The memorial plaque claims that Elm Park was the first public park in the United States (1854). Unfortunately, this is not altogether accurate, both Hartford (Bushnell Park) and New York City bought land for parks earlier in the same year. Lincoln created the three ponds at Elm and stocked them with specimen water fowl. Peking ducks, Toulese geese, great blue herons, swans and other water birds were most commonly seen during this time.
From time to time boats were also available to paddle around the shallow mere. Peonies and azaleas were planted in abundance. Tulips, asters, coleus, geraniums, dahlias, fuchsias, phlox, and many other flowering plants were artfully arranged in season in formal beds with a Victorian flavor. A tree nursery was a prominent feature of the park, and trees were nurtured for use on the city streets. Specimens came from prominent horticulturists such as Professor Charles S. Sergeant of the newly founded Arnold Arboretum, as well as others. Lincoln propagated many plants and bulbs for the park in his own greenhouse.
Lincoln believed that ice skating was especially healthful exercise, and he installed jets of water to flush the ice in the winter. One bitter cold day-after-Christmas he went to shovel the ice for skating. The next morning he was rewarded to discover a broken weeping birch by the embankment. A few nights later, a Weir's cut leaf maple was mutilated, problems which made Lincoln furious. In another year he threatened to stop all ice skating if the carelessness and vandalism didn't end. It never did end, but Lincoln never did stop providing good ice for skating either. He once challenged the police department for the constant nuisance of dogs (police licensed dogs then). "Flowers and plants", he insisted, "are not planted for a target, nor that each stray can, in rapid succession, may apply a blistering lotion." He advocated a leash law and got one in 1889. The dogs, too, were a threat to the sheep employed as grass-cutters in the parks.
Elm Park was a favorite place for carnivals, circuses, and other traveling menageries, which Lincoln tolerated with thinly disguised derision. Once a P.T. Barnum caravan left a dead Anaconda behind. "It required two dollars and a pretty tough stomach to deodorize the neighborhood," he observed, duly noting the expenditure in his report.
Another annoyance was baseball, Lincoln wanted it played somewhere else, anywhere other than Elm Park; "...The game of baseball as now played is perilous at best, scarcely supplying the redeeming merit of a dreary amusement of the spectators. It is believed that the City might purchase an acre or two in different sections... for the express purpose..." It took a little time but Lincoln eventually got the playing fields he wanted.
For 18 years Lincoln relentlessly lobbied for the city to buy Newton Hill adjacent to Elm Park. Although a reservoir he proposed for the site was not destined to be, when the city bought the land in 1888, Lincoln began immediately to build a carriage drive to the top for genteel excursions. A flag was made for the staff at the summit by Mary E. Stoddard of the successful machine shop family. Since no regulations existed about how the stars on the flag should be arranged. Lincoln proposed that the 42 stars should be arranged in a star shape on the blue field. The homemade flag was flown on the 4th of July, 1890, after which it was locked away.