When it comes to landmark locations in the North Shore area, Salem Willows Park is exceptional in its fusion of past and present. In addition to the park itself, there are restaurants, arcades, and several rides, the most famous of which is the carousel.
Various plaques throughout the park give visitors information on Salem Willows Park’s history. In the early 19th century, there was a hospital nearby for contagious diseases. The willow trees were planted throughout the area in 1801 to benefit those patients. However, in 1848, a fire destroyed the hospital, which is how the surroundings then became a park.
The Naumkeag Street Railway Company started changing the park, and the area around it, in 1877. In the summer of that year, they started offering a horse-drawn trolley service that went back and forth between the park and downtown Salem. At the same time, construction began on the amenities that would solidify the park’s reputation as a premiere amusement location. In 1880, the amusement park area opened, and it all became known as Willows Park or, “the Willows.” Visitors could have dinner by the shore, or even go to the Willows Pavilion for roller skating.
There were various events that took place at the park during the summer, such as theater programs, music programs, balloon ascensions, fireworks displays, and high wire acts. Once the festivities were over for the day, visitors could stay at one of the hotels that had been built in the nearby Juniper Point neighborhood. Seaside resorts had a reputation for attracting “undesirables” who could then cause problems such as fights. However, a wholesome reputation was maintained by banning the sale of alcohol.
A Carousel Commentary
A popular attraction for more than 40 years at the Willows was Brown’s Flying Horses, a carousel with colorfully painted wooden horses that had real horse hair. In the center of the carousel was a miniature village which, along with the horses and the pipe organ that provided the carousel’s musical accompaniment, were hand-carved by a Bavarian immigrant named Joseph Brown.
The Brown’s Flying Horses carousel closed in 1945, with the horses being sold to Macy’s department store in New York. There, they were used for the store’s Christmas display. The area on which the carousel was located became home to a miniature train, a Tilt-A-Whirl, and a helicopter ride, all of which are no longer there.
The present carousel is located in the Kiddieland section. People have several theories as to its origins. It might have been being partly restored from the Brown’s Flying Horses carousel, or from Charles Loof, a carousel creator of great renown from Coney Island. The horses are, regardless, aluminum replicas.
Remembering Restaurant Row
Willows Park became particularly well-known for its restaurants, which offered popular foods such as chowder, fried fish, and lobster. These restaurants collectively came to be known as Restaurant Row, and actually preceded the amusement park. Restaurant Row got its start in 1874, when Judge Chase opened the Willow House Restaurant, an impressive two-story structure overlooking the ocean.
By 1912, Swenbeck’s Park Café, Ebsen’s and several other eateries had opened nearby. Some of the restaurants were small, while others could accommodate 150 people, and were sometimes used for group functions and banquets. For nearly 100 years, Restaurant Row was an important part of the Willows. However, a series of fires between 1952 and the middle part of the 1970s contributed to its eventual closing.
The Tasty Treats of Today
Although there have been many comings and goings of various restaurants and attractions at what is now known as Salem Willows Park, some traditions have remained. E.E. Hobbs has been offering popcorn, salt water taffy, and ice cream at the Willows for over 100 years – in 1906, the first ice cream cone in America was offered here by Everett Hobbs and William Eaton. The famous Salem Willows chop suey sandwich, which was born in the 1930s, is also still very popular among visitors from around the world at the Genghis Salem restaurant. Peppy’s Pizza, a newer restaurant, connects the two arcades, speaking of which…
The arcades offer something for every age group. Pac Man, air hockey, and skee ball are just a few of the great options that are sure to evoke nostalgia. There are also newer games, some of which are played just for high score bragging rights, while others reward tickets. The fun thing about the ticket redemption is that it doesn’t take long to accrue enough tickets to redeem for a decent prize, or even a combination of smaller prizes.
Salem Willows Park, in addition to its arcades, rides, and restaurants, has various events band concerts on select summer evenings, and group picnics. In the early 20th century, visitors could go to the Willows Casino dance hall, which was reopened as the Charleshurst Ballroom in the 1920s. Some of the musicians who played there included Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. That location is now an arcade. However, another summer event, the Salem Jazz and Soul Festival, brings new sounds in a nod to that past. Salem Willows Park is undeniably rich in history, and its adaptability has ensured that it will remain a jewel in the crown of Salem’s tourism industry well into the future.
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