New York has Central Park, but Yakima has the Yakima Greenway.

The Greenway is a 20-mile system of parks and pathways along the Naches and Yakima rivers around the city. Runners, walkers and cyclists can go from Union Gap to Selah and Naches along the paved pathways. Along the way there are several parks, such as Harlan Landing, McGuire Community Playground and Sarg Hubbard Park, where people can rest, enjoy the scenery or recreate.

Few people realize that a good portion of the Greenway area was once a recreational retreat for Yakima residents, only to be turned into a place for garbage and down-on-their-luck people before civic-minded residents banded together to make it a place to get out, get active and enjoy nature.

In the early 20th century, Yakima residents went to what was known as “Sumach Park,” roughly centered on the area where Sarg Hubbard Park and Buchanan Lake are now. It evolved as people went down to the sumac groves along the banks of the river to fish, have picnics and relax.

The sumac trees provided material to build foot bridges across streams. Other amenities included horseshoe pits, baseball diamonds, bandstands and a teahouse. While not part of the park proper, there was a Ferris wheel located to the north.

It became such a popular place that when a circus came to town in May 1925, the circus parade had to be postponed because most people were attending ceremonies at the park for the opening of the Tieton Irrigation Project.

But what the river gives, it can take away.

In 1933, a record-setting flood swept down the Yakima River, scouring the flood plain as it wiped out farms and the park. It came at the same time as the Great Depression was wreaking havoc on Yakima’s economy, and the park was not rebuilt.

Instead, the land became a city dump, while nearby slaughterhouses and the sewer plant contaminated the river, the banks of which became campgrounds for the homeless. The dump did have a 3-acre grove of peach trees, spawned from the peach pits that local canneries dumped in the landfill.

With plans for an interstate freeway to run near the river proposed in the 1950s, some began to suggest that the land consigned to dumps could again become a park. An unbylined Yakima Morning Herald article proclaimed at the time, “Sumac area offers dream,” highlighting plans for developing a riverfront park, with the landfill turned into a vista point — with a golf course thrown in between the freeway and the river.

But it was an idea that would take time and money to develop. And local officials were wary of spending tax dollars to develop a park running from gap to gap.

Yakima Metropolitan Park District, which served as the city’s de facto parks department, obtained a $50,000 grant from the city in 1959 to purchase what was known as the Harcourt Taylor property to develop as park space. Today, that tract is the home of Sherman Park and the Yakima Area Arboretum.

But efforts to purchase other land on the east side of the freeway were shot down when officials instead opted to spend $100,000 on the Beech Street underpass, considering it a cheaper alternative to buying landlocked property for a park.

It would be the first of several setbacks to creating a park along the river.

Another suggestion — backed by what is now the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce — to expand Sportsman Park across the river to the west bank also was rejected in the early 1960s.

In 1968, Bob Lynch, a businessman and private pilot, took state Parks Commission Director Charles Odegaard on a flight along the river to pitch the plan for a river park. The flight, which at times skimmed the river at treetop level as Lynch pointed out proposed park development, impressed Odegaard, who then directed his staff to find funding for projects that would protect the river as well as develop parks.

The Rivers Preservation Act was passed in 1970, but without any money to implement its goals. Park proponents in Yakima were undeterred, and Lynch, Yakima Herald-Republic Publisher Ted Robertson and others proposed creating a nonprofit organization to raise money and take donated land for the project. It was estimated that a park would cost between $2 million and $5 million.

While the state parks commission endorsed the plan, that’s about as far as it went.

But in the mid-1970s, Democratic state Rep. Ed Seeberger and Republican Rep. Jim Whiteside proposed legislation to draft the “Yakima Greenway Master Plan” study, using the name Seeberger coined for the proposed recreation area. Despite opposition in the Legislature, the pair pushed through a $35,000 appropriation for the study in 1975.

The study was completed in 1976, just as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a flood control project along the Yakima River’s flood plain, using a system of dikes to channel floodwater away from developable land. While the Corps could not acquire land for flood-plain parks, it could help others develop parks in the area.

In time the Greenway path would, in places, run along easements atop the dikes.

In 1977, Whiteside, building on the success of the master plan legislation, sponsored a bill to designate the Yakima River Conservation Area, running from Selah to Union Gap.

While the bill passed, property owners along the river corridor successfully lobbied to remove the state from most of the planning, acquisition and construction.

Instead, the Yakima County Commission was given total responsibility for the project. And when a proposal to spend $200,000 for Greenway land acquisition was proposed, commissioners rejected it, arguing that there was no money for that project and that developing a park in the Lower Valley was a higher priority.

After that, Yakima City Parks Commission formed a Yakima Greenway Task Force to investigate the development of a park along the river. The task force, after reviewing various options, recommended creating a private land trust to acquire and preserve land for the Greenway, getting around commissioners’ refusal to pay for Greenway development.

The first meeting of the foundation’s board was May 13, 1980. That year, it also accepted a donation of 20 acres from Fred Velikanje for the southern portion of the Greenway, while the Yakima Kiwanis Club donated $5,000 for property acquisition and the Audubon Society contributed $1,000. The foundation also paid $2,800 for 31 acres of land north of the railroad tracks.

Other fundraisers included an annual banquet, membership dues, grants, a stock donation, the Gap 2 Gap race and even bingo games. There were also more donations of land, as well as incorporating some public land into the Greenway, such as a fishermen’s trail running from the Selah Gap to North 40th Avenue. It also obtained easements on the flood-control levees for parts of the pathway.

One of the larger achievements of the Greenway Foundation was reclaiming the old city dump. The foundation began its fund drive for that project in 1983, announcing that the new park would be named for Yakima businessman Ralph D. “Sarg” Hubbard. With labor supplied by Job Corps and others, the park was completed in 1990, with Hubbard’s widow cutting the ribbon to open the park and the rehabilitation of the former Sumach Park.

The foundation was designated the 503rd of President George H.W. Bush’s 1,000 Points of Light.

It Happened here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers.

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