History

The Sizzle and Fizzle of Philly’s Old Fun Parks

March 23, 2022 | by Stacia Friedman

Long before Disneyland was a gleam in Mickey Mouse’s eyes, captains of industry in Philadelphia saw the financial potential of amusement parks. Opening in the mid-1890s, Willow Grove Park and Woodside Park drew residents from densely-packed row house neighborhoods to the pastoral beauty of Montgomery County and West Fairmount Park. The impetus for both parks was the innovation of the trolley car system, from horse-drawn to electric.

Willow Grove Park

The midway at Willow Grove Park in Montgomery County. Date unknown. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Wealthy industrialists Peter Widener and William Elkins were looking for a way to promote their trolley line, the Philadelphia Traction Company, which would later become Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT) then Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) and then SEPTA. Meanwhile, Caleb Fox, owner of the People’s Traction Company, a competing trolley line, observed that hundreds of city dwellers were taking his trolley to the end of the line in Jenkintown and spending money on beer and food served at a large hotel. Fox wanted a piece of the action. He bought up 100 acres of farmland situated along Moreland Avenue between Old York Road and Welsh Road. The vast property was initially used just for picnics and was later expanded to create an amusement park. Admission was free.

In 1896, Widener and Elkins, who had taken over Fox’s trolley company, opened a acoustically dynamic band shell that featured the leading conductors of their day. With music alternating between the patriotic marches of John Philip Sousa and classical music, these concerts drew crowds of up to 52,000 people. The free concerts earned Willow Grove Park the accolade of “The Music Capitol of America.” The tone was high brow. Ladies wore long dresses and gloves. Gentlemen wore suits, ties, and straw hats, even in the summer heat. No alcoholic beverages were served.

Victor Herbert and His Orchestra at Willow Grove Park in 1907. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

A major attraction was the 10-acre man-made lake which used for boating and featured the tallest electric fountain in the nation. The park and fountain were illuminated at night with more than 50,000 lights. Every Saturday night there was a fireworks display.

Other attractions included a casino, an elegant restaurant that could seat up to 500 patrons, and a movie theater screening silent movies. In 1906, a spectacular carousel designed by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company was added.

Amusements and rides took up only a small portion of the grounds with the majority remaining sprawling parkland. 750 saplings of various kinds of trees were planted, along with 3,500 assorted shrubbery, thousand of plants including honeysuckles, and 500 rose trees. The result provided deep shade, beauty, and an enticing aroma.

Willow Grove Park’s trolley station in 1905. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

By the end of its first season, over five million people had visited the park. Three new trolley lines were added to respond to the demand.

In retrospect, Willow Grove Park was like the Las Vegas of its day without the booze, slot machines, and showgirls. A 1907 park brochure describes a new attraction, Venice, as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Passengers traveled on a gondola through canals and under romantic bridges that replicated the City of Water’s historic buildings and churches for half a mile.

Willow Grove Parkreached peak attendance prior to World War I. In 1926, the park was purchased from the trolley consortium by Meyer Davis, who added performing elephants, balloon rides, and concert performances by Paul Whitman, the “King of Jazz.” As ladies hemlines climbed above their knees, the music became wilder and so did the rides. The Whip and the Thunderbolt were not for the faint of heart.

Entrance to the Venice amusement ride at Willow Grove Park in 1907. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Just as technology gave rise to the park, it also led to its demise. First came radio, which brought live music into every home. Next came the automobile, which made trolleys obsolete and opened the door to other destinations.

The economic and baby boom following WWII created a brief renaissance for Willow Grove Park, but, in 1945, over 13 acres of the park were developed into a shopping center. The same developer purchased what was left of the park in 1958 and streetcar service there ended the same year.

Around 1970, a syndicate leased the amusement section of the park and converted it into a theme park called “Six-Gun Territory.” In 1976, it was demolished to make way for the Willow Grove Shopping Mall.

Woodside Park

Woodside Park in the early 1900s. | Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Archives & Records Center Digital Image Collection

Woodside Park’s opened in 1897, just one year after the opening of Willow Grove Park. Located just outside of West Fairmount Park near the intersection of Ford and Monument Roads, it too was created and owned by the management of the trolley line that ended at its entrance.

Unlike Willow Grove Park, Woodside Park did not have upper middle class ambitions. But it did have a lake, a ballroom with an orchestra, fireworks, a roller coaster, and the kinds of rides that made little kids scream with delight. In 1908, Woodside added a carousel from North Philadelphia’s Dentzel Carousel Company containing 52 hand-carved wooden animals. This historic carousel in now housed at the Please Touch Museum in West Fairmount Park.

Women enjoy an amusement ride at Woodside Park in 1950. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Although the rides were open to all, Woodside Park was notorious for its racist policies. African Americans were not allowed in the Roller-Dome or the Crystal Pool which had a 5,000-swimmer capacity. When a Black person tried to enter the pool park officials told them it was for member’s only. If they tried to pay the one dollar membership fee they were told the pool was full.

A fashion shoot at Woodside Park in the 1950s. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

In August 1945, a large-scale plan to expose Woodside Park’s discriminatory practices led to the arrest of a guard, the president of the park’s swimming club, and the park manager. Similar efforts led to the temporary closure of the Roller-Dome. However, the Crystal Pool remained open to white patrons only, and the case against the park was dismissed. Protests and picketing went on for several years.

