If a sick day prevents exploration of the park, one can still time-travel through it, courtesy of the archives of the Brooklyn Eagle. Their database of scanned newspapers is cumbersome (articles tend to come up in separate chunks), but addictive. Once you get the knack of filtering out the purple prose of yesteryear, a search of "Prospect Park" opens a strange prism onto the life of Brooklyn.
Starting in the 1860s, dozens of articles report on the lofty ideals of the park's planners versus the base political squabbling of mayors, commissioners, aldermen, and other power brokers. Over the next 20 years, the park takes shape, from an extravagant vision in a Brooklyn that was still half farmland, to the "lungs" of a booming city and a magnet for "all classes" to engage in "healthful exercise and recreation."
The clips conjure up a lost world of Sunday school picnics and "sparking" young couples. Sheep, goats and deer roam various parts of the park; lawn tennis and croquet dominate the Long Meadow, and model yachts dot the lake. There is a Dairy, apparently equipped with real cows, and Sunday afternoon concerts of light classical music (Gilbert and Sullivan selections were popular) by "Conterno's 23rd regiment band." The well-to-do arrive in phaetons, the middle class by horse-car, and the poorest simply walk in. Constant references to the "salubrious" qualities of the park's air, due to its elevation, conjure up the shadow of fever-swept slums that sent affluent families in droves to mountains or seaside. The park was the workingman's refuge from the terror of contagion.
Winter sounded delightful, too. Thousands at a time thronged the lake for ice skating, and you could rent a sleigh at Grand Army Plaza. One year, an ice boat club held a regatta.
But the park also drew its share of lost souls; I now know a host of ghosts to look out for. Every few years, it seemed, brought news of a suicide: a "despondent German"; an "Austrian cripple" with a wooden leg and a Smith and Wesson; a young woman, never identified, who left behind a sewing kit and gold pocket watch on the lake shore; a man found clutching a flask of laudanum and the pawn ticket for his overcoat; a bearded old fellow who slit his throat just inside the Ninth Street entrance and later expired. Almost always, the motive uncovered was "failure to find employment" or "financial desperation"; the family of a lithographer who shot himself in July of 1884 was described as being "in absolute want." It was a gentler time, that era of phaetons and croquet, but not for everyone.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
--James Joyce, The Dead
Images: Top, antique postcard, The Horse Tamers; bottom, Prospect Park Archives