Nothing to do on a Saturday night? Rockfordians at the turn of the century rarely had this problem. Not only could they enjoy the steamboat rides that took them up the Rock River, they could get off at Harlem Park and enjoy gardens, carnival rides, food, and games.
Harlem Park opened in June 1891. Located on the west bank of the Rock River, the main entrance was on Harlem Boulevard between Harper and Brown Avenues. Admission was free, and the park hummed with rides, games, and eager visitors from morning to night. Transportation to the park was either by steamboat up the Rock River or by trolley along the Rockford and Interurban Railway. The forty-acre park opened with thrilling attractions including the Switchback Railway (roller coaster), Auditorium, Dance Pavilion, bathing houses, steamboat wharf, and Zoological Garden. By 1905, the Three Way Figure 8 Scenic Railway, Miniature Railroad, Laughing Gallery (fun house), Novelty Parlors with photo gallery, Penny Arcade, Knife Boards, and Electric Carrousel were built. A swimming pool and the Old Mill, a romantic spot for couples, were added later. The park was lit up with beautiful electric lights at dusk. Imagine the wonder and awe felt by visitors, many of whom had no electricity in their own home.
Tickets used at Harlem Park
The two most thrilling rides at the Harlem Park were the electronic circle swing and the Switchback Railway roller coaster. The circle swing had six cars shaped like boats that could seat four passengers. The Switchback Railway was called the most exhilarating amusement ride at the park, and cost only a nickel to ride.
Cars ran 1100 feet in 26 seconds and the track contained giant drops to thrill the riders. Roller coasters were thought to improve one’s health and temperament. The Chicago Daily Tribune featured a classified ad in 1883 for one of its roller coasters: “Health! Wealth! One hundred dollars’ worth of fun for a nickel. A health resort for ladies nervously affected. Come and be happy once more.”
The auditorium was built with a 50 x 100 foot stage and had 5,000 seats. Originally built for concerts and vaudeville shows, it was also used for Chautauqua lectures and events. The Chautauqua, which first took place in Rockford at Harlem Park in 1902, ran for fifteen days from the end of August to the beginning of September. People from all over the area came to hear music, play games, and listen to lectures about health, religion, and politics. Tents could be rented at the park and families camped out for the two week event. Midway Village reenacts this event every June with a special event: 1900 America Chautauqua.
In the photo gallery, visitors could have their picture taken with different backdrops, just like we do with today’s tourist photo ops.
From right to left: Joel Eastman, unknown, Janet Sheldon, Harry Lamont, unknown, Allen Brantingham
Harlem Park successfully delighted 15,000 visitors a day, which included soldiers from Camp Grant during WWI. But when the automobile boomed, the steamboats and trolleys lost popularity. The Chautauqua was no longer being held. The park found itself losing visitors and money, and it closed its doors in September 1928. In later years, the park was remembered as a wonderful place to spend the summer. The only remaining evidence of the park and its history is a pair of streetcar rails crossing Clinton Street at Harper Avenue.
Upcoming Fundraiser Event!!!
A Night In the Museum: Saturday, August 13 @ 7 pm
Enjoy the glory days of Harlem Amusement Park with games, food, and performances of the 1920s carnival.
$45 admission at the door
For more information about this fundraiser, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/event_calendar.cfm?id=1067