Did you know Washington Heights and Inwood used to be home to a giant amusement park? In 1895, the Fort George Amusement Park opened on Amsterdam Avenue between 190th and 192nd Streets, overlooking the Harlem River in what is now Highbridge Park. Located in the same spot as George Washington’s fight against the British, “Harlem’s Coney Island” rivaled Brooklyn’s Coney Island with roller coasters, Ferris wheels, a skating rink, fortune tellers, music halls, casinos, and hotels.
The park sat at the end of the Third Avenue Trolley, which connected the Bronx and Manhattan, providing an easy way for New Yorkers to travel to the riverside park. Brothers Joseph and Nicholas Schenck, who emigrated from Russia in 1893, first visited the park in 1905 for their own pleasure. However, when they witnessed the crowds pouring in, they came up with a money-making plan. The brothers opened a beer concession stand known as the “Old Barrel” and met fellow park-goer, Marcus Loew, founder of the chain of movie theaters.
Forming a business partnership in 1906, Loew and the Schencks added a vaudeville stage and several other rides onto the Fort George station, what became known as Paradise Park. Fort George Amusement Park had an impressive variety of offerings: three roller coasters; two Ferris wheels; nine saloons; five shooting galleries; a track for ponies; a tunnel boat ride; hotels; a casino; and two music halls, the Trocadero on 190th Street and the Star on 192nd Street.
Although the park remained a popular destination, by 1910 local residents started a petition for it to close. They complained that Fort George had brought noise, lots of drunk people and petty crime. That same year, the Schencks sold their amusement park and, borrowing money from Loew, bought one nearby in Cliffside Park, New Jersey called the Palisades Amusement Park. The park operated from 1898 until 1971, remaining of the most visited amusement parks in the country until its closure. Palisades featured some of the largest rides in the area at the time, as well as the nation’s largest salt water wave pool. The Schencks owned the park until 1935, selling the Palisades to pursue their dreams of Hollywood.
Fort George Amusement Park wasn’t as lucky. In December of 1911, an arsonist set fire to Paradise Park, but damages weren’t severe and the park reopened in 1912. Then, on June 9, 1913, another fire was started causing over $100,000 in damages. So massive, the flames of the fire were reportedly seen as far as from 42nd Street.
The city’s parks department acquired Fort George by condemnation in 1928, which included Highbridge Park. In 1994, Mayor Giuliani contributed $500,000 for new playground equipment at the park. Today, Highbridge connects South Bronx and Northern Manhattan and features sports fields, a swimming pool, dog parks and playgrounds.
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