Memories of `trolley park'

June 19, 2005|By Andrew G. Sherwood and Frank Lynch

Michael Ridgely remembers being able to walk to Gwynn Oak Park as a child to fish and lying in his bed at night listening to the screams coming from the park's roller coaster.

The park began in 1895 as a picnic grove on Gwynn Falls, nestled between Howard Park in the city and Woodlawn in Baltimore County. It evolved into a bustling amusement park for children from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The 63-acre amusement park was built as a "trolley park." Parks at the turn of the century were often at the end of a trolley line to ensure riders. The corporation that built the trolley line and the park had purchased 400 acres for real estate development.

Over the years, the neighborhoods of Howard Park and Powhatan Hill were developed. Powhatan Hill is across from Gwynn Oak Avenue.

On the old No. 32 trolley line, the park was visited by millions from 1895 to 1972.

Gwynn Oak Park was the last of the area's amusement parks to close, bowing out in 1972. By then, the park was an aging shell of what it was in its heyday. Its owners surrendered the property to Yorkridge Federal Savings and Loan, which held the mortgage.

No longer an amusement park, Gwynn Oak has no rides -- the once-famous merry-go-round is on the Green in Washington -- and the bandstand, which was once graced by performers such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton and Artie Shaw, is gone as well.

By 1972, the aging amusement rides were making it difficult for the park to make a profit, and flooding from Tropical Storm Agnes that year made it virtually impossible to reopen the park. The rides were auctioned off in 1974, and the land was left to nature.

Since then the park has been re-landscaped into picnic grounds that many people use.

Ridgely, who resides in Shrewsbury, Pa., and works for a data processing company, lived on Montbel Avenue -- he could see the top of the park's Ferris wheel from his bedroom window -- about two blocks from the park and started going to Gwynn Oak when he was 4 years old.

There was no charge to enter the park, Ridgely said, only a 10-cent fee per ride.

"On Dollar Night, which was usually a Friday evening," Ridgely said, "you could pay a dollar at the entrance and ride rides all night."

An ominous roller coaster called "The Big Dipper" was one of Ridgely's favorite rides.

"This was a wooden roller coaster," he said, "and maybe it wasn't as safe as some of the modern roller coasters, but it sure was more fun."

A ride called the "Sail Plane" consisted of small airplanes on ropes connected to the top of the ride, which spun the planes.

"I loved this ride," Ridgely said, "but the only thing holding you in your seat was a rope belt that could easily have given way.

"Needless to say, I spent countless hours at the park," he said. "I used to fish below the dam and often walked across the rocks and over the water gate, in order to avoid walking all the way around to the main entrance. The foot bridge eventually eliminated this risk, to the great pleasure of my mother."

Report Card Day, German Day and the Dixie Ballroom all conjure up fond memories for Baltimoreans, Ridgely said.

"The park used to have penny arcades, and you could watch a movie there for a nickel," he said.

The park was family-oriented, with picnic groves for church or club picnics and an amphitheater for outdoor entertainment. There was also a lake where you could take out paddle boats or electric boats all night.

Chinese, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Lithuanian and Polish festivals were held just about every week during the summer.

The park has an important place in Baltimore's civil rights history; in July 1963, hundreds of activists were arrested protesting the park's segregated admission policy, which was eventually discontinued.

One of Ridgely's best memories of the park was taking his new girlfriend to the park for their first date.

Ridgely said, "We've been married for 36 years now."

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