The greatest park in the world was no accident. It may look like an oasis of nature — because that’s what the founders and designers of the park wanted. In fact, it was probably the greatest act of landscaping in history.
Before the park, the land was rough, uneven and covered in outcrops of Manhattan Schist, a super-hard rock that underlies much of the island. It took an incredible amount of gunpowder to blast the surface flat and render it usable. Two hundred and seventy thousand (270,000) trees and shrubs were planted and 6 million bricks were laid by 20,000 workers over the course of 10 years.
Most New Yorkers have no idea what went into flattening their city before anyone could build upon it. Here you see the “park” in 1862. Doesn’t look like much of a park, does it? The large building in the deep background is the arsenal, which is still there. The rest looks like a wasteland of jagged rocks.
Below is another photo of the “park” from 1862 with a squatter’s shack in the background. Looks like the poor soul was trying to grow some kind of garden in the rough, flinty soil.
They had to blast this land to kingdom come to get it in the state you see now. And this was before dynamite. As one newspaper remarked at the time, they used more gunpowder during the construction of Central Park than they did at the Battle of Gettysburg.
And then when they were done, they had to grade it and plant it and shape it… 2.5 million cubic yards of earth and stone were moved by shovels and oxcarts. 6 million bricks were laid, 35,000 barrels of cement, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, and 19,000 cubic yards of sand. Below you see some men building the park in 1861.
Gardeners fertilized the ground with more than 40,000 cubic yards of manure and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. All told, some 20,000 men were employed, and $10 million was spent – more than 3 times the city’s annual budget in 1860.
This was a project worthy of the pharaohs, and carried out during the length of a war that killed 350,000 Union soldiers—as a proportion of the population, that’s the equivalent of five million dead today, and yet here they were, building a park.
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