Sunday, July 3, 2016

Revisiting Oakwood Park

Oakwood Park, Meadville PA
In the late 1890’s, after acquiring a parcel of approximately 35 acres, the Meadville Traction Company established Oakwood Park as a destination resort. Located in what is now West Mead Township, the park was located on lands between Oakgrove Avenue and Springs Road and could be reached by riding the trolley lines out Alden Street past the Pierson School. On a big holiday, as many as 20,000 people paid their trolley fair of 5 cents, each way, to enjoy the resort facility and all its attractions at no additional cost.

The Dance Pavilion at Oakwood Park Meadville PA
The Dance Pavilion at Oakwood Park
The most impressive attraction was that of the Dance Pavilion, a 60 feet wide x 100 feet long two-story building surrounded on all sides by 12 feet wide balconies with gazebos on each corner that served as a resting place for those who spent time inside the theater or dancing on the specially designed “spring floor”. In addition to the Dance Pavilion, visitors could take in a game at the baseball field, eat at the cafe or many picnic areas, listen to outdoor concerts and watch comic operas at the bandstand, stroll or bike along the wooded trails, and find amusement at the animal menagerie and shooting gallery.

Trolley motormen and their car for Oakwood in 1913
Those hoping for a bit of spectacle would not find themselves disappointed during their excursions at Oakwood. High-wire acts and early daredevils like Gifford The Marvel, a young man who rode a bicycle from a 70-foot tower into a tank of water were regular occurrences. And for the more adventurous, a balloon ride with Alic Thurston might be just the ticket.  As dusk settled in, the entertainment carried on into the evening with fireworks displays and outdoor movies which kept the crowds at the park into the late hours.

Within three months of Oakwood's opening in 1898, it was estimated that 350,000 people had already enjoyed the park's many offerings. On holidays, every car of the Meadville Traction Company would be in use, carrying more than 20,000 passengers in a day to Oakwood. Such high numbers created capacity issues for the trolleys especially on the longer nights. During one 4th of July, it took until 2 AM before the trolleys could shuttle everyone home.  Later, one motorman was astonished realize he had carried in a single trip 120 passengers on his car which was intended to hold only 30!

Canoes at the boat dock (left) and Monkey Island (far right) 

A dam was constructed making a lake 600 feet wide by 1,000 feet long and 3 feet deep in most places. Monkey Island, a small island located in the middle of the lake was a popular spot to reach by canoes which one could rent at the boat dock. In winter months the lake also made a popular spot for ice skating.

Boaters in the foreground watch the trolleys coming and going with more patrons
The trolley lines ran along the dam and ended at the Ponce de Leon Mineral Springs. Research suggests these “sparkling waters” were held in high regard by the Indians and early settlers of the area. Henry Johnson took to bottling the waters and around 1887 was touted as “showing commendable business enterprise” in marketing and distributing the water. Many testified to its medicinal properties. It was available plain or carbonated and was used in the making of an “extra fine quality” ginger ale. Given the popularity of Oakwood Park combined with the draw of Ponce de Leon Mineral Springs plans were made in 1898 to build a large hotel; however, the idea went no further than this.

Oakwood Park visitors relaxing at the concessions stand
Location of the springs
Today, a historic brick monument built by the sons of John J. Shyrock in 1950 marks the spot. Water from the spring is still accessible at times, for those who wish to give it a taste. The demise of Oakwood Park, however, began with the extension of trolley lines west from Meadville to Exposition Park (later, Conneaut Lake Park) in 1907. The relatively subdued nature of Oakwood made it hard to compete with the excitement of thrill rides and larger array of activities offered at Exposition Park. Attendance slowly declined in the years that followed. When the traction company began to lose money, trolleys stopped running to Oakwood, and the park quickly faded. In 1918 plans were announced to dismantle most of the structures and remove the trolley tracks. By 1920 all of the structures with the exception of the Dance Pavilion had been torn down and the dam was destroyed.

Some references started to refer to as the “Casino” or “Lakeside” and history begins to get fuzzy until the early 1970’s, when the Township established a ballpark and picnic area in the vicinity and began calling it "Oakgrove Park."

Passengers disembark from the trolley at the Oakwood Park station
When visiting the present day site, one can only imagine the flurry of activity during the heyday of Oakwood Park and Ponce de Leon Mineral Springs. In the last few years, many individuals have helped piece together some of the history of this once great destination area. Work is still being done and any interesting stories, photos or the likes to help fill in the blanks are always welcome. Plans to document the historical significance of the area are underway and will be shared in upcoming years.

by Jill Dunlap (2014)

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