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Trolley parks: Survivors of an earlier era

Before Disneyland and Six Flags, before steel coasters went 50 mph and rides were named for cartoons, movies and superheroes, there were trolley parks.
Travel Trip Trolley Parks
Grand Carousel, built in 1927, is shown at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, Conn.Ron Gustafson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Before Disneyland and Six Flags, before steel coasters went 50 mph and rides were named for cartoons, movies and superheroes, there were trolley parks.

The parks were built by trolley companies at the end of the line in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as a way to get workers and their families to ride streetcars and railways on weekends. They had carousels, picnic grounds and live entertainment, and they were often located by lakes, rivers or beaches where visitors could take a boat ride or swim.

By 1919, just after World War I, there were 1,000 amusement parks around the country, and most of them were trolley parks, according to Jim Futrell, historian for the National Amusement Park Historical Association. But as cars replaced trolleys, the streetcars and their parks faded away.

Today, only 11 trolley parks remain in operation: Camden Park in Huntington, W.Va., which opened in 1903; Canobie Lake Park, in Salem, N.H., dating to 1902; Clementon Park in Clementon, N.J., which opened in 1907; Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa., 1884; Kennywood in West Mifflin, Pa., 1898; Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., 1894; Midway Park, in Maple Springs, N.Y., 1898; Oaks Amusement Park, in Portland, Ore., 1905; Quassy Amusement Park, in Middlebury, Conn., 1908; Seabreeze Amusement Park, in Rochester, N.Y., 1879; and Waldameer Park in Erie, Pa., 1896. (Clementon Park was not owned by a trolley company, but it was located at the end of a trolley line, and some parks were recreation areas before trolley companies bought them.)

With a couple of exceptions, most of the surviving trolley parks are smaller, more family-oriented and substantially cheaper than big modern theme parks with high-speed 20-story roller coasters. Some still let you pay by the ride, rather than charging hefty gate admissions that can add up to hundreds of dollars for a family. And many encourage visitors to bring picnics rather than banning outside food like some big parks do.

"As destination and regional parks try to outdo each other with huge rides that cost millions and as a result have to charge larger admissions, the value of local trolley parks remains family-friendly," said Tim O'Brien, editor at large for Funworld magazine, the official publication of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. "And they are every bit a part of a community as the local banks and mom and pop grocery stores. Trolley parks are true pieces of Americana."

Four of the 11 trolley parks still in operation are located in Pennsylvania. Futrell says the parks are a holdover from the state's manufacturing era, when trolleys transported workers to factories and companies used the parks for annual picnics. Pennsylvania missed out when more modern theme parks were built elsewhere, so locals kept patronizing the older parks.

As with most other trolley parks, Futrell says Pennsylvania's parks owe their existence to family owners who bought them decades ago. "These family owners cared and shepherded the parks through challenges and were smart enough not to get in trouble with debt, and they kept the parks relevant to the communities," Futrell said. "It was more than a business to them; it was a family heirloom."

Waldameer is still under family ownership; Midway is now owned by the state, but was owned by the same family for years. Kennywood and Dorney Park are now both owned by large theme park companies, but Futrell credits previous family owners with keeping them alive and financially sound to the point where they attracted new business owners.

Oaks Park in Portland, Ore., is now run by a nonprofit organization that was established by the family that once owned the park. But the park was built by the Portland Traction Co. at the end of a rail line on the Willamette River, just before the 1905 centennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

"It was a tough life then," said Mary Beth Coffey, Oaks' senior manager, explaining the park's appeal a century ago. "People worked in factories or agriculture. They would come to the park on the weekend. You could show off your dress or hat on the boardwalk. Oaks Park had electric lights and people didn't have them in their houses — they called it the Great White City because of the lights. Ethnic groups — the Germans, Poles, Irish — would stay overnight."

Exotic entertainment included a roller-skating elephant and ostrich zoo, and John Philip Sousa performed at Oaks a dozen times. Then as now, a roller rink, one of the largest on the West Coast, was a park centerpiece, with live music from a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Coffey says Oaks is thriving, with 750,000 guests from spring to early October and 800 corporate picnics annually. It's also affordable: Parking is free, and you pay by the ride.

DyAnne Wood visited Oaks on a recent summer day, one of seven in a three-generation family outing that included her 6-year-old grandson.

"I used to go when I was younger to the roller skating rink," she said. "The park is in a beautiful place by the river, and the kids don't understand how nostalgic it is. They just like it because it's an amusement park with rides. But it reminds me of when I was young."

Quassy, located on scenic Lake Quassapaug in Connecticut where visitors can cool off with a swim after the rides, is an easy day trip from New York City or Western Massachusetts. Rides are a mix of old and new, with kiddie rides dating back to the 1950s, a new family drop tower installed this year and a new wooden roller coaster planned for next year. Visitors who prefer a water park to the lake can try Quassy's "Saturation Station."

"We've been family-owned for 72 years now," said Quassy spokesman Ron Gustafson. "We still do 50-cent Friday nights and a $25 Saturday night carload special. That's incredible value."

Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, located 30 minutes north of Boston, also remains family-owned and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, according to marketing director Chris Nicoli. The park is three times its original size, and the old trolley station has been preserved as a Skee-ball building. A new exhibit at the park documents its dance hall, which through the years hosted Duke Ellington, Sonny and Cher and Frank Sinatra.

Canobie's rides are a trip through history too: The carousel is a 19th century antique; the Yankee Cannonball wooden coaster is vintage 1930s, and the looping steel Canobie Corkscrew dates to the '70s.

"We've got children coming on their eighth-grade field trip whose grandparents came on their eighth-grade field trip," said Nicoli.

Futrell says he's optimistic about the future of the remaining trolley parks. "They're all in good markets and they've all been growing over the past few decades," he said. "You never know what will happen, but I can't imagine any of these parks going away."