New Brunswick

Rockwood Park's history told through century-old photos, documents

The New Brunswick Museum Archives is getting ready to tell the story of how Saint John's ever-changing Rockwood Park evolved from an idea to what it is today.

New Brunswick Museum Archives is preparing a public presentation of the Saint John park's evolution

The New Brunswick Museum Archives will tell the story of how Saint John's ever-changing Rockwood Park evolved from an idea to what it is today.

The archives are getting ready for a public event on Saturday that will discuss the history of the massive urban park.

Christine Little, an archival assistant, helped unearth information showing how the urban park came together piece-by-piece.

"It was like a giant puzzle that they pulled together at the end," she said.

Little helped dig through maps, photos and other documents contained in the museum's collection.

The Horticultural Society experimented with several ideas to draw visitors to the park, including a Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum Archives)
One of the biggest assets is the Saint John Horticultural Society's minutes dating back to 1894. The society's members were heavily involved in the park's inception and Little said the minutes provided "a wonderful timeline of the development of the park."

In 1909, minutes from the construction committee detailed plans to literally carve out the park.

The Fisher Lakes are five human-made bodies of water and the archival documents discussed continued efforts to dig them out by local "jail prisoners."

The project was a success in their minds as it covered an "unsightly bog" and forced water into the area.

Later in the logs, the budget for tobacco for those same prisoners is listed along with bread for bears kept at the park.

Plans changed for time

The minutes also show how plans for the park changed over time.

For those who thought merry-go-rounds were too tame, Rockwood Park once offered more options for local thrill-seekers. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum)
"The park sort of morphed," Little said. "At the early stages of the park, they were experimenting seeing what would draw people into the park."

Those initiatives included a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and a massive wooden chute ride which offered thrills to locals.

This past winter was so mild that Lily Lake wasn't opened for skating.

But that wasn't the case nearly a century ago.

Among the postcards and logs are photos and programs of skating events that drew the world to Saint John's ice.

The International Amateur Speed Skating Championships in 1923 followed by the World's Amateur Speed Skating Championships in 1926.

Competitors from as far away as Finland came to compete against local men and women, including local skating legend Charles Gorman.  

Several pavilions were built over the years at Rockwood Park. Some were used in the international skating events held on Lily Lake. (Submitted by the New Brunswick Museum Archives)
While those events would have brought in money for local businesses, the archives also show how the ice itself was a big part of local commerce.

The Saint John Ice Company chopped up portions of Lily Lake for city ice chests right up until 1930.

Little said the company's operations on a popular public rink landed the Horticultural Society in hot water when skaters fell through thin ice.

"The society had to deal with some of the legal issues that resulted because of the accidents," said Little, adding that money had to be paid to the victims.