EASTON, Pa. — On July 14, 1894, more than 3,000 men, women and children donned their Victorian finest and lined up on South Fourth Street in downtown Easton. There they boarded open-air trolleys bound for a new amusement park, where they could ride a wooden roller coaster, grab rings on a merry-go-round, shuffle on the dance floor or take in a vaudeville show.
Island Park was one of several amusement parks in the Lehigh Valley started by local trolley companies as a way to boost their weekend fares. But the Easton venue was unique because it was situated on a 100-acre island in the middle of the Lehigh River. The only way to the site was via a trestle built for the trolley.
The passing years have made it a challenge for historians searching for more information. The park closed in 1919, so firsthand accounts are unavailable.
That’s why Martha Capwell-Fox, the museum and archives coordinator for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, hopes a new exhibit at the National Canal Museum in Easton’s Hugh Moore Park might bring forward residents and history buffs who have memorabilia or other information about Island Park.
“It’s a forgotten part of Easton’s history,” Pasquini said.
Adding to the park’s mystique, the island, which is near Easton’s Chain Dam, has since become a wildlife sanctuary only accessible by boat.
The island is so overgrown it blends in with the neighboring shoreline, and many people don’t realize it’s there. Even those who paddle their way to the island rarely make it to shore because the brush is so thick it makes it difficult to walk, Capwell-Fox said.
She was inspired to create an Island Park exhibit after realizing there wasn’t much information available, and much of what is posted online is incorrect.
Many people don’t realize the island was once owned by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, which ran mule-driven canal boats up and down the river to transport coal, she said.
Before it was an amusement park, the roughly mile-long island was known as Smith Island and used for farming. It was leased by the Easton Transit Company in 1893, and the amusement park opened on July 18, 1894.
The trolley company built a trestle over the Lehigh River to carry people in open-air cars for a four-mile ride that went along the river and eventually over to the north side of the island. Palmer Township is on one side of the island, and Glendon and Williams Township is on the other.
“The trolley company charged 10 cents for a round trip from downtown Easton, and that was also your admission into the park,” Capwell-Fox said. “If you were really thrifty, you could get your 10 cent ticket, pack a lunch and take advantage of all the free things to do on the island, like the vaudeville shows and concerts. It must have been such a relief on a hot summer day.”
There was also a plank-bottomed section of the river used for swimming and a nearby stand where bathers could rent swimsuits, Capwell-Fox said.
The park became a major social center, especially with crowd-attracting acts such as bandmaster John Phillip Sousa, who in 1905 performed at the Casino Theater, an outdoor playhouse. When bands weren’t on stage, vaudeville acts and silent movies were offered.
Patrons could also ride a miniature Black Diamond train, a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and toboggan roller coaster. Others danced in the dance pavilion or brought souvenirs at the postcard gallery. The amusements took up about 30 acres, and the rest of the island included cabins and tents for camping.
Although the spot was a popular retreat from the heat, Victorian ways dictated visitors keep the decorum. Photographs and color postcards show Island Park patrons dressed in suit jacket and ties, or long skirts topped off with straw hats adorned with ribbons.
Many of the postcards on display are from Palmer Township resident Pasquini’s personal collection.
Pasquini became interested in Island Park in 2007 after hearing about it from a local. The name was particularly significant because Pasquini’s cousin used to operate a bar in Butzville, N.J., called Island Park, though the name was only a coincidence and had nothing to do with the Easton park.
Pasquini began collecting whatever memorabilia he could find from the Easton amusement park. Most of it came from online auctions and includes programs and silk ribbons visitors would pin onto their clothing to show they paid the admission fee.
Over the last 10 years, Pasquini made about a dozen kayak trips to the island, where he’s found relics such as rings from the old carousel and gears from the rides.
Pasquini, who also worked as a volunteer at the lock tender’s house along the D&L Trail in Hugh Moore Park, said he was surprised so many people didn’t realize the island was there. The northern tip of the island is barely visible from the lock tender’s house.
Pasquini eventually started giving presentations on the park and prepared a small booklet on its history.
Other amusement parks established by the trolley companies include Central Park in the Rittersville area, Willow Park in Bethlehem Township, Bushkill Park in Forks Township and Dorney Park in South Whitehall.
But none of those parks had the river setting, Pasquini said.
In the end, it was Mother Nature that eventually led to the demise of Easton’s Island Park.
Ice on the Lehigh River took out the trolley trestle in 1917. Easton Transit rebuilt the trestle for $17,000, but another ice jam ruined that one in 1919, Capwell-Fox said. It would have cost $27,000 to fix a second time and the trolley company was not willing to repair it again.
The park’s 1919 season was its last.
In 1962, Hugh Moore gave the money to purchase roughly 260 acres, including the island. The island is owned by Easton and still remains part of Hugh Moore Park.
EASTON’S ISLAND PARK
What: From 1894 to 1919 Easton’s 100-acre Island Park hosted an amusement park featuring a roller coaster, Ferris wheel, vaudeville shows and more. The park was one of the area’s many “trolley parks,” created by the Easton Transit Company to boost the number of weekend riders.
Exhibit: The National Canal Museum at 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road in Easton is hosting an exhibit on Easton’s Island Park until Oct. 29.
Information: canals.org; 610-923-3548.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com