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William Stinchcomb

William A Stinchcomb: "Mr. Metropolitan Park"


"Bill Stinchcomb and the park system are one institution," a Cleveland newspaper pronounced in 1939. Stinchcomb, a self-taught engineer, was the founder, father, and only director of the Cleveland Metropolitan Park District until his retirement in 1957. For five decades, he guided its development, watching it mature, fighting for it, giving it intelligent direction.

Six-feet-two, lithe, dark-eyed, occasionally gruff - "almost Lincolnian in simplicity and honesty" was how one writer described him - William Albert Stinchcomb was born June 5, 1878, in a farmhouse on Chestnut Ridge (now near Denison Avenue)- near Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. He attended the Cleveland Public Schools, leaving West High School at age 16 to work for the National Iron & Wire Company. In 1895, he joined the city engineering department as a surveyor and worked his way up to assistant city engineer in charge of bridges, harbors, and docks.

In 1902, Cleveland Mayor Tom L. Johnson named Stinchcomb chief engineer of parks, directing him to popularize and expand them. He laid out football grounds, baseball diamonds, and tennis courts, built bathhouses and neighborhood playgrounds, and completed the main building of the new Brookside Park Zoo.

Following Johnson's defeat in 1909, Stinchcomb worked as a landscape architect and engineer until 1912, when he was drafted by the county Democratic Party to run for Cuyahoga County engineer and won. As county engineer, Stinchcomb directed the construction of the Detroit-Superior High-Level Bridge, the Brooklyn-Brighton Bridge, and other large projects. In 1917, he ran for mayor of Cleveland against Harry L. Davis. Davis's supporters ridiculed Stinchcomb as the "Great Planner and Builder" and (alluding to his work at the Zoo) "Bunkum Bill, Botch Builder of Bear Bungalows." Stinchcomb narrowly lost the election and left partisan politics behind.

During his years as county engineer, Stinchcomb did not forget his dream, first enunciated on 1905 in a report to Cleveland City Council, of a metropolitan park system. He helped draft a county park bill and lobby it through the legislature, and served on the first county park board without pay as consulting engineer. When a board was ruled invalid, he lobbied for a new law and volunteered his services as consulting engineer to the Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board before being appointed as the first director of the Park District in 1921.

As chief architect of the metropolitan parks, Stinchcomb never lost sight of the big picture, arguing that parks contributed in untold measure to the health and welfare of the community and working unceasingly for the district's expansion. But he cared about the details, too - releasing ring-necked pheasants into Rocky River and Brecksville reservations (1922), directing the planting of wild rice and other foods in an attempt to establish a haven for waterfowl (1928), and protesting a road-widening project that threatened to destroy a row of ancient maple trees on the edge of Brecksville Reservation (1930). Stinchcomb lost the battle to save the trees but not public respect: "One is glad Stinchcomb protests," said the Cleveland Press, "and one wishes there were more Stinchcombs."

Always, Stinchcomb maintained that people weary of a busy and commercial urban life needed a refuge of woodlands, water, hills, grass, and wildlife to provide healthful rest and recreation. "Man is an outdoor animal," he told a Rocky River garden club in 1930. "We must have these great outdoor rest places close to a great industrial city such as this, and as working days grow shorter we must find healthful ways of filling leisure time."

In 1905, Stinchcomb was married to Annie M. Long. They lived on Edgewater Drive in Cleveland with their two children. Although parks were his life, Stinchcomb had other interests. He sang in the Orpheus Male Choir and served as director and president of the Cleveland Automobile Club and as a trustee of Hiram College.

Ohio's compulsory retirement law would have forced Stinchcomb out of his job as Park District director in 1949, but the law was specially amended and Stinchcomb was asked to stay on. "I don't want to step aside and just rust away," he said.

In February 1957, Stinchcomb suffered a stroke as he left his office in Cleveland's standard Building. On June 1st, four days shy of his 79th birthday; he ended an unparalleled public-service career of 58 years - "a long time, “he observed, "of sucking at the trough." The newspapers were more generous. "Try to name something in which he hasn't had a hand, "the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, while the Cleveland News recognized Stinchcomb this way: "His 58 years of public service spanned an era when Cleveland grew to greatness, and Stinchcomb's remarkable skill as a planner, a builder and an engineer contributed magnificently to that growth."

Following his retirement, the Cleveland News initiated a public subscription to create a permanent tribute to Stinchcomb's life and work. in November 1958, a monument designed by sculptor William McVey and architect Ernst Payer was unveiled on a hilltop in Rocky River Reservation, overlooking the horseshoe-shaped valley where Stinchcomb had purchased the first parcel of land for the "Emerald Necklace" in 1919. Stinchcomb was too ill to see it. He died at Lutheran Hospital on January 17, 1959.