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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

There's much more to Prospect Park than today's

There's much more to Prospect Park than today's visitors may see. (Credit: Propsect Park Archives)

outdoors

Secrets of Prospect Park

Brooklyn, NY 11225

Once Central Park awoke New Yorkers to the wonders of urban landscaping in the mid-1800s, Brooklynites yearned for an oasis of their own.

"Prospect Park was intended for all to enjoy fresh air, relaxation and recreation, and most importantly an escape from the city," says Susan Donoghue, president of the Prospect Park Alliance. "From the start, the park was an extraordinary democratic experiment that became a model for cities around the world."

In 1861, a preliminary layout for the park was proposed, but after the Civil War disrupted plans, Central Park dream team Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux took over.

While not all of their elaborate ideas could be transformed into reality, the park has evolved over the years to adapt to its visitors'-- and Brooklyn's-- shifting demands. After flirting with decay in the 1960s and '70s, when usership dropped to its lowest point and the bronze sculpture of Columbia in Grand Army Plaza symbolically fell from its chariot, the park bounced back to enjoy a great renaissance. Today, it hosts 10 million visits every year.

Today, work continues to complete the vision Olmstead and Vaux had for the vast space, from the creation of the Zucker Natural Exploration Area to the restoration of Music Island. Here, 13 little-known places and things to look out for on your next visit.

Before the 1890s, a dark room,

Credit: Prospect Park Archives

The demolished dark chamber

Before the 1890s, a dark room, "Camera Obscura," stood atop Breeze Hill. This small chamber, about five feet in diameter, was part of Olmsted and Vaux's plan to provide visitors with a new art form. A powerful rotating lens sat at the peak of the building, reflecting images of the landscape outside off of a mirror. They placed one in Central Park, as well.

The chamber was demolished at the end of the 19th century, and the Old Fashioned Flower Garden was planted in its place.

On the edge of the Nethermead section of

Credit: Flickr/John Lillis

The forbidden fruit

On the edge of the Nethermead section of the park sits an Osage Orange tree. Spotting the tree is easy, due to a metal rod holding it together, its intimidating thorns, and the odd, spiky fruit it grows.

Native to select parts of Texas and Oklahoma, this fruit, the Osage, also known as a hedge apple, is not edible, and its milk-like juice can irritate the skin. It is widely believed, however, that it is useful in repelling insects, particularly spiders. Many people buy them and place them around their homes for this reason.

Planted as part of Prospect Park's original plan

Credit: Linda Rosier

The final forest

Planted as part of Prospect Park's original plan in 1867, the 250-acre hardwood forest in Prospect Park is the last natural forest still standing in Brooklyn today. The fragile woodlands need human intervention to survive, as they suffer from threats of invasive species and soil erosion due, in part, to the park's heavy foot traffic. Visitors are welcome to take a stroll through, but be sure to stay on the pedestrian paths.

On the water where Dog Beach now stands

Credit: Prospect Park Archives; Fido Brooklyn

The floating carousel

On the water where Dog Beach now stands once sat one of Prospect Park's main draws. In 1878, inventor David Smith created a floating carousel, the Rotary Yacht, a sight for sore eyes lit with colorful lanterns and decorated with flags from around the world.

Up to 220 people could ride it at a time, on 4-foot-wide benches that rotated around a center post using sails for power. When the wind wasn't strong enough, the passengers would have to row. While it was a jolly good time for most, stories have been told of some falling off and into the water.

Every Camperdown Elm in the world can trace

Credit: Prospect Park Archives

A tree weeps in Brooklyn

Every Camperdown Elm in the world can trace its roots to one mutant branch found growing sometime between 1835 and 1840 at the Earl of Camperdown's house in Dundee, Scotland. A cut of that first specimen made it all the way to Prospect Park in 1872, and the tree grown from it still stands today, near the boathouse.

In the 1960s, the historic tree was left in bad shape. That is, until Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marianne Moore brought attention to its cause through a poem, eventually funding its repair. Moore was called upon to save other trees throughout the city thereafter, but she chose Prospect Park's "weeping" elm as her one and only ecological pet project.

