The History of Monarch Park
Written by Bill Bowen of Oil City and expanded in 2009 by William L. Passauer
The original article was published in the “Venango County 2000: The Changing Scene, Vol. I” and was used by Bill during his many presentations about Monarch Park. It is used here and expanded with permission.
Although it closed more than 70 years ago, Monarch Park continues to pique the imagination of those too young to have experienced it and evoke vivid memories of shared festivities for those who did. As the best possible place for any kind of summer gathering, it probably touched more lives than any other spot in the area. It was the favored spot, not only because of its facilities, but because of the ease of getting there.
The Park was first developed by John Smithman of Oil City as a way of attracting more passengers for his Oil City Railway Company. Because the development of the park is so intertwined with the introduction and competition among the street railways of Venango County, the story of its beginnings must start with Mr. Smithman’s early struggles to launch the ventures.
About John B. Smithman
John B. Smithman was born in 1844 near Shippenville. Although he attended school only three months each year, he began a teaching career in Shippenville, Knox, Hill City, and finally near South Oil City, where, at age 20, he drifted almost accidentally into the oil brokerage business. From that he went into a mapmaking business aimed at attracting oil promoters, and, by age 22, he also owned a shipping platform at Reno. At age 23 he drilled an oil well near Oil City and from that entered expansively into oil production in Butler, Clarion, McKean, Warren, Washington, Allegheny, and Venango Counties. Later he became chairman of the committee that, in 1877, secured the charter for the new Oil City Oil Exchange, and he chaired the committee that developed its rules and regulations. His numerous business affiliations and ventures continued to grow over the years. He was both successful and respected.
By 1886 he was also manager of the Keystone Oil Company at a time when Standard Oil Company was flexing its muscles over the control of all phases of the oil industry. Without going into detail over his problems with the beleaguered Keystone Oil, it is important only to note here that, in his role as a whistle-blower in the conflict between independent producers and the giant Standard Oil, he made two enemies who would later haunt him in his attempts to develop the Oil City Street Railway.
The editor of the Oil City Derrick, as an informer, had sued Smithman for $80,500 in 1888 for an alleged violation of an 1878 Act of the Assembly aimed at protecting owners of oil in the custody of others who were transporting or storing it. The Derrick was said to be “controlled by Standard Oil interests”. Whether it was or not, its behavior over the years would cause historians to continue to raise the question.
Smithman’s case was being watched by the entire oil region. By having the case moved to Butler County away from Venango County’s Judge Taylor, Smithman won. When The Derrick’s editor attacked the verdict in his paper, Smithman took the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where the verdict was confirmed. Judge Taylor and The Derrick would not soon forget.
The Oil City Street Railway (The Street Car System)
It has been published many times that Mr. Smithman narrowly missed the distinction of having the first electric street railway in the world. In 1886 he had secured a charter from the state of Pennsylvania for the Oil City Railway Company. Earlier he had visited Baltimore and Washington where he’d seen miniature cars impelled by electricity run around a circular track and quickly realized that this was bound to supplant the existing horse power of existing streetcars.
Smithman’s 1886 charter faltered because the law under which it was granted was declared unconstitutional. Though his efforts were delayed, he constructed a successful model of his new street railway in the basement of the family mansion on West First Street. Three years later in 1889, an ordinance was passed by city council granting him the right to construct and operate his street railway.
In 1890 he incorporated the Oil City Street Railway. His first big problem was getting across the Allegheny river. He was unable to make arrangements to run the street cars across either the Petroleum Street Bridge or the Petroleum Bridge (now Veterans Bridge) two blocks away at State Street. Both were toll bridges. An 1878 law prevented construction of a “highway” bridge within 3000 feet! of a toll bridge without consent of the toll bridge owners. With great determination he secured in 1891 an act of the Pennsylvania legislature to permit street railways to build bridges with the consent of local governments. Yet another setback was suffered when Governor Pattison vetoed the bill after the close of the session. In addition, the county commissioners had refused to let Smithman run his streetcars over the County bridge crossing Oil Creek.
He tackled the problem of the bridge over the Allegheny first. Rather than wait two more years, Smithman did considerable investigation and determined that the prohibition on building bridges within 3000 feet of a toll bridge was invalid. He went to the Secretary of State for confirmation and secured a charter to build a bridge from the foot of Central Avenue to Relief Street...within 400 feet of both toll bridges.
The problem of a street car extension over the County bridge crossing Oil Creek was appealed to the Supreme Court in Pittsburgh, but, before the case could be heard, a similar case was resolved with the court ruling that bridges were public thoroughfares and should accommodate electric cars.
In 1892, just after Oil City’s disastrous fire and flood, he began construction of the bridge piers and the street railway. Because of the gloomy economic outlook resulting from the disaster as well as the enormous added costs, his associate stockholders had all dropped out, so he undertook the venture alone.
The bridge was to pass over the tracks of the Allegheny Valley Railroad at a height of 19 feet. The railroad insisted that the clearance must be 22 feet despite the fact that the adjoining toll bridges were both lower than the 19-foot clearance proposed by Smithman. The city engineer refused to allow the level of Front Street to be raised, and the railroad stood ready to serve and injunction since there was a nest of Western Union wires running along the right-of-way just where the roadway of the bridge would cross. To make matters worse, Judge Taylor, who was also the attorney for the railroad, was still nursing his wounds from several previous skirmishes with Smithman. In addition, The Derrick was attacking him at every turn, making every step he took difficult and expensive.
Again Smithman approached the matter calmly. A few days before Memorial Day, 1893, mention was made to local fishermen of a new trout stream in Allegheny Township in the far northeast corner of the County. The day before Memorial Day Judge Taylor was seen boarding the train with friends, their fishing rods with them.
