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The Trolley Park Phenomena

The 1890's saw the birth of a unique experience - the "Trolley Park". Every city worth its salt had one, including ours. Here's a look at the rise and fall of America's original amusement park.

Published May 16, 2011 in History      15 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

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In the "Gay Nineties", an amazing realization overcame America - the concept of "down time". Advertising and publications came out and people began to explore the world. Work days and hours fell and they people discovered the meaning of 'earned leisure'. Although we don't know all the causes, some of the heavy hitters of the era were the electric companies and their new trolley systems. And more so, the exciting assortment of "Trolley Parks". They provided the extra boost companies needed by operating on the weekends.


Definition of UBIQUITOUS
: existing or being everywhere at the same time : constantly encountered : widespread
Merriam-Webster



THE ASCENT

By 1900 there were hundreds in operation all over America. It is believed that during this golden age of amusement parks, as many as 2,000 parks once operated at the ends of various streetcar lines around the country. This was an era when the number of hours worked was reduced, while the amount of disposable income was rising. The Trolley Park would incorporate the use of the industrial age and mechanization to provide a fantasy land for the times.

In Jacksonville the phenomena of the Trolley Amusement Park took flight (sometimes literally as aeronauts ascended skyward in hot air balloons). On December 24, 1907, Jacksonville was treated to three simultaneous balloon ascensions by "World Famous Aeronauts" - one balloon each from the Zoo in Springfield, the Ostrich Farm in Fairfield (stadium district, though it would move north to Talleyrand in a couple of seasons), and Dixieland in South Jacksonville.


R.Mann Collection, Dixieland Postcard.

Dixieland

Courtesy of Jaxhistory.com

Had the Great Oz not took flight from the Emerald City, he could have easily chosen this setting in Jacksonville. Dixieland Amusement Park, just a short ferry ride from the streetcar loops at Main and Bay Streets, was known as "The Coney Island of the South" and covered 30 acres about where the Crown Plaza Hotel is today. This also marks Dixieland as one of a handful of parks that were actually connected to the trolley lines via boat. Though the South Jacksonville Municipal Railways would pass in front of Dixieland, it has not yet been rediscovered whether the MUNI served the park or if it missed the era by a dozen or so years.

The park featured a 160-foot roller coaster, a Figure Eight ride, a toboggan, a "laughing gallery," a "House of Troubles," and a large merry-go-round called "The Flying Jenny," which boasted 56 wooden animals. Babe Ruth once played baseball at Dixieland, and the famous bandleader John Phillips Sousa gave a concert. Many movie companies filmed their silent flicks there also. These included jungle films, which brought elephants, tigers, camels, and horses to the park. Alligators, dog & pony shows, lion wrestling, hot air balloons, parachute jumps, comedy acrobats, high-wire performers, and vaudeville acts were also featured. Visitors could refresh themselves at a swimming pool or the bathing beaches - there was also an electric water fountain.


Florida Ostrich Farm

Florida State Archives.

Going head-on with the eclectic Dixieland doings was the Florida Ostrich Farm over in Fairfield. The first ostriches were brought to the U.S. in the late 1880s, and the Florida Ostrich Farm opened in Jacksonville a decade later. While this was a tourist attraction featuring ostrich races, they also raised the large birds for their feathers. Depending on the color, length, and width, a single plume could cost as much as $40 (approximately $800 in today's dollars). The fluffy plumes were popular decorations for ladies hats, both in America and Europe. In addition to individual plumes, the Florida Ostrich Farm sold feather boas, stoles, and fans. Ostrich farms were popular tourist destinations in Jacksonville well into the twentieth century.


Florida State Archives.


Florida State Archives.

THE DECLINE

In about 1903 the North Jacksonville Street Railway was incorporated. The company was unique in several ways, not the least of which was that it was a wholly-owned black enterprise. It located its shops and car barn in Mason Park, later Roosevelt Park, on Kings Road in a location believed to be under I-95 today. The park was greatly improved, and considered one of the finest negro amusement centers in the nation. Perhaps because the North Jacksonville Street Railway and Town Improvement Company used all state-of-the-art, electric trolley cars, the debt load was too great. The company skidded into bankruptcy after a highly successful start that attracted attention from across the industry. It was bought out by the Jacksonville Electric Company, which was in turn bought out by the Jacksonville Traction Company in 1912.

