Trolley Parks: The Predecessor to the Amusement Park

Throughout the 1800’s and into early 1900’s, streetcar companies needed a way to keep people riding the rails into the weekend, to make more money.

So many began opening parks at the ends of their streetcar lines to bring in revenue on the days when people weren’t commuting. They were way to escape the bustle of city life. As you might expect, these “trolley parks” were much different than today’s billion dollar scream-fest destinations. In their early days they featured gardens, picnic groves, pavilions. Many of them were built near bodies of water, and included boardwalks, and beaches. They were places to show off a new summer hat or…spend a leisurely day with the family. Eventually trolley parks began adding more features to attract new attendees like concerts and fireworks shows… and then carousels, Ferris wheels, and roller coasters.

And they became extremely popular, with every major city in the country sporting at least one. By the end 1919, there were over 1000 parks in the United States, many owned by city transit companies.

Probably the most important trolley park was at Coney Island in Brooklyn NY, which saw incredible growth throughout the 1800’s. During the 1830’s and 40’s, Coney Island became a popular seaside hotel resort location because of its proximity to New York City and the then City of Brooklyn. Originally it was connected by horse-drawn carriage lines which were first built by the Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad in 1862. Thirteen years later, a steam railway was built and by the end of the 1876, 2 million people had ridden the line.

But the parks were not to last. In fact what killed trolley parks is what killed streetcars themselves. By the end of the 1920’s, many parks saw significant decline as the automobile began replacing railroads as American’s primary mode of travel. Amusement parks accessible by car continued to see growth but urban parks suffered, exasperated by the Great Depression. Throughout the 30’s and 40’s urban populations were gutted as Americans moved to suburbs. As a result many trolley parks went bankrupt and were abandoned.

Today, only 11 remain in operation. The oldest continuously-operating trolley park in the United States is Seabreeze Park in Rochester New York, opened in 1879. Others include Pennsylvania’s Dorney Park, opened in 1884, and Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire in 1902.

So the next time you ride a roller coaster, remember it was railroad tycoons…who put it there.

This audio is produced by Press For Sound. Our theme music was written by Eric Donahoe. Theme music also provided by FreeMusicArchive.org. Today’s episode featured a song called “The Great One Step” by the Victor Dance Orchestra.

You can follow me on Twitter @BillyDonahoe.

Subscribe to the Nerd Dash Podcast on iTunes.

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