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Reading 2: The Glen Echo Amusement Park

The idea of public amusement parks, places where people could go for a short time to enjoy themselves and forget their daily problems, began in Europe in the early 19th century. In 1873 at the World's Fair in Vienna, Austria, people from around the globe experienced the thrill of riding a primitive ferris wheel, an updated version of the ancient carousel, and the "Russian Mountains," a two person car that rolled from a high platform down a track to its stopping point. These rides were so popular that improved versions as well as new kinds of thrilling rides quickly became important features of parks across the United States. For those who ran trolley systems, amusement parks located at the end of their tracks became a golden opportunity to make more money. The trolley companies not only had a way to get the people to the amusement parks, but access to the tremendous amounts of electricity needed to operate the rides. So rapidly did the idea grow that by 1902, Cosmopolitan magazine featured the following article by Day Allen Willey extolling the development of amusement parks operated by trolley systems:

The expression, "trolley-park" may not as yet have come into common use, but no explanation of its meaning is necessary. The oldest of the trolley-parks has been in existence but a few years, yet today these resorts are to be found in the outskirts of nearly every city in the land. The fact is that the street and suburban railway companies, realizing the profit arising by catering to the pleasure of the masses, have entered into the amusement field on an extensive scale.

Originally, few, perhaps none, of the promoters of the trolley-route thought of it as a means of carrying the pleasure-seeker to public parks. The main incentive was the business to be secured by transferring the throngs of toilers to and from store, office and factory, and forming a means of communication between the different parts of the city. With the advent of the electric car came the opportunity to build more homes amid more natural surroundings.

Townsfolk became more appreciative of the charms of the country, but trolley riding for enjoyment, which has become a summer habit in the larger centers of the population, was not thought of a decade ago. People of all classes availed themselves of the opportunity to get a breath of fresh air and pass the long evenings enjoying the "trolley-breeze," for a rapidly whizzing trolley-car [10 miles per hour] can stir a breeze in the stillest night of midsummer. The need of some place where one could alight and thus vary the monotony of the ride, led to the inception of the park scheme. These pleasure-grounds have been developed into resorts some of which are far more attractive than the public parks of the cities where they are located. Except for the nickel, dime or quarter which admits to the concert, rents the boat, or provides some other special amusement, the park is free to all, the company parks, combining natural and artificial diversions, have become the Mecca on holidays and Sundays not only of what we are pleased to term the working classes but of the "middle millions."1

Articles such as this one persuaded the Washington Railway and Electric Company of Washington, D.C., which was responsible for the installation of the electric railway system or "trolley system" throughout the city and its suburbs, to purchase the Chautauqua lands and expand the small amusement park that had already been built on the site. The company named their new purchase Glen Echo Amusement Park. They renovated the old Chautauqua buildings and added more buildings and more rides.

By 1931 a dance hall had been built and was charging five cents per dance. Soon a roller coaster, a new carousel, and bumper cars were added. The Crystal Pool was built to accommodate 3,000 swimmers. It was one of the largest in America with 1.5 million gallons of circulating water. Two years later the Spanish Ballroom was built adjacent to the pool. Throughout the 1940s additions to the park were constant. Two cafes and an arcade building added to the fun.

Glen Echo had become a favorite among the growing number of mechanical amusement parks built throughout the nation. Patrons with increasing amounts of leisure time could escape from their urban routines and enter a world of mechanically induced thrills and fantasies.

Although Willey's article in Cosmopolitan had stated that everyone was welcome at the trolley-parks, Glen Echo was a segregated park. Following is an excerpt from an article published in the Washington Afro-American in 1957:

Glen Echo Holds Steadfastly to Jim Crow
'Colored children are not welcome.' This statement was made Friday by G.P. Price, general manager of Glen Echo Park, who told the AFRO that colored children cannot participate in the Sustaining Fund Campaign for the National Symphony Orchestra on June 1. Mr. Price said "Colored children cannot participate because Glen Echo Park is patronized by whites only."2

In the summer of 1960, African and Anglo Americans picketed the park, standing outside the gates with signs. They organized petitions and antisegregation organizations filed lawsuits against the park's owners. Those who attempted to enter the gates of the park were arrested for trespassing. The efforts of those who thought all people should be able to enjoy Glen Echo park were successful. In 1961 the park opened on a nonsegregated basis. The victory won by the protestors came too late to allow all children very many good times at Glen Echo Park. By the mid-1960s, the park, like many other local amusement parks, was having trouble with newer, competing types of recreation, including the theme parks that were being built across the nation. Because of the automobile, people could easily travel farther and find interesting entertainment on a grander scale. Glen Echo Amusement Park shut its gates in 1968. In 1971, through a land exchange, the park was designated as a National Park Service site.

Before the National Park Service took over management of the site, many of the amusement park rides, including the roller coaster, were torn down or sold. The large Chautaugua amphitheater was deliberately burned down in 1956 to make room for a parking lot. Interested citizens raised the funds to purchase the carousel so it could be kept at the site. Today the National Park Service preserves the structures of Glen Echo's past, providing the setting for a center for culture and the arts—a use similar to its original mission as a Chautauqua.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Where did the concept of amusement parks first develop?

2. According to Day Allen Willey's article, why did the trolley companies build trolley parks? Why did they offer free admission to the parks?

3. Why would African Americans have been barred from Glen Echo Amusement Park?

4. What change in park admission policies came about in 1961? How do you think people felt about that change?

5. When did Glen Echo Amusement Park close? Why?

6. What newer types of recreation and amusement may have competed with the park?

Reading 2 was compiled from Gary Scott and Bill Brabham, "Glen Echo Amusement Park" (Montgomery County, Maryland) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984; and Gary Kyriazi, The Great American Amusement Parks: A Pictorial History (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976).

1Day Allen Willey, "The Trolley Park," Cosmopolitan 33 (July, 1902):265-267.
2"Glen Echo Park Holds Steadfastly to Jim Crow,"
Washington Afro-American, May 28, 1957.



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