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Wilmington DE’s Hidden Amusement Park

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I enjoy traveling through Delaware, and exploring its hidden past. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Mark Lawlor, author of Brandywine Springs Amusement Park, Echoes of the Past, 1886-1923, for a story published in the News Journal, Delaware’s largest daily newspaper. When I learned Lawler would be appearing at the Hockessin Art & Book Fair, I decided to reprint the story here to tempt travelers to explore this sometimes glamorous, sometimes deadly facet of Delaware’s history.

Lawlor will be signing copies of his book during the Hockessin Art & Book Fair, Saturday, June 21, 2014.


Thrill to the History of Brandywine Springs Amusement Park
Gail A. Sisolak

Hot summer air settles like a sticky blanket over the Atlantic seaboard. In the days before air-conditioning, people seeking relief had few options. From the early 1800s wealthy, aristocratic guests from Philadelphia, Baltimore and even Southern plantations traveled to the shaded banks of the Brandywine Springs to enjoy live music, the area’s best food and plush accommodations, said Mark Lawlor, author of Brandywine Springs Amusement Park, Echoes of the Past, 1886-1923. Although the Brandywine Park may have experienced its heyday prior to the 1920s, the park’s history dates from a much earlier time.

CHALYBEATE SPRING

The history of the Brandywine Springs Park begins in pre-Colonial times, when local Native Americans visited the Chalybeate (pronounced ka-LIB-e-at) spring on the grounds. The foul tasting waters, rich in iron and sulphur, were thought to have special medicinal values. Native Americans traveled from as far away as Ohio to drink the waters in an attempt to cure their ills.

The Native Americans shared their knowledge of the springs with European settlers and soon others were making their way to the spring. In the Fall of 1826, Lawlor said a large; four story hotel was completed at Brandywine Springs. This opulent resort was designed as a summer retreat for the well-to-do. They came from the north and south, by stage coach and carriage, to escape the summer heat and enjoy the cool spring nestled in the wooded groves.

If guests visited the hotel to avail themselves of the healing properties of the Chalybeate spring, they had to adhere to the hotel’s strict rule, said Lawlor. No one could bring spring water into the hotel. If they wanted to take the waters, they had to walk down a rather steep hill and drink the water at the spring. In some cases, Lawlor said, some people may have experienced improved health just because they got up, got out and got some exercise several times per day by walking up and down the hill to the spring.

While staying at the hotel, the guests could enjoy the finest entertainments of the day. Live music played nightly, and couples could enjoy dancing in the ballroom. The hotel had lounge rooms, billiard rooms, and long porches for soothing evening promenades. Of course, everyone dressed in their best attire. Fine cuisine, the best the area had to offer, was served in the hotel’s dining room.

The hotel provided a wide variety of outdoor activities also. Red Clay Creek offered the perfect outlet for those who enjoyed swimming or boating. The lush, green lawns invited others to stroll around the property.

These halcyon days did not last. By the late 1840s and early 1850s, the United States had undergone two economic depressions. The hotel suffered, and in 1853 opened as a private military school for boys. Disaster struck later that same year, when a faulty stovepipe burned the entire former hotel to the ground.

During the prosperous years of the first hotel, the owner, Matthew Newkirk, built his private residence just north of the hotel in 1839, said Lawlor. This, in addition to two flanking homes Newkirk built for his daughters, became the nucleus for the second hotel at Brandywine Springs under the direction of Philadelphia businessman Peter Coyle.

Brandywine Springs Park changed hands several times during the intervening years, never really prospering again until 1886, when the hotel was rented to energetic businessman Richard W. Crook. Even with wonderful improvements to the hotel and the grounds Crook found financial success elusive at Brandywine Springs Park during the early years. But by 1888, Crook began successfully promoting the picnic grounds. From there, it was a short step to the addition of the amusement park.

THRILLS AND SPILLS

In 1890, Crook offered something new, the “toboggan slide,” an early version of a roller coaster, said Lawlor. This large, oval-shaped ride stood three-stories tall. For five-cents, visitors whooshed around curves, through straightaways and daring loops, until they stumbled out of the car at the end. Unfortunately, the addition of this attraction resulted in the park’s first fatality, when 35-year-old Mrs. Emily Scanlon of Philadelphia fell from a moving car in 1890.

In 1891, Crook replaced the smaller merry-go-round with a larger, fancier model. When Lawlor interviewed local residents in the 1980s, many recalled the three rows of carousel animals, with the popular middle row that went up-and-down. In addition to horses, the Brandywine Springs Carousel probably had large, handsomely carved dogs, mules, goats, roosters, tigers, lions, giraffes, deer, zebras and ostriches, possibly fashioned by Gustav Dentzel, said Lawlor.

Around 1892, Crook took the step which contributed greatly to the continued success of the success of the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park. He planned to build a trolley line to the park, to allow the general public easier access to the amusement. In December of 1898, local dignitaries took the first ride from Wilmington on the Brandywine Springs Railway Company.

