Part 3 of 10: Deep Pockets
Thomas R. Proctor advocates for, and takes on the challenge of, creating a modern parks system.
Central Park was built in 1857-76, and many other cities followed New York's lead by building similar public parks, often hiring Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., to design them. And in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, Olmsted, Sr., and his business partner Calvert Vaux created the country's first integrated park and parkway system, in Buffalo, New York.
Meanwhile, Utica had proportionally less parkland than other cities in New York State. In 1896, it was home to only 3 public parks; the largest and oldest, Chancellor, was a mere 3.5 acres, and the other two, Steuben and Johnson parks, were 1 acre or less. In 1897, Maria and Rachel Proctor built a fourth park, Watson Williams, on James Street, which covered almost 7 acres. All of this is a far cry from Utica's later, nearly 600-acre Olmsted system.
Thomas R. Proctor began to speak publicly in the late 1890s about the need for Utica to build parks and tree-lined boulevards. He said that, in thinking about these matters, he didn't care about people who belonged to country clubs and could afford to take their carriages or automobiles to the countryside.
Instead, Proctor said he was inspired by a factory worker he met who said he had spent more than a day and a half of wages taking his family 8-10 miles by streetcar to Summit Park for an afternoon. "It occurred to me," Proctor concluded, "that it was not a good thing to say about a city, that there was no place for the poor people, the children, and the invalids to go without great cost." He also presented evidence from other cities suggesting that real estate prices rose near such parks, as did overall municipal tax revenues.
Proctor's words persuaded some influential Uticans, but it failed to convince many others. Evidence and reasoned argument proved to be insufficient. Fortunately for Utica, the Proctors didn't need to persuade anyone if they really wanted something to happen: they needed only to reach into their own very deep pockets to create whatever they desired.
Johnson Park, as photographed in the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
At 0.85 of an acre, this was the newest and smallest of Utica's three parks in 1896, before the creation of Watson Williams Park in 1897 and the Olmsted system in 1905-19.
Thomas R. Proctor and his wife, Maria Watson Williams Proctor, looking very much the patricians that they were.
Proctor (1844-1920) was from a prosperous small-town family in Vermont and became very wealthy as a businessman in Utica (mostly by investing in hotels, banks, and textile mills). Maria (1853-1935) and her sister, Rachel (who married Thomas’ half-brother, Frederick), were the sole inheritors of a fortune much larger than even the Proctor brothers had built. In deciding what to do with their considerable wealth (neither couple had children), they decided to create amenities for the benefit of average Uticans rather than pass it on to relatives in Vermont and elsewhere.
In 1897, Maria and Rachel Proctor built Watson Williams Park on James Street in Utica.
The park still exists, but the pond disappeared long ago. Utica’s fourth public park, Watson Williams covered 6.57 acres. It was larger than any other park in Utica, but it was still ery modest by comparison to the nearly 600 acres that comprise Utica's later Olmsted park and parkway system. Nevertheless, building it whetted the Proctor family’s appetite for park building.
Well-to-do Utica women in a car (circa 1900).
Thomas R. Proctor said he wanted a parks system to serve the average working-class Utican, not the sort who could afford a car or who could afford to belong to a country club.
US President William Howard Taft, Vice President James Schoolcraft Sherman of Utica, and others golfing in 1909
Golf Party at the Chevy Chase Country Club, Maryland, in June 1909. The jovial man on the far right is US President William Howard Taft, and the man standing second from the left is his Vice President, James S. Sherman of Utica. They are shown here with the famous early twentieth century golfers Allan Lard (far left) and Walter Travis (second from right). Thomas R.Proctor, a friend of both Taft and Sherman, emphasized that he wanted to create a park system in Utica for people who--unlike these men--could not afford to go to exclusive private country clubs.