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Riverbank Park


 

At barely ten acres, Riverbank Park in the Ironbound is the smallest park in the Essex County Park system, yet one of the most heavily used. Riverbank Park is a tiny spot of green in the most densely populated part of Newark and one of the best parks anywhere along the Passaic River.

 

Click here for location

 

The driving spirit behind Riverbank Park was none other than Franklin Murphy. The Murphy Varnish Company was in the Ironbound and Murphy wanted people like his workers to have a patch of green and a place to swim in their own neighborhood. Murphy loved Weequahic and Branch Brook Parks, but he realized that they were remote from the densely populated, working class portions of Essex County.

Interestingly, the Ironbound was not always “iron bound.” At the time American Revolution, what is now Riverbank Park was “Newark’s Mayfair.” As industry took up residence, Newark’s society gradually left for greener pastures on the west side of the city, except one Miss Anna Ward, in whose person was combined the bloodlines and fortunes of the Ward and Doughty families. Miss Ward had been a vivacious teenager whose interest in art took her to Paris in the 1850s. However, when Miss Ward returned to Newark in 1860, she immediately cosseted herself in her maternal grandfather’s 30 room Passaic River mansion, never venturing out for any reason except her sister’s funeral at Mt. Pleasant cemetery. As mansions were replaced by tenements and lawns were replaced by smoking factories, Miss Ward continued her isolation, with only cats, antique furnishings, and her late father’s large library to keep her company.

 

 

Thirty-seven years after Annie Ward moved into her Passaic River mansion, in 1907, the Essex County Park Commission identified the land by the Passaic River for a oark 1907. Unfortunately, plans for the park hit a snag when Miss Anna Ward refused all entreaties to sell her home. Door knocks went unanswered and letters went unreturned as Miss Ward stood down the park commissioners’ siege. The Park Commission had the legal authority to forcibly displace her, but decided against it in order to avoid an embarrassing scene. Only after the Commission indicated that its patience was at an end did a veiled and weeping Miss Ward leave her home in September of 1909. The mansion and its spacious grounds were located at 19 Frederick (now Somme) Street, on what is now the playground and the land around the field house.

Despite the controversy in the park’s creation, the park was an immediate success. In the 1910 report of the Essex County Park Commission, Murphy praised the then unfinished Riverbank Park with "Although it is the smallest of the twelve parks, even in its unfinished state, one of the most largely used and is an excellent example of the wisdom and importance of locating breathing spaces in thickly settled portions of the community.” Unbelievably, people actually swam in the Passaic River in those days.

The Riverbank Park that Murphy described was half the size of the Riverbank Park we have today. Until the 1920s, what is now the baseball field was the Balbach and Sons Refining and Smelting Company, the second largest metal processing enterprise in the United States.

 

 

 

Edward Balbach, Sr. came to the United States from Germany in the late 1840s. In 1851 Balbach began to turn the gold and silver dust from the floors of Newark jewelry shops back into bullion. In 1865 Edward Balbach, Jr. patented the “Balbach Desilvering Process” which more efficiently separated gold and silver from base metals. In 1881, the Balbachs began to manufacture copper, just in time for a boom in demand thanks to the inventions of the telegraph and telephone.

Conditions in the factory were horrible. In the 1880s, workers made between $1.50 and $1.65 a day. The worst accident that could occur was the introduction of water into a furnace. Water coming in contact with the molten metal would turn to steam and explode, causing the molten metal to spill. Sadly, there are many cases of workers being burned by the hot metal. Workers who were not immobilized would run screaming into the Passaic River.

In the 1920s the Balbach operation was closed in favor of facilities closer to where the ore was dug up. The County purchased the factory and converted it to a baseball field. The grandstands were designed by Arthur Dillon, a New York City architect.

Today, as ever, Riverbank Park is one of the heaviest used parks in Essex County. Soccer is enormously popular. The three Ironbound soccer leagues hold contentious negotiations over rights to the soccer fields here, in Independence Park, and in Weequahic Park.

 

That Riverbank Park was so heavily used, and that the Ironbound has so little parkland at all, made especially insulting Essex County and the City of Newark’s plans to turn Riverbank Park into a minor league baseball stadium.

Fortunately, the determined efforts of Ironbound organizations like SPARK - Save the Park At RiverbanK - plans for the baseball stadium were defeated and the stadium was built up on Broad Street.

Riverbank Park is not literally on the riverbank. Raymond Boulevard - formerly Passaic Avenue - is between the park and the river. The parkland on the river itself is slowly being restored.

This hawk posed for pictures for over an hour.

 

 

Contrary to popular belief, Newark is not entirely deindustrialized. One sees small workshops all over the Ironbound. The presence of factories in the Ironbound and their absence in the other wards of Newark suggests that perhaps the departing factory owners were being truthful when they said that lack of workers was a cause in their leaving Newark, as the Ironbound certainly does seem to be brimming with the same kind of laborer who manned factories yesteryear.

 

On the other side of the river is a former industrial site that has been redeveloped into condos and a soccer-specific stadium for the RedBulls. Click on the photograph to see the old Guyon Pipe Factory that used to be seen across the Passaic.

 

 

 

 

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J. Bennett
December 2005
Updated September 2012