Sadly, by the time the Disney brothers got their act up and running, Dixieland had been largely destroyed and it's real estate was being gobbled up by new development. On April 18, 1907, just 4 months after the spectacular aerial opening, a mild rain and light breeze was forecasted for the day. But the weather shifted and a massive hail storm hammered Jacksonville. The first of two major hail storms, the second being in 1914, Dixieland was severely hobbled and generally abandoned by the mid 1920's.


Today's Treaty Oak, in the Jessie Ball DuPont Park is the last remnant of our Jacksonville's own glorious Trolley Park past. Photo, Eric (ET) Takeyama, via Flickr.

It wasn't just the increasing use of the automobile that killed off this first generation of imagination and thrills. Streetcar and urban railway companies were not immune to corruption and millions were made by extending lines into new neighborhoods. In 1922, the head of General Motors Alfred P. Sloan established a special unit to begin replacing America's electric railways with cars, trucks, and buses. Blatant abuse of state laws allowed the company, and others, to corrupt, bribe, and use all manner of chicanery to work out "where street cars were no longer practicable" and to replace them with bus transit systems. Jacksonville's local system was sold to Motor Transit Company in 1932, then phased out and closed in December 1936.

With the increasing number of automobiles in use, urban trolley parks gradually declined due to changing demographics in the urban areas. Although the automobile provided people with ample options for satisfying their entertainment needs, there were a few parks that were easily accessible by car and continued to be successful in an age of suburbanization. By the end of the depression however, parks that managed to survive were to suffer steep decline due to the war effort. By the end of World War II, the halcyon days of the trolley park had seen their last sunset.  


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15 Comments

peestandingup

May 16, 2011, 07:39:00 AM
Been to Camden Park many times in Huntington as a kid (back before I knew its history & could appreciate it). Back then, after having been to more upscale & modern parks, I just thought Camden Park was an old & rundown amusement park. Now I know thats not exactly the case.

I do remember them having a (what looked to be) real working steam locomotive ride that took you all around the facility. It was a small one & I suppose they could have been faking it underneath, but it looked pretty authentic. Tracks, sounds, build of the thing, the steam puffs, etc.

Funny thing, the ride took you back in the hills away from park patrons & the other attractions. They had these simulated gun battles between these stuffed/stationary frontiersmen & Indians. The guns they were holding really went off, made puffs of smoke, were very loud, etc, along with cheesy sound effects of the battle.

Not exactly "PC" by today's standards, so I'm guessing they probably don't do that anymore. But it was a hoot.

sheclown

May 16, 2011, 08:10:23 AM
It looks like fun.  I would like to see an ostrich race -- how exotic it must have seemed (still is, I suppose).

Dapperdan

May 16, 2011, 08:19:24 AM
Excellent article, Ock. Do you know if the boardwalk at Jax beaches was a trolley park? I have always been curious about that park as well. I recently came back from a  trip to California and visited Santa Cruz boardwalk. It is still going strong today with a beach arcade and small amusement park. It reminded me of our once nice boardwalk.

Ocklawaha

May 16, 2011, 08:35:07 AM
Dan, Jax Beach wasn't, the line never got beyond St. Nicholas. What might-have-been was St. Elmo Acosta, City Commissioner pushed to buy the old FEC RY beach branchline and convert it to trolley all the way from downtown to Jax Beach, Atlantic, Neptune and Mayport. The Commission and Council postponed the proposal and we're still waiting to hear it...

On the left coast though, Santa Monica Pier most certainly was a trolley park, it was on the end of a Pacific Electric Railway line from LA through Hollywood right to the pier. My first train ride was on that railway... dating myself, late 1950's.


OCKLAWAHA

Wacca Pilatka

May 16, 2011, 08:39:24 AM
I got to go to Rocky Glen Park in Scranton in the last stages of its life.  I wish I had clearer memories of it.

strider

May 16, 2011, 08:39:59 AM
I spent many hours at Idora Park as a kid.  It made it into the eighties.  One thing that helped it, I think, was that it was next to a large city park that stopped a lot of development around it.

Sometimes we are less for the progress we make.

Traveller

May 16, 2011, 08:49:16 AM
Like other posters, I used to go to one of those parks (Kennywood in Pittsburgh) every summer growing up.  Several roller coasters built before the Depression still run today.  You can see parts of the park in the 2009 movie "Adventureland".

