Amusement parks were all the rage at the end of the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution kicked entertainment into high gear along the Hudson River.
Here in the Valley, you needn’t look too hard to find record-setting accomplishments of all types, from the Bronck Museum’s 13-sided barn (oldest of its kind in the state) to the Walkway Over the Hudson (longest pedestrian bridge in the world). But would you be surprised to learn that, for nearly 50 years, the highest and fastest roller coaster anywhere was located in Poughkeepsie?
In Lost Amusement Parks of the Hudson Valley, the husband-and-wife team of Wesley and Barbara Gottlock chronicle an oft-overlooked slice of our history: the preponderance of “pleasure parks” built in the region between the 1880s and 1920s. Several factors contributed to this trend, explains Wesley: “Toward the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had kicked in. Folks were working in industry, and not bound to farms anymore — which, for the first time, allowed them to have time off on the weekends. So a need for recreation arose: What were they going to do for fun?”
It wasn’t long before savvy businessmen figured out that our area held the answer to that question. “The Valley was as scenic then as it is today,” Gottlock continues, “and the infrastructure — the steamships and trolley lines — was already in place. The entrepreneurs realized that this was a great opportunity to make money on the weekends by creating amusement parks at ports up and down the Hudson — at Bear Mountain, Indian Point, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, all the way up to Albany.”
Sadly, this golden age of midway magic was relatively short-lived. “In the late 1920s,” says Gottlock, “the country was entering the Depression. People had less expendable income — and going to an amusement park was a frill they couldn’t afford. By the ’30s, steamships were beginning to decline because people now had cars. They didn’t need to be taken to a destination by a train or a day liner — they could go anywhere.” Many of the parks closed around this time, although several stayed in business into the 1940s and ’50s. Considering their enormous popularity — the parks entertained thousands on any given weekend — it’s hard to believe that precious few remnants of their existence remain today. “Nothing is left,” says Gottlock. “A handful of postcards, and I’ve come across a few leftover souvenirs — but that’s it.”
Electric Park at Kinderhook Lake
Excerpted from Lost Amusement Parks of the Hudson Valley by Wesley and Barbara Gottlock
Kinderhook Lake in Columbia County lies about six miles east of the Hudson River, and is equidistant to Albany and Hudson (about 18 miles either way). With an area of approximately one and one-half square miles, it is modest in size. Yet it was the site of what some have described as the largest amusement park on the East Coast from New York City to Montreal.
The Electric Park at Kinderhook Lake opened in 1901; it was one of dozens that opened around the country between the late 1890s and the first two decades of the 20th century. The term “electric park” referred to amusement parks that were developed, owned, and usually operated by railroad and power companies. The rails provided the means for the massive movement of people during the work week, but weekend business was weak; in an effort to maximize profits, company owners developed destinations for families during the time when people were not at work. The parks were constructed at an electric trolley stop, and were often illuminated by colorful lights. It should be noted that Kinderhook’s Electric Park debuted some two years before the historic Luna Park at Coney Island in 1903.
The park’s grand array of rides and activities provided something for everyone. Visitors were greeted by a large steam-powered Ferris wheel. A beautiful electric-powered carousel was erected on an island in the lagoon, and a bridge connected it to the midway. The park’s roller coaster was built over the lake around 1907. The standard penny arcade and popular shoot-the-chutes (a refreshing precursor to today’s water flume rides) were early attractions. Being on a lake presented plenty of activities. Rowboats could be rented by the hour, day, or week. For those less energetic there were bathing (with suit rentals) and fishing areas. And the colorfully attired “Professor Speedy” (15-year-old F. Marvin Callan) performed daring feats from a high dive platform three times a day.
The European “pleasure garden” influence was evident in the landscaped walkways, flower gardens, and picnic areas, which were available to all. A bowling alley was situated adjacent to a large restaurant. The open-air Rustic Theatre offered live entertainment twice a day. Early on, operas were held — but they were soon supplanted by the more popular vaudeville shows featuring music and slapstick comedy. The dance pavilion’s floor measured 130 by 80 feet, making it one of the largest in the state.
