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Trolley Parks Around Portland

Text by Amber Tatnall
Images from the Seashore Trolley Museum

Riverton Park

For 20 cents, Portland day-trippers at the turn of the last century could hop on a Portland Railroad Company trolley car and spend the day at Riverton, Maine's premiere trolley resort. They could dine and dance, play croquet, or even see a hot-air balloon ascension and parachute adventure by Monsieur Roberto, Meteor of the Sky!

On Monday, June 27, 1896, the Portland Railroad Company opened Riverton Park, located on thirty acres at the intersection of Riverside Street and Forest Avenue in Portland, along the banks of the Presumpscot River. A reported 10,000 pleasure seekers arrived on opening day at the ornate wooden carriage entrance on Portland Railroad Company street cars.

Regular cars left from Preble Street every 15 minutes starting at 8:30 a.m. to carry passengers to Riverton. One or more "wild" cars were required as extras to handle the rush to the park's theater.

Bridal shower parties, card parties, and other private groups could hire a new, posh parlor car, "The Bramhall," for five dollars round-trip. The motorman and conductor wore spiffy bowler hats and white kid gloves for these special trips.

The center attraction of the park was the Riverton Casino. The casino, with its broad piazzas, provided a lovely view of the Presumpscot River. A travel brochure describes "its surface dotted with canoes and other pleasure boats, all containing merry sailing parties."

The travel brochure continues with a description of the attractively furnished dining hall: it was staffed by "an efficient corps of attendants serving tempting viands in answer to the promptings and desires of the inner man. The fizz of the soda fountain is also heard, while for the sweet tooth there is an excellent assortment of the finest creations in the confectionery line." The dance hall – "the scene of merry private parties" - was also very popular with its finely polished floor and live orchestra.

Park grounds also boasted a bandstand, a deer run and small zoo, a boat house and steam launch, a steam riding gallery or carousel, a croquet field, lawn swings, a trout pond, and ample grounds and shelters for picnickers.

The outdoor "rustic theater," another attraction at the park, could seat 2,500 people. Theatrical attractions included high-wire and trapeze acts, Alabama troubadours, comedy acts, and buck and wing dancing. La Petite Blanche, the Dainty Soubrette graced the stage, as did the Zanfarellas, "grotesque, comic, and daring dancers."

And not to be outdone by other trolley parks, Riverton had its own "Slide for Life," a thrilling acrobatic descent from a high tower.

The well-known Boston firm of Frank M. Blaisdell, who designed the Boston Public Gardens, laid out the gardens and grounds at Riverton. No expense was spared in Riverton Park’s creation. Broad lawns were ornamented with flower gardens and rare shrubberies.

An advertisement describes the grounds: "Here and there throughout the park are rustic bridges, arches, arbors, seats, and in short the whole enclosure is thoroughly calculated to offer entrancing inducements to the visitor."

Riverton Park operated successfully for two decades until the beginning of World War I. Post-war economic conditions and the rise of the automobile spelled the end for the park as a trolley resort. In 1921, the Portland Railroad Company sold Riverton Park, including all buildings and land to a local realty group that proposed turning the park into a modern resort for autos.

Riverton Park remained in operation, with additional amusement park rides and midway attractions, until 1933.

Willard Beach Casino

This popular seaside get-away operated for only two years before it burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances.

The Willard Beach Casino at Simonton's Cove in South Portland was opened by the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Railway on June 10, 1896, just two weeks before the opening of rival Riverton Park. The new park hosted a reported 10,000 visitors on opening day. The company was so optimistic about their park's success that they petitioned the City Council to double-track the entire line from Cottage Road to Willard Beach.

A local daily paper from 1896 describes the new casino as an "immense structure": a three-story wooden building, 110 feet long by 65 deep. A central facade with a porch and covered entrance greeted visitors as they disembarked from the trolley cars. Two wings on either side of the entrance were enhanced by turret-shaped bay windows reaching to the roof.

The lower floor of the casino was devoted to 75 dressing rooms with heated salt-water baths. The open second floor could be used as a theater hall, with a stage at one end, or as a dance hall. In the center of the dance floor was a fountain, ten feet in diameter.

