In the fall of 1826 a stately four-story hotel all painted in crisp white with 100 rooms was built overlooking the spring waters of the Brandywine and under the cool trees that sheltered the fresh water. The wealthy flocked to the hotel, particularly aristocratic Southerners summering in the North; it’s location amongst the wooded groves near the water provided natural air conditioning (even Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy stayed there).
Economic depressions in the 1840s and ’50s brought a strain onto the hotel. In 1853 the hotel was closed and rented out to a private boys military academy. That would not last long either. In December of that year a fire razed the building down to its foundation. For awhile the prime real estate near the springs would stay empty and unfulfilled.
Businessman, Richard Crook (who was not a crook by the way but they say a very fair boss) began to dream up plans of a hotel. And he knew just the spot. He found his investors in two wealthy brothers, successful carpet manufactures in the area named the Dobson Brothers (Oh wait a minute, yes, we mentioned them here. Is everything connected??!) With their help he built and improved the Brandywine Springs Hotel and the surrounding grounds, adding a restaurant and a “toboggan slide” which was an early version of a roller coaster. Three tiers of speeding fun…for most people.
In July of 1890 Emily Scanlon and two of her children were among the visitors to the new park next to the hotel; like everyone else they hoped to escape the irrepressible heat of Philadelphia. During the ride Emily’s hat blew off her head and she stood up to catch it. But she was holding her daughter and the prime safety feature of the ride was that when you were seated you kept the weight distributed just right and low to the ground. Emily unwittingly threw everything off balance. She and her baby flew out of the ride car, Emily breaking her neck and dying instantly. Her daughter was found lying on the grass next to her, knocked unconscious. A female witness to Emily’s death suffered a heart attack from shock and died the next day. The only good news here is that the toboggan slide operated without another incident until 1915. The bad news is this would certainly not be the only tragedy to befall the Park. Not even close.
High Flying Horses
By the next year Richard Crook was expanding his attractions near the hotel again, he had dreams beyond a little picnic park. This time he had hired Gustav Dentzel the most famous carousel wood carver in America. Gustav carved horses that looked magically realistic and he didn’t stop at horses either. His carousel menagerie included other carved beautiful creatures to accompany his horses: dogs, rooster, tigers lions, bears, rabbits, deer, zebras and ostriches too.
It was the year after the carousel’s installation that Richard Crook would have his most successful idea to bring crowds to Brandywine Springs: he would secure a trolley line from the city (Wilmington, Delaware). It took until 1898 for the trolley line to be completed but when it was the Park hit its heyday. The best news for potential visitors: the park didn’t have an entrance fee, if you paid for the trolley ticket you were in!
Richard didn’t let the red tape for the trolley line stop progress during those in-between years. In the meantime he had built a large lake (only 3 feet deep everywhere to reduce the risk of drowning) and an island in the middle of the lake for a dancing and picnicking pavilion. Between the hotel and the lake a Roof Garden with a stage for vaudeville and music concerts was constructed and to draw families Richard billed his attraction as a “temperance park” where your children wouldn’t witness the terrible consequences of alcohol.
In 1900 the Park was wired for electricity and brought further expansion: a pony track, a boardwalk and “palace swings” (little wooden swings shaped like small boats). The park was filled every season now. There were fireworks on Tuesdays and Thursdays, dancing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and the Roof Garden was screening the latest modern attraction: moving pictures!
All this paled in comparison to the live performances on offer. “Beautiful Jim Key” a horse that could read, write, spell, and use a cash register performed on the vaudeville stage…and Millie De Aco dazzled audiences at night by suspending herself a hundred feet from the air on an electric wire then sliding down the live wire and over the lake completely covered in electric lights, sparkling through the night.
