In Search of Old Shamokin, July 2020 edition
Prior to the rise of Edgewood Park as Shamokin’s beloved recreational destination, area residents looked forward to the yearly opening of another attraction: the Shamokin Driving Park, located at Weigh Scales in Ralpho Township.
Built under the auspices of the Shamokin Agricultural & Driving Park Association, incorporated April 1, 1889, the destination combined a racetrack and fairgrounds, its busy season spanning late summer and fall after the model of similar harvest fairs and their venues in the region, such as the Milton Driving Park and the Bloomsburg Fair. Like its successors, the trolley parks of the early 20th Century, the Shamokin Driving Park’s sustaining force was transportation—in this case, being located near the confluence of the Pennsylvania, Reading, and Lehigh Valley Railroads.
“In addition to the railroads,” the Shamokin Herald wrote, “there is a wagon road leading to the park, capable of being transformed into one of the most beautiful drives to be found in the country, winding as it does, along the banks of Shamokin Creek, fringed on either side with tall and stately monarchs of the forest.”
The primary attraction of the driving park was its trotting races—a popular variety of horse racing known today as harness racing. With admission to the 1890 fall fair advertised at only 41 cents, the park featured something for everyone: agricultural exhibits, foot races, and—during the 1890s craze for the newfangled vehicle—bicycle races. The grandstand was said to seat 2,000, and guests traveling from afar could find lodging at the Park Hotel, operated by the association’s first president, George S. Fisher.
The Mount Carmel Item wrote prior to the park’s opening:
“The track is an elegant half mile, one of the very best, but the stables are the special pride of the association. Well-built, large and commodious and supplied abundantly with pure mountain water, they have not their equal in the state.”
Among the organizers of the park were many notable names of the time, including John Mullen, William Beury, John P. Helfenstein, and the father-and-son team of Darlington R. and Monroe H. “Farmer” Kulp. Young Kulp, a sports fan and racing enthusiast who would go on to develop the famous Edgewood Park, gained his early experience in park management during his tenure as secretary of the driving park from 1889 to 1892.
The driving park often secured top-name performers from far and wide. One such talent, equestrienne Nellie Burke, was at the center of a disturbance in September 1890 which drew the attention of the local media. According to a report in the Dispatch, the “blithesome equestrienne,” a nationally known performer recently arrived to regale Shamokin with her popular “Roman Hippodrome” show, became the subject of a suit for allegedly assaulting Joshua Taylor, a local newspaper reporter, with a buggy whip after she claimed he had stolen a sum of money from her tent at the park. Taylor promptly filed charges against Burke, as well as Secretary Kulp, whom he accused of aiding and abetting the horsewhipping. The Dispatch writes that Burke pleaded guilty, but that an indignant Kulp, upon hearing the charges against him, sought out Taylor and confronted him, striking him twice. Kulp pleaded guilty to this assault but requested a hearing on the prior charge.
Despite such occasional incidents, the early years of the park were prosperous and well-attended. In the mid-1890s, the park suffered financial difficulties and decreased attendance, probably due in part to the nationwide financial panic of 1893, as well as competition from the Shamokin Street Railway Company’s Indian Park, which opened that year. The Weigh Scales destination was further eclipsed by the revamping of Indian Park into Edgewood Park in 1900, but remained active through the next decade, and photos show J. H. & C. K. Eagle Co. picnics taking place on the grounds as late as 1913. According to newspaper accounts, however, the park was closed by 1915 and the Eagle Company was eyeing the site as a possible location for a dye works.
Although relatively short-lived, the Shamokin Driving Park in its heyday was the place to be for sports-minded Shamokinites of all classes.
“[The spring trot] will be a big time,” the Sunbury Weekly News opined in 1891, “and no one should miss it.”