Trolley Parks: The Merrimack Valley’s First Amusement Parks

The Canobie Corkscrew opened in 1987, but I don’t remember staring in awe at how one of New England’s last trolley parks was claiming its place among modern amusement parks. I was eleven. I just wanted to ride Canobie Lake’s new upside-down roller coaster, the first one I had ever seen.

Canobie Lake opened as a trolley park in 1902. In the history of amusement parks, that’s essentially the beginning of time. Today, when you walk through Canobie Lake’s castle-like entrance, it’s like someone teleported 21st-century attractions back to the time of bowler hats and covered piano legs.

Canobie Lake Park shares the history of many trolley parks that sprouted up at the ends of the trolley lines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like other trolley car companies, the Hudson, Pelham & Salem Railways started Canobie Lake as a botanical garden.

The trolley car companies wanted to boost ridership on their trolley cars on Saturdays and Sundays. With trolley parks, they gave people a place to picnic or walk around in nature, away from the cities.

Over time, trolley car companies added attractions to keep riders coming. In the 1920s, as automobiles cut into trolley car fortunes, parks like Canobie Lake added newer and bigger attractions. The parks that survived found life after the trolley car companies. Canobie Lake Park was one of them.

Trolley Parks

Most US cities had a trolley park in their close suburbs. New England cities were no different. At their peak–just after World War I–as many as 2,000 trolley parks may have dotted US maps. Today, just a few remain–although many former trolley parks have found new life as parks or other open spaces.

Columbus Ave Street Car [Tremont Street]
The Columbus Avenue streetcar on Boston’s Tremont Street
(via Boston City Archives CC BY-SA 2.0)

New England is home to a few of the country’s remaining trolley parks. Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH is one. Salem, Massachusetts has Salem Willows. The other two are both in Connecticut: Middlebury’s Quassy Amusement Park and Bristol’s Lake Compounce. Lake Compounce was founded in 1846, which makes it the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the country.

Closer to home, though, which trolley parks did Merrimack Valley residents go to? What, if anything, remains of them today?

Lakeview Park (Dracut, MA)

Trolley Park Ad for Lakeview Park
A 1957 Ad for Lakeview Park

The Lowell and Dracut Street Railway built Lakeview Park in 1889 at the end of a line that had connections reaching as far away as Boston and Nashua.

Like other trolley parks, Lakeview Park opened offering dancing and boating and swimming in Lake Mascuppic. The park later added bowling and a theater.

The Lakeview Ballroom quickly became the park’s main attraction. When Harry Kittredge bought Lakeview Park in 1920, he doubled the size of the ballroom. Soon large groups of people descended into Dracut and danced to the area’s top entertainers of the time.

Trolley Park Ad for Lakeview Ballroom
An ad for the Lakeview Ballroom, 1957

Lakeview Park nearly met its end in 1927 when a discarded cigarette caused a fire that consumed not just the ballroom, but the restaurant, a few stores, the penny arcade, and the park’s roller coaster. The fire caused $100,000 in damages in 1927 dollars (which would be nearly $1.5 million today).

But, Kittredge rebuilt the park and ran it for another 20 years. With the coming of the automobile, Lakeview Park also went through its ups and downs. New owners in the 1950s pumped investment dollars into the park. That kept it open into the early 1970s.

By then, though, the park’s days were numbered. The rides went first. Lakeview’s kiddie rides held on into the 1970s, along with evening concerts. Eventually, though, Lakeview Park closed entirely and lakeside apartments were built on its site.

Pine Island Park (Manchester, NH)

Trolley Park Ad for Pine Island Park
Ad for Pine Island Park, 1951

The Traction, Light & Power Company opened Manchester’s Pine Island Park in the city’s south end in 1902. Pine Island offered swimming, dancing, boating, and fireworks. The park also had two wooden roller coasters–the Wildcat and the Figure 8.

The Traction Light & Power Company opened Pine Island as a family park and sold no alcohol. Thousands of Manchester residents would climb the stairs into the park to see the fireworks in the evenings.

Pine Island had its share of misfortunes over the years. New Hampshire’s first airship took flight at Pine Island Park in 1910 only to crash into one of the park’s roller coasters minutes later. Six years after, a man was stabbed and killed near the park’s entrance. Then, several people drowned in the park’s pond in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.

Pine Island Park survived a flood and then a hurricane later in the 1930s, but these destroyed many of the park’s rides and its iconic pine trees. Significant reinvestment into the park modernized its rides in the 1950s, but it was too late.

Automobiles and better roads carried people to larger parks further away. Pine Island Park closed in 1962, following a disastrous fire the year before. Today, Pine Island Park has found new life as a playground and picnic area, and has an ample set of walking trails.

Whalom Park (Lunenburg, MA)

Trolley Park Photo of Whalom Park
(Source: Redfive05 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

By the time Whalom Park closed in 2000, it was one of the country’s oldest amusement parks. They had also created the 1980s-era earworm: “Whaaaa-lom Park, For a whale of a time…”

The Fitchburg & Leominster Street Railway opened Whalom Park–named after Lake Whalom–in 1893. The park’s biggest draw was its Flying Comet wooden roller coaster, dating to 1940. But, Whalom Park also had more than 20 other attractions including a carousel, a small train, bumper cars, and a skating rink.

Some relics of the park survived the park’s closing, finding homes with Whalom’s former employees and the local historical society. Like Lakeview Park, the Whalom Park’s former site now hosts condos.

Whalom Park still survives, though, in this 1982 video from the Cars that features many of the park’s rides.

Salem Willows (Salem, MA)

Salem Willows Pavilion
Courtesy of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections
SSUArchives (CC BY 2.0)

Salem Willows has long been known for its … willows. The town of Salem planted the first willows on Salem Neck in 1801 for its nearby contagious disease hospital, which treated patients suffering from smallpox, TB, and other 19th-century ailments like scarlet fever.

By the years leading up to the Civil War, Salem, by then a city, set aside 35 acres along the water for a public park. They named it Salem Willows and smallpox patients convalesced in the shade of the white willow trees.

It wasn’t until the Contagious Disease Hospital closed that Salem’s citizenry also started to check out Salem’s famous white willows by the waterfront. Soon after, the Naumkeag Street Railway began to offer trolley rides out from Salem’s downtown. Salem Willows Amusement Park came soon after in 1880.

The amusement park met with immediate success, drawing thousands of visitors from Salem and beyond every day. They mainly came for the skating rink, restaurant, and theater in Salem Willows’ Pavilion. As the park grew, it became a destination for tourists and city residents who came for the park’s bowling alley, casino, skee-ball and its water slide.

Today, Salem Willows still offers seaside views and picturesque walking trails. The arcades and rides are still there too, open seasonally and run by privately owned businesses.

Trolley Parks – Still Relevant Today

Today, trolley parks like Lakeview Park and Whalom Park may be gone, but they’re definitely not forgotten. You can still find echoes of the days of trolley parks in their survivors like Canobie Lake and Salem Willows.

The parks that survived in the United States are the ones that adapted to the times and kept themselves relevant even after automobiles freed people from having to follow the trolley lines.

Even in these parks, though, you can still see their history if you look past the lines for modern rides and take in the ambiance that newer parks just can’t capture. That adds to the mystique of trolley parks and means that they’ll be with us for a long time to come.

Featured Image: Glen Echo Park in Maryland. Source: LoC/PD

One thought on “Trolley Parks: The Merrimack Valley’s First Amusement Parks

  1. That’s a lot of great information about how earlier generations spent their leisure time. I especially enjoyed the vintage advertising. Thanks for your many interesting articles.

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