Before today’s giant theme parks with elaborate rides named for cartoons, movies and superheroes, there were trolley parks.
The parks were built by trolley companies at the end of the line in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way to get workers and their families to ride streetcars and railways on weekends and holidays. At first, they were simple picnic groves, but most later added carousels, other rides and live entertainment.
By 1919, just after World War I, there were more than 1,500 amusement parks around the country, and most of them were trolley parks, according to the National Amusement Park Historical Association. But as autos replaced trolleys, the streetcars and their parks faded away.
Today, the association says, only 11 of the nation’s trolley parks remain in operation.
Camden Park, West Virginia’s only amusement park, is one of them. Like streetcar lines in other towns, the Camden Interstate Railway Co. established a small park in an effort to boost its weekend and holiday ridership. Crowds of fun-seekers would ride the trolley to the tree-lined park, located just west of Huntington. Later, a dance pavilion was built and a few simple amusement rides were added.
When the streetcar line opened Camden Park in 1903, it hired Col. E.G. Via as the park’s first manager. Via bought the park in 1916 and ran it until his death in 1946. Huntington furniture dealer James P. Boylin then purchased the park.
In 1980, the Boylin family sold the park to out-of-town owners, a move that proved disastrous. The new owners neglected essential maintenance and, when they found themselves deep in debt, even sold off the hand-carved wooden horses that once graced the vintage carousel, replacing them with replicas.
In 1995, the Boylins reclaimed the park. Since then, the family has invested time, money and effort to bring the park back from the brink.
In the early 1900s, West Virginia had several other trolley parks, including Terrapin Park in Parkersburg, Tyler County’s Paden Park and Luna Park in Charleston.
In 1898, Charles H. Shattuck, president of the Parkersburg Electric Power and Street Railway, built a trolley park at the intersection of Dudley Avenue and 25th Street. He named it Terrapin Park because of a small humped-up knoll on the property. The following year, he built the Terrapin Park Casino — not a gambling casino as we use the term today, but a multi-purpose building that included a 2,000-seat auditorium.
In 1913, Henry L. Brenig expanded Terrapin Park by adding a roller coaster, carousel, dance hall, skating rink and other attractions. In 1916, Paul and Jack Crane took over the park and had two good seasons. But when the park closed for the season after Labor Day in 1918, a fire broke out that all but leveled it. The owners had no insurance and the park was not rebuilt.
In 1904, the Ohio Valley and Duquesne Glass companies partnered to build Paden Park on land in south Paden City, installing a baseball field, open-air dance floor, confectionery and carousel. The park proved popular but didn’t come into full flower until 1909, when the Union Traction Co., which operated the Sistersville-New Martinsville trolley line, built the two-story Paden Park Pavilion.
The pavilion’s first floor had a large ballroom that replaced the open-air dance floor on the park grounds. The second floor featured a big skating rink. Although the last trolley in Tyler County ceased operation in 1930, Paden Park lived on until 1943.
Opened in 1912 on the West Side of Charleston on the north bank of the Kanawha River, Luna Park had a roller coaster, a dance pavilion, a roller rink and live entertainment, but its primary attraction was a huge 200,000-gallon swimming pool.
According to a 1913 newspaper article, the streetcars of the Charleston Interurban Railroad carried passengers to and from the park at a rate of 1,200 an hour.
A 1923 fire destroyed most of Luna Park. It never reopened. Eventually, residential housing was constructed on the former park grounds.