Branch Brook Park Alliance
115 Clifton Avenue
Newark, NJ 07104
Open: Check their website depending on the season
I have visited Branch Brook Park many times over the past thirty years and during the Annual Cherry Blossom the park is especially nice. The City of Newark still has the reputation as a rough place and parts of the City I still would not like to walk around in after dark (as are all cities). Branch Book is separated from the rest of the City and sits on the border of Newark sharing the park with the town of Belleville.
The Cherry Blossom Festival, which takes place every Spring with the coming of the blooming of all of the Cherry Trees which cover the whole length of the park, is always anticipated by people all over the State of New Jersey. They bloomed a little late this year due to the unseasonably cold weather this year. It was snowing up to two weeks earlier so the buds opened later this year. In come cases, the peak of the blossoms came about two weeks late.
It was well worth it as spread over thirty two acres of land are over 2,000 cherry trees that bud every year at slightly different times due to the different species of plants. You day will start in the park at the Visitor’s Welcome Center located in the eastern section of the park, where you will read about the history of the park and have a chance to check into the activities of the annual Festival or just relax and go to the bathroom. The Visitor’s Center has just been renovated and is a nice starting point to walk around the park during the festival. There is a lot of public parking in this area and your car will be safe with all the people walking around.
Walking among the paths of blossoming Cherry Trees is quite spectacular. It is Mother Nature showing here best with all sorts of hues of light and dark pink. It is something to walk around the trees as the petals in some cases rain down on you. Because the Festival is such a tradition with visitors some even wear their kimono’s or their wedding gowns in the park for pictures.
The park is in the process of a decade long renovation after years of neglect. The Branch Brook Park Alliance in partnership with Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, is working to restore the park’s historic design and adapt it to today’s lively use. Our park holds claim to many firsts: America’s first county park opened to the public; first to be listed on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places and the first to surpass Washington DC in the number and variety of cherry trees (Branch Brook Park Alliance).
Cherry Blossom Festival in Branch Brook Park Newark, NY 2010
Completed projects set the stage for the park’s full restoration. The County has refurbished historic bridges, renovated the Cherry Blossom Welcome Center and created the Cherry Tree Memorial Grove to promote the “Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure”. Extensive plantings of cherry trees, soon to number 4,000, complement the park’s 78 other tree varieties. Restoration of historic sites include the Octagon Shelter and park entrance ways (Branch Brook Park Alliance).
In 2022, the warmer weather that has been coming in earlier in the month keeps moving the blooming up a few weeks. The cherry blossoms seem to be flowering in the three main areas I visited, Newark, Brooklyn and Washington DC came out almost two weeks earlier than usual. With all the rains that we have had in the last three weeks have also done a number on the trees. Most lost their petals earlier than their planned festivals so even in DC they had their cherry blossom festival without cherry blossoms. When I came home from that celebration, even Newark was looking bare compared to my quick trip last weekend when you could not even enter the park. I think more people in these COVID days want to communicate with nature more than ever.
Branch Brook Park in its prime
The history of the park:
The Cherry Blossom Display at Essex County Branch Brook Park:
In 1928, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, after seeing the cherry trees in the Nation’s Capital, offered a gift of 2000 trees for Essex County Branch Brook Park. To showcase the park’s newly acquired Extension, the renowned Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm created a planting design using dark evergreen trees as a backdrop for the mix of white and pink cherry blossoms from varieties such as Higan, Yoshino and Kwanzan (Branch Brook Alliance).
After a 2004 inventory showed 1.000 cherry trees remaining, an ongoing initiative to replace and expand the collection was undertaken by Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and the Branch Brook Alliance. By 2016, the number of cherry trees was expanded to over 5,000. Cherry trees in 27 varieties now adorn all sections of the park, from the Southern Division at Clifton Avenue in Newark to the park’s Extension at Washington Avenue in Belleville (Branch Brook Park Alliance).
The History of Branch Brook Park (Branch Brook Park Alliance):
1862: The land we know now as Branch was then the property of the Newark Aqueduct Board. Much of that land was commandeered in July of 1862, at the outbreak of the Civil War; known as Camp Frelinghuysen, it was used as a training ground for New Jersey volunteers. Between 1862 and 1864, six regiments encamped there before fighting in every important battle from Antietam to Appomatox.
1867: The New Jersey State Legislature authorized a Newark Park Commission, with a mandate to locate grounds for a municipal park. Fredrick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect and designer of Central Park in New York, visited Newark and Essex County and recommended a site encompassing what is now Branch Brook Park, Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, envisioned Branch Brook Park to be a “grand central park” for the City of Newark. They understood that American cities of the 19th Century were growing quickly and changing rapidly. The parks they designed embodied their view that all people, regardless of their position in society, were entitled to fresh air, quiet places and the beauty that only nature can provide.
1889: The Newark Common Council donated 60 acres of the Aqueduct Board property surrounding the circular holding reservoir to “park use”. Known as Reservoir Park, the land was left undeveloped. Much of the surrounding neighborhoods were crowded with bleak, unhealthy tenements. To the north lay a dismal march known as Old Blue Jay Swamp.
1895: The Essex County Park Commission was formed to enable the creation of a county-wide park system, the first in the nation. The City of Newark transferred Reservoir Park, which would become the nucleus of Branch Brook Park to the Commission at ta cost of $350,687. The surrounding properties were acquired by the County while donations of land from prominent Newark families extend the park northward. The Ballantine Family donated 32 acres of their property and another 50 acres were given by Z.M. Keene, William A. Righter and the Messrs. Heller. John Bogart and Nathan Barrett were chosen to provide plans and advise on the development of the park. Their design was gardenesque in style, dominated by the geometrically patterned gardens and numerous architectural elements including arbors, viaducts, gazebos and shelters that shaped the park’s Southern Division.
