Friday, February 22, 2008

Monarch Park

(News-Herald, February 21) The dead of winter may be the perfect time to remember our own little oft-forgotten Venangoland garden spot. Once upon a time, Monarch Park, our own little amusement park, existed out near what is now Deep Hollow Road, along the back half of the giant trolley loop that connected Franklin and Oil City.

The park was opened in 1896 by Mr. Smithman, who had many large plans, including the development of a small lake. In 1901 the whole business was turned over to the Citizen’s Traction Company and Smithman Park became Monarch Park (operated by a corporation named the Monarch Park Hotel Company).

The park became the major draw of the area. On major holidays, both Franklin and Oil City were virtually empty—everyone was at Monarch Park. It was a location that was designed to serve the entire family.

A large open-air playground kept small children entertained, while nearby there were flowing brooks and large gardens and wandering paths for the more sedate grown-ups to stroll. There was a bowling alley for those who wanted some mild exercise. An auditorium hosted many renowned speakers and performers, and a dance pavilion, complete with spacious open porches, featured both local and nationally known bands.

The park was prodigious employer of Oil City and Franklin’s top musicians. In some years the house band would provide four or five concerts over the weekend, plus a three-hour dance on Saturday night.

Looking back, it’s hard to grasp just how modern the place was in its day. In 1902 the park premiered its electric tower, a 120-foot structure covered inside and out with electrical lights (the first Presidential Christmas tree with electrical lighting had only just appeared in 1895). The outside lights shone throughout the park, while the inside ones illuminated windows of colored glass.

In 1913 the park added the Whirlpool, a typical fling-the-capsule-around-the-circle ride, except that at rest the capsules rested on the water in a pond. The other big addition of the season was the Thriller, a roller coaster that would seem tame by today’s standards, but which represented an impressive level of excitement and thrill for the time. A cafĂ© provided foods of wide varieties, and the White Way featured an ever-changing assortment of booths filled with treats and games.

People loved the place. It’s hard to imagine folks heading out to simply hang around the park for a day, taking picnic food, and strolling about the grounds, a small valley oasis in the middle of the Pennsylvanian woods.

I’ve always been intrigued by that isolation—there were eventually roads that ran to the park, but by all accounts they were awful. The only real acess was by streetcar. Once you were there, you were there. More than the gardens and ponds and carousel and light-up buildings, that says something about the pace of those days. Imagine any situation today where hundreds of families would put themselves in a situation where they could not leave at any moment.

In Franklin, the death of the park is often associated with the destruction of the Big Rock Bridge in 1926, but by then, the park was already in trouble. 1924 was a slow season, bad enough that the park was leased to another management company in an attempt to make it work. A few changes in entertainments were tried, but even an outdoor movie theater in the old band shell was not enough of a draw.

Perhaps it was the rise of the automobile that made it easier for people to pick and choose their destinations, to come and go as they pleased. Perhaps it was simply that the 1920’s, even in Venangoland, were a whole new and different and faster world from the pre-Great War era.

By 1926 the trolley company announced discontinuation of the Oil City-Franklin route. In April, the Citizens Traction Company put many of the park buildings up for sale. It was picked apart bit by bit. The dance hall became lumber to build three houses. The bowling alley was dismantled and sold. The Thriller became lumber for building a warehouse. I’ve heard from many old timers that the carousel animals were purchased moved to Conneaut Lake Park, though I’ve never seen any corroboration.

In the 1930’s the Izaak Walton League bought the land and still owns it today. I’ve been out there to poke around, and traces of the park are still visible—stones marking a foundation, the whirlpool pond, some concrete pillars and bits of the old brook. It had lasted barely thirty years, and perhaps that was long enough. Something may not last forever, but that makes it no less beautiful and gracious while it lives.

1 comment:

David Bowser II said...

Only if Oil City could've had something like this while I was growing up there. All we had were the pool, YMCA, and the Library. Has anyone thought about a fundraiser to rebuild the Pavilion or to make a memorial at the Walton League that is now there? It would make a good project...

-Dave Bowser II
(Graduated OCHS '06)

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