Discover more from Frederick R. Smith Speaks
Life Was a Lark at Willow Grove Park
Sixteen miles North of Philadelphia’s center city in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a historic amusement park brought generations of visitors joy, excitement, and unforgettable memories.
As a youngster, it was a “lark” to visit Wilow Grove Park north of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The many rides and venues gave a sense of community and excitement. To this day, I can sense the zero gravity feeling of the “Thunderbolt” roller coaster. Even though John Philp Zouza passed in 1932, walking the grounds where he directed his marching band was an honor.Willow Grove Park closed in 1975, a year after I graduated from high school. That school located the next town south of Willow Grove, shut down in 2021.
Enjoy the ride at Willow Grove Park, “America’s Finest Amusement Park.”
Willow Grove Park was an amusement venue located 16 miles north of the center city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was open from 1896 to 1975 and was a popular destination for entertainment and leisure during its operation. Throughout its history, Willow Grove Park had several owners. To comprehend the history of Willow Grove Park, a review of the history of public transportation in Philadelphia is in order.
In the early days of immigration, people traveled on foot or horse-drawn wagons or carriages. In the 1850s, a few entrepreneurs began to offer regular public transit for a fee. Along certain roads in Philadelphia, horse-pulled streetcars ran on tracks embedded in the street. Passengers paid a small fee for the ride. As competition grew, other companies entered the market, opening new roads and increasing rivalry. By the time of the Civil War, the city got inundated with private transportation companies vying for customers. Companies were responsible for maintaining the roads to gain better routes or limit access to competitors. Many of which were private enterprises since the 1830s.
During the post-Civil War era, the transportation industry garnered increasing attention. Philadelphia underwent rapid industrialization. Efforts improved the horse-pulled streetcar, but electric power was necessary for real progress.
In December 1892, the People’s Traction Company introduced electric traction on two lines in Philadelphia. The city’s other horse-drawn streetcar routes changed to electric trolley service within a few years.
By the mid-1890s, four major companies had consolidated the many private transit companies. Among these was the People’s Traction Company, which controlled the route to Willow Grove. Its subsidiary, the Philadelphia, Cheltenham, and Jenkintown Passenger Railway Company, operated the line.
The achievement of opening the People’s Trolley line to Willow Grove on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1895 was significant. At Charles Ehrenpfort’s Mineral Springs Park, 10,000 people gathered on the first day of trolley service, and the crowds continued to grow. The trolley company recognized the potential for profit by entertaining city dwellers. The traction company searched for land and purchased two farms totaling over 90 acres. People’s Traction developed plans to create a park with picnic areas, amusements, and a bandstand. Like Mineral Springs Park, entry to the Park would be free, with food and rides available for sale.
Willow Grove Park welcomed its first visitors on Decoration Day 1896, and it became a popular destination. Over one million people visited the Park during its inaugural season. In two years, the People’s Traction Company merged with Union Traction Company, controlled by Peter A. B. Widener and William L. Elkins. In 1902, the Union Traction Company reincorporated into the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT). The PRT and its successor, Philadelphia Transit Company, owned and operated the Park for over 50 years, until 1954.
Park management aimed to cultivate a sophisticated and refined atmosphere. It was evident in everything from the well-maintained gardens and electric fountain to the dress code. The Park had decorum, regardless of weather conditions. Every amusement offered at the Park suited even the most refined tastes. The free daily concerts featured top conductors, bands, and orchestras. They performed classical and light classical music. That exemplified the Park’s commitment to this philosophy.
The two decades following the turn of the century saw growth in amusement rides offered at the Park. Management invested in constructing new rides and replacing the ones that had become obsolete. Most of these rides were along the Midway, the main avenue within the Park. With some of the best amusements in the nation, the Park maintained its high standards of conduct and etiquette.