1896: Demolition and grading began following Bogart and Barrett’s plans.
1898: Dissatisfied with Bogart and Barrett’s work, the Commission hired the Olmsted Brothers firm; John Charles Olmsted and Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr. were Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr’s nephew/stepson and son. While their work continued that naturalistic style of landscape design championed by their father, in Branch Brook Park, they were required to incorporate the elements of Bogart and Barrett’s plan that had already been constructed. This led to the Olmsted firm’s design concept consisting of three divisions: the Southern, from Sussex Avenue to Park Avenue, incorporating the elaborate ‘gardenesque’ elements from Bogart and Barrett’ the middle from Park Avenue to Bloomfield Avenue, which would be a transitional zone, mixing the exotic with the indigenous and as the culmination, the Northern Division, the largest and most naturalistic area of the park.
1900: The first Chrysanthemum Show was held in the newly constructed greenhouse in the Northern Division. This annual event brought thousands to the park every fall until 1969.
1903: The United Singing Societies donated the bust of composer Felix Mendelssohn they won in Baltimore, MD at that year’s ‘saengerfest’, the annual, nationwide German singing competition that generated excitement comparable to today’s Super Bowl.
1906: The gran boathouse, designed by the firm of Rossiter and Wright, was added to the southern end of the lake, replacing an earlier structure.
1916: The Essex County Park System build its Administration Building on the parkland that had been set aside to provide a view from Concourse Hill. Designed by New Jersey native Harold Van Buren Magonigle, the exterior has eight different shades of coarse-textured terra brick and expensive terra cotta reliefs especially notable around the main entrance. Under the wide overhang of the tile roof are colorful, allegorical decorations executed by Mrs. Edith Magonigle.
1924: Industrialist and philanthropist Harmon W. Hendricks, owner of a copper rolling mill on the Second River, donated his family home and the adjoining 23 acres to the north of Branch Brook Park. An additional 94 acres were acquired by the county to link Hendricks Field Golf Course and Belleville Park in an unbroken swath of green. This land included what was the first landing site for the U.S. Postal Service where bi-winged airplanes landed on a short field with bales of hay rimming the end of the runway to prevent accidents.
1927: Caroline Bamberger Fuld donates 2,000 Japanese flowering cherry trees to a display in Newark that would rival that in Washington DC. The Olmsted Brothers’ firm laid out the trees naturalistically on the tiered slopes along the narrow valley of the Second River, evoking the way the trees would be seen in Japan and distinguishing Branch Brook Park’s display from all others. Eventually the collection would grow to more than 3,000 trees.
1928: The Morris Canal that ran from Jersey City to the Delaware River and formed the park’s western boundary was abandoned and became the Newark City Subway. Now Newark Light Rail, there are six stops along the park that provide easy access by mass transit.
1940: The Rossiter and Wright boathouse was deemed unsafe and dismantled. A smaller building replaced the grand structure.
1956: More than 3,000 people attended the Fall Chrysanthemum Shoe in the greenhouses.
1967: Riots broke out in Newark and devastated the community. Many buildings were burned, boarded up and sections of the city were deserted. The National Guard was called in to maintain order and bivouacs in Branch Brook Park, where Civil War volunteers mustered 100 years earlier.
1974: Community members rallied to save their beloved park and the Friends of Branch Brook Park was formed.
1976: The Newark Cherry Blossom Festival was established.
1980: Branch Brook Park was placed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places.
1981: The Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1986: The Boathouse was destroyed by fire and replaced by a concrete block structure.
1999: Branch Brook Park Alliance (BBPA) was formed.
2002: BBPA hired Rhodeside & Harwell (RHI), nationally recognized landscape architects, to produce a Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment and Management Plan, to serve as a blueprint for the park’s restoration.
2003: The lake edge near the boat house in the Southern District was replanted to recreate the original Olmstead plan; this pilot project was designed by RHI and funded by BBPA.
2004: A tree inventory was conducted by BBPA as part of the Cultural Landscape Report and revealed that less than 1,000 cherry trees remained from the original gift of 2,000 trees and subsequent plantings.
2005: Responding to community interest, the first farmers’ market took place, along with other activities to help reactivate the park.
2006: BBPA, together with the Essex County, the North Ward Center and the Newark Boys and Girls Clubs developed the Middle Division ball fields, now home to 7,500 ballplayers annually.
A grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund enabled the first planting of what would total more than 3,000 new cherry trees over the next four years.
2007: The Ball fields in the Extension were redesigned and upgraded while the surrounding landscape is restored. The Cherry Tree Demonstration Project showed what a fully restored collection should look like with extensive companion plantings and appropriate hardscaping.
2008: The Octagon Shelter was reconstructed. The Waterway Rehabilitation Feasibility Study was completed, setting forth a path for the restoration of one of the park’s most salient features.
2009: Prudential Global Volunteer Day drew more than 300 participants from diverse sectors of the community. A Maintenance Plan for the park was completed and implementation begun at six volunteer days.
2010: Design work was completed for project that will transform western lake edge in the Southern Division. The rehabilitation of the Octagon Field House in the Middle Division was completed.
The Cherry Blossom Festival in Branch Brook Park, Newark, NJ 2010
(The History of Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ by the Branch Brook Park Alliance)
Disclaimer: This information was taken from the Branch Brook Park Alliance and I give them full credit for their work. Don’t miss the Cherry Blossom Festival each Spring April/May depending on the weather.