No treatise of the Conestoga River would be complete without mentioning Rocky Springs Park. Rocky Springs played a major part in the social fabric of Lancaster City and County for nearly a century. I recently obtained access to the grounds to take some photographs and I will share some of them in this blog along with some historical details that I have found. But I can’t possibly cover the full story of Rocky Springs in this short blog post. So I hope you enjoy this brief picture of the park.
In 1855, a Lancaster butcher named Michael Trissler purchased land along the Conestoga Creek and built the Rocky Springs Hotel. The hotel was in operation until 1876. During this time the grounds were used for picnics by families, churches, and local organizations. The hotel building still stands and is now a Bed and Breakfast.
In 1882, Samuel J. Demuth purchased Rocky Springs from the Trissler estate. Demuth owned a confectionery in the city at 7 East King Street. For a time, the park was named “Demuth Park” and was one of the best picnic areas of the time. Demuth enlarged the park with the addition of 14 acres of land adjoining the original estate. After Demuth died in 1888 his family continued to operate the park as a picnic grounds. At this time, the first “Lady Gay”, a small side-wheeled steamboat began to carry people to and from the park.
In 1890, John B. Peoples leased the park for five years. Peoples added various amusements, picnic tables, benches, and a goldfish-filled fountain at the entrance. By 1894 Peoples had added bathing houses near the creek and created a sandy beach. Hundreds of people were visiting the park at this time.
In 1896, the park was leased to Herman B. Griffiths and Emma J. Wiener from Philadelphia. John Peoples built Peoples’ Bathing Resort on the other side of the creek. Peoples began operating the second Lady Gay steamboat that carried passengers from the dock next to Witmer’s bridge at the Conestoga Park to his bathing resort. The trip took about sixteen minutes each way.
Peoples’ charged five cents round trip on the Lady Gay. Peoples’ also operated a free ferry between his resort and Rocky Springs for anyone who wanted to cross. Wiener charged ten cents round trip on her boat that also picked passengers at Conestoga Park. Wiener sued Peoples for trespassing and accused him of persuading passengers to ride his boat instead of the one to Rocky Springs. The case was dismissed because the swimming dock that Peoples’ used to transfer passengers was in the Conestoga and was therefore deemed to be public property and the landings at Conestoga Park were clearly marked as to their destinations.
In 1899, the park (now called Rocky Springs again) was sold to Thomas Rees of Pittsburg and Herman Griffiths was retained as the manager. Mr. Griffiths moved into the mansion house with his wife Emma and two children, Isabella and William. Griffiths added a steam merry-go-round, a dance pavilion, and replaced the park’s coal oil lamps with electric lights. He also added two more steam boats for carrying passengers to the park, the Emma Belle and Evelyn B.
During the years from 1899 to 1918 the Christian & Missionary Alliance held the missions conferences at Rocky Springs for a full week each summer. As many as 10,000 people were on the grounds for these services. People were baptized in the Conestoga River. There was a field of 100 tents and dormitories for men and women. In 1908, the missions offering was over $51,000.
The Conestoga Traction Company began trolley service to the park on May 10, 1903. There was a two-line track that ran from the city down through the Sunnyside Peninsula. As many as twenty cars were in service during peak times.
A 2000 seat theater was built in 1904 to host vaudeville and variety shows. This was eventually torn down during WWII and the materials were used to support the war effort. In 1907, a 400 foot long roller skating rink was constructed. In 1918, the Jack Rabbit roller coaster was built. This coaster featured a 500 ft tunnel.
In 1921 the Crystal Pool opened. The pool measured 80 by 140 feet with two diving boards plus a wading pool and bath house.
In 1924 the Carousel house was built and a new Dentzel carousel was installed with 48 hand-carved animals and two chariots. About this time a young man named Joseph Figari began working at the park selling shaved ice with flavored syrup drizzled over it at the concession stand.
In 1928, the Jack Rabbit coaster was dismantled and the Wildcat was built. The Wildcat had a 90′, 60 degree drop and a 500 ft tunnel. Joe Figari purchased the park from Herman Griffith in 1935. The Figari family lived in the mansion house.
In 1947, the trolley system came to a close. The trolley cars were sent down to Rocky Springs, pushed off the tracks and burned (all except one which is on display at the Manheim Historical Society).
In 1954, Joe Figari bought land next to the park and built the bowling lanes. A lawsuit was brought against the park in the 1960s when Figari denied two black persons access to the public pool. Rocky Springs was one of three county pools who were sued for discrimination during this time (and lost). The park was closed after Joe Figari’s death in 1965.
In 1979, after years of deterioration, and damage from Hurricane Agnes (1972), the park was in serious disrepair. The park was sold to Ben Brookmeyer, Mary Corthouts, and Michael Ranck who cleaned up the park and attempted to open the park for two years. But the park had to close due to poor attendance. Then, in 1984, an auction was held and Rocky Springs rides, memorabilia, and some buildings were sold to the highest bidder. Soon after, 17 acres of the park were sold for the River Bend Condominiums. Unfortunately, due to some blasting that occurred during the construction of the Condominiums, the water in the fabled spring has slowed to a trickle. The Dentzel Carousel was sold and relocated to a theme park in Michigan and later moved to the Dollywood theme park in Tennessee where it remained for ten years. More on that below. The Wildcat coaster was torn down and burned in 1991.
In 2001, Rocky Springs was bought by Sam and Elaine Stoltzfus who restored the mansion house and opened it as a Bed and Breakfast. The Bed and Breakfast can be contacted here: rockyspringsbnb.com/
See also the main Rocky Springs site here: http://www.rockyspringspark.org/
“What happened to the carousel?” people want to know. The the late 1990s, the Rocky Springs Carousel Association was formed, purchased the carousel and brought it home to Lancaster. Since 2005, 15 of the 48 carved animals have been restored. The last mention of the project that I could find was published by Lancaster Newspapers in 2011 where several possible locations for the carousel to be placed were mentioned. The locations suggested were Clipper Stadium, Lancaster Square, the Lancaster Convention Center, or Long’s Park. However, a carousel cannot be successful as a primary attraction. The best location would be one that already has a successful entertainment business. So none of the above locations were deemed suitable. The cost to build an enclosure and install the carousel would be measured in millions of dollars. But a suitable location and a business plan must be in place before funding can be sought. So, we wait. But I think it is safe to say that the carousel will not be returning to Rocky Springs Park.
Rocky Springs today is a quiet refuge. Gone are the sights and sounds and bustle of years gone by. And the river just keeps rolling along.
I will leave you with one last item that I hope you enjoy. Here are the lyrics to a song by local folk singer Bobbi Carmitchell.
Rocky Springs Saturday Night
There is a place I remember down by the outskirts of town It’s hidden by time under brambles and vines and most of it’s all fallen down. Oh, when I was a kid I remember as the bus broke the crest of the hill You could still see the shell of the old roller coaster and I tried to imagine the thrill. Chorus When the music would drift down the water and the band played well into the night, The Jack Rabbit’s running and young hearts are becoming intwined underneath the pale moonlit night. An oh, how I wish I could be there, the calliope shiny and bright. The carousel spinnin’, the good guys are winnin’, a Rocky Springs Saturday Night. Well I grew up hearing the stories of how it all looked in its prime. With its bright painted colors and paddlewheel runners and pockets of nickels and dimes, My mom, she grew up in the city and after the working week’s end She’d take the number five trolley from town and be up there with all of her friends. And many years later, the carousel is running again, and I walked with the lights on that warm summer night from inside the calliope’s frame. The carvings and colors spin around me and there on the best horse of all, My mom took a spin for all of her friends and the band played her favorite song