Development of Harrisburg’s Parks System Rooted in the City Beautiful Movement

By the turn of the 20th century, community and business leaders in Harrisburg agreed that the city, the Capital of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 1812, had the status and appearance of a town of the 19th century, experiencing deplorable civic and environmental conditions – ranging from the river bank serving as the town’s dumping ground and point of discharge for raw sewerage, unsanitary drinking water unfiltered from the Susquehanna River, unpaved and dirty streets, littered lots and other appalling  disorders.  The growing focus on these conditions, coupled with the dawn of a new century and that the splendid and magnificent new Italian Renaissance State Capitol that was about to rise amidst this municipal squalor, prompted action by community activist and botanist Mira Lloyd Dock and Harrisburg printer, horticulturalist and conservationist,  Horace J. McFarland.  Assuming a leadership role, they engaged the citizens of Harrisburg to pull together and set into motion a plan that would result in a broad and comprehensive approach to improve municipal conditions in the city.  This plan was an expression of a larger national civic movement from about 1900-1910, known as the City Beautiful Movement, which promoted the benefits of physical urban beauty, elimination of unhealthy conditions and citizen engagement.

The improvement campaign in Harrisburg began late in 1900 and probably was the first to use the phrase City Beautiful. The ideals of the movement were advanced through the newly formed organization known as the Harrisburg League for Municipal Improvements.   Between 1902 and 1926, thirteen municipal loans were approved by referendum to carry out plans made by three nationally-known professionals in the fields of landscape architecture, public works and street paving.  These plans formed the basis for civic work over the next 25 years, although modified and expanded to fit the times, which lead to the execution of many of the consultant’s recommendations.

Projects such as the construction of an expanded water pumping station and water filtration plant, expansion and unification of riverfront park and construction of the gracious river steps disguising a new sewer interceptor main beneath, planning of Italian Lake park, replacement of the Mulberry Street bridge, expansion and development of Reservoir Park, planning for the development of Wetzel’s swamp just to then north of the city into today’s Wildwood Park Sanctuary, partial completion of an urban green belt to circumvent the city, construction of the Dock Street dam to serve both as flood control and recreational use, and development of recreational facilities on City Island are to name the principal progressive and nationally-hailed undertakings that Harrisburg’s City Beautiful campaign advanced.

The Movement in Harrisburg was significant and nationally recognized at the time for being quite progressive for a city of Harrisburg’s size.  The leaders of the trend for municipal improvements nationally happened to be Harrisburg people whose work leaves a lasting legacy to this day.