Today’s amusement parks fall into two categories: corporate Disney empires that feature attractions linked to movie blockbusters or trademarked characters— think “Pirates of the Caribbean” or Cinderella’s Castle— or the tantalizingly seedy carnivals that wander through town initiating the start of summer. Not so long ago, however, there was another species of amusement park.
Before Disney World and Space Mountain, Six Flags and steel roller coasters, you could ride the Racer Dip, the Mountain Speedway or the Sea Swing at one of Baltimore’s legendary amusement parks, sprawling entertainment complexes that were as affordable as they were grand.
Baltimore’s amusement park era began in the late 19th century with the opening of places like the racy Hollywood Park, which was located on Back River and Eastern Avenue. It was described in a Sun article as “notorious,” “ribald” and “a wild place” where the “only prohibition there was against smoking opium in the Old Mill.” And the era ended in the early 1970s with the drawn-out closure of Gwynn Oak Park. In between, Baltimoreans— white Baltimoreans, that is— came by streetcar, school bus and on foot, with sweethearts or Sunday school classmates, to swim, ice skate, sashay across ballroom floors, play games of chance and ride dozens of inventive rides. In the early 1920s, Baltimore boasted more than half a dozen amusement parks.
The parks were popular for several reasons. Because they were in and around the city, getting to them was easy. You could take the No. 26 “red rocket” streetcar to Bay Shore Park in southeastern Baltimore County near Fort Howard (and disembark just beyond the roller coaster under which the streetcar passed) or the No. 32 to Liberty Heights to visit Gwynn Oak. Carlin’s Park, at Reisterstown Road and Druid Park Avenue (also known as Park Circle), was an easy walk for many people. And during the war years, when gasoline was in short supply, the parks became increasingly popular for city folks unable to travel distances for summer getaways.
Amusement parks were also affordable. Admission to the parks was free, and if you didn’t have the 5 or 10 cents to spend on food or rides, you could still enjoy the sights and sounds of the midway and take in the whoops from the rides or the melodies from the bandstand, remembers longtime Baltimore chronicler Gilbert Sandler. Going to an amusement park “was a way to spend the entire day and spend nothing,” he says.
But the main draw was the multitude of exciting activities. At the start of each new season, the opening of the amusement parks was so anticipated that often the newspaper would list all of the new features. A 1909 Sun article noted that the casino restaurant at Electric Park, located at Belvedere Avenue near Reisterstown Road, had received a new coat of paint and “as many lights as a melodrama leading woman has paste diamonds.” Readers were also informed that “at convenient spots … in dark corners” on the new boardwalk at Riverview Park, “benches will be placed upon which romantic visitors may sit and gaze out upon the water and listen to the band.”
A 1937 article noted changes in park architecture— reporting that “parks are shaking off the heavy hand of Oriental-bungalow architecture. Modernism is spreading through the midway like measles in a kindergarten”— and in the kinds of prizes awarded to game winners. The days of “ornamental bisque elephants and silk-clad baby dolls” were over, replaced by “cold-pack canners, waffle irons, and bathroom scales.” In October 1943, The Sun proclaimed the summer amusement park business was “the best in a decade.” According to the article, the total revenue earned by the three largest parks— Bay Shore, Carlin’s and Gwynn Oak— was estimated at $4 million. Each park averaged 8,500 attendees per day, many of them servicemen, who spent an average of $1.25 of their hard-earned wages. On Sundays, attendance often swelled to 10,000.
By the ‘40s, many of the early parks— Hollywood Park, Electric Park, Riverview— had failed due to fire or economic downturn. And within a few years, Bay Shore would close then reopen on nearby Pleasure Island in 1948, only to close again in 1958. (Bethlehem Steel purchased the land in 1964.) Carlin’s and Gwynn Oak enjoyed popularity into the 1950s, but resistance to integration and its fallout caused the eventual demise of both.
These days, not one of the grand old amusement parks still stands. But we remember them fondly.
