Wednesday, December 2, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - Wonderland Amusement Park, Revere, MA

    The amusement park has been a staple of American culture for well over a century. Filled with rides, attractions, food, and more, they are perfect for day trips, or centerpieces of family vacations. In the 21st century there are many iconic amusement parks that still bring in countless people. Places like Six Flags, Hersheypark, and Busch Gardens to giants like Disneyland/Disney World, and Universal have become legendary over the decades.

    Amusement parks as they are known today got their start at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. Sea Lion Park became the first enclosed amusement park in 1895 with Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland following shortly thereafter. As the popularity of these parks grew other areas of the country wanted to get in on the action. Some places became icons after being built, while some crashed and burned quickly.

    Just 5 miles north of Boston sits the town of Revere, essentially the gateway to Massachusetts' North Shore. It was here that the first public beach, Revere Beach, was established in 1896. With a reputation as a burgeoning tourist destination it only seemed natural to up the ante by creating one of those new amusement parks inside the city limits. The result ended up being the spectacularly brief legacy of the Wonderland Amusement Park. Here is its story.

    After the creation of Revere Beach in 1896 the city began to capitalize on its popularity by building up Revere Beach Boulevard. It surrounded the beach with rides, food, and hotels for the throngs of new visitors. In the subsequent years the city garnered the nickname "Coney Island of the East." In 1905 to further enhance that lofty reputation three men came along with an idea to create their own amusement park in Revere.

    First up was John J. Higgins, a man who had only recently moved to Chelsea from Savannah, Georgia. A commercial real estate broker, Higgins purchased 25 acres of land in Revere northeast of the beach and west of the railroad tracks. He envisioned an amusement park from the get go feeling that its proximity to the beach, railroad, and Boston, would make it far more appealing than other new parks like Norumbega in the Auburndale section of Newton, or Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach in Hull.

    With the land secured next into the fold was Floyd Thompson. The New Yorker was a natural partner having attempted to create the largest amusement park at Coney Island only a few years earlier. He had a deal in place for Steeplechase Park and neighboring land but it fell through. Thompson was more than happy to help create the park in Revere. He did after all still have contracts for performers and the architecture knowledge of how to build the park.

    Finally came Harold Parker, Massachusetts Highway manager and railroad investor, he was selected as president of the newly created Wonderland Company. The main players assembled, the land acquired, and the plans in motion, ground was broken for the Wonderland Amusement Park on November 1, 1905. There were 300 men working on the job throughout the winter with an estimated budget of $600,000 ($17.7 million in 2020). Fate seemed to be on their side as the weather that winter was as warm and dry as one could have hoped, putting the project well ahead of schedule.

The main entrance to Wonderland (Boston Public Library)

    It was described in newspapers at the time as a small city with attractions mirroring Coney Island and recent world's fairs. Wonderland had been hyped as much as possible in the weeks leading up to opening day on May 30, 1906. The park had 2 entrances, the main one at the end of Walnut Street, and a beach entrance located near where the present-day Wonderland Station MBTA Stop is located. This entrance included an iron pedestrian bridge allowing people to cross over the railroad tracks safely.

    Some of the main attractions people saw that first day included: Shoot the Chutes, this was a giant water slide where a pair of railroad cars descended into a lagoon. It was purchased from the 1904 St. Louis Expo and brought to Revere in 6 railroad cars. There was Hell Gate which was another boat ride but this time passengers descended down a dimly lit whirlpool inside a hexagonal-shaped building. It was an extremely popular ride. The Wonderland Restaurant and Ballroom, located in the same building, included a 1,000-seat dining room with the ballroom upstairs. There was also a scenic railway taking people around Revere to see the famed beach among other sites.

An aerial view of Wonderland (Boston Public Library)

    Perhaps the most well known attraction at Wonderland was the Fighting the Flames exhibit. After a fire fighting show astounded people at industry conventions in Germany and England, and a similar show was put on at the 1904 St. Louis Expo, it was Floyd Thompson who decided it was a necessary part of the new amusement park. A 3,500 seat grandstand was built before a mock city block that would be stuffed with flammable materials and set ablaze twice daily. Actual retired firefighters put out the blazes with actors and acrobats posing as people in distress being rescued.

    The park had seemingly everything. There was a Penny Arcade. The Theater for children included acts like monkeys riding on the backs of dogs. Wonderland had animal shows, marching bands with parades ala Disney in more recent times, and rotating temporary attractions meaning people had to come back or else they'd miss something new. There was even an Infant Incubator exhibit with real babies. This was at a time when such advancements to care for premature infants were not readily available. So when it is said Wonderland had everything it was not an overstatement.

    Wonderland was a success on the backs of its creators and their dedication to giving the paying audience all they could hope for. During its first summer an estimated million people came through the entrances of the new park. However the success was not enough to cover the cost of staffing and the wide array of attractions. Shockingly Wonderland filed for bankruptcy after the 1908 season. The entire park was sold at auction in March 1909 in a creative twist the same management team bought it for 50 cents on the dollar. They created a new entity called the Walnut Street Corporation and were able to press on for the 1909 season, albeit with far fewer attractions to keep costs down. Therein lay the problem.

Shoot the Chutes Ride at Wonderland. (Boston Public Library

    1909 was a successful year for Wonderland yet it could not plug the sinking ship. Revere Beach was a hot destination and people had been opening more and more businesses around it, siphoning off some of Wonderland's clientele. The crowds still came but the writing was on the wall. It opened for the 1910 season later than usual on a rainy June 17th, a bad omen for what ended up being the final hurrah for Wonderland. In another sign of the impending end the park's assets were being listed for sale in local newspapers even as the park was open late in the summer. When the gates were locked after Labor Day they never opened again. The spectacular Coney Island of Boston was no more.

    After the rides and buildings were sold and removed the land that once housed the park sat empty for many years. It eventually saw a miniature golf course, and later a bicycle race track which both failed. The Wonderland name was resurrected in 1935 this time as a dog racing track. The Wonderland Greyhound Park lasted from 1935 to 2010 before closing. Today the only reminder of the former amusement park is the aforementioned Wonderland stop of the MBTA.

    Wonderland was an incredible success and an incredible failure all at once. Millions of people visited the park in its 5 seasons of business. Yet the desire to give the people everything they could want in one amusement park ultimately led to its downfall. Still for a few fleeting moments Coney Island had a rival on the outskirts of Boston. Wonderland was truly a spectacular flash in the pan and a prominent moment in time at the dawn of the 20th century.

For more on Wonderland check out these links.


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