Carsonia Park Reflections
CARSONIA AND THE TROLLEY PARK PHENOMENON
By MICHELLE LYNCH
At the end of every rainbow there may not have been a pot of gold but at the end of every trolley line there was an amusement park. -Historian John Gunsser, Jim Thorpe (Mauck Chunk), Pa.
From its humble start in 1896, through its glory days, to its final hours in 1950, Berks Countians retreated to Carsonia Park for amusement. Beginning with its Memorial Day opening to its end of summer closing, the park offered an almost magical atmosphere. After electrification in 1907, lights dazzled everywhere – adding to the dream-like quality of the park at night.
During different periods, a variety of music filled the air: measures of a march beating from the band stand, operetta floating from an open window in the theatre, big band swing blaring from the Crystal Ballroom and festive pipe music pumping from the carousel band organ and the Carsonia calliope truck.
Music was not the only sound associated with summers at the park. There was the steady whir and hiss of the ride mechanisms, even louder in the early days when some were still operated with tractor engines. The barkers’ cries enticed both young and old to chance a midway game or ride the carousel. An occasional splash came from boats on the lake and, later, bathers in the pool. Over it all, one heard the harmony of chatter and laughter, punctuated by squeals of delight and shrieks of fright.
While Carsonia Park was something unique in Berks, it was representative of the hundreds of amusements parks that opened in the United States between 1890 and 1920, during what has been called “the amusement park craze.” Carsonia Park is a part of our local history and heritage but amusement parks are part of our collective national culture. They are expressions of the human desire for recreation and amusement that continues to manifest itself today in the great theme parks of United States. Perhaps it is the innate understanding of this quest for amusement that explains why even those locals born too late to have experienced the pleasures of Carsonia are, never-the-less, keenly interested in the park.
Carsonia Park was typical of the great trolley parks that flourished at the turn of the last century. Created by the United Traction Company to increase weekend patronage, Carsonia was one of nearly thirty others of its kind in Pennsylvania when the first picnickers flocked to its grove. By 1905, our state boasted seventy-three trolley parks!
The craze reached its height in the following decades. Some bigger cities had up to six parks. At a minimum, a trolley park featured a picnic grove, a theatre and a carousel, all usually situated near a body of water such as a man-made lake. Carsonia had all these and more!
During different periods, as many as forty separate attractions were offered in Carsonia Park, including one of the earliest roller coasters ever built. During Carsonia’s boom days it was not unusual for the park’s special events to draw ten thousand people or more. One July 26, 1907 fireworks display saw nearly fourteen thousand in attendance. Forty trolleys were put into service for transportation to the park between the hours of seven to ten that evening.
By the 1920s, the frenzied spread of parks had slowed and attendance dwindled as Americans turned to other forms of amusement such as the motion picture theatre. Many of the traction companies began losing interest in amusements and sold their parks. Carsonia had been operated by different managers beginning as early as 1907, when the park was leased to the American Amusement Company.
Finally in 1923, the park came under the control of Edward Rhoads. Rhoads is responsible for the multitude of improvements and ride additions that enabled Carsonia Park to survive for nearly three decades more, despite the frequent closings of similar parks. Many of the great trolley parks succumbed to the Depression. Others were sold off as land for suburban housing developments became increasingly valuable following World War II. In the end, that was Carsonia’s fate as well.
Carsonia Park is gone but one can still capture some of the experience that made the park so memorable. Five of the twelve remaining trolley parks identified by the National Amusement Park History Association are located in Pennsylvania. The closest to home for Berks Countians are Dorney Park, near Allentown and Bushkill Park, near Easton. Now operated by Cedar Fair Limited, Dorney barely resembles the trolley park it once was. Bushkill Park, however, has changed little over the years and is considered one of the most original trolley parks in existence. A day trip to Easton this summer may evoke the magic of the old-fashioned trolley park for a new generation of Berks Countians.
THAT CARSONIA THRILL
Roller coaster designer, John Wardley, once said, “There is no doubt that there is a place in society for providing fun and thrills that are exhilarating and where is a perceived sense of danger.” From the first, amusement park rides and attractions have offered that sense of danger. Though what thrilled yesterday may seem mild by today’s standards.
