ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - The reopening of the roller skating rink at Bushkill Park in Fork Township - and hope for more of the 12-acre amusement park to re-emerge - might have people thinking about the future.
But it also stirs memories of the past, when several small amusement parks dotted the Lehigh Valley.
Among them were Central Park in the Rittersville area at the Allentown/Bethlehem border, Willow Park in Bethlehem Township, Island Park outside Easton and Indian Trail Park in Lehigh Township. All are long gone.
Old photos show hundreds of families, dressed as if going to church, strolling Central Park grounds. Some stand next to an impressive roller coaster.
Some of the parks, opened between 1893 and 1931, brought in major entertainers. The famous American band conductor John Philip Sousa performed at two of them.
“That was back in the day when, in some ways, it was easier for them to exist,” said Joe Garrera, Lehigh County Historical Society’s executive director. “When an entrepreneur could open a park. Today it’s a highly professional endeavor with federal regulation and inspections. You either have to be a big boy or not at all.”
Bushkill Park co-owner Neal Fehnel opened the roller rink after months of work by volunteers. Fehnel said they are also working to fix up the fun house and rebuild the floor of the Whip, one of the park’s signature rides, with hopes to get the rest of the park operating again.
The park, the last of several small amusement parks that operated in the Lehigh Valley, had been closed since 2006.
The Lehigh Valley was hardly alone in having such parks; the state once was teeming with them. Now only a dozen or so remain in Pennsylvania.
Harry Rinker, an area antiques and collectibles expert, captured the era in a 1992 column for The Morning Call: “A visit was a day’s adventure. There was no general admission charge. You bought a strip of ride tickets or paid individually at each ride.
“The principal attraction was the roller coaster, unless, of course, you were a hot-blooded teenager with a friend of the opposite sex, in which case the Tunnel of Love held much greater appeal. There were a number of things at the arcade for a penny or nickel.”
The parks often were built by trolley car lines, which had brisk rider business during the week, but used excursions to the parks to fill its trains on weekends, said Jill Youngken, Lehigh County Historical Society’s assistant director and chief curator.
That was the case with Central Park, which opened as Rittersville Park in 1893 in a space off Hanover Avenue near what is now Westminster Village nursing home. It was created by Allentown and Bethlehem Rapid Transit Co., the first electric street car between Allentown and Bethlehem.
The company also happened to have property for sale along its route, Allentown historian Frank Whelan said.
“The public would see property,” Whelan said. “The parks were created as a magnet to get people out into the country and sell them property. It was quite common.”
But it was the fun that drew crowds in the thousands, Whelan said.
Built on 40 acres, the park had a toboggan chute, carousel, derby racer, circle swing, Cyclone roller coaster and more. Youngken recalled her father talking of the derby racer - two sets of train cars that would race each other while full of passengers.
During the park’s heyday in the early 1900s through the 1920s, Sousa played at Central Park. The park even built two theaters - one seating 1,500 - to offer musicals. Central was the largest amusement park in the region until the emergence of Dorney Park.
Founded in 1860 as a small hatchery along the line of Reading Trolley Co., Dorney Park formally opened in 1884. In the 1920s, it added a roller coaster and began expanding on its large rural plot.
On the other hand, Central Park had no room to grow. Starting in 1932, Central was the scene of a series of fires - seven in 19 years before the park finally closed in 1951.
“It was more of a community thing,” Youngken said. “This nice community park where you could go to have a relaxing Saturday or Sunday.”
Another trolley line, Easton Transit Co. opened Island Park in 1894. It was built, as the name suggests, on an island near the Chain Dam in the Lehigh River - between Palmer Township on one side and Glendon and Williams Township on the other.
On Island Park’s opening day, 3,000 people climbed aboard the company’s trolleys in downtown Easton that took them to the park, which covered 15 to 20 acres. There, patrons rode a miniature Black Diamond train, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, toboggan roller coaster and other rides.
Sousa also performed at Island Park’s outdoor theater, which additionally offered vaudeville acts and silent movies.
But after ice on the Lehigh knocked out two trolley trestles, the company gave up in 1919. The structures and rides were dismantled.
Indian Trail Park along Route 248 near the Cherryville section of Northampton County opened in 1929, built around a large swimming pool. It offered 5-cent rides that included a carousel, miniature train and roller coaster on 20 acres.
The park’s owners sold it to Lehigh Township in 1973, which continued to operate it as an amusement park until 1983. It now is a township park with soccer and softball fields, and picnic pavilions.
Willow Park in the Butztown area of Bethlehem Township opened in 1931, also as a small park largely built around a swimming pool. It had a carousel, kiddie rides, an arcade and a children’s “wild mouse” coaster.
The park was expanded in 1959 and remained in business until 1970, when it was purchased by a construction company.
The carousel from Island Park eventually moved to Bushkill Park, which opened in 1902. It too was started by a trolley company. In the years before it closed, it became known for its antique rides, including bumper cars, the Whip, a haunted house and Bar’l of Fun, one of the nation’s oldest fun houses.
Surrounded by Bushkill Creek, it was heavily damaged by floods during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and closed for good in 2006 after three consecutive years of flooding.
What’s now known as Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom in South Whitehall Township has grown and is thriving. It has eight roller coasters. Dorney is owned by Cedar Fair of Sandusky, Ohio, which operates 11 amusement parks across the country.
Dorney has claims to history. Its 1921 Grand Carousel - just inside the entrance - is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its wooden Thunderhawk coaster is the eighth-oldest roller coaster in the United States. And Dorney is the fifth-oldest continuously operating amusement park in the United States, according to the National Amusement Park Historical Association.
Information from: The Morning Call, https://www.mcall.com
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