Syracuse Parks Centennial: The history of Thornden park

Since 1921, Thornden Park has been a city designation where residents can find respite within its landscaped grounds. The origin of the park dates back to the 1850s, when a man named James P. Haskins attempted to escape his broken heart here on the east side of Syracuse.

Haskins was born in Pompey, New York in 1812 and entered the salt business in nearby Salina in 1836. A booming industry in the region, Haskins quickly accumulated a small fortune.

A few years later Haskins would marry his first love and best friend, Carolina Eliza. In 1845, one year into their marriage, Carolina tragically passed away while giving birth to the couple’s first child, who also did not survive. Carolina was just 24 years old.

Photo provided by the Onondaga Historical Association

Thereafter, Haskins sought seclusion. He purchased 15 acres from Zebulon and Smith Ostrom in the wooded area now known as Thornden Park.

It was written in the April 9th, 1920 edition of the Syracuse Herald that Haskin had a planned a wonderful home but while laying out the grounds occupied a small cottage which had been erected for a gardener. It was there that he found comfort and convenience and instead of building an entirely new home, he simply built additions to the structure.

Over the next several years, Haskins added to his holding, growing his estate to 76 acres where he lived in the newly constructed home nestled in the back of the woods.

Haskins devoted his time to the development and beautification of the grounds. It is written that he lived alone, with his servants and dogs. Rarely accepting visitors and never seeking love again.

Though Haskins had survived the death of his wife and child for several decades, he never truly healed. In 1873, Haskins took his grief to the grave. He ended his own life in the house he had built at the age of 60.

Following his death, his estate would fall into the hands of Major Alexander Davis, who named the estate, Thornden.

Davis was a veteran of the civil war who was a rich man by inheritance but also made a series of shrew investments in Louisville, Kentucky before arriving in Central New York.

Davis spent the next 20 years further beautifying the house and grounds in an effort to mimic an English manor. He filled the inside with expensive pieces of art and furniture, hosting many social gatherings.

Photo provided by the Onondaga Historical Association

Outside, he planted every kind of tree he could get. His favorite being a weeping beech, known to experts at that time as the largest tree of its kind in the world.

In 1887, Davis sought a political bid and ran for Congress, but was defeated by James Belden. Soon after, Davis decided to pursue his political interest in Europe and left the estate with no plans to return. His wife and two daughters stayed for several years, taking care of the property before joining him in England in 1900.

According to the research of Constance Zipperer, the head gardener of the Davis estate, David Campbell, managed the property once the family moved to England. Campbell is known for developing the first golf course in Syracuse on its grounds.

On December 13th, 1921, the estate was purchased by the City of Syracuse for $225,000, from the Davis family.

The city began remodeling the former mansion to be used as a community house and completed the work in 1929. Tragically, just before it was to be re-opened to the public, the home was destroyed by fire, resulting in its demolition.

Without the mansion, the city moved forward with a new wave of improvements that included a pool, amphitheatre, playground, trails, rose garden and more. Hence it was written in the May 14th, 1933 edition of the Post-Standard that, “Thornden cannot be described, as the circus press agent might say; it must be seen. One could write a poem about it, but only God could make its trees.”

Today the parks retains its original 76 acres on the East side of the city bordered by four streets: Ostrom, Clarendon, Greenwood and Madison.

On April 21st, the Parks Department is inviting the public to join them in historic Thorndon Park to participate in a tree planting event, a la Major Alexander Davis.

Thirteen trees will be planted to celebrate the centennial, with a total of 100 trees scheduled to be planted within city parks this year.

The event will take place from 1:00pm-3:00pm and is made possible through a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension and Onondaga Earth Corps.

  • toadhollow

    Great article, thank you. Where on the grounds was the mansion located, and are there any photos at OHA of the house itself? I love the rose garden at Thornden, and enjoy the Shakespeare in the park performances. Thanks for sharing this history.