Surviving ‘trolley parks’ in focus

Postcard view of the trolley station at Seabreeze Park in suburban Rochester, N.Y., on Lake Ontario.

Long before the creation of sprawling, soulless, sanitized entertainment complexes, generations of Americans enjoyed themselves at authentic amusement parks. These were places that smelled of old wood, popcorn and greasy fried food, where the music was a little too tinny and loud, where the rides were creaky and where you were likely to be screwed out of too much pocket change in the pursuit of a stuffed animal or flimsy baubles. And in the real glory days, such tacky temples of American culture were planted smack dab at the end of a trolley car line to ferry the masses back from whence they came.

A select group of America’s old trolley parks soldiers on, as highlighted in this July 21 report by Associated Press Travel Editor Beth J. Harpaz. According to her list, 11 of them survive — though their trolleys are long gone — and of course it’s a source of pride that one is in my hometown. The list, with websites:

CAMDEN PARK: Huntington, W.Va., http://www.camdenpark.com/

CANOBIE LAKE PARK: Salem, N.H., http://www.canobie.com/

CLEMENTON PARK AND SPLASH WORLD: Clementon, N.J., http://www.clementonpark.com/

DORNEY PARK: Allentown, Pa., http://www.dorneypark.com/

KENNYWOOD: West Mifflin, Pa., http://www.kennywood.com/

LAKEMONT PARK: Altoona, Pa., http://www.lakemontparkfun.com/

MIDWAY STATE PARK: Maple Springs, N.Y., http://bit.ly/9ZH48q

OAKS AMUSEMENT PARK: Portland, Ore., http://oakspark.com/

QUASSY AMUSEMENT PARK: Middlebury, Conn., http://www.quassy.com/

SEABREEZE AMUSEMENT PARK: Rochester, N.Y., http://www.seabreeze.com/

WALDAMEER & WATER WORLD: Erie, Pa., http://www.waldameer.com/

Many parks, as Harpaz points out, survived thanks to caring family ownership (Seabreeze certainly falls into this category), and in providing good, local value compared with the mega parks. And a little nostalgia doesn’t hurt.

From an historical standpoint, it’s worth nothing that these old-time parks were born as businesses, operated for a profit. They may have seared their way into our nostalgic consciousness, but many of the best of American amusement parks were developed and run by the trolley companies themselves — often anything but revered in their own era, I should add — as a means of generating additional traffic and revenue. When it worked, it worked very well. Sometimes the parks’ fortunes waned as the trolleys did, but not always. Many survived well into the internal combustion era; the urban parks might still be served by city buses (true of both Seabreeze and Kennywood, and probably several of the others), but most came to rely on Detroit’s handiwork to move the masses to their gates.

Long after the trolleys had gone, even many of the proudest survivors fell victim to dwindling revenues as modern diversions competed for Americans’ entertainment dollars and insurance premiums skyrocketed. Again, transportation played a role: The descendants of those who thought grandly of taking the trolley to their local “electric park” wouldn’t think twice about driving dozens or even hundreds of miles to drop mega bucks at a  slick regional mega park. Thus, vintage rides were broken up or auctioned off, acres of land sold and more links with our local heritage faded into obscurity.

I’ve been to two of the listed parks: Seabreeze, obviously, and Pittsburgh’s Kennywood. But that also puts me in mind of an interesting omission: Lake Compounce in Bristol, Ct. It’s billed as “America’s First Family Theme Park,” and with roots in the mid-19th century was clearly a pre-trolley park. Nevertheless, it seems to have grown into a conventional mechanical amusement park (as opposed to a picnic ground) once trolleys arrived in the 1890s.

In a fun retro twist, electric traction returned to the park in 1997, when a restored 1911 Connecticut Co. open car began operation over 1,200 feet of track beside the park’s lake. It’s a short ride — it doesn’t really take riders anywhere they couldn’t easily walk — but that’s not the point. It’s a fun and nostalgic addition to the park, and as far as I know, unique as an amusement park attraction (not counting, ahem, replicas elsewhere).

I should also mention that while trolley parks were a distinctly American innovation, they were not uniquely American. Canada comes immediately to mind. I’m not sure whether any of the Canadian trolley parks survive in toto, though the antique carousel at Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines, Ont., is a relic from the days when the Niagara, St. Catharines and Toronto Railway operated Lakeside Park. The trolleys and amusement park are long gone, but the carousel survives in a modern building at the municipal beach. The last time I was there about a decade ago, the carousel was still operated using a trolley-style rheostatic controller. And I gather they still charge only 5 cents a ride.

I can’t presume to speak for the entire world, but for trolley fans seeking places where you can still visit an amusement park by tram, two diverse locations stand out.

A modern Melbourne tram outside Luna Park.

The first is Melbourne, Australia, where no fewer than five tram routes serve the raucous old Luna Park in the suburb of St. Kilda. I’ve never been there, but to all accounts it’s a classic American park transplanted Down Under — which would make sense, as it was apparently developed by an American.  Among its vintage rides is Philadelphia Toboggan Co. carousel 30, imported to Sydney in 1913 and resident in Melbourne since 1923 (check out this great photo of the carousel after its restoration). Since there are trams at the door they don’t need a Lake Compounce-style homage to the mode, but a vintage Melbourne tramcar is on static display, used as the park’s “Party Tram” for events. I would very much like to see Melbourne, and Luna Park, someday.

Blackpool Brush car 636, while in use for testing of an experimental bogie on the Starr Gate-Pleasure Beach section of tramway, March 2009. I was lucky to capture it on film (yes, film), as the car has since been sold.

And then there is my beloved Blackpool, “Britain’s Coney Island,” and home to the nation’s last surviving traditional electric tram system.

One of the major traffic points on the seaside tramway is Pleasure Beach, across from which the line has a double-tracked turnback loop. Founded in 1896, Pleasure Beach, across from the Irish Sea, was designed in the style of American amusement parks of the era. Today, the sprawling complex is home to the massive Pepsi Max Big One roller coaster. The looming steel behemoth makes quite a striking backdrop for tram photos, which for me is plenty of excitement in and of itself.

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