By: Michele S. Byers
“A foot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”
-Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
Camden’s parks offer a wealth of natural settings that can inspire visitors and residents alike. Plenty of exciting things are happening with Camden’s parks in 2019 – and they have a rich history important to Camden, New Jersey and America.
Take Walt Whitman for example.
Camden’s most famous resident wasn’t the hale and hearty young man portrayed in his “Song of the Open Road” when he arrived in the city in 1873.
Walt Whitman was 53, living in Washington, D.C., and had recently suffered a stroke when he received word that his mother, who lived in Camden, was gravely ill.
Whitman arrived in Camden a few days before his mother’s death. He stayed for the rest of his life, eventually buying a modest row house on Mickle Street.
“Camden was originally an accident,” the poet wrote. “But I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden. It has brought me blessed returns.”
This month, Camden is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth on May 31, 1819. The city will toast America’s “poet of democracy” with many events.
As reflected in his poetry and prose, Whitman loved nature. For him, nature and the open air were places of healing.
Leo Blake, interpretive specialist at the Walt Whitman House in Camden, said Whitman liked to walk around the city, especially to the Delaware River waterfront. “One of his favorite things was crossing the Delaware on ferry boats,” not to get to Philadelphia but to spend time on the water.
“You would see him on the street and on the ferry, too,” said Blake. “He was the ‘Good Gray Poet,’ with his Stetson and his long gray beard.”
Being outdoors in nature helped Whitman recover from his illness. He became friendly with the Stafford family in the Camden County town of Laurel Springs, and spent a great deal of time at their farm along the Big Timber Creek.
Whitman bathed in natural springs feeding the creek, and built strength by doing pull-ups on tree saplings in the woods. He wrote that his jaunts in the countryside provided him “a sort of second wind, or semi-renewal of the lease of life.”
During his time in Camden and Laurel Springs, Whitman also revised and added to “Leaves of Grass,” his most famous poetry collection.
Whitman died in 1892 after 19 years in Camden. Thousands attended his funeral and his burial in an elaborate tomb in Harleigh Cemetery on the banks of the Cooper River.
Many places Walt Whitman most likely visited are now preserved parklands. Places like Higgins Park, Gateway Park, multiple natural areas on the Cooper River, Pyne Poynt and Coopers Poynt Parks are just a few.
New Jersey Conservation Foundation helped secure Whitman’s Camden history in the 1980s by purchasing a row house near his home on Mickle Street block and later transferring it to the state. It is now part of the Walt Whitman Historic Complex.
The farmhouse in Laurel Springs where Whitman was a frequent guest was preserved by the borough and is now known as the Whitman-Stafford Farmhouse. Crystal Springs, where Whitman bathed, is now a borough park. Its main attraction is “Whitman’s Walk,” a nearly mile-long boardwalk trail inscribed with quotes from the poet.
I hope Whitman would be happy if he knew that new parks continue to open in Camden, making the Delaware River and Cooper River waterfronts accessible to the public after decades of being cut off. Petty’s Island, which would have been a familiar sight to Whitman during his ferry rides, will soon become a public nature preserve.
Want to celebrate the Walt Whitman bicentennial?
- The Walt Whitman Association held a 200th birthday celebration on Wednesday, May 29, at 5 p.m., including poetry readings, cake, a visit by a Whitman impersonator, historian Darrel B. Ford.
- “Legacy” tours of Whitman’s residence on Mickle Street will be held through June 9, focusing on the works he created while living in Camden. For more information, visit https://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/event/walt-whitman-house-historic-site-legacy-tours/.
- On Saturday, June 1, the Borough of Laurel Springs will hold a Whitman Festival – known as “WaltFest” – at two sites: Historic Crystal Springs park and the Whitman-Stafford Farmhouse. For information, go to https://www.visitnj.org/nj-events/waltfest.
But perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Whitman is by enjoying nature on foot, as he did over 120 years ago.
The new 25-acre Gateway Park, along the Cooper, is a great place to discover nature. It is managed by New Jersey Conservation Foundation in partnership with Camden County and the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority and it’s not too far from the historic Harleigh Cemetery to visit Whitman’s tomb.
To learn more about Whitman and his time in Camden, go to the Walt Whitman House website at https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/historic/whitman/camden.htm
And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including Gateway Park in Camden – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.