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Looking back 133 years

From ice-skating in the winter to picnicking in summer, Lakeside Park was a year-round get-away to forget your troubles.

It was the workingman's park, attracting coal miners and their families from places like Lansford, Tamaqua, Shenandoah, Coaldale and Mahanoy City.And although it was later eclipsed by the larger, star-studded Lakewood Park a mile away, Lakeside never gave up its hold as an entertainment venue. But its complete history was never fully documented.Nestled in the rolling hills of Barnesville, Schuylkill County, Lakeside opened in 1880 with two dams and a picnic ground.The park is mentioned in early newspaper accounts. One such item refers to a function held there on September 3, 1881, when the Knights of Honor held a basket picnic at East Mahanoy Junction."Many participants went to the park at E. M. J. on the early train and spent the whole day in the woods. Many more went up on the 1:30 p.m. train making an aggregate of from 150-200 persons," notes the article.An advertisement on May 12, 1883, proclaims East Mahanoy Junction to be a place to get away from daily troubles, as described by Marlon Lutz, proprietor:"Now that the picnic season is fairly upon us, I desire the public to remember that East Mahanoy Junction is a most desirable place to hold picnics. The landlord at the Junction hotel is now prepared to accommodate all such parties visiting that place. Among other improvements, the last but not the least is the putting-in of the water pipes throughout the hotel, up and down stairs by Mr. Roth, which will add greatly to accommodations of all his patrons. Every person calling there will be treated well. The picnic ground is free to all parties."The Junction became an amusement park in the 1880s. On July 25, 1891, the Lakeside Improvement Company announced plans for a large hotel on the grounds, and bathing houses bordering the lake. In addition, cottages would dot the knoll that slopes to the water.In 1897, the park's opening for Memorial Day included baseball games among teams from Barnesville, Tamaqua and Delano, along with entertainment brought in. Music would be furnished by the Professor Jones Orchestra, Mahanoy City, for dancing. There would be boat racing on the lake and the new steamer "Albany" would make her first trip of the season. The merry-go-round also made an appearance with good music. Eventually, one was purchased in 1903.Improvements probably came to a standstill during WWI. But things picked up steam after the war. A rollercoaster was erected on the site in 1923 for $45,000, said to be the largest and swiftest in Pennsylvania.Cottages were constructed and the breast of the dam was raised a foot or two.In the mid 1920s Harry Hart, owner, contracted for several railroad cars of sea sand to brought in and spread along the bathing beach.He also purchased a large open auditorium, believed to be about 1924, which was dismantled and moved to the park. It was enclosed in 1928, and went on to host such big names as Sammy Kaye, Benny Goodman, the Dorseys and more.In August, 1927, Hart reportedly bought several rides which had been part of the Sesquicentennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1926-27. They included a more modern Merry-Go-Round, The Whip and The Caterpillar.The ballroom may have been the deal of the century, as Hart is believed to have paid $10,000 for a building that originally cost $500,000. If that report is true, the building would have been very expensive in its day.The site became so popular that locals called it simply "The Lake."For picnicking, Lakeside Park was served by train excursions that left Tamaqua at 10:30 a.m. for the five-mile rail trip. One-way tickets cost ten cents for children, twenty cents for adults.Camping in tents at Lakeside was in vogue in those days, as Lakeside provided area residents with something to do and a breath of breezy mountain air.In 1916, competition came in the form of a new park a mile away - Lakewood, with its 88 acres, created by brothers Richard and Daniel Guinan.That park, too, incorporated swimming, rides, and, eventually, a renowned summer playhouse. But the centerpiece was Lakewood's Crystal Ballroom, opened on Memorial Day 1925, one year after Lakeside's.(It is said that Lakewood's dance floor was slightly larger, 168 feet by 104 feet, compared to Lakeside's 144 feet by 80 feet.)Some say it was unusual for a small village like Barnesville to be home to two privately owned parks with spectacular Big Band-era ballrooms. But both were a hit and the little village became an entertainment mecca.Lakeside and Lakewood faded in popularity as times changed. Entertainment, comfort and conveniences became more home-centered. And, at the same time, passenger trains were supplanted by motorcars.Sadly, Lakewood closed in 1984 and the rides were dismantled. The grand carousel was moved to Michigan, where it continues to entertain. The legendary Crystal Ballroom was destroyed by fire in 1998.As for venerable Lakeside, some say the decline started in 1940 when its carousel was moved out of the park.Another turning point at Lakeside was on November 25, 1950, when the rollercoaster was destroyed by a tropical storm. Then a few decades later, the lake itself was drained and never refilled.However, unlike Lakewood, Lakeside Park didn't disappear from the entertainment scene - the Lakeside Ballroom remains a destination to this day, hosting weekly dancing and other events.Both Lakeside and Lakewood parks are symbolic of a long-gone era before television and air conditioners, days when people felt a need to cool off at "The Lake."Today's state parks partly answer that need. But the excitement of local carousels and rollercoasters is only a memory.Lakeside Park has a long, rich history. But it's a history that hasn't been well documented.The Tamaqua Historical Society is seeking photos, memorabilia and stories of Lakeside with hopes to preserve the heritage of an important local resource and possibly create a display highlighting the park's contributions to local culture.

History enthusiast Dale Freudenberger, Tamaqua, sorts through his private collection of posters from Lakeside Park in preparation for a potential museum display in tribute to the legendary Barnesville site.