In 1926, Meyer Davis, an orchestra leader and innovator, leased the Park from the PRT. He noted significant changes in American society that affected the Park’s operation. The popularity of musical concerts had decreased. The widespread use of automobiles allowed people to venture further from the city beyond the trolley’s limited routes. The Park needed to provide different entertainment to attract visitors. During Davis’s “Roaring Twenties” at the Park, beauty contests became the norm, and there was a call for sizzle and swing. The Park responded by providing new thrills, including the Thunderbolt ride.
The Great Depression began in 1929 with the stock market crash. A devastating fire occurred in the Park in December of that year. These events left Meyer Davis disillusioned with the Park. The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company regained control of the Park and resumed operations. In the 1930s, the Park underwent significant improvements, including new shows and rides. The roller coaster received sleek new cars, and although the track layout remained the same, the Park’s image changed. Throughout World War II, the Park remained open, providing a temporary escape for locals from the stresses of wartime.
Following the troops’ return and the baby boom’s start, the Park saw a revival, with attendance, revenues, and profits climbing yearly. Even so, the successor to Philadelphia Rapid Transit, the Philadelphia Transit Company, sold the Park to Baltimore-based investors in 1954. The Park flourished and added even more rides and amusements. It catered to the rising demand of car-bound visitors seeking thrills and entertainment. As a result, the amusement park business was booming, and visitors left the park content and satisfied.
The Hankin family purchased the Park on December 1, 1958, and owned it until its eventual closure. During their ownership, the Hankins focused on the rides along Midway. They began developing the grounds for commercial purposes. As the 1960s progressed, the Park experienced a slow decline and failed to attract as many visitors as it used to. In 1972, Hankin Enterprises signed a ten-year lease with National Recreational Services (NRS), a division of National Service Industries, to revive the Park. NRS operated five other parks under the Six Gun Territory banner. Despite the efforts of NRS to spend $1 million to repair the Park, it continued to struggle. It failed after four seasons as Six Gun Territory. Following its 80th season, the Park closed, with the land sold to developers who constructed a mall on the site.
Willow Grow Park History
Willow Grove Park was a beloved landmark that captivated the hearts of families, couples, and thrill-seekers alike. Spanning over a century, it held a special place in the hearts of those who experienced its magic. It left behind a legacy that continues to this day.
Established in 1896, the Park attracted passengers using trolley lines on weekends and holidays. This “trolly park” gained popularity and became a thriving destination for locals and tourists alike. With its picturesque location, scenic lake, and lush greenery, Willow Grove Park was an idyllic escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Trolley service to the Park ended in 1958.
The Reading Company also provided rail transportation to the Park.Trains regularly ran through Willow Grove, with special excursion trains added on weekends. The Reading regularly transported people to Willow Grove from various points throughout eastern Pennsylvania. People from far and wide went to Willow Grove, making it a sought-after destination. Today, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s commuter trains serve the Willow Grove Station.
One of the key elements that made Willow Grove Park so beloved was its wide array of amusements and entertainment options. The Park boasted an impressive collection of rides. They included a majestic carousel, a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, and many other thrilling attractions. For those seeking leisure, the Park featured quiet boat rides on the lake, serene picnic areas, and landscaped gardens. That venue offered a peaceful respite from the excitement of the rides.
Willow Grove Park was not about rides and amusements only. It was also a hub of cultural and social activities. The Park hosted live concerts, dance performances, and theatrical shows, drawing in crowds of all ages. It also had a swimming pool, a skating rink, and a casino, providing visitors various activities. The Park even had its baseball team, the Willow Grove Park Reds, who played exhibition games, adding to its vibrant atmosphere.
One of the Park’s most iconic features was its grand entrance gate, symbolizing its opulence and grandeur. The gate had intricate designs and was a majestic sight that welcomed visitors into the magical world of Willow Grove Park. It served as a portal to a world of wonder and excitement. Passing through the gate started a memorable day filled with joy and adventure for many.
Over the years, Willow Grove Park underwent several changes and expansions. The Park continued to evolve and adapt to changing times, introducing new rides and updating its facilities. It hosted various events to keep visitors engaged and entertained. It remained a cherished destination for families, providing generations of memories and stories. Here is a promotional video from the year of my birth, 1956.
