If you grew up around North Jersey in the middle of the 20th century, Palisades Amusement Park still conjures vivid memories of childhood and adolescence. The enormous saltwater pool that was filled from the Hudson River, the gigantic Cyclone roller coaster and Tunnel of Love, as well the Billboard hit, “Palisades Park,” that sang from the radio throughout the summer of 1962, recalls an earlier time in our region’s history. Author Alan Brennart has written a love letter to the popular park that straddled Fort Lee and Cliffside Park from 1898 to 1971, following the lives of one family that had ties to the park for nearly 50 years. In this excerpt, little Eddie Stopka has his first visit to the park that would become so important to him.
Palisades, New Jersey, 1922
Eddie had gone to Palisades Park only once, on a scorching Saturday in June when the temperature in Newark topped ninety in the shade and most sensible residents of the Ironbound had either fled to the Jersey shore or opened up a fire hydrant and cooled themselves in its geyser. The Stopka family more usually went to nearby Olympic Park in Maple- wood, which had not yet broken ground on its own proposed swimming pool; and so Palisades’ much ballyhooed saltwater pool sounded mighty appealing in this withering heat. Eddie’s father had wanted to go the previous Sunday, but Eddie’s grandmother, who still held considerable sway over the household, would not hear of it: according to Polish custom no good Catholic could go swimming until June 24, St. John the Baptist Day, when St. John would bless the waters of the seas, lakes, rivers, and, in an apparent concession to modernity, swimming pools, thus protecting bathers from drowning. Eddie’s dad—stocky, solid as a two-by-four and equally practical—felt there might be some justification for the practice in Poland, where the Black Sea could be frigid and swimmers might conceivably cramp and drown; but it hardly seemed necessary in New Jersey, in the summer, when you could practically poach an egg in the hot, humid air.
But Jack Stopka lost this argument as he had many others with his mother, and to soften his son’s disappointment, the next day he brought home three packages of American Caramel candy. The chewy caramel sticks, though satisfying, were strictly of secondary interest to Eddie, who tore the packs open at once for the revealed treasure of three brand- new baseball cards: Jesse Haines of the St. Louis Cardinals, Ivey Wingo of the Cincinnati Reds, and most exciting for Eddie as a Yankees fan, Babe Ruth, posed in a sepia-tinted photograph holding a regulation ball innocent of the beating it would shortly receive from the business end of the Babe’s bat. “Wow, thanks, Pop!” Eddie said happily, adding the cards to his growing collection—most of which had come in packs of his father’s Coupon Cigarettes, a godawful smoke that Jack purchased solely for the pleasure of seeing his son’s face light up when he handed him a Ty Cobb card, or a Red Faber.
Finally, on Saturday, June 24—after Jack finished his half-day’s work at the foundry—Eddie, his parents, grandmother, and sister, Viola, took the maroon-colored Public Service trolley from Newark, across the Hackensack meadowlands. The car clanged its bell at every stop and in between the air compressors huffed and puffed asthmatically, pumping air for the brakes. But eventually they reached Palisade Avenue in Fort Lee, where the amusement park sprawled atop a two-hundred-foot bluff overlooking the Hudson River and New York City. Eddie heard the park long before he could see it: from at least a mile away he could hear the chattering of winches pulling a train of roller-coaster cars up to a creaking wooden summit, followed by the roar of gravity dragging them down the other side and the high-pitched screams of women, children, and even a few men as the cars dove headlong into space.
“Look at that, willya,” Eddie said as the skeletal shoulders of the coaster appeared in the distance. His tone was one of hushed reverence usually reserved for discussion of Babe Ruth or “Long Bob” Meusel.
His mother, Rose, nervously eyed the height of the coaster and cautioned, “You may not be old enough to ride that one, Eddie.”
“But I’m almost eleven!” Eddie reminded her. “If I wait I may be too old to ride it!”
His mother found this very amusing and said simply, “We’ll see.”
As they got off the trolley, Eddie could feel the rumble of the coaster deep in his belly, making him want it all the more. He ran ahead, only to have to wait for the rest of the family to catch up. They entered through the Hudson gate, nearest to the famed pool, a gigantic “inland sea” two city blocks long and one block wide, filled with a million and a half gallons of salt water pumped up each day from the river below. Eddie’s eyes popped at the size of it: children, for whom the whole world is big, love the biggest of the big, and this more than qualified. A man- made waterfall churned the waters at the far end of the pool; at the other end, the shallows were fronted by a real sand beach; and somehow, as Eddie would discover, there were even rolling ocean waves in the pool, though he had no idea how this could be. At the pool’s green-and-white ticket booth his father purchased tickets, and in the huge bathing pavilion they changed into their bathing suits—all save Grandma, who was appalled by these new styles with their scandalous display of naked leg, and so planted herself on the sand in her long, ruffled black dress (with unfashionable petticoats) and a white babushka that at least afforded her some protection from the sun.
The pool was packed with hundreds of swimmers, the beach overrun by sunbathers and toddlers wielding toy shovels, but the Stopkas found some unclaimed real estate and spent the next several hours swimming and playing in the remarkably clear waters, watched over by rugged life- guards perched atop red-lacquered rescue stations ringing the pool. One lifeguard, named Happy, coached Eddie on his swimming. But even more than the cool refreshing waters on this very hot day, what Eddie would remember were the smells: the salt spray from the waterfalls, a vanilla breeze from the waffle stand across the midway, and the sharp tang of lemons, big as grapefruit, that hung from the nearby lemonade stand.
