by Jim Atwater
It began in 1888 with a gift of land to the citizens of Rochester by eminent horticulturists George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry to form the nucleus of Rochester’s first public park. These modest nineteen acres embracing the reservoir would in time grow into a world-class arboretum of some 155 acres named Highland Park. Twenty years later two more Rochester citizens, Henry S. Durand and George Eastman, inspired by the developing potential of the Highland gift, contributed 484 acres of land on the south shore of Lake Ontario as an addition to the area’s burgeoning recreational assets. In time this original gift would expand to nearly 1000 acres which would include an excellent 18-hole golf course and for many years a zoo which later was moved to Seneca Park; but it would be its arboretum for which this park would become renowned.
As is often the case, the true potential of this generous act was not at first fully appreciated by members of the community. A contemporary description observed that it “included swamps, gullies, plateaus of blow-sand, hillsides, treeless ravines and about 100 acres of peripheral forest.” It was also several miles north of the city and was relatively inaccessible by 1908 standards. This desolate landscape prompted a member of the Park Commission to say “I don’t know why we bother with it. We’ll never make anything out of it.” No one could be faulted for such pessimism at the time, but a solution was already at hand.
Many individuals were responsible for the growth of our park system from its modest beginnings to the valuable community asset it has become today. One who stands out was an immigrant Irish lad whose family arrived in Rochester by way of Ontario, Canada near the end of the 19th century. With only a fourth-grade education he continued to be tutored at home while helping to support his family. In 1890 at age seventeen he joined the park system as a day laborer at 15 cents an hour. Driven by an omnivorous urge to learn all he could about the horticultural world he would through study and determination become a familiar name in the plant world during the first half of the twentieth century.
Demonstrating unusual aptitude, he was initially assigned to Genesee Valley Park and later worked in many areas of the park system. In 1901 he was made foreman of Highland Park and in 1903 charged with the job of developing Seneca Park. He became assistant superintendent of parks in 1910 and was given the unenviable challenge of turning the desolate 500 acres north of the city into some sort of respectable addition to the park system. His name was Barney Slavin and it was his destiny to become the maestro, the designing genius behind the selection of plant materials and their location that would transform this unlikely landscape into the magnificent living collection of plants and appealing recreational areas at Durand-Eastman Park that we enjoy today – a second world-class arboretum in our community and a magnet that would attract plant experts eager to study and enjoy its unique selections of both foreign and domestic trees and shrubs.
The prominent landscape design firm of Frederick Law Olmsted was retained to prepare a basic master plan. Legend has it that after viewing their proposals Barney agreed with suggestions for the placement of roads and excavation of swampland to create the two lakes that exist today named after the donors. However, it was alleged but never proven that the balance of the plan accidentally became “lost” so that everything that followed had its origin in the creative imagination of Barney Slavin. Barney retired in 1942 after serving fifty-two years in the Rochester park system. He considered his work in Durand-Eastman the capstone of his professional career. During that career he is reported to have taken only one vacation – a three-day trip to South Bend, Indiana to see his son Arthur graduate from Notre Dame University. Perhaps that explains it all.
The arboretum at Durand-Eastman abounds with many unusual specimens of both foreign and native origin, too numerous to list in this article. However, a few that deserve a special visit are the two dawn redwoods near the intersection of Pine Valley and Sweet Fern Roads, some of the first planted in North America (1947). Nearby is a grove of giant Western redcedar reputed to be the largest growing east of the Mississippi River. Katsura Glen is also not to be missed for its many towering spires of this Asian introduction that has become naturalized and is beginning to spread throughout the park. If you can be there in the middle of May you will be treated to a rare sight, the grove of five Davidias or dove trees in full and glorious flower. This is the tree from western China, the search for which launched the career of Earnest “Chinese” Wilson, who went on to become the greatest plant explorer of the 20th century.