During the early morning hours of the holiday, holes were dug in front of two telegraph poles above and two poles below the location of the bridge span. The poles were then sawed off at ground level and dropped into the holes, thus lowering the nest of wires out of the way of the bridge roadway. Before daylight the holes were filled and the ground carefully covered with locomotive cinders as before.
By six o’clock two heavy girders 90 feet long and each weighing 20 tons were up in the air on gin poles out of reach of the switch engine that came down the tracks to ram them down. The railroad yardmaster looked at the nest of wires, the poles, the ground, and the surroundings but was unable to spot what change had been made regarding the nest of wires. Front Street was lined all day with spectators cheering on the speedy workers, and by nightfall the ironwork of the span had been completed. After frantic efforts, the railroad located Judge Taylor who, the following day, served injunction papers on Smithman. Before the hearing took place, however, the streetcar tracks were in place with loaded handcars running over them. People were using the span as well. At the hearing, Smithman’s papers showed the court that he had a charter to erect and operate a bridge over the Allegheny and that the span was in daily use and did not interfere with railroad traffic. The judge took the papers and made no decision; the problem had been solved by public opinion. The Smithman bridge (called the Relief Bridge), 830 feet long, was a steel through truss structure with two streetcar tracks and a covered walkway. It connected Central Avenue with Main Street. On November 30, 1893, the line was shot hot, and Oil City, at last, had its electric cars running!
By building his streetcar bridge during a time of financial despair in Oil City, Smithman gave work to many men who would otherwise have been unemployed. He also charged one cent toll for foot passengers as compared with three-cent tolls for the two adjoining bridges, and he promised that, as soon as one-half the bridge’s cost had been recovered, it would be a free bridge. In 1900 he sold it to the County at half its cost to be made the first free bridge over the Allegheny in Oil City. The sale to the County was completed over the continuing objection of The Oil City Derrick.
The first run was from Center and Seneca Streets, down Main Street, across the new bridge to Central Avenue, and down First Street to the end of the line at Division Street, the present site of the Tree of Life Synagogue. Lines were later extended four blocks down First Street to Wyllis. Then in 1894 and 1895 they were extended on the North Side up Cottage Hill on Spring, Graff, Stout, Harriott, Bissell, Hoffman and Smithman Streets to Carroll Avenue near the hospital. Downtown Smithman extended tracks up Seneca Street. And on the South Side tracks were extended on East Second Street to Sage Run. Property values on some streets doubled within a year, and other street railways were soon introduced in Warren, Franklin, Titusville, and elsewhere.
With an obviously heavy investment, Smithman soon found that the streetcar business would not pay in Oil City, so he bought 530-acres of forest land in Cranberry Township halfway between Franklin and Oil City. It had been known as Seven Springs Deer Lick, and it was here that he founded Smithman Park. While Smithman owned the park, he turned 60-acres into park lands, and built the Auditorium, Restaurant and Picnic Pavilion.
In July, 1896, despite more protests from The Derrick, he extended the West First Street car line westward and up Deep Hollow to Smithman Park with a view to extending the line to Franklin at a later date. Smithman was a hands-on entrepreneur who worked side-by-side with his engineers and surveyors in lining up rights of way and bridge placements. By 1899 he had mapped his approach to Franklin, planning to construct yet another Allegheny River bridge at Third Street.
It had taken Smithman nearly seven years from his first charter until his first streetcars ran in 1893. His pioneering effort paved the way for others. Franklin Street Railway received its charter in 1894 and was in operation that same year.
Citizens Traction Company
Smithman hoped that, in reaching Franklin, he could arrange with Franklin Street Railway to run his cars into town on their tracks on Liberty Street. When they refused, Franklin’s city council granted him an ordinance to construct tracks on Buffalo Street. Although poles were placed and wires strung from City Hall and the Opera House to the proposed Third Street crossing; no tracks were ever laid. A powerful new competitor, Citizens Traction Company had appeared on the scene.
Just one block down West First Street from the Smithman mansion lived the Geary family in an even more imposing home. Michael Geary, like Smithman, had made his fortune by much hard work. He was born in Ireland in 1844, and, when he was six, his father in America sent for his wife and children to join him in Buffalo. They arrived to learn that Michael’s father had died. Perhaps of necessity, Michael developed into a very self-reliant person. In 1861 he enlisted in the New York Volunteers and, at the close of the war, found employment at the Erie City Iron Works. Eventually he migrated to Oil City where, after several business ventures, he founded in 1881, with Daniel O’Day, the Oil City Boiler Works. Through varied affiliations and daring ventures this leading industry of Oil City eventually employed as many as 2,000 men. His success enabled him to engage in many other businesses. Among them was the Oil City Tube Works which employed as many as 600 men. His business and civic involvements seemed endless. Michael Geary died of pneumonia in 1895, at age 51, and the management of the family empire passed to his son Daniel. The Geary’s lived the high life. The family home boasted a pipe organ. Yards of pink silk festooned the walls of their parlor. Dan Geary’s second wife, Ermine Monarch from Owensboro, Kentucky, came from a family that, it was said, was heavily into horses and racing.
By 1900 Dan Geary had become intrigued with electric streetcars and, despite the struggles that Smithman was having in turning a profit, organized a competing company, Citizens Traction Company, helped considerably by editorial support from The Oil City Derrick, still seeking revenge against the man who had so embarrassed them. So Smithman, the pioneer who had cleared so many hurdles to bring progress to the area, who still had earned no profit from his venture, was faced with the threat of a competing company.
