Wildwood Park began as the decidedly unglamorous Wetzel’s Swamp. In 1901, the City of Harrisburg established Wildwood Lake as part of the City Beautiful movement, a nationwide reform effort conceived by social reformers to build civic loyalty and a sense of community among urban dwellers.
At the turn of the century, plans for a county park kicked into high gear. Wildwood’s first paths were opened in 1907, a baseball field was created in 1908, and a boating concession was started in 1909. Through the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, the swampy parkland took on a circus-like atmosphere, with a zoo, riding stables, and boating operating on the site. The zoo included a mink, black bear, white-tailed deer, mountain lion, muskrat and raccoon. But the park’s popularity waned over time, and by the 1940s, the Harrisburg Zoo closed under the weight of financial pressures.
By 1959, park usage had declined dramatically, as did the maintenance of the park. Tragically, part of the park was used for outright dumping. In 1964, the National Audubon Society began studying Wildwood and proposed the creation of a nature center and programming, although the society’s dream was not fulfilled until decades later. That same year, the Harrisburg Area Community College was deeded 157 acres of Wildwood Park.
In 1976, the Dauphin County Commissioners and Harrisburg City Council agreed to the Wildwood Park transfer agreement, and the park was acquired for the princely sum of $1. In 1977, the Dauphin County Commissioners adopted a $1 million development plan that included a nature study center. Only a year later, the Commissioners withdrew their support for the project. In the 1980s, momentum for a park improvement project grew, and grants helped to improve the parking lots, bike paths and canoeing facilities.
The private, nonprofit “Friends of Wildwood” was organized in 1987 to promote the enhancement of the park. In 1988, the “Year of Wildwood” was proclaimed. Recreational programs were expanded, and work began in earnest to rebuild Wildwood’s infrastructure and image. In 1989, the American lotus -one of the staples of Wildwood’s natural menu- was declared an endangered plant species, solidifying Wildwood’s unique place in history as a home of rare natural beauty.