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Friday, January 24, 2014

Easton's Island Park in Retrospect: A Lehigh River Adventure

If you have a boat, canoe, kayak, raft (although I would probably not recommend a raft since a dam is nearby) or some other flotation device, or you want to walk or bike down the old Lehigh Canal tow trail, I would highly recommend going to the Route 33 Boat Launch on the Lehigh River to see something pretty cool, Smith's Island, the former home of Island Park in Easton, PA.. This is located near the terminus of the Lehigh River and the former Lehigh Canal that ended at the Delaware Canal. This canal was primarily used to carry coal down from the coal regions in Northeastern PA with much of it going to use at the former Bethlehem Iron Works (Later Bethlehem Steel) several miles upriver from this point. A trolley came to this park to create a nice getaway from the cities of Easton and Bethlehem.  A long time ago, we are talking 1919, this park was closed due to the heavily damaging floods of the Lehigh River. Frequently ice jams would damage the trolley trestle and ride attractions in addition to the large floods that this island sustains. We have dealt with these ice jams this winter already and it looks as if with this cold spell that we will be dealing with them again very shortly.
This video is not from Easton, but it shows the damage these dangerous ice jams can cause. It took out an entire bridge on the Susquehanna in Harrisburg after the Blizzard and subsequent meltdown floods of 1996. The power of nature always wins over the power of man. A 140 ton bridge completely destroyed and crumpled like a soda can with the power of an ice jam. Truly incredible. We can see how much damage this would do to a bridge like that.

Anyone from the Easton area knows about floods, with this being right near the end of the mighty Lehigh River and on the banks of the Delaware. This point is only a few miles up from the heart of Easton where the Lehigh and Delaware meet. The floods in this town are unreal and the city's McDonalds just may have taken the most beatings of any McDonalds around, having been flooded to roof several times.
If you are from Easton or the region, chances are that you know famous boxer Larry Holmes is from the region. He once ran a restaurant in the town and had a road named after him. This is an AP photo showing just how extreme the floods are in this area. 
I am not sure how these near century old buildings have withstood this many floods, but whoever built them did a great job, that is for sure. This photo is from the hometown college, Lafayette College, and their archive.

I could not find a photo, but the Delaware flooding has been known to take several homes right off of their foundations and then the homes get caught on the near century old Easton free bridge that crosses between Easton, Pennsylvania and Phillipsburg, New Jersey.

Now back to the park. You can see the power of these floods and why this trolley park only lasted 25 years in that spot. It was built around the same time in which other local competitors including Bushkill, Allentown's Central Park and Dorney Park got into the amusement business. The rides this park built were competitive to that in addition to being in a very picturesque location. This was (and still is) an extremely long island, possibly half to three quarters of a mile long. It is narrow, but wide enough to have housed amusements and more. To quote the Easton Express Times

""Built in July of 1894, Island Park on the Lehigh River was a popular amusement park advertised as "the most beautiful recreation resort in eastern Pennsylvania." 

Advertisements in early 1900s editions of The Easton Express also referred to the park on Smith's Island as "The People's Popular Playground" and "Nature's Beauty Spot." 

For nearly 25 years, park-goers enjoyed rides such as an early figure-eight-style toboggan roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, pony rides and the old mill. 

There were concerts, Vaudeville shows, minstrels, and plays in an open-air theater known as the Casino and a nearby band shell. Among the band shell's many concerts was one featuring legendary march composer John Phillip Sousa. 

The 100-acre island was also home to a bathing beach, sand pit, boating and picnic areas for visitors to enjoy. 

Open-air trolley cars helped shuttle passengers back and forth from the bustling park, with trips running every five minutes. 

Others visitors could elect to walk the "Donkey Bridge" instead. 

But heavy ice flows along the river frequently damaged the trolley-trestle. That damage, in addition to severe flooding sustained in 1919, made repairs too costly, and the park was closed." 

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From Treasurenet
This post card shows the old boat launch on the island for the old park. The wooded aspect is still there and the fact that the park has been abandoned for nearly a century clearly shows. One day my father and I back about 8 years ago took our boat out on the Lehigh to fish and investigate the remains of this unique looking old park. The vegetation is thick on the island, making it very difficult to get into and see if there are any remains on the island itself. This is the Western end of the island upstream. You can see it from the Route 33 bridge if you look to the right as soon as Route 33 starts coming off of I-78. This is a wonderful boat launch with decent fishing if you are a fisherman. The island itself has a roughly 30-40 foot channel along the shoreline and old canal side that gets to depths of about 20 feet. I am not sure if this was a natural island or a result of when they created the canal or the dam that is about 200 feet off the other end of the island. From the aerial view, I believe this channel actually is the remains of the canal, but I am not fully sure. 

Here is the Google Maps aerial view of the island. This island was purchased by Hugh Moore to add to his park downstream as a natural sanctuary. The National Canal Museum is located in Hugh Moore Park and downriver just a bit. This is a cool attraction where you get to ride a real canal boat that is being pulled by a mule like in the old days. I am sure most of you would enjoy it. 