Bad Luck Returns
Memorial Day in 1901 (known as Decoration Day then) was a extremely busy day for the park and the trolleys worked hard all day and long into the night to handle the crowds. One of the trolleys headed back into the city and stopped at the top of the hill to drop some passengers off. Moments later a fuse blew and caused the brakes to fail. The trolley car, still filled with people, flew down the hill towards another trolley car in its path. As the two cars violently rammed into each other their momentum pushed them down the hill further into a third trolley car.
While the trolley cars had been flying down the hill some passengers attempted to jump off. One 26-year old man who had done so was cut in half. It was a grizzly scene and the homes nearby were turned into makeshift hospitals while ambulance carriages pulled by horses brought the seriously injured to the hospital. Two people died, one woman lost a foot and 37 people had broken limbs or concussions. Most of the injured were those who had jumped from the cars. Riders who remained seated mostly suffered only bruising.
Despite several severe floods and other mishaps the park continued to thrive and grow. A flagpole scrapped from the Civil War Monitor Passaic (famous for fighting the Confederate ironclad Merrimac) was erected to honor the Civil War veterans who visited the park and a hot air balloon was purchased in 1902 as a thrilling new ride. A successful Baby Show parade saw 200 entries and 18,000 votes (prizes were a $6 gold neck chain to the prettiest baby, a $6 silver jewelry set to the cutest baby, a $7 silver tray to the fattest baby and a $7 set of drinking cups to the most popular twins). In June of 1904 the infamous saloon smasher Carrie Nation made a speaking stop at the park. So many fans rushed the stage for an autograph that the platform collapsed, though no one was injured.
Fire, Death, Scandal, in that Order
While I wasn’t planning to focus on the negatives, what atmosphere there was to recreate from this old park (just look at those photos), the number of catastrophes and accidents is too hard to ignore in telling the story of the Park. There were so many I can’t even list them all but of course, I will include quite a few.
It was nearing the end of the 1905 season in August when a nightwatchman spotted a fire around 3 a.m. spitting from the Egyptian Maze building. After ringing the fire alarm bell, and in 1905 it truly was just a bell, to wake anyone nearby they soon realized that their only telephone line had been burned up already in the fire. The watchman’s 14-year old son was forced to ride into the darkness to the nearby Workhouse Prison in hopes of using their telephone. The blaze took hours to put out and before anyone realized it, visitors had arrived for a day of fun. Richard Crook roped off the area as a safety precaution but the public amused themselves by picking up burnt and broken pieces of china from the scorched Japanese Ping-Pong concession building as souvenirs.
In 1906 Elizabeth Roswell, her aunt and younger cousin were crossing the train tracks at the park to catch their ride home. They had been at the crowded park and farmers’s fair all day and were ready to head back into the city. A whistle from an approaching train alerted them to move from the tracks but as they did Elizabeth slipped, trapping her foot. She frantically attempted to free herself but when she couldn’t, she knelt down to pray as 100 picnickers looked on in horror. The freight train “ground her to pieces” according to newspaper articles. Her aunt and cousin had jumped off the tracks more successfully. Those this success meant falling 15-feet and breaking several bones.
In early March of 1907 the Park would become the center of a kidnapping scheme. A young boy, Horace Marvin, was reportedly kidnapped and several threatening letters were sent to his doctor father. After several weeks the letters promised they were close to delivering the boy back to his father…but first they needed $1,000 in a bag brought to the entrance of Brandywine Springs Park where he would find a man with a red handkerchief tied round his neck to collect the money. The case caught the attention of the nation and the missing boy saga made headlines across the country.
Little Horace was found in May that year lying in a pool of water on a farm near his home. It was where he’d last been seen playing with other children. Many still clung to the theory that he had been killed by kidnappers. The coroner believed that the time of death was consistent with when Horace initially disappeared and concluded that the boy had frozen to death.
The public questioned how they had missed the body in a land searched over and over and rumors that Horace’s father was involved or withholding information swirled. But Horace’s father was tired of asking questions and after some public abuse in the papers he thought about leaving Delaware for good. He didn’t though. A year later Dr. Marvin married his (dead) second wife’s mother. I won’t throw in any uneducated guesses here but I will present the facts: his two previous wives were dead and now his son was. I’d love to see their death certificates….