Like many amusement parks, Willow Grove Park faced challenges as the years passed. In 1975, the Park closed its doors due to financial difficulties and changing entertainment trends. We lost the once-thriving landmark. All that remained were memories of the joy and laughter it had brought millions of visitors over the years.
Despite its closure, the legacy of Willow Grove Park lives on. The Park’s impact on the local community and its significance in the history of amusement parks in America continues today. Many former visitors like this author and residents of Willow Grove still remember their experiences. The Park is a special place held in our hearts.
The Thunderbolt ride at Willow Grove Park was a thrilling roller coaster that was a highlight of the Park’s attractions. This classic wooden coaster was a beloved ride that offered an adrenaline-pumping experience. For thrill-seekers, it remains a cherished memory for those who could ride it.
The Thunderbolt was an imposing structure that dominated the skyline of Willow Grove Park. Its wooden tracks stretched high into the air, weaving and twisting in a mesmerizing pattern. The ride featured a series of sharp turns, steep drops, and sudden dips. It provided riders with an exhilarating and heart-pounding experience. The coaster’s layout maximized the thrill factor with unexpected twists and turns. It kept riders on the edge of their seats throughout the ride.
As riders boarded the Thunderbolt, they would feel a sense of anticipation and excitement building up. The ride would start with a slow climb up a steep incline, accompanied by the familiar clicking sound of the coaster climbing the tracks. The view from the top was breathtaking, offering panoramic views of Willow Grove Park and the surrounding area. Riders could catch a glimpse of other rides, the Park’s lush greenery, and the excited screams of fellow riders.
Once at the top, the Thunderbolt would unleash its full power, hurtling riders down a thrilling drop at breakneck speed. The coaster would then twist and turn, with sudden changes in direction that defied gravity. It left riders gripping their handles. The wooden structure of the coaster added to the excitement. The familiar rattle and the roar of the coaster tracks added to the sensory experience.
The Thunderbolt provided a mix of sensations, from the rush of wind to the G-forces pulling in different directions. It generated excitement from unexpected twists and turns. The coaster’s layout created a sense of weightlessness and thrill. Riders experienced brief periods of weightlessness as they went over hills and drops.
The ride was not for the faint of heart; those who dared to ride the Thunderbolt provided an unforgettable experience. It was a ride that brought out screams, laughter, and sheer joy as riders went on a wild journey through the skies of Willow Grove Park. For many, riding the Thunderbolt was a rite of passage, a must-try attraction that added to the Park’s allure and excitement.
Unfortunately, with the closure of Willow Grove Park in 1975, the Thunderbolt ride ceased to operate. Regardless, memories of this iconic coaster live on in the hearts of those of us who had the chance to experience its thrilling twists and turns.
While many modern rides today are even more impressive, the Thunderbolt remains a cherished part of the Park’s history. Its legacy remains with former visitors (like this author) and enthusiasts.
Early Music Venues
Frederick N. Innes
Frederick N. Innes and his “Famous Fifty” dominated the musical concerts during the first year. Innes, born on October 29, 1854, in London, England, received his early musical training in the Her Majesty’s First Lifeguard band. He was a trombone virtuoso and regarded as the world’s best. In 1887, while still in England, he conceived the idea of a military band for concert purposes only and established such a group in San Francisco. Innes’ success led to his appointment as the leader of the 13th Regiment Band of New York, and unparalleled in his field.
At Willow Grove, Innes’ concerts were so popular that the season lasted two weeks until September 20, 1896. The concert programs featured classical music, operatic selections, marches, songs, and lighter classics. Public request night occurred on Mondays, and Fridays were classical. On September 19, Innes premiered his composition, Willow Grove, the first of many works dedicated to the Park or its patrons. The band featured famous soloists of the day. For many concert-goers, it was their first exposure to live classical music. The park planners considered the concerts their most significant achievement with an “air of refinement.”
