Durham, North Carolina's Lakewood Amusement Park and Trolley System
Lakewod Amusement Park
It was the late 1800’s and Durham was already on its way to becoming an established commercial center for business and industry. After Dr. Barkley Durham (Durham is named after the good Doctor) donated some land to build a railroad station, the Piedmont and Northern Railroad came to town and it wasn’t long before Durham developed into North Carolina’s industrial epicenter.
Durham’s population grew and city leaders recognized the need for a transportation system not dependent upon horses and carriages. In 1887; the Durham Street Railway Company introduced the city’s first public transportation carriers. It consisted of mule driven trolley cars on a rail line that ran from the entrance to Trinity College, down Main Street to Ramsey Street. (Now Dillard Street) With an operating cost of about six dollars per day, the DSRC made a profit, but with greater demands placed on the system and with the increasing acceptance and use of electricity, the days of the mule driven trolley were coming to an end.
In 1901, Richard Wright, successful land developer and his partner Julian Carr purchased the DSRC and formed the Durham Traction Company. Animal power was replaced with electricity and the trolley became the streetcar. Powered by the Durham Light and Power Company on Blackwell Street, Durham was soon serviced by four streetcar lines.
Wright and Carr, not unlike other owners, were land developers and to maintain ridership levels during off-hours, weekends and summers, other streetcar companies would work at developing recreational areas and amusement parks. Wright owned a sizeable piece of land in the ‘Lakewood ‘area of Durham not far from the end of his streetcar line and by late 1901, after securing another fifty years on his contract with the city; Wright began construction on Lakewood Park. Billed as the Coney Island of the South, because of the extensive billboard advertising depicting people on a beach with an amusement park behind them, Lakewood opened up for summers on June 20, 1902.
From the beginning the park was a hit and not just with the citizens of Durham, but with families who would drive in from other cities in NC and neighboring states.
If you took a streetcar to the park, a ride costing 25 cents, you entered the park through either the main entrance or the Casino (The casino was located at the corner of Chapel Hill Rd. and Lakewood Ave) No cause for alarm here, there was no gaming at Lakewood Park, particularly in a1902 Durham. Where today we think of a casino as a place to gamble; the word during this era referred to a public hall for music and dancing and Lakewood Park's casino was a spectacular venue for music and stage shows. The casino was a spacious, well appointed auditorium with great acoustics, opera-style seating and a large stage with velvet curtains.
Former Herald Sun City Editor, Charles Barbour, had this to say about a streetcar ride to Lakewood Park, “People from all around Durham would crowd into the streetcars to ride from other parts of town out to the ‘country’ and Lakewood Park… Nearly all the seats had been taken when we boarded the trolley at ‘Five Points’. The nonchalance of the conductor was in marked contrast to our enthusiasm as he walked about a platform on the outside of the car and retrieved fares through the open windows. At each stop out Chapel Hill Street, the car became more crowded- as if everyone was going to the same place. The car rounded the curve at Maplewood Cemetery… in another ten minutes we would be there…Lakewood Park.”
The park had something for everyone. There was a huge and loud roller skating rink, a merry-go-round- complete with organ music, shooting gallery, bowling alley, metal fishing pond, pitching machines, various games where you threw a ball and knocked wooden milk bottles and other items off shelves, an enclosed soda fountain with tables and chairs where you could eat ice cream or enjoy flavored beverages. There was a dance pavilion featuring the music of orchestras and dance bands. From time to time traveling acts, carnivals or small circuses would set up shop in the park, but if all you wanted was to relax, there were plenty of benches to just sit and enjoy a summer evening.
One of the more unusual acts to appear at the park was ‘Doc’ W.F. Carver’s, ‘Great Leap’ starring Lightening the famous High Diving Horse and his female riders. The pair would jump from a forty foot platform into a twenty five foot deep pool of water and all to the amazement and awe of the spectators below.
The wooden roller coaster had three cars holding six people each and was pulled to a dizzying height of 65 feet and then released to barrel down a long incline, around two curves and back to where the journey began. Originally there was a pond for swimmers but as attendance and the parks reputation grew, the pond was drained and a modern concrete swimming pool with spring boards, high dive, dressing rooms and showers was constructed. The park advertised the pool as the most sanitary pool in the south.
T. Marcus Latta, of Durham, “The merry-go-round, skating rink, bowling alley, roller coaster and swimming pool were always crowded, but there were swings, sliding boards, see-saws, sand boxes and other things for children to play with.”
Every 4th of July’s fireworks were advertised as ~The Most Elaborate Fireworks Display In the History of Lakewood! ~
The 1920’s rolled in and with it the automobile. The ‘car’ soon took its place in the economic and social fabric of Durham and families were now going for ‘rides’, visiting relatives and friends or going to the coast, but not the park. In1930, as the Depression deepened, attendance to the park shrunk to an unsustainable level. The Durham Traction Company sold the streetcar system to the Durham Public Service Company and the streetcar lines were shut down. The last streetcar was sold in 1932 and shipped off to parts unknown. Between the years 1902-1934, with only eleven miles of track and twenty-one cars; the Durham Traction Company and its electric streetcar system served 2.6 million riders.
Lakewood Park, the Coney Island of the South, closed in 1932, reopened again briefly in 1934 but closed for the last time in 1935 and with its closing a chapter of Durham’s history closed with it. The land was sold in the late 50’s and cleared for the opening of the Lakewood Shopping Center in the early 1960’s.
There are still a few streets in Durham today where the old streetcar tracks or their resting places can be seen, but as far as Lakewood Park, the ‘Coney Island of the South’ is concerned; all that is left are a few old pictures and some fond but fading memories.