Although the park was situated in a “dry” portion of Columbia County, shrewd entrepreneurs skirted around this obstacle by establishing saloons on its outskirts, where imbibing was legal. Men who wished to take leave of their families for a respite would, in the day’s vernacular, head to a “rest area” or go “fishing for beer.”
A beehive of activity during the warm months, the park was not exactly dormant during the winter. Adventurers took toboggan rides down the snow-covered shoot-the-chutes ramp; ice skating became popular on the lake; and curling enthusiasts held competitions.
There is debate over when the Electric Park at Kinderhook Lake closed. The last trolley rolled in on December 21, 1919, though the park may have struggled along for a year or two more. Little remains of this once idyllic park; one vivid reminder of its glorious past is a street sign located on Route 203, which reads “Electric Park Road.”
Woodcliff Pleasure Park
The Woodcliff Pleasure Park in Poughkeepsie occupied a 27-acre site on what is now the northernmost portion of the Marist College campus. It was a premier park whose heyday spanned the years from 1927-1941. Its quick rise and sudden demise were nothing short of startling.
The riverfront property was originally owned by John Flack Winslow, who worked in the iron industry and outfitted the Monitor (the ironclad Union warship that famously defeated the Merrimac in the Civil War). The estate was called Wood Cliff, and included a 35-room house with a 50-foot watchtower. After Winslow died, the property changed hands, and in 1927 was bought by Fred Ponty, a real estate developer and entrepreneur who had built Paradise Park in Rye (the precursor to today’s Rye Playland).
Ponty set his sights on creating his dream pleasure park. The location was ideal. Bordering the Hudson’s east bank, there was ample dock space for the day liners, which transported as many as 18,000 passengers each weekend during the park’s prime; several thousand of those spent their time at Woodcliff. Trolley service brought locals from downtown Poughkeepsie. Ample parking was available on what is now Route 9 for those fortunate enough to own cars.
The park opened in June 1927. Newspaper accounts highlighted the Blue Streak roller coaster and a 110-by-54-foot outdoor ballroom, the largest in the state (according to Ponty). The Winslow mansion became an inn, and the ornate pink ticket house was a highly recognizable landmark. Ponty invested over $1 million in his park, which provided an incredible variety of entertainment: Bumper cars, pony rides, carousels, a tunnel of love, Ferris wheels, arcades, a giant airplane swing, midway games, shoot-the-chutes, shooting galleries, whips, and lake boat rides were all on the menu of attractions. A caterpillar ride, roller-skating rink, and challenging Tom Thumb golf course were added. The grounds included lovely gardens and secluded picnic areas.
But two things set Woodcliff apart from its contemporaries: It was the home of the Blue Streak roller coaster and one of the largest swimming pools in the country.
Designed by Vernon Keenan (who also designed the historic Cyclone at Coney Island), the Blue Streak was built over an orchard with one turn taking the cars perilously close to the cliff’s edge near the river. Its height was between 120 and 130 feet — a record that remained intact until 1977. With its top speed clocked at 65.2 miles per hour, it also held the coaster speed record for 54 years. The pool, which used Hudson River water, measured 50 by 200 feet and was able to hold 3,000 bathers at a time.
But the good times were short-lived. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression played heavily in Woodcliff’s slow but steady decline. The park struggled along until August 10, 1941. On that date, 3,000 members of an Odd Fellows Lodge in New York City found that the inn (which they had reserved) was being used by 1,000 Polish Club members from nearby St. Joseph’s Church. Windows and mirrors at the inn were smashed when members of the city group were refused beer. The situation escalated into a riot, in which a child and a police office were injured.
With local communities up in arms about security issues, the park closed — ostensibly for repairs and a clean-up — but never reopened. The rides and other attractions were dismantled — including the quirky pink ticket house, which was earmarked for reconstruction at Boscobel in Garrison. A storage house fire in the 1970s destroyed all the pieces before it was ever reassembled.