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Prospect Park, Two by Two - Part One

Mar 13, 2014 12:52 PM | 1 comment

I have always had a fondness for zoos. I used to work with a zoological park in Washington State and volunteered with one here in New York City. I love that even though we live in an urban jungle we can travel to a jungle in Asia or South America for the price of a subway ride (and general admission). Zoos were not always magical places. Many of the early menageries and zoos collected animals by trapping them in the wild and placing them in cramped cages that looked nothing like their native environment. Today, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoos and the aquarium here in New York (with the exception of the Staten Island Zoo; so independent, that Staten Island), works tirelessly to protect wildlife and the natural world. This desire to protect animals is actually something people have been passionate about for years. People - specifically Brooklynites. Protection - specifically from bombs. Read on! 

Paging Bo Peep, World News. March 25, 1945. 

(The above photo from the World News was found in the "morgue" and shows two tiny lambs in the London Zoo hiding from the Nazis. It doesn't have anything to do with this post, but look at how amazing it is!)

The original design for Prospect Park included a zoological garden which never came to fruition during the construction of the park in the 1860s. A fairly informal menagerie was created in 1890 to showcase a smattering of animals including elk and sheep. Many people found the animals to be quite a nuisance; they made noise and smelled like, well, animals.

Elks in Prospect Park, 190-?. Brooklyn Eagle Postcard Collection, 70. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

What's more, Manhattan already had a legitimate menagerie in Central Park (1864) which was nearly thirty years older and far more permanent than the one on the grassy knolls of Prospect Park.

As the 19th century came to a close, the menagerie began to acquire more animals and a permanent place within the park's identity. In 1898, the Prospect Park menagerie was one of the few places in the country to host a baby bison. This was (and remains, to me at least) super exciting.

Prospect Park's bison, identified as buffalo (a bit of a misnomer), in this print from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 22, 1898.

By the turn of the century millions of bison had been slaughtered and there were thought to be no more than 1,000 left in the country. One of those supposed 1,000 lived in Prospect Park. He was big. He was brown. And, by all accounts, he was lonely. George V. Brower, the Parks Commissioner, had been searching the country for a female bison (cow) to bring to Brooklyn. This proved to be an insurmountable task, as most of the remaining animals were in private collections and could not be purchased. Serendipitously, Brower came into contact with a Kansas man had recently purchased a small herd from a tribe who could no longer care for them. The man was willing to sell one of his newly acquired cows. This was a lucky break for Brower (and for the cow) as the man had purchased the herd with plans of slaughtering them for winter meat.

Side Note: The idea of slaughtering a herd of critically endangered animals makes my heart hurt.

So, for $500 and the cost of shipping, the Prospect Park bison was given a mate. When the cow arrived via Wells-Fargo wagon "the delight of the lonesome bull at seeing one of his own kind was a cheerful spectacle. They rubbed noses though the bars in a most affectionate manner. In a very short time they were given the same cage, and were friends from the moment this was done" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 22, 1898). Commissioner Brower was exceedingly proud of his purchase. I'm pretty happy with his purchase, too. I am a big fan of the buffalo.

Over the years, both the Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo (here is where I switch from 'menagerie' to 'zoo', as the words were being used interchangeably since the early 20th century) padded the Prospect Park Zoo with 'extra' animals, among them bears and coyotes. Other donations came in from private collections. In July of 1900, the zoo opened a flying bird cage (a cage for flying birds, not a cage that flew) and also acquired "a Columbian black-tailed deer, a pronghorn antelope, five swift foxes, two gray wolves, six woodchucks, two red foxes, four American flamingos, one dusky horned owl, and two coral snakes" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 8, 1900). 

New Bear Cage in Prospect Park, 190-?. Brooklyn Eagle Postcard Collection, 10. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

Not to be outdone by other boroughs, Brookynites began calling for an updated park to match the grandeur of New York City's other zoological gardens. But if the zoo in Prospect Park was to be taken seriously it needed an influx of even more new animals and a more modern facility to keep them in.

Cue Frank Bostock.

Bostock Arena, Dreamland, Coney Island, N.Y. circa 1905. Library of Congress. 

Frank Bostock was an entertainment mogul in true 19th century fashion. The Bostock family had been involved in traveling circuses for decades in both England and abroad. His animal shows contained all the drama of the circus (if circuses are your thing): lion tamers, acrobatic bears, and snake charmers. As of 1903, 'Bostock's Wild Animal Show' had a permanent home in Dreamland, one of the amusement parks at Coney Island. He also had a reputation for animal cruelty, but that's a another post.

1911 was a bad year for both Bostock and Coney Island. Dreamland caught fire and burned to the ground. Tragically, few of Bostock's animals could be saved from the blaze. Frank Bostock would follow the next year, dying at 46 years old of a stroke. His animal shows would continue, but on a smaller scale. 

Dreamland fire, 1911. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Cue WWI.

Out of the frying pan, as they say. As of July, 1914, Europe was at war. Bostock's European animal collection needed a new, safe home, and fast. Some of the animals were quickly purchased by Hollywood, others by zoological associations, and a few went to other wild animal shows. In October of that year, Brooklyn threw its hat into the mix by purchasing 70 animals of her very own. Lions don't come cheap, however.

