June 16, 2019
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Before highways and planes, this is what Mainers did for fun

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
A postcard image of the Auto Rest Park in Carmel, which operated from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Before the late 1950s, the things Mainers did for fun were, generally, a lot closer to home. There were no highways to allow for fast car travel between destinations. Commercial air travel was expensive and limited. And cars did not become common in Maine until the 1920s.

That made a trip to the local amusement park one of the easiest ways to have a day of leisure back then. And there were several to choose from in eastern Maine that entertained families for decades — until the era of highways and mass air travel effectively killed the industry.

“They just couldn’t compete with the fact that people had a lot more freedom to go where they wanted,” said Bangor historian Dick Shaw.

Among the earliest amusement parks in the area was Riverside Park in Hampden, which was located off Main Road North, about where the Edythe Dyer Library and Avalon Village stand today. Between 1898 and 1918, Riverside was the top tourist attraction in the Bangor region. The park had a Ferris wheel, carousel, shooting gallery, penny arcade, live animal exhibits, cinema, casino and, most popularly, a large open-air pavilion that showcased music, vaudeville performers, circus acts and other entertainment.

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Like other Maine amusement parks of the era, such as Riverton Trolley Park in Portland or Merrymeeting Park in Brunswick, Riverside existed mostly because of the trolley system. Riverside was actually owned by the Bangor Railway and Electric Company, the first electric trolley system in Maine. When the trolley was extended into Hampden in the late 1890s, the park was built on the banks of the Penobscot River, offering scenic views of the river alongside “polite” and “wholesome” amusements.

The cost for both the trolley ride from Bangor and admission to the park was 10 cents — or about $3 in 2019 when adjusting for inflation.

Courtesy of Hampden Historical Society
Courtesy of Hampden Historical Society
The bandstand at Riverside Park in Hampden, circa 1910.

Almost nothing remains of Riverside Park today. Debbie Lozito, director of the Edythe Dyer Library, said that there might be some trolley rail ties buried somewhere in the area, but that the rest of the site was totally razed after it closed.

“It was all made of wood, so it’s not like it would have stuck around,” Lozito said. “I’ve heard that there’s some sort of impression in the ground somewhere, that was left from a pit where they kept snakes or alligators or some sort of animal. But I’ve never seen it.”

Though Riverside Park would close in 1918, another amusement park in the Bangor area would open just seven years later. The Auto Rest Park, located on Route 2 in Carmel about five miles past where Hermon High School and Middle School stand today, started as a gas station, but grew to encompass an array of rides, games and entertainment, similar to what was offered at Riverside Park.

“I’ve met many people that met their future spouse there while roller skating,” said Shaw, who went to the park when he was a small child.

The Auto Rest Park was owned by Harry Wise, a Russian immigrant to the Bangor area, who later passed it on to his son, Leo Wise. Shaw said that both Riverside Park and the Auto Rest Park had business models that allowed their owners to make money on most aspects of the operation.

“With Riverside, the trolley company owned it, so they made money on getting you there and then getting you in there,” said Shaw. “With the Auto Park, there would be buses that would take you out there, and they’d make money on that too.”

Among the most popular and unusual attractions at the Auto Rest Park was its zoo. Shaw said that in addition to Maine animals such as raccoons and bears, there was an array of monkeys and apes.

“There was a baboon named Bella who had her own special cage out front,” Shaw said. “I don’t think the Humane Society would allow anything like that to ever happen today, but it was a different era back then.”

Courtesy of Richard Shaw
Courtesy of Richard Shaw
Leo Wise, son of Harry Wise, with a bear cub at the Auto Rest Park in Carmel.

Other popular aspects of the park were its roller rink, restaurant and stage, which hosted musical acts from all over the country, including big bands in the 1930s and 40s, and country acts in the 1950s and 60s, including Maine favorites such as Curly O’Brian and Yodelin’ Slim Clark.

The park briefly became nationally famous when the Brady Gang — gangster Al Brady and his goons — stayed at the park the night before their famous October 1937 shootout with the FBI on Central Street in downtown Bangor. According to the book “Oddity Odyssey: A Journey Through New England’s Colorful Past,” Brady wanted to stay there because the park had a skating rink, and he loved to rollerskate.

The Auto Rest Park closed in 1965, after Interstate 95 opened in Bangor and traffic on Route 2 saw a dramatic decline. Shaw said that nothing but the old arcade building remains of the Auto Rest Park, and that several auto shops sit where the park once was.

Twenty-five miles northeast of Carmel was another amusement park — the smaller, but more scenically situated The Pines, located on Route 2 in Milford, just north of the town center. It was owned by the Thornton family, and in addition to its riverside location, which was ideal for boating, The Pines offered a Ferris wheel, carousel and other rides, a petting zoo and animal display.

Amusement park-style offerings at the Pines began to decline in the 1950s, but the park’s restaurant and rental cabins remained popular into the 1960s. By that time, however, The Pines met a similar fate, as the highway drew traffic away from state routes.

“They just couldn’t compete with the fact that people had a lot more freedom to go where they wanted,” Shaw said.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Michael and his Mikey Smith ride the Astrosphere at Funtown in Saco in June 2016. The elder Smith remembers riding on the 41-year-old ride when he was a child.

A few other Maine parks would come and go in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Cottle’s Place, a short-lived water park in Waterville in the 1980s and early 90s, and Funland in Caribou, a facility that offered Go-Karts, kiddie rides and mini golf, which operated in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

There are only a few Maine amusement parks that remain today, including Wild Acadia Fun Park in Trenton, which offers water slides, a ropes course, Go-Karts and other attractions, and parks in southern Maine such as Funtown Splashtown USA and Aquaboggin, both in Saco, Seacoast Adventure Park in Windham, Palace Playland in Old Orchard Beach, and York’s Wild Kingdom in York Beach.

Watch: Funtown’s Astrosphere turns 41

 



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