Dan Geary, with his inherited wealth and power, now had a new toy. Surprisingly, his first streetcar line was nowhere near Oil City’s downtown. It began, instead, on a north side hill a few hundred feet from Smithman’s line. Starting at the First Presbyterian Church at the top of Spring Street, it climbed steep Pearl Avenue, curving onto Seeley, Washington, Plummer, and finally down a long straight stretch of Hone Avenue. Later it was extended and double-tracked over private right-of-way to the Oil City Fair Grounds. Not surprisingly Dan Geary took great delight in taking over the controls of the car on the straight Hone Avenue line. Next tracks were laid on South Seneca Street, over the Petroleum Bridge, which had refused such permission to Smithman, up State Street and West Third to Cowell Avenue.
Citizens Traction Company Taking Over of the Smithman Properties
When Geary’s company failed to compel Smithman’s line to grant the use of 2500 feet of track to connect the new line on Pearl Avenue with its lines on Seneca Street, it began negotiations, and, on January 14, 1901, purchased four things from Smithman: (1) the Oil City Street Railway, (2) Smithman Park, (3) the Station Railway which had been chartered to extend the line from Smithman Park to Franklin, and (4) Mr. Smithman’s street railway franchises in Franklin. In addition, it bought the privately owned Big Rock toll bridge, built in 1879, and it purchased the Franklin Street Railway
When Smithman sold his holdings, one of the stipulations was that streetcars would be required to stop at his home when so signaled from the house.
Citizens Traction Company promptly began construction of a long double-track bridge over the Allegheny at Reno. The great structure with its cantilevers towering more than 100 feet above the river, was, at 1700 feet, the longest bridge over the Allegheny north of Pittsburgh. This bridge now gave Citizens Traction two interurban rights-of-way between Oil City and Franklin, one on either side of the river.
Geary lost no time in getting Citizens Traction Company’s lines connected with Franklin’s line by way of Deep Hollow. Less than eight months after the purchase, the line had been extended from Monarch Park to the Big Rock Bridge below Franklin. Although passengers could travel between the two cities by trolley, they had to leave the car at either end of the Big Rock Bridge, walk across the highway deck, and re-board another car at the other end of the bridge. This continued for three years until the bridge could be strengthened to support a streetcar above the highway deck.
In the meantime, the Company worked to continue its lines down the other side of the river from Reno to Franklin. It soon became known as The Folly Line. After leaving Reno, it began climbing a steep hillside. Work was slow and done at great expense by pick-and-shovel gangs. As one drives from Franklin to Oil City on Route 8 between the OMG Plant turnoff and the Kwik-Fill station, one may see, high on the hillside, at least nine places where stone retaining walls were built to hold the road bed to the hillside. Power lines on the hillside today mark the path of the scenic ride and of the heart-stopping turn at Two Mile Run where the cars began their descent into the valley. At the bottom, the remains of a horseshoe curve across the stream may still be seen on Two Mile Run Road beyond the OMG plant.
The lines continued through Rocky Grove where they connected with other lines in Franklin. One could now travel from Oil City to Franklin on both sides of the river. On opening day everyone rode free, and thousands traveled the 25-mile loop.
This covers the transportation aspects of getting to Monarch Park. Lines were extended in both communities, through Rocky Grove, and, in Oil City, to Siverly and Rouseville. Citizens Traction at one time operated 38 miles of track and had 70 cars in operation. More than five million passengers per year were carried for many years. The scary run from Reno to Rocky Grove was plagued by landslides still evident today. Conflicting dates of the closing of this section are due to its frequent closings for repairs followed by brief re-openings. It was still operating intermittently in the early 1920’s.
On the run to Monarch Park from Oil City, the cars ran through the city’s finest residential district, and, near the end of West First Street, began a gentle climb to a scenic hillside overlooking the Allegheny river and the Reno Bridge. The cars--open ones in summer--would then glide through four miles of woodland glens to the park. Residents still recall the quantities of fragrant honeysuckle in the spring.
Following the purchase from Smithman, Dan Geary changed the name from Smithman Park to Monarch Park, his second wife’s maiden name (Ermine Monarch).
Monarch Park and its predecessor, Smithman Park existed from 1896 to 1926. In that time, it seemed that every Sunday School class, church picnic, lodge group, civic or social club, political gathering, school prom, and family reunion gathered there. There was no more accessible or well-equipped park anywhere in the region. Traction company records show that crowds of 10,000 were not unusual for special event days. Some days peaked at 15,000.
Although the park opened in 1896, its immediate popularity was evident by an account of the Merchant’s Day Picnic on August 12, 1897. Barely a year after the park opened, it was a good four years before lines were extended to Franklin, and 7 years before the streetcars could cross the Big Rock Bridge. The Oil City Blizzard reported that “it was 2:10 this morning when the last car left Smithman’s Springs. The picnic was over, and everyone voted it a big success. Attendance was far beyond expectations. From 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. every car that arrived at the springs was crowded to its capacity, and the crowd numbered nearly 7,000 in the early part of the evening.”
Activities included a baseball game between the North and South Side Clerks. South Side won 24 - 3! The winners received a box of cigars. Over a dozen races were run, covering everything from a two-mile race to races for boys and girls of varying ages, and, finally, a watermelon race. Prizes ranged from suspenders to tooth powder and candy.
“Dancing was one of the main attractions, and the large crowd at the Dance Hall remained steady for the entire day. Dance music was provided by an eight-piece orchestra, and the Citizens’ Band under the direction of William Roth provided other music for the guests. Children were entertained by the large number of swings and slides throughout the park and the two croquet and lawn tennis grounds had lots of use.”
Streetcar service seemed to work well for the park’s largest event up to that time. It was estimated that 10,000 people rode the cars. In addition, a large number drove to the grounds, while hundreds of country people came in rigs. Some even walked from Cranberry! H. H. Rand, president of the Merchant’s Association noted that “the streetcar company must be at least $1,000 ahead on the day’s business. This amount will go quite a ways in the direction of extending the car line towards the Park if Mr. Smithman manifests an inclination to comply with the wishes of the public.”