To quote the Morning Call "Summers at Island Park" from 1994

"The Easton Transit Co. opened Island Park on July 18, 1894. On that inaugural day, about 3,000 people climbed aboard the company's trolleys which picked them up along S. 4th Street in downtown Easton. The trolleys went along the river and over to the north side of the island, sandwiched on the Lehigh between Palmer Township on one side and Glendon and Williams Township on the other.
"It was the place to go because there was no other place to go," says Kenneth L. Klabunde of Easton, who has spent several years researching Island Park.
The island, made up of 100 acres, is about a mile long and a thousand feet across at the widest point. Klabunde says the amusements -- not including the playground, ball fields or picnic groves -- took up about 15 to 20 acres.
The park was quite a social center, especially with crowd-attracting acts like bandmaster and marching king John Philip Sousa, who performed at the Casino Theatre, an outdoor playhouse. When bands weren't on stage, vaudeville acts and silent movie matinees were offered.
Patrons rode a miniature Black Diamond train, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, the Toboggan roller coaster and the Olde Mill. Others shuffled their soles at the dance pavilion or attended the post card gallery.
But, Mother Nature -- coupled with the mass production of the car -- got the best of Island Park.
Ice on the Lehigh took out the trolley trestle around World War I. Easton Transit rebuilt the bridge, but another ice jam ruined that one, too. The company, not willing to spend the several thousand dollars to fix it again, gave up.
Thus, the park's 1919 season was its last, says Klabunde, who has rare photographs and memorabilia of the grounds.
The structures and rides were dismantled, with much of the materials recycled. Builders took some of the wood for other projects, while the rides found other homes.
The last carousel, which was on the island from 1910 until the park's demise, belonged to Thomas Long who moved it to Oakland Park in Bethlehem Township, where the Black Diamond train was also sent, Klabunde says.
Long later moved the carousel to Bushkill Park, a trolley park he owned in Forks Township. The park still operates, but the ride was sold several years ago.
Years before Island Park was developed, the land -- then known as Smith's Island -- was used for agriculture. In 1857 Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. made the island part of its towpath, linking Island Park to the north shore and the Change Bridge to the south."
 The fact that this park attracted Sousa for performances is incredible. Many of his works are often played on carousel band organs today.
I am trying to find the manufacturer of their carousel. If anyone knows about that, please let me know. The carousel was moved to another park that was in Bethlehem Township, Oakland Park, which I cannot seem to find any information about and then it was moved to Bushkill Park. The carousel was moved to Bushkill but eventually sold. It says it was a "Long" Carousel, the same name as the owner. It was dismantled and sold from Bushkill in 1989 and the last reference I can see from 2001 is that it was owned by an Ohio businessman that planned to build an amusement park there. Hmmmmmm.
Here is a video of the last ride on this majestic machine


The island once had an E. Joy Morris clone of Leap the Dips at Lakemont. This photo credit goes to Joel Styer.
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Treasurenet Photo
They also had the most popular attraction of the day, a Dance Pavilion
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Treasurenet Photo from August 1907
As mentioned before, this was a trolley park. This is the station that was on the island side. This leads us to the only remnant of the park that I am aware of and that we found on our adventure, a bridge.
Source: delawareandlehigh.org
It is amazing that this bridge pier and cables have withstood flood after flood and more. It is really a pretty cool remnant that you would have no idea of what it was associated with unless you did a little research. This was the second time we went through here. The first time we went through I saw this bridge and wanted to know what it went to. This bridge was a walking bridge in which the canal operators could go and walk their mules across the river. Through some research I found out about this lost amusement park. Building on the Lehigh is a bad idea for the reasons that we just saw. The area is really pretty and would be a perfect location for an amusement park if it were not so prone to weather related damage. 
This is the channel that makes the island. According to our fish finder, it is roughly 20 feet deep in most places. It is very quiet back in this spot. This island is grown in thick with trees and vegetation, making exploring the island nearly impossible without having a chainsaw with you. 

I would love to explore the island and see if there are any remnants. Chances are you would find some cool things that washed away upriver from floods. 


Rumor is that most of the attractions that were left from the park were moved to nearby Bushkill Park, which 90 years later would receive the same fate from flooding unfortunately. After writing this I am left with more questions than answers. The carousel fate is really bugging me, plus I would like to know where Oakland Park was in Bethlehem Township. Another article I read says the park was located in Allentown. I will report back if I find anything. I love researching. 

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3 comments:

  1. I can help with info on carousel or at least get you in touch with the person who can answer carousel questions and where it is now. I worked at bushkill Park in the early 80's and I was at the park on that last day the original carousel operated. I worked for Ma long...daughter of the long Family who had stake in island park. She was an old woman when I worked for her. 70's
    I am from South Side Easton. I am fascinated with Easton History but that park has an air of mystery about it. Going to that island is a bucket list item for me since I was first informed of the one time existence of Great Island Park (smith Island). I plan on trying to go there before the vegetation starts this year (2014 early spring-soon depending on snow). Perhaps I could even get on the island. That's why I am looking for a map so I could have some perspective and take some pics of what is there now.
    I am sure the layout of the rides and where things were situated has to exist somewhere. I am going to try Easton library and records and deeds. One thing Easton is fairly good at is keeping their historic records.....It's finding where they stored it will be the trick.
    Email me at asmedellin@rcn.com

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  2. I can answer a few of your question: Oakland park was located at the intersection of William Penn Highway and Oakland Park Road about where the Bethlehem Township municipal building is, that was also a trolley park. The carousel at least the last time I heard anything about it is located somewhere in Ohio and stored in a warehouse. I have a few postcard from Island Park that can be seen if you visit me at the lock tender's house at Hugh Moore Park, I do tour of the house on the weekends during the canal boat season, this year starting June 7

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