Where would we be if we didn’t return to fire? It seems something was always going up in flames at the Park. On June 4, 1907, the park was especially crowded with people using the brand new roller rink. Plus the circus was in town at the top of the hill. As the Scenic Railway car took its usual journey to the top of the hill the conductor, Edward Berry, noticed the tunnel he was speeding towards was completely engulfed in flames. A rider on the previous ride through had thrown his cigar stub off the train without a second thought; and without anyone else noticing. But those train tracks were soaked in oil.
Edward’s car on the Scenic Railway was moving too fast to stop before the tunnel’s entrance and jumping from it would have meant death. So Edward lay down on the floor (fortunately he was the only on one the train at the time) and he hoped for the best. Somehow he came out of the fiery tunnel with only a few singed hairs. Laying down had actually worked! With so many people around the park that day to help the fire was controlled before it spread much further but it still caused extensive damage.
In another repeat accident, the 1910 season held in store an additional trolley accident*. Two trolleys smashed into each other, but this time no one was seriously injured or killed. One man who had his hand badly cut was Wesley Trotter who had coincidentally survived the prior trolley accident nine years earlier.
*If you’d like to know why there were so many trolley accidents (besides mechanical issues), an unearthed clip taken four days before the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was recently discovered. The film follows a trolley ride where you can see the people, carriages and cars dart in front of the moving trolley car. I highly recommend watching some of it (here); you feel like you’re really there and you’ll see why we created so many road laws!
In 1911 the Park saw many city dwellers who hoped to escape the stifling extreme heat of that July. Not too far away in New York 229 people had died from a heat spell in July in just a week and a half! The shady wooded park not only provided the cooler temperatures which kept people visiting for so many years before but this year there were extra treats to enjoy like homemade salt water taffy candy, the Manhattan Opera Company’s performances or the new sport activities on offer like bicycle racing or bow and arrow targets. Unfortunately the extreme heat brought another fire to the park that July. Fire is like a broken record at this Park. Having finally learnt their lesson there was now special fire fighting equipment at the Park. That wouldn’t save the day though. The fire still completely burnt down several buildings until it was controlled.
And to spin this record a few more times: Just after the new roller rink was built since it had already burned down that same summer a nightwatchman saw a man set fire to it and run into the nearby fields. The fire was controlled but once the rink had burnt down again they declined to rebuild it. The arsonist was never caught.
A Bad Romance in July
The Nicholas family were Greek immigrants who ran a restaurant in the Park. One of their employees in 1916 was 20-year old Catherine Bodeski, a recent immigrant from Russia. The year before she had dated another employee at the restaurant, 23-year old Greek Sam Gangus, but eventually Catherine broke it off. Sam couldn’t let it go. He harassed Catherine at work and professed his love for her. His behavior became so disruptive that the Nicholas’ fired him. Still, he hung around the restaurant to bother the young waitress. His threatening behavior earned him two arrests in 1916 and he served 105 days in the Workhouse Prison for his actions. He was released on July 21, 1916.
That evening the restaurant closed for the night and everyone began cleaning up. What no one noticed was that Sam, freshly released from jail, had hidden himself behind the restaurant to spy on the employees and down some whiskey. Catherine, Mrs. Nicholas and her daughter Helen finished closing around one in the morning and headed up the hill, back to the hotel boardinghouse where they all lived. Before they reached the hotel steps, Sam stepped out of the shadows and began firing a gun at the women.
First he shot his former girlfriend four times hitting her in the right eye, neck, heart and abdomen. Mrs. Nicholas was shot in the shoulder as fifteen-year old Helen screamed. So Sam fired a shot at her too and though he missed Helen, she was smart enough to fall to the ground and play dead. Believing he had killed them all Sam ran off into the woods. What he hadn’t counted on were survivors, or that the flash of the gun had revealed his face and who the killer was.
