The recent announcement that the long dormant buildings inside what was once Lincoln Park were going to be torn down to make way for dozens of single family homes, might as well have been an obituary of a close family member.
Sure the park closed 25 years ago, and arson ravaged much of what was left in the early 90’s, but the park has always held that special spot – a nostalgic feel for a simpler time.
I often find myself taking the Reed Road exist-even though Route 88 or Faunce Corner Road would get me where I want to go faster – just so I can take another look at the Comet.
More than a decade ago, long before the fence went up to keep onlookers like me from getting into the park, I took a look around the old park, amazed at all the buildings that were still there. The miniature golf hut, the pizza shack, the popcorn stand and of course, the roller coaster among others.
I’ve been to plenty of other amusement parks over the years, but each one I visited made me realize how much we took Lincoln Park for granted, a lesson learned far too late.
Opened in 1894, the park would close in 1987, seven years removed from its 100th anniversary. But even in 1987, with the park opening sporadically, the writing of the park’s demise had been on the wall of years.
Jim Grasela, an electrician at the park for 22 years who would leave the park behind in 1986, its last full summer, said when the 80’s came about, the tide of popularity in amusement parks was changing to people now being more drawn more to theme parks like Disney World.
“Lincoln Park, which was always a big thrill of the summer, just could not compete with the Disney Worlds. It was always funny to me these people that went to Disneyworld a few times each year. Once every ten years was fine with me,” said Grasela, 60, who helped co-author Lincoln Park Remembered.
“People don’t know about the expenses. Even in the winter, the park would cost $8,000 each month just for electricity and there was a maintenance crew on year round. Each year, the park would end up owing so many people money, but the people would know they would get their money come June or July when the park got busy again.”
Grasela said the park did what it could to keep up, introducing Lincoln Park Disco in the early 1980’s as well as the electric dance floor and new cocktail lounge, but the park would continue to hemorrhage like many parks like it. Despite its own updating to stay ahead of the curve, Rocky Point Park in Warwick, Rhode Island would only last eight more years than Lincoln Park.
Lincoln Park introduced new owners for the 1985 season, but the park continued to struggle.
Grasela said a newly-instituted admission fee – something that the park never had before – turned off many of the local people that were the bread and butter of the park, working class families who just couldn’t afford rides, food and an admissions cost.
Grasela said a failing economy also hurt the park as did the state’s inspection requirements, testing that would cost roughly five to seven thousand dollars per ride annually.
Like Grasela, many of the park’s long time employees would move on in 1986. To many, their exit was the death knell for the park.
Many former employees somberly returned to the park as witnesses to see the park rides auctioned off in 1988, but many could not bring themselves to attend, preferring to have their memories of the park’s heyday untouched by the sight of the rides kids had adored being sold for pennies.
Bits and pieces
While there is no record of where some of the rides went that were auctioned off, we are lucky that some of the remnants remained nearby, some more briefly than others. The renovated PTC Carousel still holds children’s fascination at Heritage State Park in Fall River (and yes my kids have been on it); the Ferris Wheel, for one summer anyway, took more riders along at Billy Woods Wharf in New Bedford.
Grasela said the flying sailboat ride is located in Fitchburg and the Zephyr, the old kiddie train, is in storage at Crystal Springs in Assonet, awaiting the day she will ride again.
Grasela said he didn’t think in todays’ age of cell phones and instant communication that something like Lincoln Park would have ever survived.
“Nothing has ever really replaced the park, but now these kids all have cell phones and spend their time on their computers and on facebook that I’m not sure there’s even a need for something like Lincoln Park anymore,” said Grasela.
“In doing the book, we met many people who said that Lincoln Park was a huge part of their lives. They met their wives or husbands there, or they worked there, or both, in many cases. On the other hand, there are now people that don’t even know it existed.”
And Grasela’s right
Today’s elementary and high school kids don’t have any idea what Lincoln Park represented to us, but that’s our fault more than anything. My kids know what Lincoln Park was because I force all 80’s knowledge down their throats, and Lincoln Park was my 80’s.
They are also with me when I make my detours by the park to stare at the remnants of the Comet. I guess in the end, like with all history, it’s up to all of us to teach the lessons of what Lincoln Park taught us.
Unlike Grasela, Shirley McConnell, 78, who along with her husband Everett, or “Slim” as he was known, who lived in the park for 17 years and worked there for more than three decades, feels that the park may have still been viable today in some incarnation.
“I think we could have made-do with it somehow. There are a few parks left in New England and they are finding a way to make it work,” said Shirley, who not only worked in the park with her husband, but met him there and saw all seven of her children work there.
“Initially, Lincoln Park was a tourist park but when I-195 came around, it became a family park. There’s still a need for that.”
Slim would work a lifetime at the park, moving his way up to games manager and then general manager. Shirley was in charge of buying everything for the park besides the rides, liquor or food. Each year they would go to shows in Boston, New York or Chicago, securing the prizes for the coming season.
Shared lifetimes at the Park
After a 40 year run for Slim and 36 years for Shirley working at the park, the McConnells moved on to run amusement parks in Salisbury Beach and then Old Orchard Beach, Maine, when new Lincoln Park owners took over in 1985, but it was clear – even to this day when she choked up during this interview – that her heart always remained at Lincoln Park.
The memories of the park’s last years still are hard for her to bear.
Shirley said they were busy working when the park rides were auctioned off and was unable to do tours of the park in the late 80’s. They would go on their own tour of the park in the early 90’s, an experience that they would never forget.
The park that they called home for more than two-thirds of their lives, was gutted. Fire had destroyed some buildings including the ballroom; other rides were just gone, with their imprints left behind; others that no one wanted were standing like a ghost town had sprouted in Dartmouth.
“I was at the park, and I was crying and there was this woman there who was taking pictures. She said ‘Aren’t you Mrs. McConnell? My grandfather took care of the Comet’”, said McConnel.
“That’s how it was. There were so many people that worked there, who Lincoln Park touched in so many ways.”
McConnell said she often wondered about some of the young help there and how they would turn out in life. She knows of some who would go on to be successful doctors or attorneys, even a district attorney. Without a Police Academy back then, new police recruits learned first-hand how to handle crowd control and direct traffic at Lincoln Park, McConnell said.
“We called it the Dartmouth Police Academy,” she said.
McConnell said she still keeps tabs on some of the old Lincoln Park crowd, and knows many of the owners of amusement parks in New England on a first name basis. Besides his duties at Lincoln Park, her husband Slim, who died in September 22, 2009, had also been the Chairman of the New England Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.
McConnell said she went by again recently to see some of the work begun on the former Lincoln Park site. The owners of the property have said that the Comet’s demolition, likely within the next few months, will be saved for last. Even though they have promised to have parts of the Comet available for people who want them, it won’t be the same for people who worked, lived and breathed there for so many years.
“It will be very bittersweet and it’s too bad it went the way it did, and that my grandchildren will never be able to work there. It will be gone but the memories will always be there,” said McConnell.
“People who went there enjoyed the park, and many left with prizes in their hands. They were all happy to be there. It’s likely something that we will never see around here again, and that’s sad for all of us.”
Grasela said he won’t be paying that much attention to the Comet’s destruction after seeing a fair share of the park being gutted over the years. To him, that Lincoln Park died long ago.
“I hope it’s something that will look nice and be respectful to the old park,” said Grasela, of the development to be known as the Village at Lincoln Park.
“It’s funny when you look at the land. It’s only a little over 40 acres. It’s really not that much, but to us, it was always enormous, right?”
Yes. To many of us, Lincoln Park was like its own continent; its own world really. And always will be.