Lots of additions to Battell Park, but historic rock garden hard to top

The City of Mishawaka has a new rock star at Its oldest park. Battell Park, dedicated in 1881, has a newly opened playground and mini-waterpark tucked between the 1928 bandshell and the tennis courts.

Every day as I ride my bike home from work, I have witnessed large crowds enjoying the newly dedicated amenities. It is great to see people out enjoying the outdoors, getting some exercise and fresh air (at least on days when Canadian wildfire smoke isn’t present). As a society, we spend far too much time indoors with our eyeballs glued to screens.

But my rock star at Battell Park will always be the rock garden constructed in the 1930s by the Work Projects Administration. 

The rock garden at Battell Park was a WPA effort in the 1930s.

As kids in the 1970s, my brother and I would climb around on the rocks, with the hum of the Uniroyal factory supplying the background noise. The rock garden featured a water wheel at the top with pools of water surrounded by flower beds. Walkways and stairs led down to the  St. Joseph River. Across the river was the 100 Center shopping complex (formerly a brewery) and Kamm Island, which when it wasn’t underwater, hosted live music and was the mooring station for a paddlewheel boat named Island Princess.

What I didn’t understand at the time was the history of the structure. If I had, I wouldn’t have been climbing on it like it was a piece of playground equipment. The rock garden is one of thousands of construction projects built by people trying to stay afloat during and after the Depression. Our Federal government paid unemployed citizens to improve our country, something that one current political party would sneeringly call socialism.

Over the years, the rock garden has fallen into some disrepair. At some point, the pump house stopped functioning. Some of the mortar work has been clumsily repaired with concrete. Rocks are missing in some of the walls. Even after a heavy rain, the pools remain empty. At the bottom of the garden bordering the river, there was a lot of trash and water damage, which thankfully has been recently repaired, complete with a newly planted tree.

Many WPA projects have remained vital community resources and marvels of engineering found across the United States. Mishawaka is fortunate to have its rock garden.

Winding stairs, lined with rocks, leads to the St. Joseph River at the park.

Central Mishawaka has changed dramatically in the past 50 years. Battell Park has remained the centerpiece. The Uniroyal factory was imploded June 17, 2000, in front of a live audience. It has been replaced with expensive apartments and townhouses and a large event center. Kamm Island has been gussied up and no longer floods. Central Park, east of Battell Park down Mishawaka Avenue, features a new, large playground, splash pad, and pavilions. Buetter Park has lovely paths, benches, and water features. All of these developments are tied together by a wonderful riverwalk.

Battell Park replaced the wading pool of my childhood era with a splash pad, which has now been replaced by the new water feature and accessible playground. A couple of years ago, the Civil War soldier’s monument was moved from the center of the park out to Mishawaka Avenue, and unfortunately, in my opinion, is now a light-polluting eyesore.

On the east end of the park near the RiverWalk Townhomes is a new statue. More of the park along Mishawaka Avenue is currently fenced off and appears to be destined for less grass and fewer trees to be replaced by more concrete. I’m told the construction is for a new wedding venue, which will replace the popular but modest gazebo. I understand the city’s desire to generate revenue for park maintenance, but sacrificing green space for hard surfaces and structures is not what I want for one of my favorite parks.

Flowers add color to the rocks at Battell Park.

The current star at Battell Park is the new play area. However, the highlight of Battell Park for me is the rock garden. It has stood the test of time, despite being trampled upon unceremoniously by people like me.

I hope with all the new additions to the park, visitors will continue to make time to visit and marvel at a piece of history.