Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hillside Pleasure Park

Would you have ever imagined that Belleville was once the home of one of the largest amusement parks ever built in New Jersey ? ... larger than old Olympic Park, larger than the legendary Palisades Amusement Park ? It was known as Hillside Pleasure Park. In it's golden age, 500,000 fun-seeking folks would crowd through it's gates each year, 50,000 on most weekends. It was big, it was always crowded, it was just one of the many reasons why Belleville was such a great place to live.

Its entrance was on Washington Avenue near to the Nutley town line. I first learned about the park from old-time residents back in those long ago days when I was a youngster here in town. "Really ? ... where was it ?", I would ask with youthful curiosity. "Oh, it was about where McDonald's is today", they would explain. Hmm ... that didn't sound too impressive. You have all seen McDonald's, how much of an amusement park could fit there, I wondered. Maybe a merry-go-round and a hot dog stand ?

It was years later when I discovered to my amazement just how big this park really was. First, I found an advertisement from 1912 describing the features and attractions; it was a long, long list of both live and mechanical amusements. Wow, no way this would fit into McDonalds parking lot. Then I found a site plan of the old park. Wow, again, it was one hundred and ten acres ! To fully appreciate how large this park was, let's go for a ride around the perimeter of it using today's landmarks. We should do this in style. Let's go in an old open roadster, the kind folks would have used back when the park was in its hey-day. C'mon, button up your dust coat, climb in and pull down your goggles while I start this thing. Let's see if I remember ... turn on the magneto, open the fuel line switch, advance the fuel lever (there's no gas pedal y'know) advance the spark lever just a bit, open the hood and depress the fuel plunger a couple of times to prime the carburetor, go around front and with left hand carefully placed on the crank, give it one hard upward yank and, if the gods are smiling, it will start. Sputter, putt-putt, hang on, we're ready !

We will begin the tour on Washington Avenue in front of the now defunct Elite Ford’s showroom facing south. The driveway entrance to the used car lot was just about where the park’s main entrance was located. The picnic grove occupied most of the space that now serves as a used car lot. Just to the rear stood the food concession stands. Farther back, to the left near the property line was the Great Roller Coaster. To the right of that was the dance pavilion. Still more to the right was the razzle-dazzle and the carousel. Behind all of that was the racetrack and grandstand for harness racing which served double duty as a venue for those exciting wild west shows and a departure point for balloon ascensions. Then there was the vaudeville music hall. We proceed to Greylock Parkway and turn right. The houses fronting on Greylock Parkway were always there, the park precincts began just behind their back yards. Turn right again onto Floyd Street and continue to its end. Pause there for just a moment and listen for ancient echoes. “Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, step right up”. We are in the old midway. Turn right onto Beech Street and follow it around to Bremond Street. Part of the lake, added sometime before 1912, was here. The lake was the largest single feature on the grounds, extending for some distance from where we are now. It was used for boating with a part, closer to the front reserved for swimming. An attractive rustic wooden bridge crossed the lake at one point separating swimming from boating. We can almost hear the rag-time music pouring out from the bandstand competing with the old steam calliope sounding from the carousel. We continue on to Greylock Parkway, turn right then right again onto Bell Street. Proceed as far as Crest Drive. The ten acres around us and to the left were the menagerie, home to all manner of exotic animals. The lions were the favorite. What a fuss they made at feeding time. We continue on to the end turning left onto White Oak Terrace. Just before the turn, to our right, down where the ground is more level, is where the athletic fields for baseball and football once were. The traditional rivalry between Belleville’s and Nutley’s football teams began here.

We continue on to Union Avenue, turning right when we arrive. The woodland part of the park is to our left, stretching back to Adelaide Street. The wooded section with it's paths for moonlight strolls and trails for horseback riding was sold to developers just before WWI. Afterwards, the park ended at a stockade fence along Union Avenue. Union Avenue, which previously ended at Greylock Parkway, was now extended. As we proceed, Sunset Avenue will appear on the left. A dozen car lengths on, just as we approach the Nutley town line, we momentarily leave the precincts of the park. We continue to King Street, turning right, then right again on St. Mary’s and left onto Carmer Avenue. We are again in the park, on it’s northern edge. We proceed the full length of Carmer Avenue to Washington Avenue, turn right and, passing the bowling alley, McDonalds and the car dealer, all of which were part of the park, we return to the beginning. The park's hotel and restaurant were near to the bowling alley. The roller-skating rink was behind McDonald’s north parking lot. The roller-skating rink was still there 'til the 1960s. We have just circum-navigated old Hillside Pleasure Park. It is 1.7 miles around the circuit. Not a bad place to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Even after the great park closed its doors, this large area was designated for redevelopment as a permanent recreational facility for the towns people, ... but that's a story for another essay.


It's that time of year when The Friends Of The Belleville Public Library And Information Center present their annual English Tea with hostess extraordinaire, Marge Lordi. You really shouldn't miss this event, it's one of the cultural highlights of the year. Ladies, do wear your prettiest picture hat and gloves, it's that kind of affair, very stylish and delightful. Try the delicious home-made English and Welsh treats provided by Marge Lordi herself and members of the group and see a wonderful collection of proper English teapots and tea cozies. It would be a pity to not be there. Pre-registration is required. Contact the Library at 973-450-3434, or just stop in at the Library front desk to register and get your tickets. It will be held on Sunday, May 3rd at 2:00 P.M. You know it's going to be good with Marge Lordi in charge.

Here is a link to some photos from last year.