The following is an excerpt from The Historical Review of Berks County, Volume 80, Number 3. (The full article will be available on Saturday!)
CARSONIA PARK, FROM THE BOTTOM
by Corrie Crupi. First-Place winner of the Hiester Manuscript Award Competition, 2011.
The area known as Custard’s Bottom was initially the property of Benjamin and Mary Custard, settlers who established a homestead along the Antietam Creek near Butter Lane in the 1700’s. The Custards erected a woolen mill and, sometime around the year 1800, constructed an impressive Georgian-style home, which eventually became known as the Carsonia Inn. The cozy restaurant and sitting grove was tucked into a southeast area of the park.
The property then passed into the ownership of William Schweitzer. By October 1894, John A. Rigg and Robert N. Carson, wealthy Philadelphians who were shareholders in the Union Traction Company of Reading, purchased the farm and the outlying 145-acre field and created an amusement park and grove.
It was around this area that the immensely popular amusement resort named Carsonia Park came into being. Admission to the park was free and individual tickets were sold to the park-goers at the rate of a nickel each. For many children, money was non-existent; however, they could just walk around the park and enjoy the views.
Trolleys paraded up and down the center of Carsonia Avenue throughout the season. Trolleys stopped anywhere between the new Carsonia Inn (now Klinger’s On Carsonia), 735 Carsonia Ave. (currently Adele’s Salon), and another near Navella Avenue at the Casino. These trolley lines brought thousands of people to the park daily to enjoy the rides, listen to band concerts, take in theater shows, consume delectable food and drinks, or simply bask in the serenity of the picnic groves.
The sounds of summer were heralded by the whizzing of the rides, delighted screams from the Midway arcade, and swimmers raucously splashing in the pool. The delicious aroma arose from the midway where myriad concessions stands offered dozens of treats: Hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, moshie candy, popcorn crisp, Mabel’s ice cream waffles, salt water taffy, pretzels, French cake, or the tasty powder sugar puffles, Cracker Jack, and a five-cent Coca Cola. The fresh lemonade was particularly thirst quenching.
First, along the midway was The Noah’s Ark ride and next to that was Mabel’s Waffle Cream stand. Then came the Roller Rink with organ type skating music. Then a narrow walk way led to the Whiz Bang. Across the midway was the shooting Gallery, where participants would get three tries for a nickel. The Penny Bingo and Skeet Ball were all popular stands. There were a variety of regular carnival games like darts, milk bottles and the popular go-fishing game. Novelty prizes were awarded to anyone who played.
Down by the boat docks, just beyond the jack Rabbit ride, loomed the Circle Swings, the scene of which is captured on many postcards and photos that survive today. Passengers would gleefully fly through the air in the huge wicker gondolas with the vistas of the park spinning by at dizzying speeds.
On the 10 ¼-acre Crystal Lake, visitors could rent a motorboat, rowboat or a canoe or take the walking path around the lake. Ten cents would get them a relaxing half hour or two times around for the family, or a way to get some alone time with that special someone.
The Band Pavilion, sometimes seen decorated in a floral motif reminiscent of the South Seas, hosted special events, which included professional opera singers, the mysterious gypsy act, and magic shows.
Next to the Old Mill was the 900,000 –gallon swimming pool and beach area, with real sand, constructed in 1932. It was very refreshing, and for 25 cents, visitors could swim all day. The design was unusual as it was deep in the middle and shallow around the rimmed edge. In the center of the sand bottom pool was a wooden catwalk that encompassed the pool, which still exists today (replaced with concrete). The original filter beds still exist and the pool remains and functions in the same location, maintained by the Antietam Valley Recreation Community Center Board since July 1950.
After a long day at the park, the Carsonia Inn would offer guests a hearty meal, and in 1936, a beer garden was added with a beautifully landscaped garden maze that served as an entryway from the park to the quaint German-style Beer Garden Restaurant. The beer garden still exists as part of Anthony’s Trattoria at Navella and Byram Streets. Take a special look at the lampposts in the parking lot – they once lined the midway and can be seen in many a postcard from that by-gone era.
The Crystal Ballroom Dance Palace was impressive. Constructed in 1896, the name derived from a unique chandelier that featured a revolving globe of cut glass triangles and prisms that sent out a breathtaking panorama of color. The 100-foot wide ballroom attracted nationally recognized artists such as John Philip Sousa and the Goldman Band.
Crowds from all around enjoyed the stylish and fashionable Crystal Ballroom – until a calm August night in 1968, when, at 1:30 a.m., a disgruntled gang of hoodlums who had previously been refused entry, returned to the dance hall armed with a Molotov cocktail. In the early morning hours of Friday, August 29th, two explosions and raging ribbons of fire exploded out of the Dance Palace. The entire structure burned to the ground. Flames roared and smoke was visible for miles as the ballroom perished in the titanic conflagration.
With the availability of affordable automobiles, trolley service to Carsonia Park was discontinued on October 16, 1939. Labor Day of 1951 witnessed the end of an era when Carsonia Park closed forever.
Many still reminisce with vivid memories about the wonderful times they had in the park’s halcyon days and wax nostalgic about Carsonia Park’s glorious era as a premiere destination for summertime fun-seekers. Today, only vintage post cards, old photos, and fading memories can depict what once occupied the area.