On the top floor, the casino's roof garden offered fine views of Portland, Portland Harbor, and the Casco Bay islands. Guests could relax in the shade of a striped awning on sunny summer days and listen to the band playing in the rooftop cupola.

In January 1898, the casino was destroyed by fire. The South Portland Fire Department records that the fire was of incendiary origin, but no arrests were ever made. The Portland and Cape Elizabeth Railway was already planning a new and improved trolley resort just down the line at Cape Cottage. The $35,000 insurance settlement from the Willard Beach Casino fire was a welcome windfall that the company reinvested into the new Cape Cottage Park.

Cape Cottage Park

In June of 1898, the Portland and Cape Elizabeth Railway opened its new trolley resort at Cape Cottage. Cars left Monument Square daily every ten minutes for a scenic run along the Cape Shore Road out to the Park.

The Cape Cottage Casino was a two-and-a-half-story building with two wide verandas facing the main shipping channel. In "Trolley Tripping around New England", Robert Alexander Harrison writes:

"On its rocky bluffs, pine-fragrant, we may sit and see the unbroken procession of sail and steam craft passing thro the Ship Channel directly in front of the Casino. A prospect that ever changes, never tires. It is beautiful and restful here at any time."

The dining hall, famed for its shore dinners, was on the first floor of the casino and had wide windows on all sides that could swing open to let in the cool ocean breezes. The ballroom was located on the second floor with a balcony at one end to provide a place for the orchestra.

The casino was also equipped with a kitchen, bakeshop, bathhouse facilities, a large billiard room, and a place to park bicycles. The gardens and grounds were designed by Gray & Blaisdell, the same Boston landscape architects who worked on Riverton Park.

The Cape Cottage Theater, described in an advertisement as "a beautiful theater equipped with all modern improvements and luxurious appointments" was another popular feature of the park. The theater was managed by Bartley McCullum, a local actor who is credited with pioneering summer stock theater in Maine.

The Cape Cottage Theater, or McCullum's Theater as it was also known, was considered to be "a synonym for high-class summer theater" and featured the work of some of America's most famous light opera singers.

The declaration of war with Germany in 1917 was the beginning of the end for Cape Cottage Park. The railway company offered free use of the theater during the summer of 1917, but there were no takers.For a time, the Women's Volunteer War Council operated the casino as a hostess house for soldiers stationed at Fort Williams.

In 1922, the casino and park were officially closed.

Underwood Springs Park

Heading up the coast for Falmouth, trolley-trippers could drink pure spring water and watch Maine's only electric fountain at Underwood Springs Park.

The Portland & Yarmouth Electric Railway opened Underwood Springs Park in the summer of 1899. The park was built on an underground spring that gushed a 250,000 gallons of healthful water every 24 hours.

The park featured a handsome three-story casino set in a beautifully wooded landscape. The casino's dining room was bright and spacious. Visitors dined on shore dinners while enjoying views of the harbor. The casino had a sitting room and a music room decorated with potted palms. The card room was on the second floor and decorated in purple and red. Comfortable arm chairs were upholstered in rich Bagdad cloth with trimmings. Across the hall from the card room was the smoking room, in red. A large dance hall was located on this floor as well.

Trolley cars loaded with day-trippers departed from Monument Square in Portland for Falmouth every half hour, with additional cars leaving every 15 minutes during peak times. The fare was 20 cents round trip.

The electrical fountain was a popular feature of the park. Every evening between 8 and 9 p.m., an engineer operated the fountain, manipulating its controls to create a shifting rainbow of color in the water.

Underwood's open air theater offered nightly entertainment after the fountain show. Vaudeville acts, under the direction of the Gorman Brothers of Medford, Massachusetts, came through every week. The annual appearance of celebrated song and dance team Primrose and West was greatly anticipated by theater-goers.

Few remains of Underwood Springs Park can be found today. The casino and theater burned down in 1907 when an improperly placed candle set fire to some draperies.

Park guests and staff hastily organized a bucket brigade from the spring to save the casino, but they were unable to save the buildings. The park was never reopened.