In 1897, park management took a risk by hiring Walter Damrosch and his New York Symphony Orchestra to provide music for the season. Some wondered if an orchestra was suitable for outdoor concerts and that it would not attract crowds. Advocates believed that a free orchestra would give Willow Grove prestige. This was the only Park with that venue, and good music would attract people who could and would spend money. Damrosch’s popularity proved a hit. He set a new standard for outdoor summer music in America and stimulated widespread appreciation of classical music. Damrosch’s popularity in symphonic music was partly responsible for founding the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1901.
Following Willow Grove’s success, other summer parks began offering similar concerts nationwide. Damrosch gave two daily shows like Innes: Monday as a complete symphony and Friday as Wagner Night. Damrosch succeeded, but park management contacted Thomas Brooke and his Chicago Marine Band for the 1898 season. In 1899, Damrosch returned, and management adopted a policy to have orchestras and bands perform every season.
The 1899 musical season included Eugenio Sorrentino and his Italian band, Banda Rossa, named for their red hats. Sorrentino was a conductor and composer, and his Willow Grove March premiered on May 27.
Helen May Butler and her Ladies’ Military Band made a rare appearance at Willow Grove Park during its almost 30-year run of public concerts. In 1903 and 1904, park management experimented. It featured various groups for one-week engagements. Starting in 1905, it became more common for fewer groups to have longer performances. Several other groups also had brief runs at Willow Grove. That included the Salem Cadet Band led by Jean M. Missud, A. F. Pinto’s Boys’ New York Symphony Orchestra, the Haskell Indian Band directed by Dennis Wheelock, the U.S. Naval Academy Band with Charles A. Zimmerman conducting, and Handel V. Phasey’s British Guards Band.
Patrick Conway, the conductor of the Ithaca Band, was another prominent bandleader. He performed at Willow Grove starting in 1903. Conway and his band were mainly known for their renditions of lighter forms of music (ragtime, cakewalks, humoresques, and marches).
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), widely known as the “March King,” was one of American history’s most iconic and influential composers and conductors. His music, particularly his stirring marches, captured the spirit of America. The tunes became synonymous with patriotism, celebration, and national pride. One of the places where Sousa’s music became a memorable part of the local culture was Willow Grove Park. His performances at Willow Grove Park left an indelible mark on the Park’s legacy.
Sousa’s association with Willow Grove Park dates to the early 20th century. In 1901, the Park’s management invited Sousa and his renowned band to perform, kicking off a tradition that would continue for many years. Sousa and his band’s performances at Willow Grove Park drew enormous crowds and became one of the season’s most anticipated events. Thousands of visitors visited the Park to witness the “March King” and his band in action. They awaited their electrifying performances.
Sousa appeared yearly until 1926, except for one year, 1911, when on a world tour. With that venue, Willow Grove Park became known as “The Music Capitol of America.”
Sousa’s music was a perfect fit for the festive atmosphere of Willow Grove Park. His rousing marches, such as “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Semper Fidelis,” and “The Washington Post March,” filled the Park with patriotic fervor and an undeniable sense of excitement. Sousa’s compositions were a perfect soundtrack for the Park’s rides, amusements, and social activities. The sounds created an immersive experience for visitors. His music captivated audiences of all ages, from young children to elderly visitors.
Sousa’s appearances at Willow Grove Park were not limited to performances with his band. He also showcased his exceptional talent as a conductor, leading other musical groups that performed at the Park. They included local bands and orchestras. Sousa’s masterful conducting style and charismatic presence on stage added a touch of grandeur and elegance. That elevated the experience for visitors.
The impact of Sousa’s performances at Willow Grove Park extended far beyond the Park itself. His music inspired a sense of national pride and patriotism. Sousa’s music represented the ideals of American exceptionalism and captured the essence of the American spirit. His band resonated with audiences across the country. His performances at Willow Grove Park helped spread his music to a broader audience and solidified his status as a national treasure.