Cue Brooklynites.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle spearheaded a project to raise money to purchase the animals. The debt was to be paid before the animals were shipped. Readers were asked to send in donations to 'buy' the animals for the Prospect Park Zoo. Anyone who purchased an animal would be given the right to (re)name it. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 18, 1914.

When the money started rolling in, the Eagle felt confident they could pay the bill and officially purchased the animals and ordered the whole lot shipped. "Hurrah! The animals for the Prospect Park zoo are by now on the high seas en route from England to America and Prospect Park. It was a veritable Noah's Ark that embarked today and the lions roared, the bears gave grunts of satisfaction, and the monkeys chattered vigorously, no doubt speculating on all the fun they would have when they ensconced in the new zoo..." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 21, 1914). 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 18, 1914.

The total cost was $3000. Roughly $2000 was to be the responsibility of the citizens of Brooklyn. Parks Commissioner (and later Borough President) Raymond Ingersoll urged all Brooklynites to participate. He called on kids to send in their milk money, called on grandparents to buy gifts for their grandchildren, called on all Brooklyn fathers to donate $1, and even called on park employees. Employees of Prospect Park ended up buying three bears. When your boss tells you to buy a bear, you ask how many. 

Henry Milton's Junior Eagle Zoological Society Membership Card, 1914. Brooklyn Collection.

If the animals were purchased in segments, the owners had to agree upon a name. It turns out naming zoo animals can be a fairly divisive process. The Berkely Institute (now the Berkely-Carroll School in Park Slope) purchased 1/2 a lion. "The Berkely Institute has decided that it wants that part of the lion that roars, being that part which takes in the head and the front legs, and the more noise that it makes the better... they do not care as to what the name will be, as far as that is concerned. It can be called Dave, Tom or Jerry. It must be a lion with a heavy, shaggy mane, and they probably prefer the name Dave to any other" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 19, 1914). This put the lion in an interesting predicament. Who would purchase the back half? Dave Porter, apparently, a real estate agent with northern Irish roots. Porter was happy to purchase the lion's rear as long as he could pick both the name and gender.

After some careful thought, however, the Berkely Institute changed their mind. 1/2 a lion was not sufficient. They wanted the whole shebang. Thus, the lion was thrown back into limbo. Now, the front 1/2 was up for grabs!

As troubling as lion purchasing can be, it can also unite nations. Yes, it is that powerful. A letter came to the Eagle on October 26th, 1914.

Dave Porter's half lion must not be allowed longer to suffer. We've got home rule in Ireland now and there is no reason why a South of Ireland man shouldn't be proud to own half a lion with a North of Ireland man. Buy me the other half of Dave Porter's lion and let it typify 'Unified Ireland' in the new zoo. But I want the better half, just the same. If Dave feels otherwise, why we'll have to fight it out in good old Irish style, though, of course, as an Irishman I'm not looking for a fight. - Mr. Jack Ryan

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 26, 1914.

The collection continued to grow. On October 25th, Mrs. G. V. Cartwright inquired about an animal she could purchase in full, making it clear that she would not be sharing. Thus, because of Mrs. Cartwright's generosity (and originality?), the zoo got a kangaroo named The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. (Eat your heart out, North West.) Mr. Charles Higgins bought a leopard, the most expensive animal at the collection valued at $150, and named him Gowane. The Orpheum Theater bought a bear and, even if the bear couldn't sing, his name was to be Orpheum. 

Not all of the animals were coming via ark, however. Mrs. Ruth Hill donated two small alligators for whom Commissioner Ingersoll had to scramble to create some sort of special enclosure. It was not explained where she got them nor where she had been keeping them. I'm guessing sewer and bathtub, respectively. Madam Adgie, a patriotic Brooklynite and circus performer whose trained lions rivaled Bostock's, donated a lion cub and the 'services' of a male lion for breeding purposes. Generosity abounds!

Every day the Eagle would publish a list of the animals still available for purchase.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 19, 1914. 

The Eagle began to beseech residents to donate any money they could, as the animals were slated to arrive on November 11th and, at that time, the bill needed to be settled. The representative for the Bostock family felt that raising a mere $2000 should be very doable. In fact, he felt that selling the animals for a mere $2000 was akin to robbery. " 'Why, the lions [that] sold for $100,' said [the Bostock representative] "are worth $400 on the spot, and the other animals in proportion and do you know this is costing us nearly $2000, two thirds of the $3000 we are getting, just for transportation?' " (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 18, 1914). Needless to say, his harangue did nothing to dampen Brooklyn's spirits as it geared up for the November 11th parade. 

Radio silence.

The ark, having left London, was somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.


Brooklyn held her breath.

What if the boat sank?

What if the boat was captured by enemy combatants?

What if, what if, what if?

Stay tuned for Prospect Park, Two by Two - Part Two!


3/19/2014 9:07:05 PM #

would you mind if I spread this on twitter?

Brett Rossi United States