Guest post by Kathleen Smythe
As you walk into Eden Park, one of the first things you encounter is the remains of a double basin reservoir—its walls more often than not being scaled by recreational climbers. The reservoir was removed in the 1960s and the land was used to develop Mirror Lake, beneath which another reservoir (still in use) stands. But the park has become home to much more than just the reservoirs. Mirror Lake forms the tranquil backdrop of the iconic Spring House Gazebo—one of the longest-standing structures in a Cincinnati park—which replaced the original spring house that once stood there. The park also contains a number of landmarks, including an art museum, a theater, and conservatory, and boasts beautiful views of the Ohio River and twin lakes, where an old limestone quarry used to be. Looking at this charming urban oasis, it is difficult to believe that the land was once nothing more than a bleak hilltop. It is even more curious to learn that its transformation was spurred by one man and an unlikely collaborator: the Catawba grape.
Nicholas Longworth (1783–1863) was one of a dozen or so men who significantly shaped the early decades of Cincinnati’s history. He grew up in New Jersey in poverty, largely owing to his father’s Loyalist position during the American Revolution, for which the family’s property was confiscated. Hoping to escape this past, he came to Cincinnati in 1804. He was a lawyer and banker by profession, and a very successful real estate investor. In fact, in 1850 Longworth paid the second highest tax bill in the nation! He is also the founder of cultivated strawberries. But he is perhaps best known as the first commercially successful winemaker in the United States, and thus the “Father of American Wine.”
Curiosity and a passion for botany led Longworth to grape growing. Prior to his attempts, American grapes were deemed too musky for good wine or good raisins. When early settlers tried importing European vines, the vines died. They could not withstand the diseases and pests that attacked them. An accidental hybrid of European and American grapes, the Alexander grape, had a bit more success. It had a taste closer to the European varieties, and some of the resistance of the American varieties. A Swiss immigrant started to grow this new variety in Vevay, Indiana (“New Switzerland”) in the early 1800s. Revolutionary War major John Adlum also grew the new strain in Maryland.
Longworth corresponded about viticulture with Adlum, who had settled in Georgetown farther up the Ohio River; it was Adler who introduced him to the Catawba grape, another accidental hybrid. The major thought Longworth particularly inquisitive. Even Longworth’s own sister said of him, “If you threw him into the Ohio river [presumably unable to swim], I bet he would at once begin to search for a rare species of fish and not come to the surface until he found it.” His interest in wine came from multiple directions. Concerned about alcoholism and other problems associated with hard liquor drunk in large quantities by many Americans, he thought that wine, with its lower alcohol content, would provide an important alternative to his countrymen and women. After experimenting with many varieties, he grew Catawba grapes. When a batch of Catawba wine was accidentally subjected to a second fermentation, it produced a sparkling wine with a much improved taste. Longworth hired champagne makers from France to come show him how to produce the sparkling wine. The experiment was expensive—in one year, 42,000 bottles exploded in the cellars—but Cincinnatians liked it. The sparkling wine became known around the country as Golden Wedding Champagne. By the 1850s he was producing 100,000 bottles a year. The wine inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write the poem “Ode to the Catawba Wine.” An excerpt gives a flavor of both the poet and the setting.
In the early 1800s the hillside along the Ohio River was barren, stripped of trees to build homes. In 1831, Longworth purchased a mansion and much of this land for a vineyard. He chose to grow grapes here, since the hilltops could be used for little else. Prior to the building of inclines, the steep grades made settling on the river’s hillsides difficult. His vineyard stretched for more than three miles upriver, and he called this land the “Garden of Eden.” (Cincinnati residents called the hill Mt. Ida, after its first recorded resident—a washerwoman, Ida Martin—who lived alone in the hollow of an old sycamore tree.) He later donated the land to the Cincinnati Astronomical Society for an observatory. An elderly John Quincy Adams presided over the dedication of the observatory in 1843, and the hilltop community was renamed Mt. Adams in his honor.
Several times, starting in 1818, Longworth offered to sell the vineyard to the city for park space, but the city was not interested until much later. Eventually, the city saw need of the land to build a reservoir for clean water for its residents. Prior to this, the city had extracted its water from the river, the same source into which waste from Duck Creek industries was discharged. So, in 1865 they began acquiring land from Longworth’s relatives and other private landowners.
No hint of the vineyard is visible today, but Eden Park is no less fruitful now than it was in Longworth’s time. Eden Park is the crown jewel in the Cincinnati Park system, in part because of its amenities but in part because of the iconic views and the ways layers of history have contributed to its uniqe character. Its evolution, preservation, and popularity speak to the effervescent quality of the space, and represent the ways philanthropy can serve a city for generations.