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Collection Frederick Law Olmsted Papers

Central Park, Civil War, and California, 1857-1865

A timeline covering Frederick Law Olmsted years planning Central Park with Calvert Vaux, as administrator with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and as manager of the Mariposa Estate in California.

  • 1857, Sept. 11

    Appointed superintendent of Central Park, New York, and presented first report, an extensive drainage plan, on October 6.

  • 1857, Nov. 24

    Brother John Hull Olmsted died in France.

  • 1857, Nov.-Dec.

    In collaboration with architect Calvert Vaux, who was a founding member of the American Institute of Architects and former associate of Andrew Jackson Downing, began planning, late in the year, a submission for the Central Park commission's competition for a design for what would become Central Park.

  • 1858, Apr. 1

    The Olmsted-Vaux plan, dubbed "Greensward," was submitted and selected as the winning design concept by the commission on April 28.

  • 1858, May 17

    Appointed architect in chief of Central Park, New York. Vaux became chief designer of the architectural elements of the park, and between 1858 and 1861 was the principal designer responsible for the terrace, ornamental bridges, and rustic architectural structures of the park.

  • 1858, Dec.

    The newly frozen skating pond in Central Park created an ice-skating mania in New York City, beginning this month.

  • 1859

    Organized a park police force and drafted regulations for conduct and use of the park.

  • 1859, June 13

    Married his brother's widow, Mary Cleveland Olmsted, and adopted her and his brother's children (John, Charlotte, and Owen).  The wedding was a civil ceremony performed by the mayor of New York, and founding trustee of the Cooper Union, Daniel F. Tiemann (1805-1899), in a house in Central Park (now Great Hill). Olmsted and Vaux families moved into Mount St. Vincent convent in Central Park, near 109th Street.  The Ramble opened in Central Park.

  • 1859, July

    Free weekend band concerts began and attracted large crowds in Central Park.  Public park use exceeded 100,000 on some summer days.

  • 1859, Sept.-Dec.

    Traveled aboard, visiting parks, gardens, sewage and drainage works, arboretums, and private estates in Great Britain and the Continent, including Birkenhead Park and the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew, and networked with English and European landscape gardeners. Collected books, purchased trees and shrubs for New York, and had a photographer document selected parks for future landscape reference.

  • 1860, June 14

    Son John Theodore Olmsted born, the first of four children, two of whom lived to maturity.

  • 1860, Aug.

    Published A Journey in the Back Country.

  • 1860, Aug. 6

    Experienced a serious accident while driving a horse-drawn carriage in upper Manhattan, with his wife and infant son as passengers.  Thrown clear of the carriage while trying to re-gain control of a runaway horse, suffered fractures of the upper left leg.  Physicians chose not to amputate, and feared for his survival. While in recovery later in the year, continued to supervise work in Central Park.  Physically hampered in walking henceforward, the left leg shorter than the right.

  • 1860, Aug. 14

    Infant son John Theodore died of sudden illness (possibly cholera).

  • 1861

    With Calvert Vaux, designed grounds for the Hartford Retreat for the Insane; the Bloomingdale Asylum, New York City; and Hillside Cemetery, Middletown, New York.  Frustrated by the micro-managing administrative style of Central Park comptroller and former friend Andrew H. Green (1820-1903), resigned his Central Park commission, but was convinced to stay on. In February, worked with Daniel R. Goodloe to abridge his three southern travel volumes into The Cotton Kingdom, published in London in November. 

  • 1861, June

    Took a leave of absence from Central Park to serve his country in wartime, as executive (later general) secretary of the civilian relief organization, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, authorized by President Abraham Lincoln to monitor and aid the health and well-being of Union troops. Organized Sanitary Commission staff, inspected troop conditions, established field depots, and pushed for reform of Surgeon General and Medical Bureau operations. John Hancock Douglas, Ezekiel Brown Elliott, Frederick Newman Knapp, and others were allies in the work.

  • 1861, Oct. 28

    Daughter Marion Olmsted (1861-1948) born. 

  • 1862

    Developed U.S. Sanitary Commission fleet to operate as a hospital transport service, and mobilized the transfer of thousands of wounded after the Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines).  Assisted in administration by Knapp, Robert Ware, and volunteer organizer and nurse Katharine Wormeley (1830-1908), of Newport, Rhode Island. Wormeley supported Olmsted's managerial vision and remained a long-term correspondent and friend.

  • 1862, Oct.

    Family moved to Washington, D.C.  Observed to wife Mary that the extent of casualties suffered and horrors of the battlefield were beyond imagination.  Some eight to ten thousand wounded were transported by Olmsted's hospital ships, which were credited in reducing the mortality rates of the Peninsular Campaign for the Union Army.

  • 1863

    With Edwin L. Godkin (1831-1902), helped to found a weekly paper in New York that became The Nation. With financial concerns facing his family, resigned from the Sanitary Commission and accepted a well-paid position as superintendent of the Mariposa Estate, a corporately held gold-mining property previously owned by John C. Frémont, in Bear Valley, California, located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, not far from Yosemite.

    Yosemite Valley, from the Mariposa trail. Stereograph image by Carleton Watkins, ca. 1871. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress. LC-DIG-stereo-1s01434
  • 1863, Oct.

    Arrived in California and reported enthusiastically by letters to family members after witnessing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove.

  • 1864

    Became aware of severe problems in the financial management of Mariposa Estate funds. Attempted to economize by reducing wages and diminishing the skill status of the current mine work force. Miners rebelled with a strike, which was suppressed.  Family, meanwhile, arrived from the East Coast. They found a new happiness and freedom, riding horses, camping in the mountains, befriending locals, and exploring Yosemite Valley.

  • 1864, Sept.

    Appointed to the newly created Yosemite Valley Commission, dedicated to promoting preservation and expanded recreational use of the wilderness area historically populated by Indians.  Hired engineer Clarence King to prepare a boundary survey.

  • 1865

    Mariposa Estate parent company's financial status became more embroiled in debt and controversy. Sought other business and professional opportunities in California.  Explored investment in oil, vineyards, and banking.  Created design plan for the College of California at Berkeley.  Joined camping party for Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax at Yosemite.  Submitted a plan for the long-term maintenance and conservation of Yosemite as a wilderness recreation area.

  • 1865, Oct. 2

    Resigned from the Mariposa position, and with prospects rising in the East, abandoned hope for a financial footing in California and headed back to New York.

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