In 1899 John C. Thompson, president of New York Air Brake Company, located in Watertown, contacted the Olmsted Brothers firm about creating a park as an anonymous gift to the city. With his office in New York City, Thompson was very familiar with Olmsted park work. Under the advice of John Charles Olmsted, he secretly acquired more than 700 acres of woods and fields encompassing Pinnacle Hill, with its scenic vistas over the growing city and toward Lake Ontario, in order to lay out a park with suitable approaches. Contiguous land for residential development was also part of the acquisition. Producing a “General Plan” by 1901, over the next two decades John Charles Olmsted supervised construction on this challenging, rocky site. He planned a formal tree-lined boulevard as the primary entrance from State Street, connecting to roads and accompanying paths curving upward through the park to its summit. To mitigate the steepness, he designed walls, overlooks, shelters, and steps ascending the slopes (built from stone quarried on-site)—all accompanied by textured plantings. At the summit, a water tower intended to be a lookout anchored one end of a formal axis, with a monument square at the other end. For children’s recreation, a particular concern of Thompson’s, he provided playgrounds, a wading pool, and a pavilion. The hillside slopes were to be treated as pastoral meadows with ponds.
Ownership and responsibility for maintenance was transferred to the city in about 1916. The donor’s identity remained a secret until Thompson’s death in 1924 when his purpose, to provide healthy recreation and a sense of ownership for Watertown families—whether worker or manager—was revealed.
In 1920, a zoo was constructed on thirty-two acres, and later, the park’s sweeping meadows became an eighteen-hole golf course, now privately managed. In July 2016 a sculpture, Honor the Mountain Monument, was installed on the summit square to commemorate the sacrifices of the 10th Mountain Division and the civilian workforce located at nearby Fort Drum.