When Portland’s Riverton Trolley Park opened on a beautiful June day in 1896, a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered to celebrate. If you crack some local history books, it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about.
In its heyday, Riverton Trolley Park was like a combination of York’s Wild Kingdom, Portland Stage Company, Aquaboggan, Port City Music Hall and Oxford Casino. For 20 cents, leisure-seekers of the Gilded Age could hop a trolley in Monument Square and ride out to the park, near the Westbrook border, owned and operated by the Portland Railroad Company. They could watch vaudeville acts perform in an open-air theater and see deer, caribou and moose roam inside a fenced-in enclosure. They could ply the Presumpscot River in canoes or aboard a steam-powered dinghy. There were flower gardens and a gazebo for romantics young and old. The crown jewel of the place was a casino that had a dance hall and dining rooms.
Those glory days lasted for about two decades. As historian Osmond Richard Cummings wrote in his 1957 book Portland Railroad, a “general decline started about the time of World War I. The theater performances were discontinued as patronage declined and the Portland Railroad began looking for a purchaser for the property. The park was leased to a private operator during the season of 1920 but he met with no success, closing the casino in mid-August.”
The property was sold in 1921 for the sum of $25,000. The new owners operated an amusement park there for a time, but that too closed down — a casualty of the Great Depression, according to City of Portland arborist Jeff Tarling. The city subsequently took possession of the land and made it a public park, but maintenance has been a challenge.
The open-air theater, gardens, gazebo and boat launches are all long gone, as is the building that housed the casino and dance hall. The once stately entrance to the park on Forest Avenue has been reduced to stony stumps. Piles of granite blocks testify to a grandeur gone to ruin. The steps that once led to the gazebo are still there, but covered in moss and dirt and dead leaves. Even the signs commemorating the park’s golden age look long in the tooth. When I visited in mid-May, I noticed a lot of litter, as well as debris from a brush-clearing operation scattered about. The trails were so muddy and poorly maintained that it was difficult to walk them.
There are no plans to restore this park to anything close to its former glory, though a variety of groups are trying to improve it. The organization Friends of Riverton Trolley Park held a clean-up day there on May 19. Tarling said the city is engaged in an extensive forest-management effort to rid the area of damaged trees and invasive plants, including Japanese tree lilac, an ornamental artifact from the trolley era. And Jaime Parker, of Portland Trails, said his group is working with the city to improve the paths through the park and extend them to connect with other trail systems.
Those are all positive developments, though it’s still depressing to consider that after 120 years of American “progress,” Portlanders are incapable of coming together to enjoy a place as wonderful as Riverton Trolley Park was at the dawn of the 20th century.
— Patrick Banks