Monday, March 21, 2022

A Walk on the Wild Side in Harrisburg's Wildwood Park

Wildwood was once named "Wetzel's Swamp."

Wildwood Park, located in Harrisburg Pennsylvania, not far from the Harrisburg HACC campus and the Pennsylvania Farm Show, is a haven for hikers, bikers, birders, wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, to name just a few. Yet many who visit the area are unaware that the park has been operating for more than a century now.

The area, once known as “Wetzel’s Swamp,” underwent a transformation in the early 1900s as part of the City Beautiful movement, which, at the time, was sweeping the nation. The Movement embraced the philosophy of landscape architect and reformer Frederick Law Olmstead who believed that city dwellers benefited by having access to parks and open spaces.

By 1907, Wildwood’s first paths were opened and a year later, a baseball field created. Just two years afterwards, city council threw a wrench in the works by advocating for some of the land to be used for industrial purposes. The proposal was considered by the park commission, but ultimately defeated, or we might not have the park we enjoy today.

A red-winged blackbird hangs out on cat o'nine tails.

In 1914, Harrisburg annexed the land and in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Wildwood Park took on what was described as a “circus-like atmosphere” with a zoo which included mink, black bear, white-tailed deer, muskrat, raccoon and a mountain lion.

During the Depression, the Park was often the focus of the WorkProgress Administration (WPA) and several projects were completed at the lake, including the creation of picnic facilities.

By the 1940s, the popularity of the park waned, the zoo shut down and the area was largely neglected. Part of the land was even used for a dumping ground--a practice that continued thorough the 1960's.

By 1976, City Council was ready to sell Wildwood to Dauphin County for a steal and it was acquired for the grand total of one dollar. By the 1980’s, a movement was once again afoot, this time to revitalize the park. Grants were acquired and the effort gained steam. To continue the momentum, a group of civic-minded individuals established a private non-profit organization in 1987 called “Friends of Wildwood” and in 1992, Benjamin Olewine, a well-known food distributor, donated $827,000 towards the nature center that is used today as an educational facility.

Today’s Wildwood

Ducks hang out on a log.
Today Wildwood Park is a thriving community hub that attracts visitors from miles around. Chris Rebert, Park Manager, said, “Not only does it still provide flood protection for Harrisburg, but it also serves a variety of educational and recreational uses.”

New visitors may want to first stop at the Olewine Nature Center to pick up brochures, maps and other literature about the area before heading to the exhibits that provide wetland information. An on-site gift shop supports the “Friends of Wildwood" and on warmer days, people gather there for a weekly "Wednesday Walk."

Visitors can see wildlife exhibits and pick up informational brochures at the Olewine Center.

Photographers who visit the park will have plenty of opportunities to capture a variety of wildlife, from deer, to frogs, turtles, snakes and birds like the great blue heron, egrets and wood ducks.

For fans of flora and fauna, a special viewing opportunity unfolds in July—the blooming of the American lotus, which was once on the endangered list. “We have an expansive amount and the blooms are about 8-10-inches wide—big creamy blooms. Mid July is the best time to visit to view them,” said Rebert.
 A  pink poppy blooms along a walking trail.  

The wooded area is popular with walkers, who can take advantage of six miles of trails.

Clay Durham visits the park regularly as part of his exercise regimen. “I like it because I used to run at a local gym, but got sick of people fighting for the mirror to see who looked better lifting weights while I ran,” said the Enola resident, adding that an added bonus is the opportunity to view wildlife. “There are birds, geese and ducks everywhere. The wildlife is always there--rabbits, chipmunks and even garter snakes and toads; there is always something different and if you get tired there are benches along the way. There are paved paths, gravel paths, boardwalk areas and rustic trails,” he said.

The family friendly area is also popular with children. “My god-daughter loves the entire walk,” said Durham.

And for those who have yet to visit the area, “Art in the Park,” is a competition that artists enter every year, using items from nature to decorate the paths that run through the park. Visitors can view the exhibits from April through October 31. The 2022 theme is "Sunlight and Shadows." Below are a few entries from years past.

During the warmer weather, Wildwood hosts numerous events to attract both young and old alike. To learn more about what you can do at Wildwood, visit their website at