Hollywood Park Located on Back River and Eastern Avenue, Hollywood Park flourished in the early 20th century along with a several other parks (including Backus Park and “Spot” Mitchell’s) set along the rivers of eastern Baltimore County. For 10 cents, the trolley ride from City Hall would take you to a place that, as H.L. Mencken put it, one could “escape the horrors of reality.” Attractions included home brew and bootleg whiskey for sale at $12 a quart, painted ladies and minstrel shows. Before it was destroyed by fire in 1921, Hollywood Park was condemned by an investigating grand jury as “a place where drinking, reveling, gambling, singing, dancing, and general misbehavior prevailed.”
Elecric Park At night, the entrance to Electric Park was breathtaking. Turrets, staircases, gazebos and promenades all twinkled with thousands of bulbs made brighter by their reflection in the water below. The 24-acre park, located on Belvedere Avenue near Reisterstown Road, opened some time in the 1890s and was torn down in 1916. Highlights included Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (which became notorious after a lion escaped one day), Professor Pain’s fireworks and the miniature recreation of the infamous Johnstown flood. There was also the Human Laundry ride, described by The Sun in 1909 as “a replica for human beings of the ordinary laundry used for collars [including] a washing chamber, in which patrons of the place are supposed to be washed.” Riders, the writer continued, “go through various other processes, and finally they are brought to their starting point through an immense wringer, which passes the body of a 250 lb man just as easily as it passes the body of a 150 lb man. It is expected that there will be a great rush of 250 lb men to the attraction.” In 1908, the first dirigible flight over the city lifted up from the park.
Riverview Park Riverview Park operated at Point Breeze off of Broening Highway in East Baltimore and survived five fires between its inception in 1890 and its closure in 1929. Riverview featured the requisite rides such as the roller coaster (theirs was a quarter-mile long, shaped like a double “S” and peaked 75 feet in the air) and a Human Roulette Wheel. But they also offered live action attractions like the annual reenactment of the Battle of The Alamo (complete with fireworks) and a moving panorama billed as The Tour of the Alps, as well as a swimming pool and shooting gallery. Bandstand concerts were also quite popular— a performance by the Royal Artillery Band of Italy reputedly drew 60,000 spectators. A 1961 Sun article cites Prohibition as a contributor to the park’s demise. Western Electric bought the property at auction in 1929.
Bay Shore Park When Bay Shore Park opened in May 1907, it declared itself “The Magnificent New Resort of the South.” The park originated as a trolley park for the United Railways and Electric Company, and the bandstand, moving picture pavilion, rides like The Tipsy Automobile (“an auto set on casters instead of wheels which is allowed to roll down a long descent”) and two roller coasters (The Speedway and The Wild Cat) provided plenty of entertainment. But the Bay was the real draw. Patrons could stroll the 1,000-foot Crystal Pier, or get downright soaked slipping down the water slide or riding the Sea Swing, which required the rider to sit on a canvas swing “and be whirled about in the air to be dipped into the water every once in a while,” according to The Sun. There was also a bathing beach and an ingenious ramp into the water known as “the chicken runway,” which allowed reluctant swimmers to enter the water gradually.
Laura Thommen of Sparks recalls selling tickets for food and rides at Bay Shore during the summer of 1948. “We would be in sort of a little cage with a cash box,” she says. “We didn’t have cash registers.” She remembers the big beach, the pavilion with live music, the bands that played at night— and the boys who came and played games. But the highlight of her tenure was when she and her girlfriends got to be “test pilots” for the Dive Bomber, a ride with cars at the end of long pole that would go swing up and down. “I remember that so well,” she says with a sigh.
Carlin’s Park “My grandfather was quite the man,” Bill Beers says of Carlin’s Park founder, John Jacob Carlin. The park that bore Carlin’s name opened in 1919 as Liberty Heights Park on 70 acres that had originally been part of the Gittings Estate at Ashburton, and it truly had something for everyone. “It wasn’t just a park,” Beers explains. “It was a multi-entertainment complex” that included a large swimming pool, a roller rink and an ice rink where the Baltimore Orioles, a semi-pro team in the Eastern Hockey League, played. The Green Palace hosted band concerts, light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan and dance marathons. Other attractions included Klatawa, the diving horse who, according to The Sun, dove “from a 40-foot tall tower with the girl in red on his back.” There was also Reggy, the chimp who imitated Popeye; boxing matches; and flagpole sitters like “Shipwreck Kelly,” who sat atop a flagpole for 120 days as publicity stunt.