After their swim the Stopkas left the bathhouse and strolled past a dance hall where a band was playing ragtime, to the main midway graciously shaded by stands of chestnut, poplar, maple, and oak trees. From here the whole park beckoned, dozens of sights and sounds competing for their dimes: the ricochet of pellets striking targets in the shooting gallery, calliope music from the Carousel, the rattle and roar of four roller coasters—the Scenic Railway, the Toboggan Racer, the Giant Coaster, and the Deep Dip Thriller—and dozens of concessionaires, each delivering his “bally,” his pitch to the crowd, hawking refreshments, sideshow tickets, or games of chance. What to do, where to go next?
“Let’s go ride the coaster,” Grandma declared with a wink to Eddie, and Jack laughed and said, “You’re on, Lil,” her Christian name being Lillian.
The Giant Coaster was situated near the edge of the Palisades, an impressive location not afforded many other amusement park rides in New Jersey or anywhere else. The family squeezed into the first car, Eddie and his father up front, Mother and Viola behind them, Grandma in the third row. The cars started with a lurch, Eddie’s excitement ratcheting up a notch with every clack-clack-clack of the climb up the first hill. When they finally reached the top, the height of the Palisades doubled their altitude and made for a dizzying view: Eddie took in the exhilarating expanse of the Manhattan skyline; saw ferries chugging their way across the Hudson like windup toys in a bathtub; felt his stomach flutter at the sight of trolleys and automobiles snaking along River Road hundreds of feet below. Olympic Park had a roller coaster, but boy, it couldn’t hold a candle to this! Then the car slid down the other side and all at once they were plunging earthward like a falling plane. Eddie left his stomach behind at the summit, his blond hair blowing into his eyes as he glanced over at his father, grinning beside him—and though his mother and sister were screaming in the row behind, damned if Grandma Lil wasn’t laughing as much as she was screaming, even after her babushka was ripped from her head and took off like a flapping gull toward the waters of the Hudson.
After the coaster they took a more sedate gondola ride through artificial canals and a diorama of Venice, Italy, which Mother adored (she had painted a little in her youth; “mostly just bathrooms now,” she would say wistfully) but which Eddie found rather slow and boring. Much better were the whizzing, spinning buckets of the Virginia Reel; after which Pop tried his luck in the Penny Arcade and Mother and Viola rode the gently trotting Arabian horses and Indian ponies of the Carousel, which Eddie believed himself too old, or too manly, to patronize.
But the whole family enjoyed the Third Degree, a large castlelike fun- house next to the pool whose floors tilted crazily and in whose mirrored walls they saw laughing distortions of themselves. At the end of this ride a gust of air blew Mother’s skirt up over her hips, but one steely look from Grandma Lil to the man working the air nozzles kept her petti- coats firmly brushing the floor.
After all this exertion the Stopkas had worked up an appetite, and stopped for a supper of hot dogs, hamburgers, and French-fried potatoes. The latter were thick and crispy on the outside, warm and soft in- side, served in a white paper cone. Eddie’s dad handed him a saltshaker and a bottle of malt vinegar: “Here. You’re supposed to sprinkle these on the fries.”
Eddie squinted dubiously at the bottle. “Vinegar?”
“It’s good, try it,” Jack urged, and since his father had never steered him wrong before, Eddie tentatively sprinkled some of the vinegar on his potatoes. He was surprised to find, upon taking his first hesitant bite, that it was delicious—they were the best French fries he’d ever tasted— and soon he was liberally drenching the fries in salt and vinegar, both of which made him so thirsty he asked for one of the ice-cold lemonades made from those gigantic lemons. This too was delicious, the tops. Mean- while Pop washed his own meal down with a glass of “near beer,” the closest thing to a Polish lager to be had, at least in public, since the Volstead Act.
Later, Eddie’s family passed a sideshow, the Palace of Wonders, with bold banners snapping in the wind, announcing such exotic performers as Marie DeVere, a lady sword swallower; Habib, the fire-eater; Population Charlie, a “mental marvel”; Lentini, a boy with three legs; and Carl, the Giant Swede. The “outside talker” extolled the wonders within, as a pair of scantily clad dancers, or “bally girls,” swiveled their hips, beckoning the crowd to enter. Eddie really wanted to see the three-legged boy, but his parents balked at the bally girls, judging the children not quite old enough for the sideshow.
Instead they walked the midways as dusk settled over the park—and as nightfall transformed it. Day gave way to night but not to darkness, as somewhere switches were flipped and concession stands were delicately traced with glowing strings of colored lights, like theater marquees. With the coming of evening, Palisades was jeweled with light, from the glittering spokes of the Ferris wheel spinning like a fireworks display, to the soft white lightbulbs strung in the trees like clouds of fireflies. Suddenly the park atop the Palisades was no longer just a park, it was an enchanted island in the sky. Above the Hudson floated the starry constellation of the Manhattan skyline, which seemed a part of the same magical terrain. Eddie wished he could stay here all night, or at least until the park closed at midnight; but Viola was starting to doze and Grandma Lil was tiring as well, and so the Stopka family began to make their way back to the No. 92 trolley that would start them on their long journey home to Newark. Eddie took one last look behind him, trying in those last minutes to absorb and preserve the glittering lights and the sweet smell of candy floss and caramel apples and the sound of people shrieking in delight as they plummeted down the Giant Coaster. Eddie was certain that no place had ever made him as happy as Palisades Park had today; and so it was perhaps just as well that he had no inkling that this would be the happiest day and night he would know for a long time to come.