Union County Park System

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Rahway, NJ
United States
Union County Park System

By 1921 the population of Union County had surpassed the 200,000 needed to support a parks commission. Once appointed, the new commission acted quickly to engage Percival Gallagher of Olmsted Brothers for a countywide reconnaissance, evaluating the potential for a well-distributed expansive network of parks and riverside corridors, linked by cross-county parkways. Gallagher proposed to set aside land for both active and passive recreation, while also protecting special landscape features and water resources for public enjoyment. As their second countywide park-planning endeavor (the first having occurred two decades prior in Essex County), the Olmsted firm’s plan was to create several large park units to serve the entire county, as well as smaller parks for to serve local communities, all with clear regard for successful connectivity as neighborhoods grew around the parks.

Working closely with Union County Engineer-Secretary W. R. Tracy, and assisted by Olmsted Brothers associate Carl Parker (who took over after Gallagher’s death in 1934), Gallagher shaped a remarkably varied park system, prescient in its regional environmental concerns for watersheds and flood mitigation and for horticultural diversity. At his death, the park commission paid tribute to his “wide vision, far-flung experience and high knowledge of the beautiful and the practical.”

By gift, purchase, and some condemnation, Union County had acquired nearly 4,000 acres of land by 1930 distributed among ten parks, a number that continued to grow. The Elizabeth and Rahway Rivers served as major spines for the park system, while to the west, the slopes of the Watchung Mountains provided wilder acreage for a large reservation, similar to the Essex County system. Along riverine corridors, linear parks with accompanying parkways developed into several entities as additional parkland areas were acquired and protected. New Deal money helped sustain construction, especially after the destructive flooding of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Olmsted Brothers (and later Olmsted Associates) continued to advise Union County well into the 1960s. Today, the Union County Department of Parks and Recreation manages 6,200 acres among thirty-six parks.