New-York Historical Society

Movers and Shakers

This phrase describes many illustrious individuals documented in N-YHS’s collections — but perhaps none so literally as John Y. Culyer, who in 1867 designed a machine for moving sizeable trees to more suitable positions during the construction of Prospect Park.

Tree Moving Machine, Prospect Park (Geographic File, PR020)

Culyer began his career as a landscape engineer in Central Park, under Frederick Law Olmsted. He designed his tree-moving machine after being hired as one of the original engineers of Prospect Park (later he advanced to Chief Engineer and head of Brooklyn’s Parks Department). Using two of Culyer’s devices, park designers Olmsted and Vaux could move established trees from one spot to another like chess pieces. They also imported trees — “of much larger size than can be had from nurseries” — from private grounds outside the park. By February 1870, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that Culyer’s machines had moved 600 trees weighing from one to as much as 15 tons, effecting “a more extensive transplanting of trees [this] size . . . than to our knowledge has been attempted elsewhere on the continent.”

Pruning Ladder Used in Prospect Park (Geographic File, PR020)

Culyer’s team of gardeners also introduced an innovative method for tree maintenance. “Contrary to all precedent and the opinions of old writers on wood-craft and arboriculture,” they pruned a number of old-growth forest trees. This procedure was risky as well as controversial, and required another new invention — the extension ladder (pictured above). The experiment had a good effect on the trees, if not the trimmers, and was pronounced a success.

No mere mover and shaker of trees, the multi-talented Culyer made impressive contributions in many other fields of activity as well. He was the architect of several landmark buildings; designed and/or consulted on a number of parks in and outside New York; was a longtime member of the Brooklyn Board of Education; served on the Merchants’ Association Committee on the Pollution of the Waters of New York; promoted rapid transit in Brooklyn; and during the Civil War served as assistant director of the United States Sanitary Commission and helped construct fortifications along the Potomac. He also served as Secretary and Advisory Forester to the Tree Planting Association of New York City, formed in 1897 to push for the planting of sidewalk trees in New York City — an effort that continues still with the city’s MillionTreesNYC initiative.

Annual Report of the Tree Planting Association of New York City, 1908 (F128SB435.52.N74)

Although his name is largely forgotten today, a few years after his death (in 1924), the Brooklyn Eagle described Culyer as “one of the most useful citizens Brooklyn has ever known,” and expressed the hope that “while there is no statue of him in any public square, every tree and bush and shrub and meadow in Prospect Park will keep his memory green forever.”

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This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.

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