Famous Pier At Washington Park
It may be a little chilly these days, but let’s think of relatively near future and plan for at least on day to spend at Washington Park!
Billy Thompson, the Duke of Gloucester, only two years ago, was forced by the Assembly of the State of New Jersey to close “The Racetrack”. That was quite a profitable venture of Thompson’s, but his foes managed to have a law enacted which banned that form of gambling from the entire State.
The Duke was quite the businessman , however, and even before the closing of the track, had purchased the Howell Estate on Fancy Hill in Westville. Here was a large beautiful lot of land along the Delaware River, extending inward to what is now Route 130, on the north side.
The total grounds comprised an area of over six hundred acres, four hundred and fifty of which was lush woodland. The entire river front of two miles Thompson had perfectly terraced, with a pier extending far out into the river so his “ferryboats” could bring in patrons form all over.
A wide graveled walkway extended from one end of two miles to the other and a trolley line brought the boat passengers into the Park.
The central feature of the grounds was the Howell mansion. A sturdy relic of Revolutionary War times, which with the additions of wide verandas and many modern improvements, became the main hotel.
Thompson placed his main Café here, a restaurant equipped with all possible conveniences, and the cuisine being unsurpassed! Attached to the hotel was a great two-story pavilion, capable of seating at tables not less than five thousands diners!
The Park opened on Memorial day of 1895 amid much excitement and festivities.
So get prepared to spend some real premium time exploring all aspects of this phenomenal six hundred acres!
WASHINGTON PARK on the Delaware, “The Greatest Pleasure Resort in The World”.
Many today have the impression that the great park was in Gloucester City – probably confusing the park with Gloucester Beachfront. The most popular entertainment center in this area was located just across Timber Creek from Gloucester.
A two-way trestle bridge supported trolley – cars carrying park patrons across the creek to a day of fun and frolic. The park covered the entire site of the present Eagle Point Refinery, in Westville. This property was originally the Howell estate and known as “Fancy Hill.”
William J. Thompson, a shrewd business man of Gloucester City, purchased the property and built one of the most elaborate amusement parks in the country. He named it for the first President of the United States, who rested on the Howell farm in August of 1777. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1895, it was opened to the public.
In July, 1909, at the height of the season, the park burned to the ground. Mr. Thompson was reported supervising the preparation of a special sauce he was going to introduce to a group of friends at the clam bake. The sauce boiled over and the kitchen caught fire and rapidly spread through the park.
Mr. Thompson rebuilt the park immediately and the following season it was ready for business again.
There was another fire in 1913 which again destroyed the park. This time it was never rebuilt.
Realizing that people would want to spend as much time as possible, Mr. Thompson had a trolley-car line installed from Camden for the Jersey folks and bought three of the fastest excursion boats – “Sylvan Dell,” “Sylvan glen,” and “Pleasant Valley” – to run from Philadelphia.
Later, Mr. Thompson added the famous “Columbia” to the line, the largest excursion boat on the Delaware River. At the height of the season the crowds became so great it was necessary to engage the services of the “Thomas Clyde,” whose run was to Augustine Beach, and the “Republic,” which ran to Cape May. On occasion the Gloucester Ferry boat, “Peerless,” “Fearless,” and “Dauntless” made stops.
To dock these boats ten feet of water was necessary. The channel at this particular section of the river flows on the Pennsylvania side. A long sloping beach was on the Jersey shore. It was necessary to build a pier eighteen hundred feet out into the river.
To eliminate the need of the walking the length of the Pier to the park a trolley line was laid on one side and a gravity railroad on the other. You could ride from the end of the Pier to the park in a horse – and – buggy.
Every amusement known in those days were included in the park’s attractions. Many of them were first appearances and all were of record capacities.
The high speed gravity railway was four tracks high, ran all through the park and out on the pier for a total distance of a mile and a half.
The giant ferris wheel, one of the largest in the country, was hundred feet in the air, carried ten cages holding ten people. It was well worth the price of admission to sway in the cool summer breezes at the top of the wheel and take in the beautiful scenery for miles up and down the river.
Not one carousel, but several were there to accommodate the many wild-eyed, anxious, excited children who seemed too nervous to wait long for the ride.
The “Shoot -The-Chutes” was an exclusive feature of this park. I was the extreme in undertaking to provide the public with amusement on a gigantic scale. Four electric powered elevators raised four boats containing twelve passengers each to height of forty feet, with screaming girls and pop-eyed boys, then launched them down a greased chute into a large pool of water. Oh!!! What a sinking feeling that was when your boat reached the top and they started to roll onto the chute and you had your first look down that long slide to the water. The screams could be head a mile away.
For those of the artistic taste and temperament who came to the park seeking relaxation in soul stirring music and drama the music pavilion was the attraction. The famous Gilmore’s Band, conducted, in turn by such renowned conductors as Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor, Liberatti, among others.
As folks tired of the more strenuous type of amusement and the shades of night slowly closed around the park they dragged their weary bones and tired, sore muscles to the Electric fountain. There they settled their aching bodies on the benches and enjoyed the various colors of the many types of flowers and plants; inhaled their exquisite fragrance and listened to the water of the beautiful lighted fountains falling in rhythmical splashes.
