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Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners

Buffalo’s Olmsted park system was built and administered by a commission of citizens operating as a part of the city government. The Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners, commonly referred to as the Park Board, was established by an act of the New York State legislature passed April 14, 1869. It consisted of up to 12 members, who served for specified terms of office upon appointment by the mayor, who also served as an ex-officio member of the board. The members served without salary, and were free to choose their own presiding officer and to establish a committee structure to assist them in their work. The Mayor of Buffalo, William Rogers, appointed as the first Buffalo park commissioners William Dorsheimer, Richard Flach, Sherman S. Jewett, James Mooney, Dexter P. Rumsey, John Cronyn, M.D., Joseph Warren, John Greiner, Dennis Bowen, Edwin T. Evans, Lewis P. Dayton, M.D. and Pascal Pratt on 19 April, 1869.. During the initial organization of the commission, Mayor Rogers temporarily functioned as the presiding officer until Pascal Pratt was elected as the first President of the board. Mr. Rogers, whose term of office as mayor had just ended, was chosen as Secretary of the Commission.

One of the park board’s first activities was to make a formal appointment of Olmsted, Vaux & Company as landscape architects. To oversee the daily administration of the parks, the board initially employed a Park Engineer and a Superintendent of Planting. The park engineer they engaged was George K. Radford, who already had a working association with Olmsted and Vaux in their work on the Chicago, Illinois, parks. They also selected William McMillan, a professional horticulturist who had come to Buffalo from Flushing, New York, on Olmsted’s recommendation to serve as the Director of Planting for the Buffalo parks.

When the initial surveys of the grounds were completed in 1873, the new position of Superintendent was created to oversee the administration and maintenance of the parks. As the first Park Superintendent they chose Mr. McMillan. Mr. Radford resigned to enter into a partnership with Calvert Vaux.

The Board of Park Commissioners guided the creation and development of Buffalo’s park and parkway system for 47 years. During that time, they oversaw the expenditure of very significant amounts of City funds and had their responsibilities increased several times, eventually becoming responsible for all city parks, squares and public grounds, the city zoo, a botanic garden and a sizable amount of public roadways. In an era which regarded charity as a private responsibility, the parks provided a means of providing for the able bodied poor and jobless. At times so many men applied for work that the available park construction jobs were rotated daily to spread the benefit among as many families as possible. Despite their level of responsibility, the Board of Park Commissioners proved unique among the governing bodies of the city, in that not one scandal ever blotted the administration of the parks and the public funds appropriated for them! The Board was renowned well beyond the boundaries of the city for its honesty and incorruptibility.

A complete revision of the City Charter, which took effect on January 1, 1916 eliminated the bicameral legislative structure of the city government and all of the many commissions responsible for governmental administration, including the Park Commission. The end of the Park Board also marked the conclusion of the period of continued expansion and improvement of the Buffalo park and parkway system. Its functions were replaced by the city Department of Public Buildings and Parks, and under its administration the parks were soon subordinated to other municipal activities. The nearly 50 year old association of the City of Buffalo with Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm and successors ended with the demise of the Park Board. Sadly, after less than one year of the new form of administration, a financial misappropriation scandal struck the Parks Department, forcing the resignation of the Commissioner of Public Building and Parks … and highlighting what Buffalo lost when the Park Commission was disbanded.