commissioner, he considered parks a requirement for the well-being of the citizenry, particularly the working classes, and referred to these open spaces as the “lungs of the metropolis.” In particular, Mullaly envisioned the future Pelham Bay Park as the “Newport of New York’s Toilers,” in reference to the upper-class Rhode Island seaside resort that was well beyond the means of the average worker.
Opponents to parkland acquisition in the northern wards and lower Westchester County cited excessive costs. Yet, Mullaly and the New Park Association believed the lands’ inherent wealth of natural resources required few expensive enhancements in order to provide public retreats for relaxation and recreation. The proposal for acquiring the land for Pelham Bay Park proved the most difficult. The opposition complained that the area was not part of New York City, even though most agreed it would soon be annexed. Some claimed the site was too far away from the general population. But Mullaly pointed to convenient railroad stations, as well as potential docks that could ferry visitors from downtown. Several landowners whose estates occupied the area also opposed the acquisition, but in the end they were duly compensated.
Mullaly believed the coastline along Long Island Sound made the future Pelham Bay Park the most desirable of all the new parks. He had ideas for possible facilities, as well, among them a zoological center, an astronomy observatory, an aquarium, and a permanent exhibition hall for industrial displays. Some of these facilities were ultimately built elsewhere, but Mullaly was right about the future popularity of the shore. Pelham Bay Park’s natural beauty offers unique views to hikers, its lagoon is enjoyed by rowers and kayakers, the coast provides ample spots for fishermen, and Orchard Beach attracts 1.4 million visitors each year.
In the annals of American parks, Frederick Law Olmsted occupies a deservedly prominent place. John Mullaly also merits recognition for his singular achievement in the creation of the Bronx parks. To that end, The Bronx County Historical Society re-issued his 1887 treatise, The New Parks Beyond the Harlem. This historical work describes the inspiring and tireless endeavors of John Mullaly and other civic-minded New Yorkers who, with remarkable foresight, created one of the great urban park systems of the world.