The challenge of finding streetcar space was illustrated by The Oil City Blizzard’s account of a South Side resident carrying two picnic hampers and a telescope and accompanied by his family. After giving up any hope of finding a car with space on the South Side, he walked with his family to the north side. There he found a car with space, but after learning that all of his family could not get on, he jumped off and came back, leaving the news reporter to wonder if he ever did make it to the park.
Repeated comments on the orderliness of the crowd were attributed to the fact that intoxicants were not permitted in the park.
Development of Monarch Park
Although it is unclear exactly what Mr. Smithman’s long-term aims for the park may have been, it was clear that he had a winner on his hands. Virtually all amusement parks were developed by streetcar lines or railroads as a means of generating business. At Conneaut Lake, the Pittsburgh, Shenango, and Lake Erie Railroad developed the amusement park so successfully that, in 1892 they built the 1000-room Hotel Conneaut as another major inducement for rail travel. Although a major fire in 1908 reduced the hotel to a cozy 132 rooms, it continues to operate today.
Whether Smithman was influenced by the Conneaut venture is unclear. At any rate, he began in 1900 the construction of a dam a mile south of the park. It would have created a large lake as an added park attraction. Remains of the aborted dam and other construction may still be seen from the Aires Hill Road a few hundred feet from its intersection with Deep Hollow Road. From the bridge one may view the carefully rock-paved stream bed still in remarkable condition a century later. Nearby are heavy stone walls apparently part of the proposed dam. The concrete bridge that bore Smithman’s name was demolished in 1999.
Smithman’s sale of the park to Dan Geary’s Citizens Traction Company interests early in 1901 ended the development of the lake. Geary’s naming of the corporation that would operate the park makes one wonder what his dreams may have been. He named it The Monarch Park Hotel Company.
The consolidation of streetcar lines in both Franklin and Oil City meant the elimination of competition and, eventually, easier access to the park from Franklin. It should be noted, however, that, even as Smithman was developing his park halfway between Franklin and Oil City, the Franklin Street Railway had in 1896 developed its own attraction, Glen Fern Park beyond the end of Liberty Street in Sandy Creek Township. Its draw was such that, on weekends and holidays, every streetcar had to be pressed into service. Its popularity continued even after streetcar lines had been extended from Franklin to the end of the Big Rock Bridge. After the bridge had been strengthened to permit streetcars to cross the Allegheny, the ease of reaching Monarch Park was such that Glen Fern faded from the scene.
Although streetcar service between Franklin and Oil City was provided throughout the year, it was during the summer months when Monarch Park was open that provided the most excitement with the use of open cars. Some had a seating capacity of 90. In addition, passengers were permitted to stand on the running boards during busy times. To the many who rode to the Park in this way, hanging onto the support poles while standing on the running boards for the five mile ride through the woods seemed the highlight of the day.
Despite the great number of people who rode this way, accidents were rare. One accident on Memorial Day, 1910 was the Traction Company’s worst. As a result of a miscommunication, a Franklin-bound express streetcar crashed at nearly full speed into the front of an Oil City-bound car near the crossroads just north of the Park. Joe Stormer, motorman of the Oil City-bound car was killed, and Bert Baugher, motorman of the express car lost a leg. Surprisingly, passengers were not injured seriously.
Citizens Traction reported carrying 4,523,025 passengers in 1905; 4,887,741 in 1910; 5,107,781 in 1915; and 5,620,380 in 1920. The demise of the streetcars was heralded by 1925’s passenger figures - 2,618,351. The company was still, however, operating at a profit. Streetcars continued operating in Franklin until early 1927. Oil City routes were converted one after another to buses. The last streetcar in Oil City ran on May 20, 1928. The remaining Reno and Rouseville streetcars rolled into the car barns on West First Street for the last time on June 16, 1928. The Company reported carrying 646,847 passengers for the five and a half months of 1928.
Monarch Park’s Attractions
The crowds who came to the Park were drawn by facilities that were geared to provide something for everyone. Things seemed to work well. The trolley station, for example, was the longest building the park. It needed to be. On peak days as many as 15,000 people visited the park. According to Ed Lauffer, "The station at the park was an open pavilion type with its ticket office and confectionary stand in the center, [and] restrooms at each end." Two sets of tracks ran along side the station to handle the Franklin and Oil City traffic. It was at the station that the first ice cream cones in this part of the country were sold. The handmade cones were made from a thick batter, rolled into a sheet, cooked on a skillet like pancakes, then wrapped around a cone-shaped wooden form with a handle protruding from the base. The ice cream was put in the cones while they were still hot and sold for five cents. (WLP note: This was pretty expensive as I was able to purchase a double scoop cone in the late 1950s at Bakers in Oil City for five cents, and this was in the early 1900s.) Rick Martyna mentioned, "I was told by a person who visited MP that when the cones were made and were still warm, the salesperson or maker of the cones would place a marshmallow in the bottom of the cone (and before adding the ice cream) so as to prevent dripping of the ice cream through the bottom tip." The cones could well have been sold elsewhere in the park, but selling them in the station seemed to put everyone in a good mood. A great welcome and a good goodbye! It worked ... like everything else in the park.
The Children’s Playground, too, was well located and provided, in addition to a dozen or more swings, a double sliding board with real stairs leading to a two-way take-your-choice slide. Its structure was large enough to accommodate chair swings beneath. A circular swing with seats, a see-saw and a sand play area rounded out the entertainment for the kids.
The Kitchen Pavilion succeeded in fulfilling the park’s mission of providing the best for all its visitors. Not only did it have lots of tables and benches and stoves, it had lots of hot water. It also provided lockers so that families and organizations could store picnic equipment and dishes there after the park closed. Since cleaning the lockers was an unwelcome chore each spring, enterprising young girls soon learned that volunteering among family and friends was a sure way to earn a trip to the park and a bit of spending money. The second floor of the pavilion provided living quarters for the park superintendent, Bernard McCue and his wife.
