Monday, February 27, 2017

On the Historical Trail: Rogers Grove

Nathan B. Rogers founded one of the oldest and most prominent families of Lockport before there even was a Lockport.  Mr. Rogers walked from Massachusetts in 1817, and he built a cabin at what today is the corner of East Avenue and Cleveland Place.  He was one of the first men to clear the road from Cold Springs to Transit, today’s East Avenue and Main Street.

Following his brother, Nathan, George Rogers came in 1822.  As an iron worker, he was the lead contractor for iron work on the new locks being built for the as-yet unfinished Erie Canal.  His locks are what gave our city its name.  He was also the first chief of the Lockport Fire Department in 1829 and later the President of Lockport Exchange Bank.

Three other Rogers brothers arrived between 1823 and 1835.  James, a manufacturer, John, a produce dealer, and William, a prominent banker.  The Rogers brothers are considered the fathers of modern banking in Niagara County.

Rogers Grove was located near the eastern end of Irving Street, roughly bounded by Irving Street at the north, Livingston Place to the west, Woodlawn to the east and East Avenue to the south. The Rogers family owned all the land in the area of Rogers Grove.  As early as 1876, the family was using some of the “last wooded area” in the eastern part of the city as a public gathering area.  Civic groups, school picnics and orchestral concerts were held there.  Sometime around 1876, the Common Council appointed men to appraise the land for road construction to ease access to both the Grove as well as Irving Street.  This is now Rogers Avenue. 

In 1916, the area of the Grove was beginning to be subdivided to allow homes to be built for the burgeoning population of Lockport.  In an effort to maintain the park-like setting, homeowners and civic organizations rallied the city to preserve some of this area as a park.  In Common Council on June 16, 1926, “Various public spirited citizens have generously donated their property to the city, free of charge of all expenses for use as Park purposes, and that they have made it possible for the people of this city to enjoy the privileges of such donations by reason of their generosity.”  Thus, Rogers Grove was preserved as a public park and gathering area.

Meanwhile, the growing neighborhood at the eastern edge of the city required the services of a new school building.  In 1929, when construction was begun on Washington Hunt School, it was initially identified as “The Rogers School,” but after some discussion, the name was settled as Washington Hunt, after another prominent resident.

In 1936, the Parks and Shade Trees Commission put forth a resolution to buy the last piece of the original Rogers Grove to erect a new playground. The playground equipment was installed for the use of “small neighborhood children” in 1939  Officially known as “The Rogers Park,” it is not known why it has recently been referred to as “Rogers Avenue Park.” Perhaps it is just a name adopted by local residents.  Common Council records indicate the official name is simply “The Rogers Park” in honor of Nathan, George, James, John and William Rogers and to the memory of olden days of public celebration as Rogers Grove.  While a sign is posted on the building stating it as “Rogers Avenue Park,” there is no record in the Common Council minutes revising the name as such. 

This park is near and dear to me, especially after the closure of the playground at Washington Hunt. When I attended the school, Rogers Park is where we congregated before and after school. On rare, very special days, our gym classes would use the park for our physical education activities. There used to be a wading pool at the northern end of the park. I remember it actually being used. Today it is a pavilion.

In the winters, sometimes the City would flood an area between the swings and the wading pool for use as a skating rink. I've skated there quite a few times. If you can skate on that pocked surface (pocked and chopped by other people who couldn't care less about a usable ice surface) then you could skate anywhere. You got pretty good at turning abruptly, I'll tell you. And stopping. Otherwise, it was a good thing the hospital was only 500 feet away. You might end up breaking a leg or ankle. Those were some fun winter days.

Rogers Park is the closest to my house. On occasion, the girls will want to go over there to play. When they were very little, we'd push them over in the stroller and they'd play at both Rogers Park and the Washington Hunt playground. They still meet friends over there once in awhile, just like I did thirty years ago. 

While Rogers Park doesn't host the big lawn fetes like it used to, it is still a vital green space in the City of Lockport. I hope that it continues to be for years to come.

Craig Bacon thinks nostalgia can be a very important part of the historical tale. It makes a living history out of what otherwise be a static story.