HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — In Riverfront Park, at Front and Verbeke Streets, is a state historical marker for J. Horace McFarland. It’s a fitting place for the sign since he helped bring the park into existence. But his influence spread far beyond Harrisburg. In fact, through the first half of the 20th century, he was a voice to be listened to nationwide.
John Horace McFarland was born in 1859. He made his fortune as a printer and publisher of everything from seed catalogs to books on horticulture. He pioneered the use of photography to illustrate his publications.
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Many of those pictures were taken at Breeze Hill, his home in Bellevue Park in Harrisburg. He turned the two-and-a-half-acre site into what he called a “garden laboratory.” He was particularly interested in roses and was active with the American Rose Society for much of his life.
But at the beginning of the 20th century, he was very concerned about conditions in Harrisburg. The city suffered from polluted water, garbage, raw sewage, and particularly a lack of park spaces. In 1902 he became one of the leaders in the City Beautiful movement, which spearheaded widespread improvements, which included modernizing the water and sewage systems, paving roads, and creating several city parks, including Riverfront Park.
McFarland took the City Beautiful message to other cities in 1904 as the first president of the American Civic Association (a post he held for twenty years). His interest in parks and preserving America’s natural beauty soon got him involved in conservation on the national level.
In 1906, when hydroelectric companies wanted to divert water away from Niagra Falls for power generation, McFarland joined forces with the Sierra Club and Appalachian Mountain Club and convinced the United States Congress to enact legislation to work with Canada to regulate the use of the waters of the Niagara River.
In the 1910s he turned his attention to the country’s national parks. The 41 parks and monuments then in existence were managed by a number of different agencies, everything from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Army. He joined others to lobby for the creation of a single bureau within the Department of the Interior to bring the parks under unified management. McFarland helped write the bill that in 1916 led to the creation of the National Park Service, bringing the administration of our national parks under one authority.
McFarland would remain active in civic affairs until he died in 1948.