Saturday, November 26, 2011

The View From Here: Fort Hill Park

Fort Hill Park c. 1907
It was unseasonably warm yesterday afternoon. With the temperature hovering in the mid 60s it seemed to be an ideal day to take Maggie the Therapy Dog for a little impromptu therapy dog visit outside the grocery store. Maggie gets some great opportunities to have short interactions with a variety of people in a novel situation, she gets a lot of attention, and a lot of people smile. As those of you who are regular followers of the therapy dog, she is super outgoing--and she also has a few strange phobias left over from some negative interactions with a vet. The more exposure she gets to men with beards, the less concerned she is about men with beards. A win-win situation, don't you think?

On the way home we took a detour to Fort Hill Park, which is on the outskirts of Lowell Massachusetts. I tweeted a picture from the top of the hill and a follower on Twitter commented that the tops of both trees had fallen off. I got to wondering how that happened, and how it happened that there was a park at all. I thought I'd spend a little time doing some research about the origins of the public space.

Fort Hill Park, Lowell Massachusetts 
The Friends of Rogers Fort Hill Park provided the following helpful timeline. I've taken it upon myself to link the timeline with some helpful resources. 

A thoughtful reader will note that the land was given to Margaret Winthrop (daughter of Governor John Winthrop)  in 1649. No mention was made of the people who lived here before that. We hear about them indirectly in this timeline. The first mention of the native peoples living in the Merrimack Valley was in 1653, when John Eliot asked the general court to set aside the land for "christian" or "praying" natives. The time line takes us to 1669, a full 20 years after this land was given way to Margaret, and we finally get a direct mention of the original owners of the land, the Pawtucket Indians. They created a fort on the top of the hill to protect themselves from attacks by the Mohawk tribe.

Hidden here is a story of the displacement of the native people of America. A sad story worth remembering. It's also sad how little information I could find (at least easily find) about these first people.
  • 1649 The General Court of England granted 300 acres of land to Margaret Winthrop, which was bounded on the west by the Concord River and on the north by the Merrimack River; Fort hill was part of the territory.
  • 1653 John Eliot petitioned the General Court to set aside land for the exclusive use of the “Christian” or “Praying” Indians.
  • 1669 Wannalancit, son of Passaconaway and chief of the Pawtucket Indians had his people build a fort and palisade atop Fort Hill for protection against potential Mohawk attacks.
  • 1714 John Boland purchased 250 acres of land, which included Fort Hill.  The Pawtucket Indians are left with only hunting and fishing rights on the land.
  • 1805 Zadock Rogers bought 247 acres of land for $5,200.  He was 31 years old [he apparently died the same year he bought the land].
  • 1826 On March 1, Lowell is incorporated as a town.
  • 1837 The Rogers house is built facing the future entrance to the park.
  • 1881 The sisters Emily and Elizabeth Rogers offered their land opposite the house to the city for use as a public park.
  • 1883 A syndicate of businessmen – F.B. Shedd, E.W. Hoyt, E.A. Smith, and T.P. Garrity -- bought the land, put it in a trust and made $30,000 toward improvements on the property.
  • 1885 Ernest Bowditch of Boston [he got around, having done the landscaping in a historic park in my hometown of Cleveland - Rockerfeller Park], a “competent landscape gardener” began design of the park.  He removed boulders, laid out walks and carriage roads, and planted trees and shrubs.
  • 1886 The deed for Rogers Fort Hill Park was transferred to the City of Lowell.
  • 1894 The city purchased 4 acres of land between High Street and Hanks Street.  This “lower portion” was added to the park.
  • 1900-1904 Correspondence began between the Olmsted firm and the City Engineer.  The Lowell Parks Commission was established.
  • 1904-1908 Major work in the “lower park.”  A drinking fountain was put in the spring house, a fountain was placed in the lily pond, a maintenance building was built, trees and shrubs were planted, and walks were laid out according to the Olmsted plans.
  • 1910-1925 Work continued in the park; a nursery was added on the north side of Fort Hill, and a small zoo and deer paddock were added on its south west side.  Attendance was high.  First winter carnival was held in 1923.
  • 1925-1950 The city stopped publication of annual report books; little was heard or written about the park.
  • 1960-1980 City budgets were drastically cut.  Maintenance was all but eliminated.  Park slipped into a period of decline.
  • 1989-1990 Fort Hill Park Betterment Association organized to address crime and safety issues.  Police patrols were increased, security gates were installed and boulders were placed around the base of Fort Hill to deter vehicle access.
  • 1995-2000 The Belvidere Neighborhood Association’s Beautification Committee adopted the park as a project and made plans for the park’s management, restoration, and fundraising.  The Lowell Historic Board gained the park and surrounding neighborhood designation as the Rogers Fort Hill Park Historic District.
  • 2000-2005 With state matching landscape preservation grants, the City installed new trees, gardens, walkways, curbs, benches, and the fountain.  In 2001 the Friends of Rogers Fort Hill park formed to maintain these new features and to plan for future improvements at the park.
  • 2005-present The Friends of Rogers Fort Hill Park incorporated as an all-volunteer, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  Today their volunteers provide maintenance, educational programming, and advance improvements at the park.
Trees at Forth Hill Park by Meredith Fife Day
The park is now part of the Concord River Greenway Park, which is an area being built as a multi-use pedestrian/bike path designed to transform the Concord River into a shared natural resource that unites neighborhoods and connects them to regional resources. Check out this EPA document for how this plan has been developed. We don't often hear stories of our government doing useful things: it's nice to see examples like this where the government is investing in building better communities.

Click here to be taken to a Picassa gallery of some historic postcard images of Fort Hill Park that I collected from around the internet. Super curious and want to do some deep research? Check out page 27 of the June 30, 1936 edition of the Lowell Centennial for an article about the city parks. Check out page 7 of Anne Ohlsen's oral history to learn about the bears that were kept in cages on Forth Hill Park. Special thanks to University of Massachusetts Lowell for making their Center for Lowell History available online.

That's right. Bears. Who knew?

Fort Hill Park, Lowell Massachusetts


  1. When did the park open and close?

  2. The part is still open, sans animals, from dawn to dusk. On a warm summer day you can find children playing and families picnicking. I don't know when the animals and other attractions closed down beyond what I wrote.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.