Remembering Palisades Amusement Park
High atop the New Jersey Palisades cliffs, with breathtaking views overlooking the Hudson River once stood the home of the famous Cyclone roller coaster, the Tunnel of Love and the world’s largest salt-water pool. Located in Bergen County within the boroughs of Cliffside Park and Fort Lee, this magical place was called Palisades Amusement Park and even today, over forty plus years after it closed its gates, the Park is still warmly remembered.
What began as a simple New Jersey picnic grove in 1898 ultimately became, through the imagination of a variety of owners, one of the most visited amusement parks in the country, rivaled only by Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The progression of its’ growth can be segmented by the contribution of each owner;
In 1908, August Neumann and Fran Knox bought the property, known as The Park on the Palisades, from The Bergen County Traction Company, who were using the space as a trolley park. Neumann and Knox installed a Ferris Wheel, and added a baby parade and a diving horse to its list of attractions to lure people to the park, which they renamed Palisades Amusement Park.
Another name change took place in 1910 when ownership again changed hands to Nicholas and Joseph Schenk and their Reality Trust Company. The brothers, active in the movie industry in Fort Lee, used this experience to enhance the parks’ image. They built a 400 by 600 foot salt-water pool; complete with pontoons that dramatically rose up and down as they rotated, creating a one-foot wave in the pool. Schenck Bros. Palisade Park was now famous for having the world’s largest salt-water wave pool in the nation. More attractions, including a Cyclone roller coaster ride, were added, encouraging a huge increase of visitors to the park.
In 1934 the Schenck brothers sold the site for $450,000 to another set of brothers, entrepreneurs Jack and Irving Rosenthal. The Brooklyn men had built a fortune as concessionaires at Coney Island and Savin Rock Park in Connecticut, having built the Cyclones in use at those properties. Their plans for further expansion of the Park hit a snag in 1935 when the park was partially destroyed in a fire, and again in 1944 when another fire erupted. Finally, with repairs and renovations completed, The Rosenthal’s reopened the park to the public in 1945, at which time they restored the park’s previous and most recognizable name, Palisades Amusement Park. Trouble continued to plague the brothers when, in 1946, they were challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union for racial segregation regarding their pool admission policy. After a four-year struggle to adhere to their policy, efforts of members from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketing and causing disturbances every weekend, a Bergen County Grand Jury investigation and damaging media attention, the Rosenthals finally agreed to amend their policy. It was important to bring new attractions into play as a way of ‘healing’ their relationship with the public and to restore their allegiance to the Park.
Attendance continued to grow throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s with the introduction of a music pavilion featuring live rock and roll shows, and hosted by local deejay, “Cousin Brucie” Morrow. The names of performers from the world of Pop and Rock reads like a Who’s Who of musicians; Fabian, Chubby Checker, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, Leslie Gore, The Jackson Five, Tony Bennett, Vic Damone, The Four Seasons, Bill Haley & The Comets, Bobby Rydell, Dion, Jackie Wilson, Neil Sedaka, Tony Orlando, Frankie Avalon, Little Anthony, Freddy Cannon, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Young Rascals, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Fifth Dimension and many more. Other events introduced included the Little Miss America Pageant, the Miss American Teen-Ager contest, the Diaper Derby and other diverse and interesting competitions, and a variety of rides added for a total of 50 rides.
Two key factors contributed to the eventual closing of Palisades Amusement Park;
By 1967, Irving Rosenthal was the sole owner after the death of his brother. Now in his 70s, and with no family heirs, it was unclear as to who would eventually assume ownership.
Meanwhile the park had become so popular that the towns of Cliffside Park and Fort Lee were overwhelmed by the hordes of people who responded to the slogan, “come on over”, the noise, the litter, and the intolerable near-gridlock conditions which over-taxed already inadequate parking facilities. Local residents, tiring of these inconveniences demanded action from local elected officials. Developers saw an opportunity to cash in on the Palisades’ spectacular view of Manhattan, and they successfully pressured the local government to re-zone the amusement park site for high rise apartment housing,and then condemning the property under eminent domain. Thus the fate of Palisades Amusement Park was sealed.
Over the next few years, the land was surveyed by a number of builders who made lucrative offers, but Rosenthal tried to postpone the park’s inevitable closing and refused to sell. During the heyday of “Palisades Park” in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Irving, as he was called at work, would refer to Fort Lee as his hometown.
The right offer finally came in January 1971. A Texas developer acquired the property for $12.5 million and agreed to lease it back to Irving Rosenthal so that Palisades Amusement Park could operate for one final season. The park closed its gates for the last time on Sunday, September 12, 1971.
Since most of the drama related to the history of the Palisades Amusement Park took place behind the scene, most people acquainted with the Park can only reminisce about the fun times they and their families spent there on Sunday afternoon, or enjoying lazy summer days with their friends in the salt-water pool, or having a special first-date on a Saturday night with their High School crush. Good times – wonderful memories – exactly as Irving Rosenthal would have wanted his Palisades Amusement Park remembered.
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Vince Gargiulo, executive director of the Palisades Amusement Park Historical Society, grew up under the glow of the famed amusement park. With the cooperation of hundreds of residents, employees, and executives of the Park, Mr. Gargiulo has compiled a comprehensive history of the Park, beginning with its inception in the late 1800s, continuing through its rather checkered history, until its ultimate demise in the early 70s.
Originally published in 1995, Palisades Amusement Park: A Century of Fond Memories became the fastest seller in the history of Rutgers University Press. It has been unavailable for several years but is now back and available in a soft cover edition. With its two hundred pages and a foreword by the legendary Cousin Bruce Morrow, this oversized coffee table book captures every fond memory of the famous New Jersey fun spot: the vinegar-soaked french fries, the Tunnel of Love, the world’s largest outdoor salt water pool, and so much more.
For those who ever visited Palisades Amusement Park, this book is sure to bring back those cherished remembrances. And for those never lucky enough to have entered its colorful gates, Palisades Amusement Park: A Century of Fond Memories will recreate the thrills, laughter and joy that was Palisades Amusement Park. For those of you who are new residents at The Modern, you will find this piece of Fort Lee history a fascinating read!