Jabez Banks rushed to the scene after hearing all the noise. He ran the old boardinghouse hotel and when he saw that Mrs. Nicholas was injured and Helen was hysterical he helped them up to the hotel where there was a doctor. Meanwhile Sam had returned to mutilate Catherine’s body with a knife. And he wasn’t finished.
Sam next ran to Nick Nicholas’ room and poured gasoline around screaming, “If I had another bullet, I would kill you.” Nick escaped before Sam could commit his next murder and throw a match.
When the police arrived they found that the restaurant was alight, grease had been smeared on all the tables. The fire spread and burned quite a few buildings down to the ground.
Sam was nowhere to be found until the next morning at 5 a.m. in his house. His clothing was still soaked with blood and sweat. The public didn’t quite believe that Sam was the killer. It’s not that they thought he was innocent, just that the rumor of a madman loose in the woods near the park was enough to instill fear and doubt in the local community. It kept people away too, attendance declined noticeably.
Mrs. Nicholas fully recovered. She and Helen served as the star witnesses at Sam’s trial. On January 12, 1918 at ten in the morning Sam Gangus, 25-years old, was hanged at the Workhouse Prison in the courtyard. He laughed as the black hood and noose were placed around his neck.
The Many Missing Husbands on Valentine’s Day
On Valentine’s Day in 1921 a strange article would appear in the paper detailing one last major mishap at the park. A man had been taken into custody on suspicion of murder and though he quickly cleared up the circumstances of his involvement the mystery of the body still remained. Intending to commit suicide two days after his marriage to his 16-year old bride, William F. Walker threw a note off his trolley car at the Brandywine Springs saying so but lost his nerve. Unfortunately in a terrible coincidence for him the note landed two miles away from a dead body at the park.
The unidentified man was found shot through the mouth and lying dead next to the tracks. When detectives found a suicide note addressed to a Dorothy Walker they brought her to Wilmington to view the body. What she found was a 50-year old man while her husband was 36. Once William was located for questioning he maintained that he had never even seen the dead man before.
When Dorothy notified police that the body was not her husband a Wilmington woman whose husband was missing, a Mrs. Charles Smith, came to the morgue to have a look herself. She made a positive identification of the body. It was her missing husband. They had been married in 1920 but separated the month after their marriage and he was living in Coffeyville, Kansas she explained.
At the same time Mrs. George Rigby of Philadelphia read about the mystery of the man too and since her husband was also missing she went to the Wilmington morgue to have a look. Mrs. Rigby positively identified the same body as her husband: George Rigby. They had been married for several years and were separated but never divorced…and he lived in Coffeyville, Kansas she said. In fact the hat found near the body bore the initials G.R.
The coroner ruled the death a suicide but the attorney general, Mr. Townsend, found the circumstances too strange and believed it was murder. Though Smith/Rigby had been shot in the mouth his body had been found neatly composed on a carpet of uncrumpled newspapers. Mr. Townsend also noticed that the revolver wasn’t where it would have been dropped by Smith/Rigby but seemed to be placed in a deliberate way next to the body. And he seemed to have some troubles with women. So the attorney general requested the case be reopened for the bigamist Charles Smith/Rigby and it was. The paper trail runs cold there, I’m not sure how the case ever played out.
A Picnic Again
As the years went on cars and buses became more accessible and popular. You could now go anywhere you wanted and Park attendance began to drop steadily. By 1922 after so much damage and decline the park had for all purposes become only a picnic park, just as it had started all those years ago. At the end of the season in 1923 the park closed for good. Now the area is a park again but not an amusement one. All that’s left of the Brandywine Springs Park are some overgrown foundations and a few plaques which mention that is was once there.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and “Brandywine Springs Amusement Park: Echoes of the past” by Mike R. Lawlor
Picture Sources: All photos found via the Friends of Brandywine Springs Facebook and the University of Delaware Special Collections’ tumblr, and edited by me.