Woodside Park beng demolished in 1955. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Discriminatory practices came to an end at the park in 1952 when the City of Philadelphia took over management of Crystal Pool. By then, attendance was dwindling. Woodside Park closed in 1955 ,and the land was sold to a developer who built a residential complex now known as Balwynne Park.

Both Willow Grove Park and Woodside Park were eclipsed by the opening of Disneyland in 1955. In retrospect, they were the product of another time, a Victorian vision which refused to adapt to the cultural changes of the 20th century.



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About the Author

Stacia Friedman Stacia Friedman is a Philadephia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and LA on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, the Inquirer, New York Times, Broad Street Review and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history and vibrant arts scene.

16 Comments:

  1. Jim Clark says:

    Loved Willow Grove Park. My grammar school held a yearly picnic there. Loved the picnic area and riding on the Swan Boat, the fun house, the merry go round. I never did go on the the roller coaster! For some reason it scared me a lot. Loads of fun I really enjoyed those days. Thank you Stacia for this wonderful article.

  2. Tony Farma says:

    Was too young for Woodside Park but did enjoy leaving the friendly confines of Swampoodle to enjoy a day in the countryside at Willow Grove Park! Also on our list of day trip destinations was the beloved Riverview Beach Amusement Park in Salem NJ! In addition to spending a day at their great amusement park we were treated to a “scenic river cruise departing from the dock underneath the Ben Franklin bridge to Riverview Beach Park about two hours later down the murky Delaware! As a kid in Philly a cruise and a day full of amusements was the ultimate thrill!

    1. Fred B. Block says:

      I used to walk from Ridge Avenue & Cumberland St many times to WoodsidePark in the early 50s with my friend or big brother.Great time. I had a great uncle that ate a hotdog there and died from it in 1900s.

  3. Bill Sorg says:

    I believe riders of the trolley originally rode to Willow Grove to visit the Hidden Springs hotel. The park was built to capitalize on people visiting the hotel and take their business. The park was later bought by the Hankin brothers. On some of the property they built the world’s largest bowling alley, 116 lanes.

  4. Marc Cohen says:

    Stacia, I lived 3 blocks from Woodside on Sherwood Road.
    I know a lot about the area including the Phila. Country Club. After they moved out of the City it became Beth Israel where I attended Hebrew School.

  5. Armand Rubbo says:

    My grandparents lived in Germantown, and caught the Rt 6 trolley to Willow Grove, where my dadpicked them up for the trip to Hatboro. I spent a weekend in Germantown, and to get home my grandparents took the bus on Washington Lane to Ogontz, and put me on the Rt 6. I sat behind the motorman. In Willow Grove my dad picked me up. I was like 5 or so, 1956 or 57. Imagine doing that today!!

    1. Bette says:

      Over all writing & reporting was very good.

    2. Fred B. Block says:

      Why do you think that a 5 year old can’t do as you did years ago today? I put my 6 year old daughter on planes in L.A. to visit her Philly grandmother yearly!

  6. susan stillings says:

    I had the pleasure of doing rides at both Woodside and Willow Grove although I was very young when I went to Woodside. Memories always haunted me about the rides at Woodside when I got older as no one ever mentioned it until now. My parents took me after shopping 🛒 if I begged,we lived in W.Philly.Willow Grove was my mom and my get away secret as we lived close to there even when I broke my collar bone on the 🎢.Lied to my step father I fell hiking.

    1. L Doyle says:

      I grew up in East Falls. My maternal grandparents met at Woodside Park. My father’s family would walk to Woodside. My paternal grandfather would walk over in later years with my dad’s youngest brother. They would take the trolley back to 33st and Ridge Ave and go to Pflaumer’s ice cream parlor for treats and walk the rest of the way home to East Falls. The park was closed when I was a child but we would sit in a hill in East Falls and watch the fireworks from there on Friday nights. My dad would walk us over to the park to go fishing in the pond where the motor boats used to run. We would have a picnic lunch in the meadow in our way back.

  7. Leon Auerbach says:

    I started going to Willow Grove Park in the late 60s. I went every summer up to the last season in 1975. In the late 60s I used to love going on Mondays because that was the one day the park had pay one price either 2 PM to 6 PM or 7 PM to 11 PM any of the other days it was all rides by individual tickets. In 1972 when the park became Six Gun Territory you paid a single admission price for all the rides but after a successful first two seasons the park went downhill quickly. It suffered from a reputation of being unsafe to go to. There were reports of people getting robbed in the dark rides. True or not the park suffered from all these rumors and parents didn’t want their kids going there. When the park did not open for the 1976 season it sat vacant for many years until construction of the mall started in 1980. Now with malls on the downhill and Willow Grove Park suffering maybe it’s time to bring back an amusement park?

  8. Ed Moses says:

    There was a small but pleasant amusement park on east side of the Roosevelt Blvd at approximatly Princeton Ave that i vividly recall frim approx late 50s thry the 60s.

    1. Fred B. Block says:

      KittyPlayland Roosevelt Blvd, Jack Esner was involved in the management in the 1950s

  9. Karen maluk says:

    Such wonderful memories of Willow Grove Park. My grade school had their annual picnic there. So much fun there !

  10. Dan Wheeler says:

    There was also the Chestnut Hill Park/White City from 1898 to 1912.

  11. Brett says:

    I wish I was able to remember more about Willow Grove Park. I remember the big colorful slide but thats about it. Lived 5 minutes away.

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