The Dance Hall with its imposing twin towers and balconies on the outside was the largest of the park buildings and the one that evokes the most memories. Inside it had a balcony that surrounded the auditorium on three sides, a workable stage, and a dance floor said to be one of the finest in this part of the state. It provided the site for countless dances, proms, concerts, talent shows, baby shows, lectures, recitals, and theatrical performances. On one side its many doors opened onto verandas so that dancers could cool off between dances. Orchestras were booked by the season until the early 1920’s. After that sponsors would book their own orchestras. During the summer of nineteen twenty, Mickey McCullough and his orchestra played in the grand Dance Hall and in the Bandstand. The members of the orchestra were Mickey McCullough, the leader who also played saxophone and clarinet; Edward Drtina, saxophone and clarinet; "Shorty" Harvey, drums and traps; Harry Brown, trumpet; John Snyder, trombone; and Russel Deppe, piano and marimba. The Goss-Green Monarch Park Orchestra was composed of local musicians Warren Brown, Glenn Kritch, John Johnston, Major Olmes, Howard Huston, Bill Dillon, Eugene Myers, George Winger, Harland Mitchell, and Cecil Faust. In addition to playing at the park, they accepted bookings in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Erie and New Castle and were said to be the first orchestra to broadcast over KDKA.
One colorful lecturer was Carrie Nation who spoke here in 1904. Several high school girls grabbed from row seats for the event, feeling that the famous prohibitionist was certain to bring an edifying message for the crowd. They were, however, unprepared for the barroom language that the formidable speaker had acquired during her career of using a hatchet to destroy saloons. Embarrassed, they were unable to escape because of their front row seats. Instead they pretended not to listen and busily filed their nails throughout the lecture, turning to each other from time to time to exchange guilty giggles.
The two-story open-air Dining Pavilion in the center of the park served as a favorite meeting place. On the first floor were food and refreshments, countless tables and chairs. There were crazy mirrors, mutoscopes (an early motion picture device), and souvenirs. The latter require some comment on quality. Without implying expensive gift shops, it should be noted that a number of sterling silver Monarch Park teaspoons are held in private collections. They could have been purchased no where else. A music box on the first floor, a forerunner of the nickelodeon, used a large metal disc with protruding points to pluck the sounding device as the disc rotated. The booths and merchandise and refreshments changed over the years, but the pavilion continued to function as a central meeting place.
The second floor of the pavilion was a dining room, also open-air. A very civilized place, it boasted real table linens, sparkling glassware, and silver. Chicken and waffles were a specialty, and prices changed over the years. In 1908 the cost was 60 cents plus 15 cents for dessert. The quality of the table service is attested by private collections of Reed & Barton silver plated serving pieces engraved for Monarch Park. Reed & Barton continues today as a respected name in the manufacture of fine silver. Their lifetime guarantees on silver plated wares are attested to by the sparkling condition of the bread boats, trays, sugar bowls and cream pitchers, and large domed food covers that bear the Monarch Park name. This was no ordinary amusement park.
The park’s Miniature Train was powered by steam, a surprise in a park that seemed intent on flaunting the wonders of electricity. The locomotive and its attendant coal car were actual scale models, the passenger cars were open-air. In making its rounds, it stopped periodically to re-fuel. Among the engineers were Charlie Thomas, Dick O’Neil, and a midget named George Hawks who was very popular with his passengers.
A Ferris Wheel is first noticed in a picture of the second Merry-go-round in 1915.
A Bird House near the magnesia springs housed a display of fancy poultry that drew continued interest of visitors. Later a number of smaller animals including monkeys were added. For a time, even a bear was included in the park’s mini-zoo.
The Flower Gardens, perhaps more than any other feature of the park, seem the most unlikely. Highly detailed photos leave no doubt as to the ambitious plan and its successful development. Dozens of intricately shaped flower beds with plantings of annuals were meticulously maintained for a number of years. They were labor intensive, they were certainly perishable, and the brought no direct income. The annual chore of planting the gardens must have been a major undertaking. As the years passed, there was some effort to simplify the yearly chore by planting perennials which would not have to be replanted each spring. Eventually however, the task became overwhelming, and, when costs needed to be cut because of declining attendance, the gardens were the first thing to suffer.
Across the stream from the gardens was an Amusement Center called the White Way. As its name implies, the booths were generously lighted. Although the booths’ attractions changed from year to year, one photo reveals these signs above eight of the booths: Novelties, Make Maude Kick, Parisian Dart Game, Do-It-If-You-Can, Ring-A-Cane, Fish Pond, Candy, and Shooting Gallery.
For those with energy left over, there were croquet and quoit courts (a traditional lawn game involving the throwing of a metal or rubber ring over a set distance to land over a pin, lawn tennis, and shuffle board. Four Bowling Alleys located in a building adjacent to the Dance Hall were operated by Bill Jackson who later operated alleys in Oil City. They were extremely popular.
Lower Two-Mile Run flowed through the park on its way to the Allegheny River. "This run was crossed many times with rustic bridges, a dam kept the water at a certain height, there was a waterfall in the center of the dam, and colored lights circling a small fountain just above the dam. Monarch Park was a beautiful place with all its trees, flowers and happy people. The pace was slow and easy going, not the hurried rush, rush of today".
There were seven natural springs on the park which provided the park land its first name, "Seven Lick Springs"—referring to the deer licks or places where deer sought the mineral waters and were shot by hunters from hidden huts in the bushes or trees. Springs were abundant, some of pure cool water, others mineral springs, differing in contents of magnesia, iron, carbonate of soda, chloride of sodium and potassium. People would stand around the three largest Mineral Springs, each 12-15 feet in diameter, to watch the quicksand bubbling up with the water. Large enameled tin cups hung on a chain at each spring. Complaints were make about the dirty old cups which were never washed or changed, and were a menace to health, so new cups, marked "Sanitary" replaced the old ones.
