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,," 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.