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The Salem Willows project
Join me in my quest to officially designate the historic locale a “trolley park”
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been visiting Salem Willows, a tiny seaside park and amusement area in Salem, Massachusetts. I absolutely adore the place, and often head there for its ocean breezes, the shade provided by its lovely willow trees, its scrumptious treats, the lively scene created by the visitors in its melting pot, and, of course, the funky, old amusements it offers.
I remember riding the carousel and clanging the bell on the kiddie boat ride when I was barely a toddler. Both of the rides were ancient back then; 60+ years later, they are still spinning. No summer is complete for me without at least one Salem Willows chop suey sandwich. (“Chop suey what now?” you’re likely thinking. You can read about the peculiar dish in an About Theme Parks article I wrote last year, in which I fretted about the impending closure of the eatery that serves the distinctive sandwiches. Update: New owners bought the joint, and–hallelujah!–they are still slinging chop suey.)
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One thing has long bugged me about Salem Willows. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, it has never been recognized as a trolley park. I aim to do something about that. And I invite you along to share my journey.
A trolley park is an amusement park that railway companies of yore, which operated streetcars and trolleys, built at the end of their lines to encourage ridership and generate revenue on the weekends and holidays when patrons were not commuting to and from work. There were hundreds of them in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. If you want to discover more about trolley parks, check out my earlier article about them.
As the automobile gained popularity, and the railway companies folded, nearly all trolley parks shuttered. Today, the National Amusement Park Historical Association (NAPHA) recognizes twelve remaining trolley parks in the U.S., including Kennywood in Pennsylvania and Quassy in Connecticut. Salem Willows has somehow gone under the radar.
According to the historical record, however, Salem officials designated the Willows a city park in 1858, and the Salem-based Naumkeag Street Railway Company began offering service from downtown Salem to the oceanfront spot in 1877. Shortly thereafter, the company began acquiring land at the Willows for a planned amusement park, which it opened in 1880.
Granted, Salem Willows is not the bustling amusement park it was in its heyday. Acts such as Duke Ellington and other big bands used to perform at the Charleshurst Ballroom. Patrons could enjoy shore dinners and other feasts at the fine dining spots that lined Restaurant Row. There was a roller coaster, a Tilt-A-Whirl, bumper cars, and other rides. Today, all that remains are a vintage carousel, a boat ride, and two other spinning kiddie rides at Kiddie Land, a handful of walk-up food joints, two arcades (stocked with pinball machines from the 1960s and 1970s, Skee-Ball, and other classic games), and an outdoor band shell.
Nevertheless, the Salem Willows amusement area that the Naumkeag Street Railway Company built and debuted nearly 150 years ago endures. Folks still flock there as they have been doing for generations. That would seem to qualify it as a surviving trolley park. I plan to gather evidence and present it to NAPHA for its consideration.
I thank Salem-based historian Jim McAllister for helping me in my mission by providing info, resources, and support. I also thank Charlie Hobbs, the fourth-generation owner of E.W. Hobbs at Salem Willows, for his encouragement.
“Salem Willows is a unique place,” Hobbs says. “Its history, how it started with the trolley company, is fascinating. It would be an honor to be recognized for that.”
E.W. Hobbs has played an important role in Willows history as well. Dating back to 1897, it has been dishing out homemade ice cream (making it one of the first places anywhere to serve ice cream cones), salt water taffy, peanuts, and popcorn items, including sugar corn, popcorn brittle, and popcorn bars. The stand is the last outpost of the National Popcorn Works, which dates back to 1885. There is also a grill and a soda fountain in an adjacent building.
It is not hyperbole to say that the hot buttered popcorn at E.W. Hobbs, which is made in a gas-fired rotary popcorn popper that has been in the same spot since 1906, is the best in the world. I and other Willows loyalists can’t get enough of the addictive stuff and always scarf down a box whenever we visit. For special occasions, or if I really want to go on a salty snack bender, I’ll take home a giant plastic bag crammed with the buttery morsels.
Hobbs shared a photo with me of one of the streetcars that once took passengers to and from the Willows and says that an original section of trolley track is still embedded in the basement of his building, where he and his crew make ice cream. He also noted that from about 1885 until 1910, there were donkeys in the basement that walked in a circle to power the Willow’s first carousel.
I’ll keep you posted, ATPers, about my quest to gain official recognition of Salem Willows as a trolley park.
Have you ever visited Salem Willows? Share your memories! Don’t even think about contesting my claim that E.W. Hobbs makes the world’s best popcorn. It’s an objective fact.