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Life Is A Lark ... At Willow Grove Park

I've been reading 'Willow Grove Park', a book which is primarily a bound collection of captioned photographs. It brought back a lot of fond memories of this long-defunct Philadelphia-area amusement park and its slogan, "Life is a lark ... at Willow Grove Park."

The book covers the period from the amusement park's 1896 opening until its final days in the mid 1970s. (A large shopping mall is now on the site. Like the U.S. needed another one.)

It was interesting to see how the park and the rides changed over the years. In its early days, one of the biggest attractions in the park was the music pavilion, at which John Philip Sousa and his band played every year but one, between 1901 and 1926. The pavilion was demolished in March 1959.

In order to keep people coming back, old rides would be discarded and new rides would replace them. Since my window of experience at the park was only a decade or so, I didn't realize this. I do remember that our 8th grade class trip was to Willow Grove Park. I rode all three wooden roller coasters - several times. And the bumper cars. And went through the fun house two or three times as well. And played Skee Ball and other arcade games. It was a long - but fun - day.

In this 1956 photo, two Route 6 PTC trolleys arrive at Willow Grove terminal. The amusement park can be seen in the background, including the mountain for the Alps coaster as well as the aerial Rocket Ride.

Willow Grove Park was located in Willow Grove, PA, about 10 miles north of Philadelphia. The park was built as a 'trolley park'. Such parks were popular with transit companies around the turn of the century, providing extra revenue and boosting weekend ridership for trolley lines. The Park was a very attractive facility with lots of trees in a pastoral setting. It also had two large lakes where people could rent small watercraft or ride in an electric launch.

When Willow Grove Park debuted in 1896, one of the first amusement rides available was the Scenic Railway - the park's first roller coaster - a tame 'out and back' which ran through a grove of trees. This wooden coaster was the longest running ride at the park, operating until the very end. It was - at one point - known as the Nickel Scenic based on its admission price.

The Alps was another wood coaster. First called The Mountain Scenic Railway, it opened in 1905 and traveled in and out of a faux mountain. Its long cars had train-like wheels; speed was controlled by brakemen on each car. At 2.5 miles, it was - when coompleted in 1905 - the longest coaster ride in the U.S.

The third wooden coaster was the Thunderbolt. Constructed in 1928, it was large, fast and exciting. It had sharp drops and, in its day, was quite scary.

The Whip ride was added in 1916. It was still running strong when I last rode it in the late 1950s.

Ye Olde Mill, a boat ride, was first opened in 1904. It was eventually replaced by a different Old Mill ride which was later renamed The Lost River. Damaged by a fire in the late 1940s, the ride was rebuilt and rechristened as the Tunnel of Love.

Sir Hiram Maxim's Captive Flying-Machine was an airship ride opened in 1905 and was modeled on a famous ride at Blackpool, an English resort. Decorative gondolas - which hung from steel arms by steel cables - were later replaced with airplanes and, eventually, with gleaming metal rocket ships. As the large arms rotated the airships would lift up in ever widening circles. Regardless of the given name, patrons referred to the ride as the Airships or the Rocket Ride.

This 1958 photo shows the Midway of the park on a fairly-crowded summer day, with ticket booths and Ferris wheel at right, arcades and other attractions, including the Thunderbolt and Scenic Railway roller coasters on the left side of the Midway.

By the mid-1950s, the amusement park was more profitable than its Philadelphia Transit Co. parent. The carnival scenes for Abbott and Costello's final film together, 'Dance with Me, Henry', were filmed at the park in 1956. In the early 1960s, Dick Clark broadcast 'American Bandstand' from the park.

Group outings were popular in the park, such as this group of kids escorted by nuns. The group is from the Knights of Columbus orphanages, which - starting in 1925 - held an annual day at Willow Grove Park.

By the late 1960s, the park faced increasing competition from newer, fancier amusement and theme parks in the region, as well as other leisure activities. The geographic zone of competitors had expanded greatly with the rise of the interstate highway system and increased use of vacation air travel. In desperation, the park was rebadged as Six-Gun Territory - featuring a western theme - in 1972.

The park closed forever at the end of the 1975 season.

Willow Grove Park was a unique place. But not a unique story. Classic amusement parts all over the U.S. have disappeared as their markets changed and as the parks' once-rural real estate became more valuable for other uses as suburbia expanded. (posted 7/18/21)

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