Current Chestnut Hill residents most likely are unaware that once upon a time the neighborhood boasted a hugely successful amusement park, a local version of Great Adventure or Hershey Park. It was catnip for local families as well as for visitors from other cities and states.
The story of that park, the long ago shuttered Chestnut Hill Amusement Park, will be told at 7 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 12, by the Springfield Township Historical Society in the production “A Ticket to Ride: Chestnut Hill Amusement Park,” at the Ambler Theater.
Historical presenters portraying Henry B. Auchey, founder and manager of the park, and Horace Trumbauer, the famous architect of its buildings, will reenact the park’s history. They will take the audience on a virtual tour, replete with vintage pictures from the park’s heyday. You will learn how and why it was created, visit the amusement rides, meet some of the people who worked there, and hear stories that bring the park to life.
According to Alex Bartlett, archivist for Chestnut Hill Conservancy, “In the early 20th century, one needed to travel only a mile or so to a large amusement park for summer fun. Often known as the 'White City,' the local theme park opened in Erdenheim (where Cisco Park is today) in 1898. It covered the area bounded by present-day Bethlehem Pike, Paper Mill Road and Hillcrest and Montgomery Avenues. Attractions included boat rides, a 'Grand Casino,' a roller coaster, an elaborate promenade, a roller skating rink and a lake and island, to name a few.”
Patrons could take the Philadelphia Rapid Transit and Lehigh Valley trolley cars to the park from all over the region. As time progressed, the park became increasingly successful, and larger numbers of visitors, often from low-income communities, would visit each year.
Bartlett said this greatly upset numerous local property owners, who united in opposition to force the eventual closure of the popular park. Its last season of operation was in 1911. (Seen in the accompanying photo is the amusement park's lake and promenade on a postcard, circa 1905. The lake still exists today as Hillcrest Pond in a much smaller size.)
The Ambler Theater event marks the post-pandemic return of the historical society’s annual History in Motion program, typically the organization's biggest fundraiser.
This program was developed by Ed Zwicker IV and his father, Ed Zwicker III, who have previously appeared at the Ambler Theater with the histories of “Whitemarsh Hall” (the huge Stotesbury family estate) and “Laverock Hill” (the Sims-Starr-Lloyd families' estate). Ed IV and his brother, Charles, have written books about the history of Springfield Township.
Ed Zwicker IV is the former president of the society, and his father, Ed III, is the current President of the Springfield Township High School Alumni Association. He attended the high school when it was on the grounds of the former park.
“Our interest in telling the story of the park stems from our love of Springfield Township's history, and being able to share stories of its past people, places and events that others may not know about,” Ed IV told us last week.
“Both sides of my family have lived in Springfield Township for many years,” he continued. “Dad's side moved to Wyndmoor in 1951 from West Philadelphia. My mom's family emigrated from Newry, Ireland, in 1913, and settled in Erdenheim, right around the corner from the former park. Springfield Township is rich in history, and passing along its stories keeps it alive.”
According to Kerry Boccella, a member of the historical society’s board of directors, “We have been slowly getting back to in-person events, including two open houses at our archives in the Black Horse Tavern, a program titled 'Shibe Park and Beyond' by Rick Spector of Moviehouse Productions and a presentation by Rich Wagner about Early Philadelphia’s Breweries and Taverns, which we held at the Wheel Pump Inn.”
For more information about the Nov. 12 event, visit springfieldhistory.org.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org