The park had its fair share of celebrity appearances, as well. The ice rink was one of the first places Sonja Henie skated in ice shows before becoming famous, remembers Beers. And Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman’s bands played the Palace. In 1923, Carlin’s was taken by storm when Rudolph Valentino judged a dance contest there.
Gilbert Sandler held numerous jobs at Carlin’s during the 1930s. “I worked the carny strip, walked the goats at the track, waxed floors at the dance hall,” he remembers. “I lived three blocks from Carlin’s and walked there almost every day in the summer. I’m the only person still alive that’s walked the Mountain Speedway [the park’s roller coaster].“But his favorite job? “Playing records at the ice rink,“he says. “Because I got to play the songs I liked, like ‘Once in a While’ or something by the Modernaires.”
Sandler’s favorite ride was The Olde Mill, where if you were in the boat with your sweetheart when the lights came down, you could steal your first kiss. “Romance began in the Olde Mill,” he says with a chuckle.
Carlin’s Park closed in 1955, although the roller rink and pool integrated and stayed open a few years longer. Towards the end, however, attendance dropped off. “People were just so fearful about integration,” says Beers. “It was a tense situation. African-Americans didn’t want to come to the park, and whites didn’t want to come to the park. The place just died.”
Gwynn Oak Gwynn Oak was the longest operating park in the Baltimore area, opening at a spot just over the city line between Liberty Road and Windsor Mill in Woodlawn in 1893 and hanging on until a potent mixture of bad publicity, bad weather and bad finances caused its demise in 1973.
In 1909, The Sun hailed Gwynn Oak as “the great picnic and Sunday school excursion ground of the city,” and indeed many Baltimoreans remember school trips to Gwynn Oak to celebrate First Holy Communions or spring graduations.
Patrons could ride the famous Racer Dip, their signature wooden roller coaster, spin on the Whip or take rifle practice at the Rifleman’s Range. The park also offered tennis courts, a baseball diamond, ice skating in the winter and pleasure boating (a surefire way to court your sweetheart) during the summer. But to a certain generation, Gwynn Oak will always be associated with the Dixie Ballroom, where folks dressed in coats and ties danced to the music of Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, or local bandleader Bob Craig, who led dancers in the Paul Jones, a musical chair like dance in which dancers promenaded in inner and outer circles until a whistle blew signaling them to stop and dance with the nearest partner.
Homebodies could also listen to the bands via broadcasts on WFBR. When rock’n’roll replaced big band music in popularity in the 1950s, the Dixie Ballroom closed.
Despite its longevity, changing times had serious consequences for Gwynn Oak. In 1963, the park resisted integration, and received national press (including an article in Time magazine) after nearly 400 whites and blacks, among them Protestant, Catholic and Jewish religious leaders, marched on Gwynn Oak on July 4 to protest the “whites only” policy, a scene rendered (with much poetic license) in John Waters’ film “Hairspray.” Nearly 300 protesters were arrested and taken by school bus to the Woodlawn Police Station. Eventually the park integrated, but low attendance, financial problems and general neglect ailed it, and damage from Tropical Storm Agnes finally sealed its fate. Gwynn Oak closed in 1973, ending the history of the longest operating amusement park in Baltimore.
When the park was forced to close for good in April of 1974, co-owner Dave Price was interviewed by a reporter from the Sun. When the reporter brought up the subject of the park’s forced integration in 1963, Mr. Price’s comment was, “We said at the time it wouldn’t work and we were right.” It seemed that resistance to integration all those years was not due to any kind of bigotry on the part of the Price family. It was simply a business decision that the business model could not work if the park were to integrate. History has proven them right, as the park died a slow death once it integrated. I’m not saying anything about anybody but it is what it is. Other parks in Maryland such as Glen Echo and Marshall Hall suffered the same fate for essentially the same reasons.
As a society we need to learn to get along and live together or perish. It’s up to the people.