The 1850s

The 1860s

The 1870s

The 1880s

Early 20th Century

The 1920s

The 1930s

Post World War II

The 1960s

The 1970s

The 1980s

All text from:
The Park and the People

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The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park   

Building the Park
It took a massive human effort to transform the rocky and swampy site that the city had purchased in 1856 into a landscaped park. By the time Central Park was completed, workers had gone over every foot of ground, raising or lowering the surface; they had transformed natural drainage courses into artificial subterranean waterways and created the illusions of picturesque abundance and distant prospects. In the first five years, laborers excavated, moved, or brought into the park nearly 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth -- enough to raise the level of a football field eighty stories. With pickaxes, hammers, shovels, and 166 tons of gunpowder (more than the amount fired at the Battle of Gettysburg), they cut through more than 300,000 cubic yards of gneiss rock veined with granite. Stone breakers crushed 35,000 cubic yards of this rock into paving stone. Contractors supplied 6 million bricks, 35,000 barrels of cement, 65,000 cubic yards of gravel, and 19,000 cubic yards of sand. Gardeners fertilized the ground with more than 40,000 cubic yards of manure and compost and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. Out of this immense expenditure of labor and materials -- 20,000 men and $5 million by 1866 -- emerged the park's drives, paths, bridges, hills, lakes, lawns, and scenic vistas. [Ch62]

At the peak of construction in 1859 and 1860, the Board of Commissioners of the Central Park was one of the city's largest employers, hiring an average of four thousand workers each year, with as many as thirty-six hundred laborers working on a single day at the peak of construction in early September 1859. [Ch634]

In the spring of 1858 laborers began the most important step of construction, a thorough drainage of the ground. Twenty-four-year-old George Waring, who had studied with a leading expert in "agricultural chemistry" and had managed both Horace Greeley's and Olmsted's "model farms," was placed in charge of the park's drainage. In June, Waring's team of four hundred laborers removed barriers or dug ditches to open the natural streams and clogged pools, then excavated trenches three to four feet deep at forty-foot intervals across the entire park, and laid one-foot sections of joined clay pipes or tiles. [Ch643] At the end of six months (December 1858), the drainage gangs had laid twenty miles of drain tiles in the southern portion of the park. They had also accomplished the more dramatic feat of filling the twenty-acre lake south of the Ramble in time for the winter skating season. [Ch644]

While Waring went his independent way, the four division engineers spent their first year in Central Park directing the grading and trenching of the southwestern Playground, the Promenade, the Parade, and many roadbeds. To remedy what the park's designers considered the "natural defect" of the "ceaseless repetition of rocks and hillocks with meager depressions of surface between them," gangs of workers reshaped and sculpted the lower park's topography. To produce the roughly thirty acres of "level or but slightly undulating ground," for example, that encompassed the site of the Parade (today called the Sheep Meadow), it was necessary to fill in ten acres of boggy land an average depth of two feet, blast out protruding boulders, reduce the height of intervening outcroppings, fill in the remaining depressions, and cover the entire transformed terrain with two feet of topsoil. [Ch646]


The Idea of a Great Park   |   The First Park Proposal   |   The Great Park Debate
Taking the Land   |   The Design Competition   |   The Victors
The Greensward Plan   |   The Debate over the Greensward Plan   |   Building the Park