The economic crisis that followed the Panic of

Credit: Prospect Park Archives

The park that would have been

The economic crisis that followed the Panic of 1873 contributed to a lack of funding for some of Olmsted and Vaux's original plans, including the Observatory, left, a tower meant to provide sweeping views from atop Lookout Hill, high above the park's growing trees. The futuristic-looking Carriage Concourse, right, was conceived as a shelter for horses and carriages and was meant to be placed in the Concert Grove.

As the automobile rose to popularity, Grand Army

Credit: Propsect Park Archives

The Death-O-Meter

As the automobile rose to popularity, Grand Army Plaza became a dangerous thoroughfare. To warn drivers to play it safe, a giant "Death-O-Meter" was installed there in 1927, displaying the rising numbers of fatalities caused by car accidents in Brooklyn.

A series of Native American trails and lookout

Credit: Flickr/Wally Gobetz

Walking in the footsteps of Native Americans

A series of Native American trails and lookout points ran through Prospect Park, Mount Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, headed towards Canarsie. To follow a major Native American trail inside Prospect Park, run, walk or bike down East Drive.

Prospect Park's location is no accident. Part of

Credit: Prospect Park Archives

The hallowed hills

Prospect Park's location is no accident. Part of the reason the site was chosen for the park in the 1850s was to honor the spot where the American Revolution's Battle of Brooklyn took place, during which 400 soldiers from Maryland sacrificed their lives for the good of the rest.

Three months after George Washington strategically began moving troops to Brooklyn, on Aug. 27, 1776, the Hessians took General John Sullivan's troops by surprise, after locals tipped them off on a different route. "The Maryland 400," as they became known, fought off the Hessians while the rest of the American soldiers escaped.

The Maryland Monument, a column at the bottom of Lookout Hill, stands in their memory today.

There are two statues of President Abraham Lincoln

Credit: Prospect Park Alliance

The two Lincolns

There are two statues of President Abraham Lincoln in Prospect Park, and both are significant. The statue in Grand Army Plaza's Soldiers' and Sailors' Arch depicts Lincoln on horseback-- an extremely rare sight. There is only one other known statue of Lincoln on horseback, and it is a younger, lawyer Lincoln, reading a book while riding. That statue has been replicated, but the original is in Illinois.

Why are these statues so rare? A Lincoln historian told the New York Times it could be that the equestrian pose symbolizes military glory, and Lincoln "was the quintessential civilian."

Another statue of Lincoln preceded the arch in Grand Army Plaza, but it now stands in Concert Grove. This was the first statue of Lincoln erected after his assassination.

Long before Prospect Park was home to a

Credit: Prospect Park Archives; Linda Rosier

The sleepless sea lion

Long before Prospect Park was home to a well-visited zoo with hundreds of animals, the only exhibits it could afford were of wildlife donated by Brooklyn's elite. A menagerie began with a bear pit in 1890, where three bear cubs lived, though few knew of their existence. Later on deer, foxes, buffalo, peacocks, a cow and more were donated. For some unwanted animals, such as a sea lion from the Central Park Zoo whose loud barking kept nearby residents up at night, it became a safe haven. (Maybe that's where "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" came from?) The menagerie was demolished after the Prospect Park Zoo opened in 1935. Today's zoo is located on the eastern side of the park, and is open year round.

In the late 1800s, picnics were illegal in

Credit: c. Martin Seck

The picnic prohibition

In the late 1800s, picnics were illegal in Central Park. They remained legal in Prospect Park, however, leading to a major influx of hungry visitors.

A favored spot still today is nearly mile-long Long Meadow, believed to be the longest unbroken stretch of meadow in any urban park in the United States. If you don't want to sit in the grass, it's home to the Picnic House that has been standing since 1927.

Along with croquet and archery, a sport called

Credit: Drawing by C.J. Taylor for Harper's

Who's on first?

Along with croquet and archery, a sport called ice baseball was a popular pastime in early Prospect Park. The game, believed to have originated in Rochester, was played on Prospect Park's lake during the coldest days of winter while crowds cheered on their teams.

It is said that the ability to over-skate a base was a predecessor to today's MLB rule that players may over-run first base.

(The drawing above depicts a game of ice baseball in Brooklyn's Washington Park in 1884.)

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