Weequahic Park


 

Newark has less parkspace per person than most other large cities, but, while Newark's park quantity is limited, its quality is almost unsurpassed. We have already explored Branch Brook Park, now let us explore Newark's other large park, woodsy, athletic, historic, and hilly Weequahic.

Click here for location.

Everything relating to Indian history in New Jersey is legend, but the name "Weequahic" is derived from a Lenape word "wee-qua-chick," means "head of the cove." According to tradition, the cove of Weequahic Park, now the lake, was the border between the Hackensack and Raritan bands of the Lenni-Lenape.

Weequahic is the only neighborhood in Newark with an Indian name. The neighborhood was named after the park, not the other way around. When Weequahic Park was developed what is now the Weequahic district was farmland that had only recently been annexed to Newark.

The area of Weequahic Park was the home of the New Jersey State agricultural fair the Waverly Fairgrounds from 1866 to 1899. Much like a modern business convention, the state fair was an opportunity for farmers to meet other farmers and share information. The fairs also had a significant entertainment value - there was drinking, horse racing, and amusements for children.

The state fair was located here thanks to the efforts of James Jay Mapes, a highly inventive farmer who owned land in what is now the western division of Weequahic Park. In 1847, Mapes, a professor at New York City establishment called the American Institute, bought a run-down farm here. Through the use of superphosphate fertilizers and the sub-soil plow, Mapes was able to unproductive land into a flourishing farm. Mapes publicized his successes in a magazine called "The Working Farmer."

New Jersey had been holding agricultural fairs since 1855. The fairs moved to a new city every year. It was thanks to the importance of Newark and the fame of Mapes that when the fairs were permantly located here in what was then Clinton Township. The fairs were named "Waverly" by James Jay Mapes' daughter, Mary Mapes Dodge.

What is now Weequahic Park became a place for horse (and later, automobile) racing in the late 19th century. President U.S. Grant once came to see the races in 1872, at the time of Newark's great industrial exposition.

The area of the Weequahic section was annexed in three stages in the 1890s. In 1895 the Essex County Park Commission was founded and this area was slated to be turned into a reservation, like Eagle Rock and South Mountain. However, within a few months of the founding of the park, it was it was decided to turn the area into something naturalistic, as opposed to natural.

The Olmsted Brothers were the official landscape design firm for the Essex County Park Commission. The Olmsted touch, sweeping lawns with irregular edges, can be seen here in this field near Elizabeth Avenue.

The Olmsted Brother had a lot to work with at Weequahic Park. The area already had a large natural lake, plus hills. Seen through the trees here is the highest point in Weequahic Park - Divident Hill.
The major historic monument of Weequahic Park is the Divident Hill pavillion. "Divident Hill" is no typo, "divident" is simply an archaic term for "divided."

Divident Hill, also called "Bound-Hill," was the site of the boundary conference between the city fathers of Elizabethtown and Newark on May 20th, 1668, when this place was howling wilderness.

It is Consented unton that the Center, or place agreed upon by the said Agents of the Towns for to Begin the Dividing Bounds, is from the Top of a Little round hill, named Divident Hill; and from Thence to run up a North West Lind, Into the Country.(The Story of New Jersey's Civil Boundaries: 1606-1968, pg 7)

The boundaries of Newark have since moved considerably. At one point Newark retreated to an area much smaller than its current domain and Weequahic was part of the township of Clinton. Later, Newark expanded to a point about a half mile south of here.

The Divident Hill pavillion was built for Newark's 250th anniversary in 1916. The architect was Carriere & Hastings.

As an example of the quality of planning and architecture that went into Weequahic Park, examine this children's pavillion with attached bathrooms. Much more than functional (and sadly, at various times in the past, Weequahic's bathrooms were _not_ functional), these bathrooms are as nice on the inside as they are on the outside. Photo courtesy of Craig Schoonmaker (for his site, go to newarkusa.blogspot.com).

 

At 80 acres, Weequahic Lake is the largest lake in Essex County. Weequahic Lake is natural, but it has been enlarged by a dam. The lake has massive, oxygen-depleting algal blooms every summer.

Weequahic Lake was the site of a truly grand anniversary ceremony on four consecutive nights in May/June 1916. Each night, scores of little boats recreated the Puritans' 1666 Passaic river landing here on Weequahic Lake. 3,500 actors and actresses proceeded to reenact all of Newark’s history up until that point. The pageant consisted of “focused” and “unfocused” scenes. The focused scenes depicted great events and contained dialogue, while pantomime was used the unfocused scenes conveying moods, eras, and daily life. Everything was accompanied by classical music by Henry Hadley apparently a noted composer of the day.

The festival amphitheatre had seating for 40,000. Since the festival was performed four times, it is possible that 160,000 people saw it. The director was Thomas Wood Stevens of the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

A scene of the stage and players.

Courtesy of The Newark Public Library.

The Puritans' boat.

Courtesy of The Newark Public Library.

Unfortunately, Weequahic park is divided by a highway and two parallel train tracks. The highway and train tracks are big obstacles to enjoying Weequahic's 311 acres in one piece.

The railroad and highway subtract from Weequahic today, but they used to be major assets for the neighborhood. Weequahic the neighborhood developed with the opening of the railroad tubes under the Hudson River, not with the creation of the park. Until the 1960s Weequahic had its own train station.

This is another view of the Weequahic highway rail network, but seen from below. From this angle, the highway jumble has a certain visual appeal. Notice part of the rubberized jogging track on the left.
The statue of Franklin Murphy is on the western section of Weequahic Park, near the intersection of Elizabeth and Meeker Avenues. Governor Muphy enjoys a fine view of an expansive lawn. The sculptor was J. Massey Rhind.
The Weequahic Park Golf Course is the oldest public golf course in the United States. The course is uncrowded compared to the other public courses in the area, a fact that Weequahic golfers like to keep secret. The course opened in the 1900s with nine holes. The course was designed by George Low, Sr., who also designed Baltsoral in Union County. It was expanded into an eighteen year course in the 1960s.
I doubt these handball courts get much use, but they are available. At one point these handball courts were more basketball courts.
Tennis anyone?
Seen here is a stretch of Weequahic Park's 2.2 mile rubberized jogging track - the longest resilient surface track in the world. The track was built with federal money and the planning of the Weequahic Park Conservancy. Before it was a rubberized jogging track, this was a bridle path.

The tall 1960s/1970s apartment towers overlooking Weequahic Park were built by Arthur Pedula. Several of the towers were built as part of a State of New Jersey/HUD program modelled on New York's successful Mitchell-Lama middle income housing effort.

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  • If walking, jogging, biking, swinging a cricket bat, or kicking a soccer ball has you tired or thirsty, you can enjoy some delicious Coco Helado for a dollar a cup. This coco stand is here almost every warm day. Photos taken October 2005 & July 2006, Jeffrey Bennett
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