Of the nearly forty amusements to have operated in Carsonia Park during its lifetime many provided that exhilarating thrill and are now considered what enthusiasts call “classics.” With increased interest in the classics in recent years, some parks have taken great care to restore and preserve these rides. Classics, like some of those that once operated at Carsonia, can still be ridden in parks in Pennsylvania and around the world. You can still get that Carsonia thrill!
The Caterpillar was the forerunner of today’s “Himalaya” rides. Traver Engineering of Beaver Falls, Pa. manufactured variations of the one that operated at Carsonia Park. A Caterpillar still operates at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh, Pa. Kennywood’s collection of classics includes several that are similar to Carsonia attractions. The Traver Engineering electric “Auto Race” closely resembles Carsonia’s battery operated Hupmobile “Speedway.” Kennywood Park also features the only “Noah’s Ark” known to have survived in the U.S. The “Noah’s Ark” fun house at Carsonia underwent several incarnations during its years of operation as the “Cave of the Winds” and the “Castle of Mirth.”
At Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa. you can still ride a genuine, patented, William Mangels “Whip,” almost identical to the one that was at Carsonia. You will also find a Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) ride known as the “Teacups.” It duplicates the experience of Carsonia’s two “Cuddle-Ups,” the first designed by Berks Engineering in 1929 and the later one by PTC.
“Leap the Dips,” the world’s oldest roller coaster, designed by E. Joy Morris and dating to 1902, is found at Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa. This coaster provides the same mild thrill that riders experienced on Carsonia’s 1903 coaster, designed by Frederick Ingersoll and later modified as the “Jack Rabbit.” Kennywood’s wooden “Thunderbolt” roller coaster, though modified in 1968, was designed by John Miller in 1924 as the “Pippin”. With its classic undivided seats, it provides the same coaster experience the rider would have gotten on Carsonia’s 1932 Miller designed “Thunderbolt.”
Remember the “Pretzel?” It was a “haunted” ride on a track through the dark. Leon Cassidy patented the twisting track design that gave the ride its name in 1928, and then went into its manufacture with the opening of his Pretzel Amusement Company in New Jersey. There are only a handful of “Pretzels” operating. The closest one, judged most original by dark ride enthusiasts, is found at Bushkill Park near Easton, Pa. Knoebels’ “Haunted Mansion,” which opened in 1973, uses salvaged Pretzel parts along with some new stunts.
Did you catch a brass ring on Carsonia’s PTC carousel before it was moved to Port Arthur, Tx. in 1944? You can still catch the brass ring on Knoebels’ 1912 Kramer made “Grand Carousel” with its sixty-three horses carved by George Carmel. Knoebels also has “Lusse Auto Skooters” nearly identical to the “Dodge ‘Em” bumper cars that operated at Carsonia. The Dodgem Corporation of Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts was the first to produce bumper cars in 1919. Lusse Manufacturing of Philadelphia, Pa. jumped into production in 1923 after testing its first cars at Philadelphia’s Woodside Park in 1922.
Over the years, Carsonia Park had at least three different fun houses. Remember the fun of the magic mirrors, the human roulette wheel and the walk through rolling barrel? Try them again at Bushkill Park’s fun house, one of only two attractions of its kind in the United States today!
Did you share your first kiss in Carsonia’s “Old Mill?” Kennywood’s “Old Mill” is still operating. You could also ride one at Nickels Midway pier in Wildwood, N.J. but you would have to travel to Lake Winnepesaukah in Roseville, Ga. to experience the only remaining ride with a mill chute drop at the end.
What about the famous “Circle Swing?” It was designed in 1902 by Harry Traver of Beaver Falls, Pa. Carsonia’s 1904 Traver Engineering “Circle Swing” was one of its earliest attractions. The original wicker gondolas were eventually replaced with wooden airplanes. Carsonia’s “Circle Swing” remains abandoned at Twin Grove Park Campground in Schuylkill County. There are no remaining operational circle swings today. The “Flying Scooter” at Conneaut Lake Park in Crawford County, Pa. and the “Flyer” at Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa. approximate the circle swing experience. Ride one of them to catch that old Carsonia thrill.
SOURCES: The Passing Scene by George M. Meiser, IX and Gloria Jean Meiser, Pennsylvania- Amusement Parks by Jim Futrell, National Amusement Park History Association, and www.defunctparks.com.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County