Sousa’s association with Willow Grove Park continued for many years. His performances became a beloved tradition at the Park. The legacy of Sousa at the Park lives on in the hearts of patriots as the “March King.”
Fun Facts to Know and Tell
Bill Cosby wrote and performed a stand-up routine called Roland and the Roller Coaster, recounting his childhood ride on the roller coaster at Willow Grove Park. The Cosby home, to this day, is within walking distance from where I grew up (moved from there in the 80s). Met him once (before the scandals).
The novel The Fires of Spring by James A. Michener (1907?-1997) features a young orphan boy named David Harper who grew up in a poor house in Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, close to Willow Grove. Harper works at an amusement park called Paradise, inspired by Michener’s experiences working at Willow Grove Park as a young man.
In the third episode of the first season of American Dreams, “New Frontier,” Helen Pryor mentions Willow Grove and one of its rollercoasters at the end.
The 1934 film She Married Her Boss features Claudette Colbert referring to the Park.
About 400 miles southwest of Willow Grove, White Springs, West Virginia, hosted a venue linked to a rail line. The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway Company owned the Greenbrier Resort there.
Click here for a large selection of Willow Grove Park pictures from Bing.com.
Willow Grove Park was a historic landmark. It was one of the premier amusement parks in the United States for a long time until it was eclipsed by the openings of Disneyland and other more modern theme parks beginning in the 1950s. It brought countless visitors joy, excitement, and cherished memories for over a century. Its legacy as a beloved amusement park continues to live on in the hearts of those who experienced its magic. It was a historic landmark that brought countless visitors joy, excitement, and cherished memories for over a century.
Willow Grove Park has transitioned from a pleasure park to an amusement park. After its demise, we see a shopping mall complete with ample parking. These changes reflect the evolving desires of American society when it comes to leisure activities. Despite the many transformations, the Park retained some of its original essence. Those who have enjoyed the venue over the years can still reminisce about our cherished memories. It will always be “Life is a Lark at Willow Grove Park,” regardless of how it has changed.📕
Willow Grove Park ~ Old York Road Historical Society (Author), 128 pages, Arcadia Publishing, February 2006
Amusement Parks as Landscapes of Popular Culture: An Analysis of Willow Grove Park and the Wildwoods ~ Joanna Mary Doherty, University of Pennsylvania, 1999
Willow Grove Amusement Park Memories ~ Facebook
Back in the Day: Willow Grove Park was a wild ride ~ The Philadelphia Tribune
The pavilion was demolished in March 1959.
Philadelphia Rapid Transit became the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) in 1940. On September 30, 1968, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) acquired the PTC, which operated a citywide system of bus, trolley, and trackless trolley routes, the Market–Frankford Line (subway-elevated rail), the Broad Street Line (subway), and the Delaware River Bridge Line (subway-elevated rail to City Hall, Camden, NJ) which became SEPTA’s City Transit Division. The PTC was created in 1940 with the merger of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (formed in 1902) and a group of smaller, then-independent transit companies operating within the city and its suburbs.
The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was a railroad company that operated in eastern Pennsylvania, primarily serving the anthracite coal region. It was founded in 1833 by a group of businessmen led by Franklin B. Gowen, who sought to develop a transportation network to move coal from the mines to the cities. Corporately, in 1833 it started as the Philadelphia & Reading Rail Road. In 1896, it was reorganized as the Philadelphia & Reading Railway. In 1924, it became the Reading Company, also known as the Reading Lines.
Over the years, the Reading Company expanded its operations, acquiring other railroads and diversifying into new markets such as passenger transportation and real estate development. However, the company struggled financially in the 20th century due to competition from other transportation modes and declining coal demand.
Despite efforts to restructure and modernize, the Reading Company eventually filed for bankruptcy in 1971. Its assets were liquidated, and the company ceased operations in 1976. Today, other railroads have repurposed or absorbed many of the Reading Company’s former lines and facilities. At the same time, its legacy lives on in popular culture, including the famous Monopoly board game.