People would argue about which was the best water for drinking. Some liked the magnesia better than the iron, but actually I believe all came from the same underground stream, as the springs were bunched together.
There was a mishap, a cow waded into one of the springs and started to sink. Park attendants tried to get it out of the quicksand. Wagonloads of corn were rushed in from the nearby Trax and Hughes farms and dumped in, trying to solidify the sand and save the cow. But to no avail, down went the cow and corn, so the spring was fenced off. Recently the Izaak Walton League made an excavation near the spring an came across a 12 inch vein of the finest corned beef they ever tasted. Next year they plan on sinking two cows.
Many people enjoyed the Museum, which had a large display of historical items, fossils, Indian items, spinning wheels, and ancient pottery. One of the crimes that was never solved was the theft of an ancient Egyptian mummy. It had been donated by the late B. F. Brundred who had bought it in Egypt. I understand it was stolen the day the park closed.
A Band Stand, said to be the finest in the state was located near the boiling spring. Nightly concerts were given there, and after dark, movies were shown on a large cloth screen. Depending on where one was seated for the evening concert, one might see the pictures without moving. One drawback was that, if one were on the wrong side of the screen, the sub-titles would be backward.
The park’s most dazzling feature was its 120-foot Electric Tower, first lighted July 30, 1902. All other lights in the park were extinguished for two minutes. Then, at 9 p.m. the tower was gradually lighted with 4,000 16-candle power lamps to the thunderous applause of those in attendance. In addition to the lights on the outside of the tower, there were lights inside which illuminated colored glass windows on the different levels of the wedding-cake structure. Under the Electric Tower of Light at night was a cool, quiet, private place for lovers to meet and look out at the stars. (WLP Note: The idea for the "Electric Tower" may have come from the 1901 Buffalo Pan American Exhibition.)
Announcement of the opening of the 1908 season stressed the improved roads for reaching the park, perhaps an ominous recognition of the increasing importance of the automobile. A curious note stated that cinders from “old iron furnaces in the area” were used as ballast for the improvements. Although the announcement speaks of many improvements on the grounds, there are no specifics. As far as the road improvements were concerned, it is doubtful that one could tell the difference. Throughout the park’s life, those who did not arrive by streetcar agreed on one thing: The roads to the park were impossible!
The addition of “The Thriller” in 1913 was front page news. At a cost of $25,000, the new “giant” coaster was an exact duplicate of the famous “Speered Plane” at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. In amusement circles of the time it was known as a “single ride, being what might be termed a giant roller coaster”. Three trains of three cars each were coupled together with a carrying capacity of eighteen per train. The structure was illuminated by hundreds of 150-watt tungsten electric lights to give a brilliant appearance at night. Publicity releases assured potential riders that, in addition to the “many dips and climbs with pleasant thrills and sensations,” the ride was equipped with three sets of brakes located at different points, all operated by a trip in the loading station. If necessary, all three trains could be stopped at any point along the ride. Superintendent Collins, in charge of the installation, announced that the cars would be arriving on January 15 and that, after a few days of testing, the coaster would be ready for the May 31 opening of the park. Albert Meese, an Oil City teenager, told of the thrill of being among those chosen to “test” the coaster. He and other boys spent an entire day joyously riding while adjustments were made and lubricants applied. The testing could easily have been done more safely with sandbags in the cars, but the pre-opening publicity generated by an excited group of boys from both Oil City and Franklin was better than all the advertising in the world! Mr. Meese’s attention to “duty” was duly noted; he was later hired to sell ice cream cones at the station. Tickets for “The Thriller” bear the name Oil City Coaster Company, an indication that Dan Geary was seeking outside investors to aid in the development of the park.
Another news release announcing the opening of “The Whirlpool” in 1913 notes that it was built at a cost of $10,000. It consisted of a circular water-filled concrete tank with a 75-foot tower in the center. From the tower were suspended pontoon boats that at first floated in the tank and were later elevated and revolved around the tower. With the brightly illuminated tower and boats, the effect, when revolving, was one of “kaleidoscopic brilliancy”. The Franklin Evening News noted that it is “entirely new in the parks of the country” and that Franklin and Oil City would share the distinction of having “the first of its kind”. It also noted that another was under construction at Chester Park in Cincinnati. The ride was perhaps too innovative. Just two years later the park was announcing a change to it. Six canoes were now to be suspended from the arms of the tower. When the ride is going at full speed, the canoes ... and their riders ... “will swing out almost horizontally. This real thriller is largely patronized at the large amusement parks.” However thrilling the ride may have been, it was due for yet another change three years later. From 1918 to 1920 it operated as the Aero Swing. Publicity does not reveal just what it does, but pictures show space-ship-like devices suspended from the arms of the tower. In the background can be seen a rather showy old music box that operated from rolls similar to those used in player pianos.
The purchase of a new Carrousel (the term was so new the Franklin Evening News took pains to advise its readers of the correct pronunciation) was the big news for the opening of the 1915 season. The $9,000 attraction, replacing the old merry-go-round, was fifty feet in diameter. It contained 52 animals set on the platform three abreast. The sixteen animals in the outer row, which was stationary, included lions, tigers, goats, giraffes, deer, and different breeds of large horses. The second and third rows contained thirty-six galloping animals including cats, pigs, ostriches, rabbits, and horses of various sizes. Hand carved frescoed chariots, also mounted on the platform, had seats that were upholstered in real leather.
