Carlin’s Park: “Baltimore’s Million Dollar Playground”
On August 13, 1919, John J. Carlin advertised the opening night of his latest business venture—an amusement park he billed as “Baltimore’s Million-Dollar Playground.” Liberty Heights Park only featured a carousel, “Dip the Dips,” and a few other rides, but major plans were underway. He promised that his park when completed would be “an amusement resort of the finest and most modern type, a park which would surpass anything hereto attempted in [Maryland] . . . .”[i]
Liberty Heights Park, later known as Carlin’s Park, started out as a dance hall in the growing Park Circle neighborhood. Carlin had initially intended to expand his residential community on Reisterstown Road on the Gittings family’s former estate “Ashburton,” but the project languished. Instead of losing money on the vacant portion of the property, in 1916, the real estate developer constructed the hall, believing that if it failed to make money he could just tear it down and reuse the lumber to build houses. However, the dance hall was so successful that he built a larger venue in the following year.
By 1919, Carlin decided to add more attractions to complement the dance hall and began construction on the amusement park in April. He could not, however, meet the August deadline because of his ambitious plans. Carlin envisioned a truly grand attraction complete with pagodas, Japanese Tea Rooms, sunken gardens for outdoor dancing, a casino, and a “pretentious” movie theater. The park would also feature “an immense and imposing coliseum” and “a massive natatorium, a concrete Swimming Pool one thousand feet long, fashioned after the baths of ancient Rome, and encircled with a wide beach of velvety sand in which bathers can frolic to their hearts delight!”[ii] And these were just the beginning of Carlin’s plans.
Carlin’s was not the only amusement park in the Baltimore area. The state’s first amusement park opened in Montgomery County in 1876 to attract visitors to the Cabin John Bridge Hotel and featured a carousel and a scenic railway. Streetcar and steamboat companies also opened amusement parks across the state to boost business. Weekend ridership on trolley lines lagged, prompting the streetcar companies to offer a fun destination at the end of the line. Carlin’s Park neighbor, and biggest competitor, Gwynn Oak Park opened in 1894. Nicholas Smith and William Schwartz purchased the land to build houses but the neighborhood lacked a trolley line. The developers realized that this would be detrimental to sales, so they formed the Gwynn Oak, Walbrook, and Powhatan Railroad. The park, which started as a lakeside picnicking pavilion, would bring visitors and potential homeowners to the area on the new streetcar line. As owner, the Baltimore Traction Company added more attractions. Vaudeville acts performed at the park and dances were held in the pavilion in the early days, but the addition of three rollercoasters — the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and the Wild Mouse — made the park famous. Bay Shore Park, owned by the United Railways and Electric Company of Baltimore, opened in 1906 under similar circumstances. Located along the Patapsco River in what is today North Point State Park, Bay Shore became a tremendously popular destination, earning the nickname “Baltimore’s Atlantic City.” The numerous rides and bathing beach could be reached by a convenient, scenic trolley ride and the park also hosted boat and seaplane races that never failed to bring in crowds.
Stiff competition required continued expansion, renovation, and innovation. In 1920, Carlin’s engaged A. Carl Hulsey to build a rollercoaster and the Mountain Speedway quickly became the park’s most notable attraction. Twenty cents bought visitors a two and half minute thrill ride — and if the adrenaline rush proved too much, the company provided chairs on the platform, along with “smelling salts and a pitcher of ice water for the ladies.”[iii] The Coliseum Funhouse, also opened in 1920, provided a unique entertainment experience. Park patrons who entered the attraction were treated to more rides and games. Every season, new rides and attractions were added or refreshed, and the improvements attracted large crowds. In one warm weekend in May 1921, the park had nearly 20,000 visitors and Carlin’s continued to grow into the 1930s and 1940s. From teacups and swings to shooting galleries and milk bottle tosses, there was a ride or a game to delight everyone.
