Hampden’s Riverside Park: stage for scandalous skirts and baseball

Posted Aug. 22, 2008, at 12:14 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Riverside Park was the Bangor area’s Coney Island and its Tanglewood, its Disneyland and its Lakewood. After the Bangor Opera House closed its doors for the season and hot summer days arrived, you could watch “polite” vaudeville and musical comedies, or hear a concert at the park down the river in Hampden. You could ride the merry-go-round, test your marksmanship in the shooting gallery, play penny arcade games, hear the latest tunes from Tin Pan Alley on music machines, or waltz in the dance hall.

Despite its family atmosphere and respectable demeanor, there was a touch of fun, even something a little risque occasionally. A century ago, local people saw their first girls in sheath skirts (on stage of course), the new style that caused riots in some cities. They watched illegal baseball games on Sunday, or so alleged the Rev. Henry N. Pringle of the Christian Civic League of Maine. That was a weighty accusation, denied by John R. Graham, president of the Bangor Railroad and Electric Company.

Riverside Park was located near the end of the trolley line in Hampden on a scenic spot overlooking the Penobscot River a few hundred yards below where the Edythe Dyer Public Library sits today. Graham’s trolley company owned it, providing an incentive for people to ride on the “cars” during the warm months.

During the day, visitors had a long view down the river. At night the moon shone a rippling track across the water behind the open air theater. You could go by trolley or by boat, if seeking a romantic approach. You could inhale “a whiff of good, pure ozone” and pretend you had returned to nature. Everybody loved Riverside, even the cynical newsmen who occasionally hopped the trolley at West Market Square and rode into the country to observe the festivities.

Riverside Park opened for the season on Sunday, June 21, 1908, with a concert by the Bangor Band, which played the march “Riverside Park.” The next night there was a performance of “The Princess of India,” a “very tuneful offering” with the usual cast of “metropolitan favorites.”

The plan was to alternate musical comedies with vaudeville shows on a weekly basis, two shows a day, afternoon and evening. The vaudeville productions featured gymnasts, singers and dancers, ventriloquists, comedians, noveltyists, aerial artists, monologuists, character sketch artists, eccentric wooden shoe dancers – even a hoop roller. Occasionally, African American entertainers were featured and clearly labeled as such. The Jolly Prices, Clever Colored Entertainers, and Gaines & Brown, Colored Comedians, were among them.

The musical farce, “A Merry Widower,” drew large crowds beginning July 20 partly because of the appearance of “eight sheath skirt girls.” These tight-fitting skirts had caused quite a commotion when women first appeared in them in several major cities earlier in the summer. “This is the first appearance of the sheath skirt in Bangor and the front rows are very popular,” noted a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on July 21. No riots were reported.

The big hit of the season was the musical comedy “Miss Venus.” Two thousand people traveled to Riverside Park on Monday, August 10. Many had to watch from outside the fence or seated on the steps by the entrance, reported the Commercial the next day. The Bangor Daily News said the play was “brisk and snappy” with “no long stretches of dreary comedy which is mere silliness, the bane of most summer musical shows.”

Near the end of the summer season, two large excursions for children to the park were scheduled thanks to Bangor officialdom, the trolley company and a Bangor department store. On Aug. 14, about 500 Bangor tykes were transported to the park on five open trolley cars accompanied by Mrs. Jennie Johnson, the city missionary, Miss Caroline Besarick, the new playground supervisor, five policemen and some other chaperones. Cheers for “Johnnie Graham” echoed far and wide as the trolley rolled down Main Street toward Hampden.

The second excursion, sponsored by Waterman’s Department Store, was just for boys. Nearly 1,000 boys between the ages of 6 and 16 boarded eight cars decorated with two big signs announcing “Waterman’s Excursion” that left the city on August 18.

This expedition was led by Arthur J. Waterman, the proprietor of the clothing company. Once again the cheers echoed through Bangor and Hampden all along the trolley line. “Arthur Waterman is de goods,” one lad commented to a reporter as he got off the car back in Bangor when it was all over.

The season was coming to an end. The nights were getting chilly. The Bangor Opera House would soon be reopening. Attendance at the park had been slightly off, according to the Commercial on August 18. Could it have anything to do with competition from Bangor’s two new movie theaters? Could it have anything to do with the increase in automobiles that allowed people to travel to other resorts further away with ease? Riverside Park would soon be just a bright memory. Its life lasted from 1899 to 1916, according to Richard M. Newcomb, author of “History of Riverside Park, Hampden, Maine.”

Now about the baseball scandal mentioned at the beginning of the column. If true, it was a clear violation of Maine’s blue laws. But President Graham responded he was surprised that the Rev. Pringle, who was threatening court action, would believe hearsay evidence without making any investigation. As far as he knew, baseball had never been “encouraged” at the park.

Graham was a practical businessman, concerned about Maine’s lagging population. In a letter to Pringle, which was published in the Commercial on August 20, he wrote, “I am greatly interested in your efforts to make people good, though it may still further depopulate the state. The poet says, ‘God takes the good, too good by far to stay/And leaves the bad, too bad to take away.’”

Where this matter went, if anywhere, I will not be able to report until Bangor’s old newspapers reveal the full story.

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