I’ve decided to change jobs. I’m not going to be a writer anymore. I’m going to be an entrepreneur.
Yup, I’m gonna start my own business. I don’t know where I’ll get the money and I’m not sure what we’re going to make, but I do know that we’re going to have our company outings at Pine Island Park.
Let’s face it, the old Queen City hasn’t been the same since the last roller coaster rider tossed his Moxie on the Midway at Pine Island more than 50 years ago.
You young readers – the ones who think early episodes of ”Full House” qualify as nostalgia – are probably wondering what all the fuss is about, but all I can tell you is that a trip to Pine Island was more fun than accordion music.
However, our story today begins at the dawn of the 20th century. Manchester was a drab, boring, sack-cloth-and-ashes, working-class textile city back then, but, as you well know, after a century of dashing civic leadership, we’ve managed to eliminate the textile part.
Anyway, in 1901, the Manchester Traction, Light & Power Company, having detected a serious shortage of merriment, decided to open an amusement park to bring joy and laughter to the city.
On the eve of the park’s opening on Aug. 2, 1902, the utility’s top dog – J. Brodie Smith – proclaimed, somewhat strangely, ”There will be nothing there for those who wish to go for the sole purpose of guzzling beer.”
By sheer coincidence, it was decided that the unnamed park would be built in the Goffe’s Falls area, a location which coincided – coincidentally – with the end of the trolley car line, which was owned by – another amazing coincidence here – Manchester Traction, Light & Power!
Now don’t get me wrong. Trolley guys may have been a million laughs, but the real reason trolley companies all over America built amusement parks was to get riders on the weekends, and after a wild week weaving woolens, your average lint-covered mill worker would stand on his head and spit nickels into the till for a ride to an amusement park.
As old-timers will attest, one of the best things about a trip to Pine Island – as it was dubbed by a contest winner named Bertha Carpenter – was the trolley car ride that got you there in a mere 18 minutes from City Hall.
Once visitors arrived, they were delivered unto ”a wonderful pine grove on the shores of a beautiful lake,” according to an early brochure, which urged employers to book company outings that might help ”develop a friendly spirit of good fellowship,” not counting fistfights at company softball games.
The company outings – highlighted by nighttime fireworks – drew monstrous gatherings. There were the fun-loving folks from Amoskeag Manufacturing and the fun-loving gangs from the B & M Railroad and the fun-loving residents of Boston’s Chinatown, who were so fun-loving they were getting high on more than the Aeroplane Ride if that legendary opium bust is any indication.
”Any time the park had a big group coming in, we’d just sneak in with them,” Rachel (Dancause) Zyla once told me. ”There were so many people at an outing, they never knew who was who. The best thing was always the bag lunch. It always had a square box of Fearon’s Ice Cream, three flavors, and you’d eat it with a wooden spoon.”
Of course, in the dialect of the day, ”spooning” involved more than ice cream at Pine Island Park. There was some serious courtin’ afoot at the roller rink, the swimming hole, the boat house and the Venetian Gardens ballroom, but those sites are fodder for future features. Today, we’re meandering on the Midway.
Don’t crowd, folks. Plenty of rides for everyone.
In addition to “The Pretzel,” the “Dodgems” and the “Custer Car Speedway,” Pine Island’s rides included the ”Honeymoon Express Ferris Wheel,” a 65-footer that featured two-seater cars named after famous cities, like London, Boston and New York. Alas, it only had 16 cars, so less-famous cities like Sheboygan and Saskatoon got left out.
Then there was the ride called ”The Whip,” which promised ”sundry eccentric and exhilarating jerks that remind you of boyhood days,” although I have not forgotten the jerks from my boyhood days and never needed a ride to remember them.
Naturally, there was a ”Carousel,” a classic Philadelphia Toboggan model with magnificent critters standing three abreast. There were glorious horses, yes, but even the hand-carved lions and tigers had legitimate horsepower, according to operator Paul Erickson.
”Let me tell you, you had to hold on,” said Paul, whose father, John Erickson, owned half a dozen rides during the Barney Williams era at Pine Island. ”I’m a real lover of merry-go-rounds, and this was the fastest one I’ve ever seen.”
The odds were about 20-to-1-against for those who were brave enough to grab for the brass ring, but even those long odds were better than the odds facing some of the maniacs on the Pine Island Roller Coaster.
”What used to floor me was when guys would start the ride in the back seat and when the ride stopped, they’d be in the front,” operator Lyman Carter once told me. ”They’d actually be crawling over the seats during the ride and I’d have to throw them out before they got killed.”
Actually, death was defied on a daily basis at Pine Island Park from the outset. In 1907, a daredevil named William Ullerin hung by his teeth and made his way across a 500-foot wire strung over the pond, and in 1909, a self-proclaimed ”Aeronaut” named George Bushor – who had just one arm, mind you – fell 1,000 feet from a balloon into the pond when his parachute failed to open.
Maybe he put the ripcord on the wrong side.
Back in 1910, disaster was somehow averted when ”Beppo, the Trained Bear” broke ranks and dashed into the crowd, and in 1912, dirigible pilot Jenkins Parker had to leap for his life just before his craft crashed into the roller coaster.
Still, Pine Island Park managed to survive those theatrical disasters. Even natural disasters (like hurricanes) and unnatural disasters (like Bic-flicking vandals) were survivable. In the end, what Pine Island couldn’t survive was progress.
First, World War II robbed America of much of her innocence, and the advent of the automobile made distant attractions seem far more accessible. Yes, we live in a different age now, but if you listen real hard next time you’re in the South End, you can still hear the roller coaster clattering along the tracks of your memory.
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