As a native or new Charlottean, you may have visited serene Independence Park at the corner of Hawthorne Ln. and 7th St., just across from one of my favorite pizza spots, Hawthorne’s Pizza, in the beautiful and historic Elizabeth community. The beginnings of the Elizabeth community date back to the 1890s, named after Elizabeth College, a small Lutheran college for women that opened in 1897 on the block now home to Presbyterian Medical Center.
Before the area was known for medical complexes and health research, it would have been ahead of its time in its progressive efforts in the advancement of education and culture for women. In its early days, Elizabeth was, in fact, not part of Charlotte, as the eastern edges of the city limits stopped at McDowell St. Some of the city’s first trolley cars were later put in to help travelers commute from center city to Elizabeth. It may be hard to image now, but at the turn of the 20th century, Charlotte was so small that it only had a single water supply. Ever wonder why Independence Park sits neatly tucked beneath street level? Well, there’s a good reason. Before it was Independence Park, it was the site of the city’s 1st municipal waterworks facility and water supply. A small lake actually occupied the 24-acre space. In stark contrast, today Charlotte-Mecklenburg drinking water is pumped from the Catawba River – either at Mountain Island Lake or Lake Norman – to one of three treatment plants where it is later pumped into the distribution system.
Elizabeth was officially established and became part of Charlotte in 1907. But before that Daniel A. Tompkins, founder of the Charlotte Observer and famous industrialist, had been advocating for public parks to increase morale amongst the citizenry as early as 1894. As a result of his leadership, advocacy, and salesmanship, the City agreed (after the land was no longer being used as a waterworks facility) that the land could be repurposed to create the 1st public park in Charlotte. Planning began in 1904 and the park was completed some time between 1906 and 1907. The Park and Tree Commission was created to oversee the construction of the facility. We know this commission today as the Park and Recreation Commission. When it was constructed, Tompkins requested that the park be left in its natural state as much as possible. So the playgrounds, soccer, football, and baseball fields, the Arhelger Memorial, and the Sunnyside Rose Garden were not there in the beginning. They were all added later. In fact, to create the sporting fields, some of the land had to be filled in. The memorial remains, but the rose garden was sacrificed to the expansion of Independence Blvd.
If you haven’t been to Independence Park, I highly encourage a visit. Offering spaces for multiple sports, picnic shelters (some with electricity and some with grills), playground, walking trails, and a reflecting pool at the memorial, this historic gem has a little something for everyone. The park is also home to the annual Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas on June 19. Now, when you visit, I guarantee you’ll know more about the area than your fellow casual strollers. And don’t forget to grab some pizza from Hawthorne’s or enjoy some live music the Cajun Queen. Their shrimp and grits entree is amazing! You will NOT be disappointed! Until next time, stay cool, Charlotte!
Side view of the Arhelger Memorial at Independence Park.