“Fort Greene yesterday was crowded with people who sought, beneath the blue canopy of heaven and in the freedom of the fields, to worship ‘nature and nature’s God.”
-Walt Whitman, June 8, 1846
Fort Greene Park sits upon a hill which was formed when the Wisconsin ice sheet receded from Long Island. This ice-age hill would gain significance during the American Revolution as home to Fort Putnam. That fort, named for Colonel Rufus Putnum (Putnum was the chief engineer responsible for fortifying Long Island) was built under the supervision of Major General Nathanael Greene and would later be renamed Fort Greene in his honor during the war of 1812. Fort Greene Park retains his name today, despite being called Washington Park for the first 50 years of its existence. Washington Park is still used for the street along the park’s Eastern edge.
The land that surrounded Fort Greene was owned by Pieter Ceser, also known as Peter Caesar Alberti (reputed to have been Brooklyn’s first resident of Italian descent) and Jacob Ryerson, descendant of one of the early Dutch families of Brooklyn (Ryerson Street, northeast of the park, is named for them). When the families divided and sold that land at the beginning of the 19th Century, a shantytown developed. At the same time, the threat of war passed, and locals began to visit the grounds of the old fort for recreation and relaxation. By the 1840s an open space was planned for the working class residents on the site of the old fort.
Fort Greene Park was first designated a park by the City of Brooklyn in 1847 at the urging of Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman was the chief editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and King’s County Democrat, and used his soapbox, writing over 800 pieces for the paper, including poems, editorials and news stories to rally popular support for the creation of the park. Whitman had recognized and voiced the recreation needs of the growing populace of East Brooklyn where “the mechanics and artificers of our city, most do congregate, ” arguing for “a place of recreation… where, on hot summer evenings, and Sundays, they can spend a few grateful hours in the enjoyment of wholesome rest and fresh air.” In 1847, the legislature approved an act to secure land on the site of the old Fort Greene for what would be called Washington Park. The Park’s early success set the stage for the city’s major effort at Prospect Park and the subsequent citywide park system.
An influx of a new and monied population into Brooklyn over the next 20 years brought changes to the park. By 1867, when famed landscape architects Olmsted & Vaux were appointed to lay out the parks of Brooklyn, Washington Park had severely deteriorated. The Olmsted & Vaux redesign for the park was planned to appeal to the leisure time requirements of the middle-class families who were living in the newly built brownstones. In addition to winding pathways and open lawns, the Olmsted & Vaux plan for the thirty-acre park included an area for gatherings, two playgrounds, an observatory, and a site for a large monument to the Prison Ship Martyrs. After the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 nearly 11,500 men and women of diverse nationalities were captured by the British when the Continental Army’s retreated and detained on prison ships in Wallabout Bay and subjected to dire conditions, disease, fatigue, and malnourishment. The account of at least one prisoner has survived,
“On the commencement of the first evening we were driven down to darkness, between decks secured by iron gratings and an armed soldiery, and a scene of horror which baffles all description presented itself. On every side wretched desponding shapes of men could be seen.”
When captives on the Prison Ships died, their bodies were thrown into the East River and left for residents of Brooklyn to bury, largely in shallow graves along the shore near what would become the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Over the years tides worked away at the sands of the Navy Yard and exposed the bones of the victims. In 1808 the Tammany Society made the first effort to secure a proper burial ground for the Revolutionary dead and removed the remains to a vault on nearby land, which later changed hands and by 1855, almost 100 years after the Revolutionary War, no permanent home had been found for the remains. Enter “The Martyrs’ Memorial Association,” a powerful political group with representatives from each senatorial district in New York, each state and territory in the Union. They proposed a burial site in Brooklyn’s new Washington Park.
However, funding for the monument would not materialize until the 20th Century, when architects McKim, Mead, and White were hired to complete the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. They designed a new entrance to the crypt and a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. From its center rose a freestanding a 149 foot Doric column crowned by a bronze urn, which is 22 1/2 feet tall and weighs 7.5 tons. It was cast by the Whale Creek Ironworks in Greenpoint from designs of Manhattan sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman. The column used to contain a double-helix stairwell that led to an observation deck on top when the monument first opened. The staircase was eventually replaced by an elevator, but this was also later removed after falling into disrepair. The observation deck is closed but the crypt remains. The remains interred here represent only a portion of those that died aboard the prison ships. If you do wish visit the remains, The Society of Old Brooklynites hosts visits to it once a year but you have to be member of the society to enter. The only requirement is that you have to have lived or worked in Brooklyn for the past 25 years.
Today, the park retains its original Olmsted and Vaux character, with winding pathways, sloping lawns, and numerous mature trees, including a 135-year old English elm. My favorite Fort Greene Park activity is the Annual Great PUPkin Dog Costume Contest, a Halloween costume contest for dogs… and maybe their owners, too.