Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: Dorney Park

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -  On any given warm summer day, there is a line at Dorney Park. The amusement mecca, whose history goes back over 150 years, can be found full of patrons, some of whom arrive by the busload, to ride on or dive in any one of a number of attractions. Some hail from as far away as New York or Philadelphia. Others are from any one of the local suburbs of Allentown and Bethlehem.

Born in an era when beating the heat meant a cool walk in the woods, not an air-conditioned room, Dorney has always had its devoted fans. Some old timers claim it has changed too much and miss the rides of their youth. But in truth, like it has in the past, Dorney reflects the era of which it is in. Always has.

The park’s founder, Solomon P. Dorney, was a Pennsylvania German farmer who lived in Cetronia. He acquired the land the park was on from his father. It had been in the family since the 1770s. Now a lot of people of Dorney’s generation were content to plow the land just as their fathers had. But from somewhere he got the idea that people would might just pay to fish there. So Dorney established a small fish weir or dam that water would flow over, making a pool for the fish that could be used by fishermen.

The late Bob Ott, whose family was to own Dorney Park for much of the 20th century, recalled in 2003 how the land was laid out:

“The Dorney Park Road went right through where the park is today. Solomon Dorney owned the southern part along the stream. Cedar Creek, that went through Dorney Park around where the road is. Later on, the trolley track went through that same area. Dorney owned the property south of the road. Later on Dorney acquired a property. That’s where the Mansion House, the restaurant and hotel was added. That’s where they had the fish weir, on that side.  Later on Dorney acquired a property. It originally was a farmhouse, but then it became a hotel. The whole conglomerate became Dorney’s Park. Dorney put a couple of antique rides in.”

Dorney picked a particularly good time to start his park. Up until the Civil War most Americans, except for the wealthy who owned country estates, had little time off from work. Christmas and the Fourth of July were the only days off allowed except for Sundays. And even that was an exception. Signs reading, “If you don’t come into work on Sunday, don’t bother to come in on Monday,” could be found on factory gates. But there was a small but growing middle class in the post-Civil War era that could take advantage of resorts and amusement parks. This was encouraged by the growth of railroads that offered excursion fares for groups. They pulled even the lower middle class in the form of church groups and fraternal lodges for picnics and other forms of recreation.  The 1876 Atlas of Lehigh County noted on its map of South Whitehall “Dorneys Trout Ponds Hotel & Summer Resort.”

Dorney Park was also connected to a trolley line. Recalling, in the 1930s, his early 20th century trips on the trolley to Dorney,  Morning Call Sunday editor John Y. Kohl remembered feeling the wind in his hair as the open car trolley front seat rides with his mother. “Only sissies rode in the back,” he claims.  “In those days the park was known as the fish weir, although some called it the fish wire,” he wrote. “The place was full of ponds not unlike the Trexler Fish Hatchery with various size fish in each. To walk on the planked and narrow spaces between the ponds was another exciting thing to do. Just across the bridge at the entrance to the park was the famous spring where everybody went to drink at least once at the fish weir. You had to descend a number of steps and dip your cup or glass in the clear, pebbly water.” Kohl also remembered a swimming pool “where a fenced enclosure, safe from profane masculine eyes, provided a spot for ladies to bathe,” and a pond where boating was permitted.

Solomon Dorney died in 1901, supposedly gazing from his window at the park he had created. His brothers took over and expanded its reach by building a trolley route to Reading. Although Solomon had created some primitive amusements, it was Jacob Plarr who brought in the first Merry Go Round in 1901. According to Bob Ott, Jacob Plarr ran the park until 1923 when it was sold to his son Robert “Bob” Plarr. In 1936 Bob Ott married Plarr’s daughter and became part of the Dorney Park family.

Perhaps the biggest change that came to the Park in the pre-World War II here was the construction of a roller coaster now known as Thunderhawk. In 1923, according to the Images of America history by Wally Ely and Bob Ott, Plarr contacted the Philadelphia Toboggan Company to build a roller-coaster, called simply by that name. “The roller coaster was all wooden construction,” Ely and Ott write. “It started out life as an out and back ride. It was fast running at a reported 63 miles per hour at a height of 72 feet. By 1930 a major reconfiguration had changed the ride into a figure eight, lengthened the trip and increased the height to 80 feet. The twisting and dropping of the new design preserved the coaster into the 21st century.”

The roller coaster took Dorney Park out of the Victorian era. But not everyone was interested in thrill rides. Train rides circled around the park. Perhaps the best known was the Zephyr. According to Bob Ott in 1934 his father-in-law hired a young machinist named Miles “Mike” Erbor of Wescosville, who promised to create a small version of the Burlington Zephyr, an Art Deco style train that was making speed records carrying passengers to the Chicago World’s Fair. It turned out to be Dorney Park’ “little engine that could.” While amusement parks all over the country were closing due to the Great Depression, crowds flocked to ride the Zephyr. Bob Ott claimed it saved the park. And unlike some other rides at Dorney Park, over 80 years later it is still chugging along today.

Other aspects of Dorney that are gone are the old hotel and restaurant. Based around an old farm house, one of Ott’s first jobs in the 1930s was to supervise it. “You could get a steak for $1.50 during the Depression,” he recalled. In the 1940s it was run as a night club. “The show girls lived upstairs,” Ott recalls. “During the winter time when the park was closed my father-in-law had an apartment there. We lived on canned corn and canned peas that were put up over the summer.” Another popular attraction was Castle Garden, a dance hall that had roots back to the 1920s. It had many major big bands of the 1930s and 40s and remained popular until destroyed by fire in the 1980s.

Today Dorney Park is no longer a family run facility. Its rides are as modern as any in America. Solomon Dorney would be pleased and probably surprised.   

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