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What the heck is a “trolley park?”
A handful of the once-prolific amusement sites endure
Also in this edition (at the bottom): I talk rides, parks, journalism and…pro wrestling (?!) on The Coaster101 Podcast.
Perhaps you’ve heard the term, “trolley park,” and wondered what it meant. Or maybe this is the first time you’re discovering it, and I’ve sparked your curiosity. Trolley parks, as you will learn, were a vital part of the amusement industry and contributed significantly to its evolution. In fact, at one time, there were over 2,000 amusement parks in the U.S. (compared to about 400 today), about 75% of which were trolley parks. Now, only a few remain.
The story begins with the advent of electrified trolleys. In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, many railway companies that operated trolley lines, which were the primary mode of transportation within and around cites and towns, began harnessing electricity to replace the horses that pulled the vehicles. The nascent form of power proved highly efficient, and soon the streetcars, with their trolley poles connected to overhead power lines, could be found in virtually every burgh.
In some cases, the electric companies and the railway companies were one and the same. Mostly, however, the railway companies purchased electricity from the local utility for which they were charged a flat monthly rate. To maximize their profits, it therefore behooved the trolley operators to keep their cars as full as possible as much as possible. But, they had a problem. Passengers crowded the streetcars to get to and from work and to shop, but business was slow during the evening hours and especially on weekends.
Somebody at one of the railway companies–it’s unclear which one–came up with the brilliant idea of building a park along a trolley line, typically at the end of the line. The appealing destination provided an incentive for passengers to board the trolleys on weekends and on warm summer evenings so they could enjoy the fun. With the addition of parks, ridership picked up considerably during what had been underutilized, off-peak hours and days. The idea rapidly caught on, and by 1910 there were some 1,500 trolley parks throughout the U.S. Every major city (and many minor ones as well) had a park, and in some cases, more than one. There were also trolley parks in Japan, France, Mexico, Germany, Australia, and elsewhere around the world.
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Get away from it all
The pleasure parks were often built next to lakes or other waterways and, at first, included little more than picnic groves, ballfields, and perhaps bandstands, dance halls, boat rides, and restaurants. Admission to the parks were generally free, and for the price of a nickel trolley ride, they provided respite from the hubbub of the city core as well as the stresses of work.
Soon, mechanical rides, typically starting with carousels, were introduced at the parks. These were followed by Ferris wheels, vintage spinning rides, tunnels of love, penny arcades, and, of course, roller coasters. In addition to the trolley fees they generated, the parks themselves made money for the railway companies from ride ticket sales and food concessions.
Because the electricity flowing to the park wasn’t metered, operators often strung thousands of lights along the park’s rides and buildings. They helped illuminate the grounds at night and also provided visitors, many of whom did not have power lines connected to their homes, the opportunity to experience the then newfangled electric lights. Twinkling lights remain a mainstay–and a delightful sight–at amusement parks and theme parks today.
Many of the trolley parks were known as “Electric Park,” emphasizing the novelty of the power source. Many more of the trolley parks bore the name, “Luna Park,” hoping to capitalize on the world-famous, original Luna Park that opened at Coney Island in 1903. (By the way, although a streetcar company did not build or operate the amusements at Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it could be argued that the rail lines and later, the subway, that connected it to the rest of New York City, qualified it as something of a trolley park.)
With upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 of the wooden lattices dotting the country, the 1920s are considered the golden age for roller coasters. (Today, there are about 800 thrill machines in the U.S.) Trolleys shuttled masses of people to ride the coaster rails and experience the other diversions at the parks.
“They all basically had the same rides,” says prolific writer Stephen M. Silverman, author of “The Amusement Park: 900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them.” “[Trolley parks] really contributed to the mass culture. We all knew the same things in America. We were homogenous.”
Among the trolley parks that delighted visitors were large ones, such as Kennywood, located just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and smaller ones, such as tiny Lake Quassapaug (today known as Quassy Amusement Park and Waterpark) in central Connecticut. More than 100 years later, the two parks continue to bring joy, albeit without the trolley lines.
“Quassy is nothing short of a New England–if not a national–treasure,” says Ron Gustafson, director of the park’s marketing and public relations. “It has beaten the odds on many an occasion to proudly proclaim the title of survivor in an industry that has seen hundreds of similar facilities fade away.”
The end of the line
The growing popularity of automobiles and the Great Depression were the one-two punch that caused the demise of nearly all trolley parks. No longer confined to their hometowns, folks could get behind the wheels of their own vehicles and travel wherever their fancy took them. With lower ridership in general and reduced attendance at the parks, railway companies were reluctant to invest in their properties. Many sold their trolley parks or closed them. The Depression left Americans with little discretionary income to spend on recreation, which squeezed the parks that remained and triggered many more to shutter.
Today, a mere
dozen eleven trolley parks remain in the U.S., most of them located in the Northeast. To varying degrees, many pay homage to their past. The buildings and signs at Lakeside Park , which is located in Denver Colorado and was originally known as White City, for example, features glorious Art Deco flourishes. Kennywood lovingly maintains three of its vintage wooden coasters and other legacy rides.
“Kennywood is a personal favorite,” Silverman says. “Riding its landmark roller coasters gives a good sense of what it was like. You really feel like you’re back in the 1920s.”
U.S. trolley parks that remain, ordered by the dates that they opened:
Seabreeze Amusement Park, Rochester, NY (1879)
Dorney Park, Allentown, PA (1884)
Lakemont Park, Altoona, PA (1894)
Waldameer Park, Erie, PA (1896)
Midway State Park, Maple Springs, NY (1898)
Kennywood, West Mifflin, PA (1898)
Canobie Lake Park, Salem, NH (1902)
Camden Park, Huntington, WV (1902)
Oaks Park, Portland, OR (1905)
Clemonton Park, Clemonton, NJ (1907)
Quassy Amusement Park, Middlebury, CT (1908)
Have you been to a trolley park? Have multiple generations of your family made memories at a trolley park? Do you miss a trolley park that has closed? Share your stories!
I feel a bit like Tom Hanks making the rounds on the late-night talk shows to promote my latest movie. Except I am appearing on parks and attractions podcasts to promote my Arthur's About Theme Parks Substack publication and site. I had a ball chatting with Andrew on The Coaster101 Podcast about Disney World, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, how I got into this park journalism gig some 30 years ago, and more. Did the conversation veer into, of all things, pro wrestling (and specifically AEW)? Well you’ll just have to listen to find out. Find The Coaster101 Podcast on your podcast apps or listen online here.
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