Remembering Woodside Park, Philadelphia’s own amusement park

Summer in the city: 1897 to 1955

There was a time when Philadelphia had a major amusement park within its city limits. Woodside Park, located not far behind where the Target department store now sits on Monument Road, operated as a popular attraction from 1897 until 1955. 

The entrance to Woodside Park. (Photo courtesy of East Falls Historical Society)

The city's trolley park

This was the era of the “trolley park,” when amusement parks were usually built on a parcel at the end of a trolley line—much like this region’s other amusement center, Willow Grove Park. In fact, Woodside was so closely aligned with the transportation industry that it was built by the (now long defunct) Fairmount Park Transportation Company. In this case, the trolley line ran for some 10 miles within Fairmount Park into portions of Strawberry Mansion and West Philadelphia.

Those still around who recall Woodside say it was more “honky-tonk” than its competitor Willow Grove. Though the park offered live entertainment from time to time, Woodside focused on rides, while Willow Grove hyped concerts featuring star bandleaders such as John Philip Sousa.

Woodside’s main features were attractions like the Dentzel Carousel, which sits in beautifully refurbished and restored form within the Please Touch Museum, and a bunch of roller coasters, some built as early as the mid-1920s, including the Hummer, Thompson’s Thriller and Scenic Railway, the Tornado, and Velvet Coaster.

There are a number of reasons cited for the park’s closing. One is that, with the increasing popularity of the automobile, the Fairmount Park Trolley Line servicing Woodside shut down in September 1946. Another reason was the rise of property values in the area. Ultimately, Woodside Park was an anachronism. There was a plan to give the park a new lease on life, hatched by a group of area real-estate investors headed by a man named Lewis Silverman. The plan was to purchase Woodside’s rides and build a new park in Levittown.  It never happened. However, one of Woodside’s better coasters did end up for a while on Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier.

The suburbs' trolley park

Curiously, Woodside’s major competitor for decades, Willow Grove Park -- built the year before Woodside -- managed to hang on, with considerable difficulty toward the end, until April 1976. By 1972, it wasn’t over yet, as new owners rechristened the park as the Western-themed “Six-Gun Territory.” To those who visited in those last years, it was clear that the venue had seen better days. The park finally closed its doors in April 1976 and the property sat vacant for six years.

A view of the Airships or Captive Flying Machine ride at Willow Grove Park, circa 1905. (Photo courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia via Creative Commons/Flickr)
A view of the Airships or Captive Flying Machine ride at Willow Grove Park, circa 1905. (Photo courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Willow Grove had several advantages over Woodside that extended its life: world-class thrill rides, including the famed Thunderbolt roller coaster; a bowling alley and pool hall; and a credo of keeping up with the times, with televised record hops and personal appearances by local television personalities. In addition, trolley service in various configurations continued to serve the area until 1986. The Park was well outside city limits; some may have considered that suburban area to be a scenic hinterland of sorts at least until 1982, when the residential population increased to a point where it could sustain a shopping mall, also called Willow Grove Park, built that year.

While most of the country has gone the way of the theme park (think Six Flags America) there are still a few traditional amusement parks in upstate and Western Pennsylvania. But for those who need that old time amusement park quick fix, there is always Allentown’s Dorney Park, less than an hour’s drive away and still very much in operation since its opening in 1884. It opens for the season this weekend. 

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