At the center of the carrousel above the arms extending over the prancing steeds were eighteen scenic panels, each in hand-carved frames. Below them were eighteen large mirrors. Together they formed a circle at the center. Above them were shields, scrollwork, and other decorations. The bright lights and the new organ complete with bells and cymbals at a cost of $1,200 made it a very showy ride indeed. The addition of a ring “board” over the patrons’ heads, so that riders may get a brass ring ... and a free ride ...was noted as being “very popular in the parks of large cities.” For a detailed history of the park's two carousels, please go to The Carousels page of this site.
The lure of the Park was irresistible. Mabel Morgan Lowes chuckled for years about catching her brother stealing money from their mother’s purse so that he and friends could visit the Park. Instead of telling their mother (she was no tattletale!) she chose blackmail, leaving a mystified mother to wonder for months why her son, who usually vanished at dishwashing time, was suddenly offering to do his sister’s chores.
It was announced that the bowling alleys had been completely reconditioned for the 1915 season, and “The Monarch Park Cafe, famous for their chicken and waffle dinners would be operated on the same high plane of quality as in other years.” Three new booths had been added to the pavilion where candy, novelties, and souvenirs would be sold. All new concessions had been secured for the White Way. Because the gardens had not been up to par the past year, managers were taking care to assure “more permanent” plantings. Among several new small stands in the Park would be a “Suffrage Kitchen.”
The biggest news for 1915 was the engagement of the Ackley Orchestra for the season. A long list of credits for leader C. B. Ackley included stints in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio along with a list of published compositions and newspaper write-ups in New York and elsewhere. In addition to playing for dances, the orchestra would play nightly for movies which would be provided by United Film service. Big events for the year included the Pennsylvania Railroad picnic expected to attract 10,000 people and a regional I.O.O.F. picnic. It was also noted that family day would be observed every week at the park.
The End Was Near
At the end of World War I, the increased use of automobiles led people to other places, and the Park sought new means of holding the attention of the public. Although attendance sagged, crowds still turned out for the major events of each year. On August 16, 1920 United Natural Gas Company and The Mars Company held their second picnic at the Park. Their festivities were scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Although employees and their families were asked to bring food and table service for their own party, it was announced that those who did not want to do so could enjoy a buffet lunch at a nominal cost in the Park Casino.
There was entertainment for everyone. In addition to the rides and amusements, a series of sporting events scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. included a 100-yard dash for men and five separate 50-yard dash contests for ladies and for boys and girls ages 11 to 14 and for those under 11. A 16-pound shot and a standing broad jump for men was balanced by contests for the ladies: an egg race and a baseball throwing contest.
Oil City’s Ingraham-Ackley Twelve-Piece Orchestra had been engaged for the entire afternoon to provide music for “the new dances” as well as “pieces suited to the Virginia Reel, Money Musk, Lancers, etc.”
Reflecting changes in transportation, the invitation pointedly makes no mention of streetcar connections, stating simply “For the transportation of those who have not their own automobiles, the company will provide as far as practicable, its own cars without charge.”
The committees to organize the event, all under the general chairmanship of John F. Mullins, included a Reception Committee, Sports Committee, Invitation Committee, Check Room Committee, Transportation Committee, Refreshment Committee, and an Entertainment Committee, chaired by J. T. Fahey. Working with Mr. Fahey were G. E. Scott, Grant West, C. H. Russell, J. O. Clark, B. A. Pyle, J. P. Mansfield, Howard Buckham, Miss Genevieve Brooks, Miss Jessie Stephens, R. W. Ward, W. S. Condrin, and W. C. McDonald.
The committee, to be certain that no one was bored, arranged a Vaudeville Program which was presented during the dancing from 3 to 6 p.m. from the stage in the dance hall. It included vocal solos by Miss Anna Short, Miss Helen Saltzmann, Mr. Gus Bucholz, and Charles Clifford, some blackface comedy by Mr. James Russell, and interpretative dances by Mrs. Charles Hubbard.
The 6 o’clock ending time for the festivities could well have been due to one of the Park’s natural characteristics which proved especially exasperating to women. The park’s many springs and the lake brought evening mists. Photos at the park invariably show well-dressed people, especially women wearing the large hats that were popular in the early years of the century. An hour or so of Monarch Park mists was all it took to reduce the most fetching picture hat to a drooping caricature of its former self. The owner was faced with the embarrassment of the trip home and the task of carefully shaping and propping the disfigured hat so that it might dry in its intended shape for yet another outing. As hats became smaller in the twenties, women’s hair styles changed too. Then it wasn’t the hat one worried about--if, indeed, one wore one--it was the curl in one’s hair!
Although Merchants’ Day in 1925 brought more than 10,000 people to the Park, attendance continued to lag as people went other places. Earlier the park’s management had developed a lake as an added attraction, but the bone-chilling spring water made it useless for swimming. A few people recall tableau-like “performances” on the lake and little else.
The death of the park’s longtime superintendent Bernard McCue in 1924, coupled with the poor overall attendance prompted management at the end of the 1924 season to lease the park to another firm rather than risk further losses. It was an outside firm that operated the park in 1925 and 1926, its last year of operation.
“If there could have been a Mr. Monarch Park, the title would have been given to Bernard (Barney) McCue,” said Mrs. John P. Anderson in a 1963 interview. His long tenure as park superintendent made him known to many people. “His tasks were many, and he could be seen flitting from the pavilion to the merry-go-round to the tower, to the dance hall, to the bowling alley, or to the dining cafe where his office was located.” Mr. McCue and his wife lived above the picnic pavilion in a sort of split-level apartment. “Scarcely a day went by without their befriending visitors by loaning or giving them items of tableware or sewing materials. Children seemed automatically to go to Mr. McCue, and he spent his own money bringing happiness to those who had lost their money, or, more likely, had little to begin with.”
