Archival Adventures in Small Repositories

Life is a Lark at Willow Grove Park

Wednesday, 8/15/12

"When balmy summer breezes blow, and music fills the air . . ." these lines from the song, "My Willow Grove Sweetheart", conjure up thoughts of summertime fun and the endless amusements to be found at Willow Grove Park, an area amusement park well documented in the collections of the Upper Moreland Historical Association. 

Willow Grove Park, which opened in 1896, was originally a trolley park created by the People’s Traction Company (a trolley company that eventually became the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most metropolitan areas had trolley parks (think Coney Island, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and Dorney Park in Allentown). Trolley companies created these parks at the end of their lines, providing a destination to encourage riders.

Trolley parks were the forerunners of amusement parks.  While today’s amusement parks feature thrilling rides and screaming visitors, trolley parks were more genteel. Scrapbooks, pamphlets, advertisements, ephemera, and photographs in the collection of the Upper Moreland Historical Association showcase Willow Grove Park’s bucolic landscape, quite a contrast to urban Philadelphia.  The Park featured picnic groves, walking paths, lakes for boating, and pavilions for dancing and concerts.  Willow Grove Park even had a dress code and rules of behavior, enforced by Park guards.

Willow Grove Park became nationally famous for the concerts in its music pavilion, with many famous musicians and bands taking the stage.  John Philip Sousa and his band started playing concerts at the Park in 1901 and played almost every summer for 24 years, helping the Park earn the moniker the Summer Musical Capital of America.  
 

Willow Grove Park evolved over the years, adding new amusements and rides, like the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, gradually becoming a modern-day amusement park.  During the 1970s it became Six-Gun Territory, an amusement park with a western theme.   Like many trolley parks, Willow Grove was affected by increased use of the automobile, which freed people from dependence on the trolley lines, allowing them to seek entertainment wherever they desired.  Willow Grove Park closed after the 1975 season, was demolished in 1976, and is now the site of the Willow Grove Park Mall.

There are a number of trolley parks still in operation in the United States, five in Pennsylvania:  Dorney Park in Allentown (est. 1884); Lakemont Park in Altoona (est. 1894); Waldameer Park in Erie (est. 1896); Kennywood in West Mifflin (est.  1898); and Bushkill Park in Easton (est. 1902). (I know talking about old amusement parks in Pennsylvania makes you think of Knoebel’s, a great place, but it was not a trolley park!)

Obviously the Upper Moreland Historical Association has more information on Willow Grove Park than I can describe here, so pay them a visit to learn why “Life is a lark at Willow Grove Park!”

See all finding aids for Upper Moreland Historical Assocation

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