Most of us think of amusement parks with thrill rides as a modern concept, but they have actually been popular destinations for well over a century. However, while people now drive hundreds of miles to go to one or two parks, back then, people traveled to hundreds of parks one or two hours away. These were the trolley parks, so called because they were accessible by trolley. City dwellers would escape the heat of town to ride roller coasters and carousels, play midway games, swim, and dance.
Since my daughter is obsessed with abandoned amusement parks and I am obsessed with history, we joined forces one afternoon to explore North Point State Park looking for remnants of the long-gone historic Bay Shore Park. Built in 1906 by a railway company to attract more weekend riders, the park flourished into the 1930s, but by 1947, the park was losing so much money that it had to close.
The aim of Bay Shore and similar parks was to make people feel like they were vacationing at a posh resort. So architectural details were surprisingly elegant, and electric lights abounded at night. One of the big parks in Baltimore capitalized on this featuring by choosing the simple name “Electric Park.” In addition to these two, the Baltimore area featured numerous other trolley parks including Gwynn Oak, Liberty Heights, Hollywood, Riverview, Carlins, and Wonderland.
These parks were not open to everyone, however. Though the trolley lines were not segregated, the trolley parks were. Gwynn Oak Park was the site of several protests against segregation. (In a spectacular display of ironic ignorance, Gwynn Oak used to celebrate “All Nations Day”’ despite the fact that they excluded a vast portion of the world’s population from attending.) Meanwhile, African-Americans created their own trolley parks. My town of Catonsville was the site of Greenwood Electric Park beginning in the 1890s, but I have seen no evidence that it contained any roller coasters.
Bay Shore Park had at least two roller coasters. The original coaster is seen in pictures right next to the restaurant. In 1939 the new “Speedway” coaster was built. We hoped to find some evidence of these as we tromped through the woods on our recent visit. However, the solid wall of mosquitoes we encountered encouraged us to simply imagine that a small rise could have provided support for the early coaster tracks, and that some concrete and timber pieces we found elsewhere might have been somehow connected with the Speedway Coaster. Our exploration ended after approximately three minutes and 300 mosquito bites.
We retreated to the shore of the bay, which was probably always the main attraction of this particular trolley park. (Some parks only had swimming pools) The stiff breeze kept the bugs away and provided power for three kite boarders surfing the waves alongside the “Crystal Pier.” This pier stretches out into the bay just like the original Crystal Pier of a century ago, but contains none of the food stands, games and other attractions that used to line the original pier. It was a beautiful refreshing place to spend the afternoon, and just like the original, it provides a contrast from daily life at the other end of the trolley tracks, but for a completely opposite reason than in the past. We now come to the park to escape the lights and commercialism that once were a main attraction.
In its heyday, besides the roller coaster, Bay Shore Park featured a circular water swing and water toboggan, skating rink, bowling alley, arcade, ferris wheel and other rides, shooting gallery, fortune teller’s tent, food stands, formal dining room, and dance hall with live bands. There was no charge to enter the park. A seafood dinner in the formal restaurant cost 35 cents.
The only way to get to Bay Shore was by trolley. That business decision may have been the fatal law that led to the park’s demise. Eventually the cost of electricity and maintaining the track was too great and the decision was made to close the park and sell the land to Bathlehem Steel.
Today, visitors to North Point Park can still enjoy the circular fountain and stroll through the trolley station, which is now a picnic area available for rent. Walkways and miscellaneous debris scattered through the woods probably date to the days when Bethlehem Steel operated the park for employees—but we can pretend they are the ghosts of the old trolley park, and that the woods still echo with the screams of those convinced to ride the roller coaster against their will.
Much of the material in this post, including the black and white photos of the old park, came from the Visitor’s Center at the North Point State Park. In turn, much of the material in their displays comes from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, so we will soon be paying them a visit to learn more about the old amusement parks of Baltimore.
If you enjoy reading about amusements popular in past eras, you might like my book The Appearance of Impropriety, which features a scene with parlor game gone horribly wrong.