What is a Trolley Park?

Midway at Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire
••• Established in 1902, Canobie Lake in New Hampshire is a trolley park. © Arthur Levine.

Have you ever heard the term, "trolley park," in reference to an amusement park and wondered what it meant? It refers to a specific type of park that was once quite popular, but has nearly disappeared. The handful that remain are classic examples of a bygone era.

Trolley parks are so named because U.S. railway companies constructed them in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a way to drum up weekend business.

During the week, passengers kept the trolleys full as they commuted to and from work, but on the weekends, ridership was low. The companies typically placed the parks at the ends of their lines to maximize use of the streetcars (and to maximize their profits). In addition to building the parks, the rail companies typically owned and operated the parks.

Sometimes, the railway companies also owned the electric utility in a community and would use the parks to showcase electricity (which many homeowners did not have in the parks' early years) by decorating them with many lights. Typically built by lakes, rivers, or beaches, the parks offered swimming along with bandstands, picnic groves, and ball fields. A carousel was often the first amusement ride to open at a park. Roller coasters and spinning rides came later.

According to the National Amusement Park Historical Association, as many as 1,000 trolley parks dotted the U.S. by 1919.

As automobiles gained popularity, however, the trains and the parks began to close. After Disneyland opened in 1955, traditional amusement parks began an even more rapid decline in favor of the new style of "theme parks." (See my article, "The Difference Between a Theme Park and Amusement Park," to learn more about the distinction.)

Today, 11 trolley parks remain. They typically include some of the classic rides that have graced their grounds for decades, are often independently owned and operated, and have a decidedly un-corporate look and feel to them. Trolley parks may also be known as amusement parks, picnic groves, picnic parks, or pleasure parks.

A close relative of the trolley park is the seaside park. They came on the scene about the same time. Instead of being connected to a mode of transportation, the seaside parks were all about their locations along popular beaches. The most famous example of a seaside park is Coney Island. The legendary Brooklyn, New York amusement area is still plugging away. But as with trolley parks, most seaside parks have closed.

The following trolley parks remain open. Most of them are located in the Northeast U.S.:

  1. Camden Park in Huntington, WV. Opened 1903
  2. Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH. Opened 1902
  3. Clementon Park in Clementon, NJ. Opened 1907
  4. Dorney Park in Allentown, PA. Opened 1884
  5. Kennywood in West Mifflin, PA. Opened 1898
  6. Lakemont Park in Altoona, PA. Opened 1894
  7. Midway Park in Maple Springs, NY. Opened 1898
  8. Oaks Amusement Park in Portland, OR. Opened 1905
  9. Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury, CT. Opened 1908
  1. Seabreeze Amusement Park in Rochester, NY. Opened 1879
  2. Waldameer Park in Erie, PA. Opened 1896