Always the enterprising businessman, Carlin knew he needed more than new rides to bring in regular customers. Shows, such as vaudeville acts and musical performances at the arena, and dance marathons were scheduled throughout the year. Opera companies regularly performed at the open air theater. In 1923, silent film superstar Rudolph Valentino twice visited the hall on his dance exhibition tour. The events, featuring dance competitions and beauty contestants, drew enormous crowds. The Baltimore Sun reported nearly 5,000 people, mostly women, attended the first dance in May. Admirers mobbed Valentino as he left the stage at the end of his performance, but he did choose to return to Carlin’s in June, albeit this time with his wife. Boxing and wrestling matches were held at the Fight Arena, which opened in 1924. Big name brawlers brought in the crowds. In 1931, Carlin also opened Iceland, the city’s first indoor ice skating rink. A ballroom, once the site of a four-month-long dance marathon, was turned into a rink with a 1,200 person seating capacity to promote winter attendance. The arena hosted ice skating shows and from 1932–1942, the Baltimore Orioles ice hockey team. The Eastern Amateur Hockey League team won the league championship in 1940, and 11 players went on to play in the National Hockey League. The team disbanded when many of the players enlisted to fight in World War II. The rink became the home ice for Baltimore Blades, later the Clippers, from 1944 to 1949. Local school teams and the United States Coast Guard Cutters also played at Iceland.
The park’s ambitious scale eventually took its toll. Ticket sales did not always offset the colossal cost of maintenance to keep the buildings and rides in working order. In 1935, city officials temporarily closed the Green Palace, the sports arena as it no longer met code. Too many changes to the building’s original structure created serious fire hazards. Similarly, the boxing and wrestling venue was built without obtaining proper permits. Fires and accidents also plagued the park. Several settlements were paid out in injury cases. The Mountain Speedway was involved in two serious accidents. In 1945, a stalled car got stuck on the tracks and was rear-ended by another car, sending several people to hospital. No one was seriously hurt as in the previous year, when a woman was thrown from the coaster and killed. She stood up on the ride for added thrill, as many daredevils had done before, but this time, tragedy struck.
Fires occurred regularly at the park. On September 30, 1937, an astonishing ten-alarm blaze nearly destroyed the entire park with losses totaling almost $300,000. The fire proved so devastating that city officials banned Carlin from rebuilding wooden structures on the property out of concerns for the safety of the neighborhood. Despite all of these issues, he threw a grand twentieth anniversary party in June 1938 and opened an Olympic size pool the following summer.
As with most Baltimore businesses, Carlin’s Park maintained a policy of racial segregation. Although the park contracted African Americans to fight at the arena, play music at the dance hall, and likely work at the park, they could not partake in the park’s amenities. In 1951, black members and their families of a local chapter of the Union of Automobile Workers were denied entrance on their planned family outing day. The union that sold the tickets to members claimed ignorance on the policy, and “The disappointed ticketholders cashed in their tickets at 50 cents each and left quietly.”[iv]
Carlin’s intrepid commitment kept the park afloat. After his death in 1954, the park passed to one of his daughters, but fires in 1955 and 1956 decimated the grounds. The Midway and Iceland were burned beyond repair, and the cost was too great to rebuild. The grounds remained an entertainment destination. The pool remained open through the 1960s. A drive-in movie theater with spaces for 1,800 cars was built over the ruins of Iceland, and remained open until 1978. Today, Carlin’s Industrial Park sits atop one of Baltimore’s most beloved amusement park. (Lara Westwood)
(This piece originally appeared in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 113, No.1, Spring/Summer 2018.)
[i] “Liberty Heights Park Opens Tonight,” Baltimore Sun, August 13, 1919, 3.
[iii] Hulsey, A. Carl. “I Remember: Building the Mountain Speedway at Carlin’s Park.” Baltimore Sun, September 3, 1978.
[iv] “Outing Mixup Called Error: Carlin’s Park Refunds Money to Negro Union Members,” Baltimore Sun, August 19, 1951, 13. Eventually, in 1963, The Congress of Racial Equality challenged the park’s segregationist policies and threatened to hold demonstrations at the pool.