Ringing The City With Green

– by Norman Lacasse

Click here to read an in-depth history of the making of the Capital Area Greenbelt as part of the City Beautiful movement.

Click here to learn about the completing the 20-mile loop and making of key Greenbelt sections like the MLK Memorial and Five Senses Garden. 

Click here to view historic photos related to the early Greenbelt.


On December 20, 1900, Mira Lloyd Dock delivered a speech on the “City Beautiful” to the Harrisburg Board of Trade. At that time, Harrisburg was not a nice place in which to live – streets were unpaved, there were many factories and mills that emitted fumes and polluted the air, and the river bank was where residents dumped their trash and coal ashes, since the city didn’t provide any collection service. Sewer lines emptied directly on the east shore of the Susquehanna and the city pumped water-unfiltered directly into residents’ taps. Typhoid was rampant.
Just back from a forestry tour in Europe, Dock showed the group lantern slides of what European cities had done with their parks and streets. The contrast between Europe and Harrisburg was great, and Dock’s public speaking skills electrified the audience. Soon, seven men were appointed to a Harrisburg Improvement Committee to chart a course to improve the city’s living conditions. They hired three experts to recommend improvements in sanitation, street paving and city parks.

Harrisburg Board of Trade, 1898-1913
Harrisburg Board of Trade, 1898-1913


Boston landscape architect Warren Manning, the consultant for parks, recommended a parked river front, expansion of the existing Reservoir Park, creation of a landscaped park at Wetzel’s Swamp north of the city (now known as Wildwood Park) and a ring boulevard encircling the city to connect its parks. On February 18, 1902, the voters approved a bond issue to fund the improvements by a 2-1 vote.

1902 – 1917

Over the next 15 years, supported by three additional bond issues, extensive improvements were made. Park acreage increased from 46 in 1902 to 958 by 1915. The riverfront was cleaned up with installation of a sewer interceptor covered with a broad walkway. Concrete steps were built to prevent erosion of the river bank for a distance of three miles. The ring boulevard grew rapidly at first with the completion of Wildwood Lake Park, Riverfront Park, and the two-mile Cameron Parkway along Spring Creek at the southern border of the city. The Paxtang Parkway was the next section built, connecting the greenway to Reservoir Park. Unfortunately, the section from Reservoir Park to Wildwood Lake was never completed.

1917 – 1990

There are several reasons why the 20-mile parkway was never completed, chief among them the effects of post-World War II migration of city residents to the suburbs. City dwellers who had enjoyed Sunday picnics in their favorite city park now were at backyard barbecues. The exodus devastated city budgets; recreational amenities are generally the first casualty. The Harrisburg parkway eventually was gated and abandoned, and nature moved to quickly reclaim the land.

1990 – Present

The Capital Area Greenbelt Association was formed in 1990 to restore the completed sections of the greenway and complete what hadn’t been done. In the past years, it has been accomplished with much volunteer help from the community, supported by various groups, grants and donated materials and equipment. Significant grants obtained in 1999 allowed the 20-mile loop to be essentially completed.
There were times in the past when it seemed that maintaining such an extensive linear park with volunteers was not possible. The turning point may have been a confrontation with McDonald’s and the county over the proposed siting of a fast food restaurant on the greenbelt. Almost overnight, the greenbelt became an accepted institution and a household word.
The completion of additional sections, addition of the Five Senses Garden, and much hard work by many individuals and groups has resulted in greatly increased usage of the greenbelt. There’s now no doubt that the Capital Area Greenbelt is and forever will be one of the gems of our Capital City.

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