Mrs. Anderson, the former Betty Anderton, told of staying with the McCues from time to time, tagging along with Barney as he made his rounds in the park. Many people had worked under Mr. McCue at the park, and, though their occupations later changed, showed great concern for him when his health failed after the death of his daughter Blanche McCue Keefe in an auto accident in 1919. Mr. McCue died at the park in 1924. Mourners at his funeral were transported by several street cars to the St. Stephen Church and later to St. Joseph Cemetery. The hearse traveled the old Monarch Park road to West First Street where it met the funeral street cars and then preceded them to the church and to the cemetery.
In December, 1925, Citizens Traction Company announced that it would discontinue streetcar service between Oil City and Franklin in April of 1926. The ice gorge which destroyed the Big Rock Bridge in March 1926 settled any questions that may have remained.
Monarch Park is Up for Sale
On April 1, 1926, Citizens Traction announced that Monarch Park and its various buildings including the carrousel, dance hall, bowling alleys, trolley station, and the dining pavilion were for sale. One bit of interest was expressed by a local group who wanted to turn the cafe and restaurant into a two-story roller rink. Nothing came of it. The Park continued to operate during the 1926 season, leased by the firm which operated it in 1925.
Keystone Public Service Company became owner of the Park when it took control of the transportation service in Oil City and Franklin. When interest in the sale of the park failed to develop, the Company began demolition of the park’s buildings. The bowling alleys were sold. One was installed in the YMCA. The building was demolished early in 1930. The owners then looked to remove the restaurant and the electric tower. Brundred Oil Corporation bought the streetcar station, the structure that housed the carrousel, and The Thriller. They used the lumber to build a warehouse in the Union Street area, later purchased by Quaker State. They also built other structures on the company’s oil leases. Herman Manheim bought the dance hall and used the lumber to build three homes at the corner of Harriott and Grove Avenues. They still look very well today. Persistent stories that the carrousel is still operating somewhere in the United States have, so far, proved unfounded.
Locating the Monarch Park Carrousel
According to The Oil City Derrick newspaper dated April 12, 1929, Monarch Park, of Oil City, PA sold their merry-go-round to Fred W. Pearce Co, the new owner of Walled Lake Amusement Park. The merry-go-round was delivered to Walled Lake Amusement Park, Detroit, Michigan. Our carrousel was used at Walled Lake Amusement Park from 1929 until 1962 when the park was sold to the Wagner Brothers, owners of Edgewater Park, Detroit Michigan. It, along with some other rides were moved to Edgewater Park where our carrousel was used until 1974 when it was broken up and sold. For a detailed history of the park's two carousels, please go to The Carousels page of this site.
Personal Recollection of the Park
Robert Kugler recalls that, following the close of the park, he, age 11 and his brother, age 16 would pack a lunch on Saturday and walk to the park from their home in Oil City, a distance of 4 miles. With continued wonder today, he relates that none of the buildings were locked. The boys were free to roam anywhere in the park with free access to the dance hall, the dining pavilion, and, best of all, the bowling alleys. There they would bowl, getting lots of exercise setting their own pins until they tired of the game. Then they would reset the pins one last time and carefully close the door before they started their walk home. He continues to visit the park regularly and, as recently as 1999 found a merry-go-round ring.
Park Purchased by the Evangelical Church
In September 1926 the Evangelical Church of Western Pennsylvania announced it would exercise a 60-day option to purchase the park for $50,000 and utilize it as a campground. But this never reached fruition.
Park Purchased by the Izaak Walton League
In May, 1939, the Oil City Chapter of the Izaak Walton League announced its purchase of the 60-acre park property “for use as a picnic ground and sports recreational center.” They outlined plans for the construction of a club house, the establishment of pistol, rifle, and skeet ranges, and the development of bait and fly casting facilities. Further expectations were for Boy and Girl Scouts and a playground for children including a wading pool. Depending on the interest generated, the League also hoped to develop winter sports, sled riding, skiing and skating. By far its most ambitious hope was “to re-establish the famous flower gardens which attracted thousands to the resort in bygone years.”
Clair M. Moon, who lived near the park after its purchase by the Izaak Walton League, enjoyed using his metal detector. By doing so, he was able to assemble a collection of coins that he found there. Two things happened as a result of his talking about his hobby. First, his home was broken into and the coins stolen. And second, someone hearing about his hobby scattered metal scraps around his favorite hunting grounds thus ending any future searches.
What is Left
A visitor to the park today will have trouble spotting reminders of its existence. The old lake bed can still be viewed from the Izaak Walton League club house. Across the creek and up the hill to the right, the foundations of the restaurant may still be seen ... together with the remains of the park’s cafe. Continuing up the hill to the skeet range, the boiling spring still “boils” weakly, its water stained a bright rust color by the same bog ore that prompted the early development of the iron industry in the area. Back down the hill, the sulphur spring still flows from a pipe, providing the venturesome with a chance to sample its presumably health-giving ... but unappetizing ... waters. Nearby the walled streams still wander where builders of long ago intended and one may see the remains of the illuminated waterfall where the little black man fished endlessly.
The site of the gardens and the White Way have the most tangible reminders of the past, but they are also the most inaccessible. Even the most adventurous explorer will be stopped by swamps and heavy growth. The Whirlpool tank is still very accessible. Immediately beyond it was the White Way. The elaborately walled stream and concrete bridges remain in remarkable condition ... but unreachable. In the great garden area several reminders exist. The stone cones from which fountains sprayed are still standing but surrounded by such heavy growth that it is difficult, even in winter to see them. In the center of the gardens equally cut off by swamp and undergrowth is the “alligator” pond, a small square brick-lined pond with sharply indented sides.
Perhaps the most surprising survivors of the gardens are plants themselves. Japanese Iris have managed to escape from cultivation successfully, have interbred, and continue to bloom each year in the swamp. Once very prolific, their numbers grow smaller each year as the forest encroaches.