Planning Seaside Park, Bridgeport’s Waterfront Jewel

The University of Bridgeport soccer field fronted by Seaside park.

College campus area, music festivals, sporting events, beaching, biking, walking, running–Seaside Park is a waterfront gem in the state’s largest city. City historian Eric Lehman, on behalf of the History Center, Bridgeport Public Library, pens this piece about the planning of Seaside Park. Check it out.

Before the Civil War, no one in town gave much thought to the stretch of rocky land between Bridgeport Harbor and Fayerweather Island at the mouth of Black Rock Harbor. Barely good enough for cows, the land remained inaccessible to horse and carriage until the Union soldiers of the Connecticut 17th mustered there before taking the train to the war. Then, the Bridgeport Standard began a series of articles urging the creation of public parks in the rapidly growing town. In 1864, citizens like Nathaniel Wheeler, P.T. Barnum, and Colonel William Noble bought and donated land along the shore to the city.

For the planning of this park, Nathaniel Wheeler turned to the architectural firm of Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, which planned Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. By 1867 Olmsted’s firm had finished their plans, which included a seawall, a horse track, and pedestrian walkway, the only “rural marine open space” in the United States. Engineers drained the marshy borders, diked huge sections, and created circular drives and grassy lawns for the pleasure of Bridgeport’s citizens. Olmsted himself described the finished product as “a capital place for a drive or walk … a fine dressy promenade.”

At the time, Bridgeport contained only 15,000 people, but this foresight provided green space as the population multiplied eight times over the next fifty years. Seaside Park became a center of activity for the city, with trotter and sulky racing, “base ball” games, and a merry-go-round for children. P.T. Barnum liked it so much he designed his summer residence, “Marina Park,” to look out on “large lawns, broken only by the [center] grove, single-shaded trees, rock-work, walks, flower-beds, and drives.”

Vibes 2010
Gathering of the Vibes at Seaside Park.

The park quickly became a haven for monuments. In 1876 the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated to the American war dead. A statue of Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, had been slated for Central Park in Manhattan, but found its way to his home turf of Bridgeport instead. After P.T. Barnum’s death, a bronze statue of him by sculptor Thomas Ball was added on the showman’s favorite spot. Finally, the Perry Memorial Arch was built in 1918, designed by Henry Bacon, who also planned the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. The magnificent arch became a symbol for both the Park and Bridgeport itself.

As the years passed more and more land was donated. Much of the marshland to the west was reclaimed, incorporating Fayerweather Island into the park in 1911. People used the horse track to race their new cars, including the Bridgeport-produced Locomobiles. Today, the 375 acre park is on the National Register of Historic Places, and remains one of the only parks of its kind in the United States, a tribute to the foresight and planning of Bridgeport’s citizens.



  1. *** “Overpriced” for outsiders and underused for Bpt citizens, this so-called jewel has been overlooked for years! Any out-of-state visitor who has to pay $40 for a day pass to get into the park is being “ripped off!” Other than the beach with dirty water or picnic space and overpriced concessions, what is there to do, play cards or dominoes? With all the space and UB next door, the place could raise lots of revenue during the spring, summer and fall months. A little cosmetics here and there; promote UB School colors in their area and night soccer at their field. Create a Bocci ball and; horseshoe play area to get the seniors leagues tournaments to start playing at Seaside. Also a simple wall in an underused site for handball, it’s great exercise and cost is cheap! The park has room for lots of recreational sports and activity like an outside B-Ball court (nothing fancy) but again it’s great exercise and low maintenance to keep up. In the beach area, a sand volleyball season for all interested as well. The bandstand is underused, the second bathhouse should open the downstairs part and make a rental hall for private catered events from Memorial Day ’til Labor day with “ALL” proceeds, permits, vendor licenses and city payments for private or extra security at events paid to the City of Bpt’s Parks & Rec Dept. Antique car and bike shows, gospel music, American standards music, 4th of July, P/R parade, Barnum Festival events, with plenty of park cosmetics to liven up the park like the fifty states flags at different areas throughout the park, a special arts & crafts vendors alley where vendors rent a spot for the summer along with do’s & don’ts to sell their works in the park. Open up the second hot dog concession area by diamond #1 from May 30th ’til Labor Day, and invite many of the non-profit organizations like the Heart Assoc., Leukemia Society, Diabetes Society, Special Olympics, etc. to Bpt’s Seaside Park for their fundraising events throughout the summer for word-of-mouth exposure to all the great ways of utilizing Seaside Park and Bpt in general, like the Webster Bank Arena, Bluefish Stadium, UB and the Beardsley Zoo just to name a few! Build it up and advertize and they will come! Start with a Doo-Wop nite, then Jazz goes Latin with some Country & Western at the Band Shell, ending with American Standards every weekend during the Barnum Festival Season with a grand finale of a “taste of Bpt” to tease the palates with Tony Remo & his band! All at a special price to help promote the Park City, its businesses and nearby city and town neighbors! *** WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER! ***

    1. Mojo, that sounds great. One thing that changed that brought people to Seaside Park was the Barnum Festival Parade that either ended in Seaside or started in Seaside. I’ve never liked the reasons given for the change, this is the “Park City” and you have the P.T. Barnum bronze statue there.

  2. Yeah, Green jeans is going to put an energy plant right in the middle of this Jewel of a park. Tried looking at things from his point of view, but couldn’t get my head that far up my ASS!

  3. I believe the landfill with the insidious solar panel project is part of Seaside Park. I’m confused, didn’t the city do a “Master Plan” and hire Sasacki Associates a few years ago to do this plan? I don’t recall seeing a solar farm in the middle of one of our Frederick Law Olmstead Parks in spite of have attending these so-called public hearings/public input sessions. It’s not just the quality of this administration’s projects that irks me but it is the means they use to get to their ends, i.e. no transparency.
    WWFLOD? (What Would Frederick Law Olmstead Do?) WWPTBD? (What Would PT Barnum Do?) This solar project is a slap in the face of these two great men!


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