BridgeTroll

May 16, 2011, 09:11:58 AM
Excellent article, Ock. Do you know if the boardwalk at Jax beaches was a trolley park? I have always been curious about that park as well. I recently came back from a  trip to California and visited Santa Cruz boardwalk. It is still going strong today with a beach arcade and small amusement park. It reminded me of our once nice boardwalk.

Great roller coaster...

Cliffs_Daughter

May 16, 2011, 09:58:12 AM
I know lots about Dorney Park - I did some historical research 20 years ago when I first visited there (they were in a stasis at the time and still had a lot of the old stuff around). I've been there about 10 times since, even with no family living near the area anymore. It's nothing like it used to be, but a LOT of fun now.

PeeJayEss

May 16, 2011, 10:04:50 AM
Been to Camden Park many times in Huntington as a kid (back before I knew its history & could appreciate it). Back then, after having been to more upscale & modern parks, I just thought Camden Park was an old & rundown amusement park. Now I know thats not exactly the case.

Same RE Clementon. Its just down the road from where I grew up. They have the one older wooden rollercoaster (and The Whip!) but mostly smaller rides you'd see at a carnival (which is, I imagine, basically the setup when it was actually a trolley park). I always thought the water park there was great. Not big, but the tube rides are some of my favorite. Dorney Park managed to transition to the more 'modern' amusement park setup: better rides, less fun. Their water park is also pretty cool. Kennywood is kind of in-between, with some old and new.

stjr

May 16, 2011, 11:13:49 AM
As a kid visiting relatives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, I spent an unforgettable and entire fun filled 1960's day at Glen Echo Park.  I think it was already less than at its prime but for a kid from Jax is was still a unique experience.  A great spot to this day not far from the banks of the Potomac River .

dougsandiego

May 16, 2011, 08:57:51 PM
Thank-you for another interesting article.

There is a park still functioning in San Diego. It is Belmont Park complete with a Plunge, carousel, wooden roller coaster, and a newer Wave machine. The park is located on the ocean in Mission Beach.

Another old park is much less intact. It is Mission Cliff Gardens in University Heights. It had an ostrich farm, promenades overlooking Mission Valley 300 feet below, and a bandstand. The old planters, cobblestone walls and street layout survive and there are still overlooks, but homes were built in the old park just after WW II. The community sign is still topped by a pair of ostriches standing on their own eggs.

PeeJayEss

May 17, 2011, 09:48:46 AM
A couple other possibilities are out on the Jersey Shore. The Steel Pier in Atlantic City, which has been opened and closed several times since it originally opened in 1898 (most notably due to fire in 1982), may not have connected directly with a trolley, but it is on the boardwalk, which I'm assuming connected to rail. This one is set to be shuttered for good within a few years (its basically been announced as closing since 2006, and Trump is planning to redevelop the pier into shops, etc).
The piers and amusements in Wildwood, NJ are similar. Not really a trolley park as I believe the area developed after WW2, so its more car-centric (and many doo-wop style motels still stand today). A solid 20 blocks of boardwalk covered with carnival attractions, 5 large piers jutting out along the beach (no longer reaching the water as the beach has grown substantially). There are games on both sides of the boardwalk almost literally the entire way, some of the biggest and best arcades, and modern-park quality rides (BIG rollercoasters). Of course, being on the beach in NJ, its seasonal (which might add to the attraction). Anyway, the place is booming and really worth a look if you ever find yourself out at the beach in southern NJ. Infinitely more interesting than Atlantic City. Extremely family-friendly during the day. Still family-friendly at night, but the freaks also come out (which makes it even more interesting). Oh, great water parks too!
I know Seaside Heights has some stuff like this, might be a better candidate for trolley park, but I don't know the history and haven't been there (and after Jersey Shore, can you blame me ? :P).

urbaknight

May 17, 2011, 01:49:13 PM
I grew up about an hour from Clementon Park, and just a few from Dorney Park They were a lot of fun. The New Jersey coast is still dotted with small amusement parks on the boardwalks, Atlantic City, Seaside Hights, Wildwood, (my favorite one) Ocean City, Point Pleasant etc.

It's ironic, these amusement parks would be better suited here in the south, due to the mild weather. What I miss most about home are the amusement parks, though they're only opened for four months or so.

grimss

May 19, 2011, 01:49:35 PM
Great article. I especially loved the photo of Glen Echo. I grew up in DC, and we used to take painting lessons at Glen Echo. The empty pool and other abandoned theme park features made it a terrific place for kids to explore.
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