This was the era of trolley parks, said Lawlor. Trolley companies across the country owned parks at the end of their trolley lines to give passengers a destination for their outings. This would, of course, encourage ticket sales.

Once the emphasis shifted from the hotel to the park, the season mimicked contemporary amusement park seasons, said Lawlor. There might be a few activities scheduled in the early spring or late fall, but the primary focus was on the summer season.

Those traveling on the trolley for the summer season of 1898 enjoyed the seven-acre artificial lake, built at the upper end of the amusement park, near the hotel. A Bandstand (or Band Shell) built along the boardwalk between the Toboggan Ride and a Restaurant allowed for outdoor entertainment.

Since the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park was always a “temperance” or dry park, alcohol was prohibited. The focus was on family entertainment.

THE BOOMING 1900s

Once the trolley line allowed people to travel to the park easily, it expanded rapidly. In the spring of 1900, a small power boat launch was put into service on the lake, and a pony track made its way across a creek from the lake. Regraded pathways invited strollers to wander amid freshly planted flower beds. Boat-like palace swings delighted children on the summer afternoons. New games dotted the boardwalk, including a “Fish Pond” and “Ring the Duck.”

Image Courtesy of Mark Lawler

Image Courtesy of Mark Lawler

With these additions, the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park needed grander entrance. The fancifully decorated “brick” archway, made of painted wood to simulate masonry, soon became the park’s signature.

Later attractions developed their devotees. A Miniature Railway had a real engine, built on a smaller scale, and pulled six passenger cars. Two large and expensive amusements further enticed visitors to the park in 1903, said Lawlor. The Egyptian Labyrinth, a funhouse, and a new roller coaster called the Scenic Railway.

Fire struck the park again the summer of 1905, destroying the Egyptian Labyrinth, the Scenic Railway, and the restaurant. Another large attraction replaced the Egyptian Labyrinth in 1907. The Katzenjammer Castle, also a funhouse attraction, contained two large wooden bowls. They were big enough for children to climb into and slide down, riding on a piece of carpet.

While these physical amusements contributed to the popularity of the park, the entertainments also drew many families and customers. Brandywine Springs Amusement Park provided a ready venue for vaudeville acts, plays, operas, actors and jugglers. The hotel would have steadily declined throughout the 20th century, if it had not been for the performers’ need for residences during their stay.

The year 1916 marks the beginning of the end in the park’s history. Crook retired, and with the sale of all of the stock in the trolley line and the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park, management policies changed considerably. The new company also owned another trolley park in Wilmington, Shellpot Park, near the bottom of Penny Hill in Wilmington.

All trolley parks started to decline after the First World War. At that time, people started buying personal automobiles. Buses started traveling more frequently. People had more public and private transportation choices, allowing them greater flexibility. The trolley parks lost their captive audiences.

Lawlor said the new owners made most of their capital improvements in Shellpot Park, since it was closer to Wilmington. They did add a new “Caterpillar Ride” with a retractable awning, to the Brandywine Springs Amusement Park in the 1923 summer season. But when the park failed to open for the 1924 season, a “Caterpillar Ride” appeared at Shellpot Park.

THE CONTEMPORARY BRANDYWINE SPRINGS AMUSEMENT PARK

Little remains of the once glorious park and hotel. That does not stop Mike Ciosek and other dedicated members of the Friends of Brandywine Springs Amusement Park from pursuing their dream of preserving the site. Formed in 1992 as a nonprofit, volunteer organization, the group’s goal is to improve and historically restore the park. New Castle County Special Services Department now manages Brandywine Springs Park, located at Newport Gap Pike and Faulkland Road.

The Friends of Brandywine Springs do not intend to rebuild the amusement park. Their plan is to create a historical nature walk, and to provide a clear, safe trail for visitors to stroll through the park and learn a little Delaware history while enjoying the natural surroundings.

Through continued research and archaeological digs with the Archaeological Society of Delaware, The Friends of Brandywine Springs hopes to locate the footings of the buildings and rides in the park and mark them appropriately. Some of the sites of the former attractions have already been located, and can be seen as you walk through the park.

For More Information

Friends of Brandywine Springs
http://www.fobsde.org/index.html

Brandywine Springs Amusement Park Echoes of the Past, 1886-1923
Mark Lawlor
M&M Publishing, 1993

This story was written by Gail A. Sisolak and published by the News Journal. All rights reserved.

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The Hockessin Art & Book Fair
Saturday, June 21, 2014
11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

New Castle County, Department of Community Services announces an exciting new event that will celebrate home grown writers and artists. The Hockessin Art & Book Fair is a collaboration between the New Castle County Hockessin Community Recreation Center, Art Studio, Hockessin Library, Hockessin Bookshelf, and Written Remains Writing Guild.

Hockessin Community Recreation Center at the Hockessin PAL
7259 Lancaster Pike
Hockessin, DE 19707
https://www.facebook.com/events/619881158082875/?source=3&source_newsfeed_story_type=regular&fref=nf

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