When darkness was sufficient a huge glass covered elevator rose through the fountains to the level of four feet above the ground and there portrayed by living statues and portrayed by living statues was the great historic picture of Washington crossing the Delaware. The lights went out, the elevator returned underground only to rise time and time again with other dramatically posed historic events or famous paintings. The climax of the show was a giant water display when lighted water was hurled eighty feet into the air.
Regardless of what your favorite pastime may be, Washington Park could accommodate you. For the sport and athletic field, the baseball diamond, the bicycle track, and those just fond of water there was the longest and most gratifying beach long the Delaware River – and thousands took advantage of those cooling waters on a hot summer day. Balloon ascension were held weekly and on special occasions. Daily fireworks were displayed. Beautiful picnic groves encouraged civic, religious, and patriotic groups to organize excursion parties.
For that craving in the lower section of the alimentary canal which always accompanies excitement and a day in the open there were many savory establishments that served palate tickling and satisfying nourishment. A popular place was the “Coffee House” where one could dine and enjoy the view of the river at same time. Also, “The Dairy” with its artistic water-wheel. Another was Mischell’s Restaurant where a side of beef turned slowly over a fire in a large fireplace; drippings caused the fire to snap and sparkle and send forth an appetizing odor that caused a popular and famous the hot roast-beef sandwich.
Special day were set aside, as, “Firemen’s Day,”
It was the policy at the park to keep abreast of the latest improvement and inventions. The park introduced many “firsts” in entertainment to the public. Among them was the “new fangled idea” of “Live Motion Pictures,” life size pictures that moved across a white sheet. Nicknamed the “Flickers.” The first motion picture house in these parts was constructed in the park.
Gone are those days. As the park lived so it died-in a blazing spectacular.
The Historical Society of Gloucester City has on display in the City Hall a number of pictures of Washington Park.
“Farmer’s or Grange Day,” “Philadelphia’s Day,” etc., with special attractions for those particular days. On Firemen’s Day a house, that had been built on the athletic fields was set afire at a time unknown to the visiting fire companies. The first company there and had equipment fighting the fire won a very desirable prize.
Mr. Thompson entertained, at regular intervals, the children from miles around the park, treating them to free transportation and free amusement. On those days his guests mounted to twenty- five thousand (25,000) boys and girls.
It was not unusual to have 50 to 60 thousand (50,000 – 60,000) in attendance at the park. It was recorded that one hundred thousand crowded the park the day that Statesman William Jennings Bryan visited.
For the sports-minded, there was the Athletic Field, the Baseball Diamond, the Bicycle Track and the Sulky Track. For the aquatic, the “over -heated” and the longest sandy beach along the Delaware, and thousands took advantage of it.
The Past of the Park
There has been so much written in local newspapers about this famous amusement park but I doubt if the story will ever be as vivid or as authentic as it was told that evening for the history buffs of Camden County. Mr. Corcoran knows where of he speaks. His father, his uncle and many men he knew were well-acquainted with Billy Thompson’s history. It was Billy Thompson, the Duke of Gloucester, who made history at Washington Park on the Delaware.
Mr. Corcoran spoke in great detail about the boats which brought the people from Philadelphia to Washington Park. When the boats docked at the park, the passengers were taken by trolley or the famous gravity railroad to the amusements. One of the greatest attractions, according to Mr. Corcoran, was the all-ladies orchestra. Each member was a soloist on her own instrument. This orchestras was well known and evidently the one of its kind. There was, in addition to the in addition to the ladies orchestra, a 42-piece band which played in the beer garden. This was Gilmore’s band and through the summer season there were many guest conductors. Sousa and Victor Herbert came regularly to the park to play for the crowds of people who paid five cents for a glass of beer.
The park was famous for plank shad dinners. People came from New York and Brooklyn and Philadelphia to enjoy the same. Planked shad, new potatoes, fresh asparagus, waffles, fresh strawberries and vanilla ice cream. This was served in the old hotel which has originally been the farm house of the Howell family.
The park had all kinds of unusual amusements. The ferris wheel was supposed to be the largest in the world. There was a Jack Rabbit-roller coaster to you – which terrified timid passengers. One of the biggest attractions was the “shute-to-shute” which took passengers in a boat down a very steep incline to the water. This was another attraction which interested only the very courageous. There was a boardwalk at the park for a day of fun or an evening of excitement.
Each evening, just before the display of fireworks which closed the park the famous fountain was turned on. This fountain which extended many feet into the air was lighted with colored lights which were played on girls who were apparently dancing in the waters of the fountain. There was a glass enclosed elevator in the fountain where the girls appeared to be dancing on the water.
Left in the Park
Mr. Corcoran told many fascinating stories about the park and Billy Thompson. The one I enjoyed the most was the story of the ferris wheel to take him tot he top so that he could get cooled off. Mr. Thompson was evenly in the habit of doing this after the crowds had left and they day had been an unusually hot one. While Mr. Thompson was evidently in the habit of doing this after the crowds had left and they had been an unusually hot one. While Mr. Thompson was high above the ground enjoying a refreshing breeze the operator Thompson was in the Ferris wheel. Mr. Thompson was rescued, but you can picture the excitement when it was discovered that the famous Billy Thompson spent most of the night high above his famous park!