Central Park once the Lehigh Valley amusement mecca died 60 years ago this summer

Posted: 2:27 PM EDT Aug 26, 2011
Central Park once the Lehigh Valley amusement mecca

August 2, 1951 in the Lehigh Valley was a perfect day to spend at an amusement park in that era when air conditioners were few and far between. A humid spell had just broken and the weatherman was promising a cool breeze with high temperatures in the low 80s, prime conditions for a visit to Central Park, "The Park Beautiful" as it was known, located in Rittersville between Allentown and Bethlehem. But that day 60 years ago was to be like no other in the park's history, for it sadly marked the end of Central Park.

Built in 1892 by one of the Lehigh Valley's first trolley lines, the Allentown & Bethlehem Rapid Transit Company, Central Park was what came to be called a classic "trolley car park." Trolley companies did ok during the week when people went to work but they struggled to get the public to use them on weekends. It was decided that having an amusement park to lure people out of town would do the trick. And as the public traveled they would go past building lots suitable for houses that belonged to a land development company that was a subsidiary to the trolley line.

When Central Park opened it offered 40 acres of shady walks and ample park benches. It also offered rides like the carousel and a toboggan chute, the kind of thing people would have to travel all the way to Asbury Park in New Jersey to use. In spite of a nasty thunderstorm that struck on opening day on July 2, 1892, forcing some ladies in billowing big skirts of the era up against lamp posts and sending a a bolt of lightening through Park's hotel, Central Park was an immediate hit.

Under the direction of Albert Johnson, a Cleveland Ohio traction magnate who had taken Central Park over in 1894, the park grew and grew. His death in 1901 shocked the trolley company and in1905 it was taken over by Harry C. Trexler and his business partner Edward Young, as the Lehigh Valley Transit Company. But nothing could separate the public from the popularity of Central Park.

The park reached its heyday in the period 1906 to 1920. That year Central Park added a new outdoor theater that could seat 1,600.One of the biggest draws was John Philip Sousa's band. In those days band music was America's popular music. Soon couples were dancing the turkey-trout and bunny hug as older folks wondered what this younger generation was coming to. Plays became the thing and by 1912 the theater was expanded to 2,500 seats. The two most popular plays were George M. Cohan's "Only 45 Minutes From Broadway" and Lew Morton's "The Mayor of Tokio." Some of the female members of the chorus became so popular that they later married into prominent Lehigh Valley families.

But the rides were the thing. In 1912 the trolley company spent $50,000, at a time when 10 cents an hour was considered a living wage, to create the Racing Coaster, also known as the Derby Racer that it claimed "surpassed any ride of its kind in existence in the eastern United States." The Frolic, the Circle Swing and the "Shoot the Chute," a water ride that concluded with an incline that dropped into a lake, were on the order of what might have been found at New York's Coney Island.

Family reunions and ethnic group picnics were a constant draw at Central Park. It maintained its own restaurant and catering for dinners was easily arranged. But most folks and groups just rented large picnic tables and brought their own food. The contests that Central Park held were an added attraction. Among the most popular was the one for the fattest baby.

Although Central Park held its own in the 1920s, it faced two things that were a challenge: the rise of Dorney Park and the automobile. In 1927 Dorney added its first thrill ride, a roller coaster. And unlike Central Park, which was tied to the streetcar, Dorney had plenty of space for parking those Model-Ts that Henry Ford was turning out so successfully.

The first of a twenty year string of fires that plagued Central Park began with one on August 16, 1932. A funhouse, the Mystic Castle and the outdoor theater were the primary victims. "One of the largest outdoor theatrical projects in this section of the state," as the local newspapers called it, "burned to a crisp and collapsed."

The next to go was the Cyclone Coaster that burned in 1935. Fires in June, 1940 and April, 1941 destroyed the popular Dodge'em ride and burned the dance hall. And in 1944 the bowling allies and a billiard parlor burned. On Christmas Day, 1950 the venerable carousel and the prized Derby Racer were destroyed by a fire. There was no mystery about that one. A park caretaker admitted he started it in a dispute with the company over his wages.

It was a little after noon on August 2, 1951 that a young boy pulled the fire alarm that sent Allentown firefighters to Central Park. This time it was the second outdoor theater, the replacement for the one that had burned in 1932, that was the victim. The next day the police arrested the man who admitted to setting the fire. The 61 year old unemployed dishwasher who admitted he had been drinking couldn't give any reason for starting the fire. "I don't know why I did it, I just did it," he told police.

Today Westminster Village, a nursing home occupies the grounds that were once Central Park.