November 2006

I called my friend and former boss Roger Fortin one day in November of 2006. I was interested in his thoughts about local entrepreneur Eric Suher's acquisition of the Mountain Park property. Jay Collins had finally sold it, the small 60 acre parcel on which the park sat. Originally the park encompassed about 600 acres on the side of Mount Tom. About half of that was sold to the O'Connell company in 1962 and became the Mount Tom Ski Area. The rest of it was bi-sected later that year by Interstate 91, leaving over half of the Collins property on a fairly useless rocky slope down towards the Connecticut River. That acreage was sold to the state as a nature preserve. Jay held onto the last 60 acres, and a casino interest had an option on the property for quite a while. When the state legislature defeated a proposal to allow gambling in Massachusetts, the casino company dropped its option.

Eric Suher owned a lot of property in Northampton and Holyoke. Among his acquisitions were the Iron Horse Music Hall, the Calvin Theater and Pearl Street nightclub, all successful music venues in Northampton. So naturally, popular opinion was that he purchased the old Mountain Park property to create another music venue, this time a large outdoor concert area similar to The Meadows in Connecticut. But Suher was never someone to show his hand, and his final plans were anyone's guess.

Roger urged me to go up to the park. He said I wouldn't believe what was happening. It had been thirteen years since I left the park for the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round. In that time, paintballers took over the area and splattered everything in sight with dots of color. Eventually, every last building was burned to the ground by vandalism. Roger had a company come and bulldoze any remaining structures -- all except for Pippo's old Dolly Pitch booth (a skeletal shell of its former self) which was left for sentimental reasons.

It didn't take long for nature to reclaim the peaceful grounds. The parking lot quickly disappeared under trees that reached twenty feet tall. In a remarkably short time, the midway became forested and nearly unrecognizable. Outside of scattered rubble, the only remaining identifiable structures were the Dolly Pitch and the old water bubbler. The mini-golf course had become overgrown. The fairways were covered under decades of leaves and moss.

On a foggy Wednesday morning, Roger and I met up at the old gate. A new chain link fence had been erected. It seemed like such a half-hearted attempt to keep people out, since there were so many ways to enter the park. Roger said Suher asked him how to keep people off of the property and Roger laughed. There really was no way short of completely surrounding the property's perimeter with fencing.

When I stared past the new gate I was shocked. I could see the parking lot. All of the foliage was gone. Roger said it was remarkable because in the previous two weeks, all that had been accomplished by just two men and a small bulldozer. The men were back, resuming their progress on the midway. Roger and I walked up the hill that used to lead to the back of the Clambake Pavilion. The Dolly Pitch was standing proudly, the only remaining structure on a completely cleared midway. It was a really strange experience. I could finally look from one end of the midway to the other, but there was nothing there except for some large dumpsters. The crew had been sorting detritus into wood, metal and concrete. The large mound that was the buried Mountain Flyer was gone, with just a few pieces of track remaining on the ground. The burned-out sticks of trees were gone. The midway actually looked clean.

As we passed by the pavilion foundation, I was surprised to see the concrete track of the Cutie Caddy (the little Cadillac cars). It had been cleaned off but not broken up. In fact, the big old pine tree that the track encircled had been tagged for non-removal. As we continued walking through the strangely spacious area, I found myself questioning where the rides used to be. Without any structures present and with most of the trees gone, it was difficult to place where things used to be. It was disorienting.

As we moved toward the north end of the park, the colorful stone foundations of the Tilt-a-Whirl, Satellite and Mountain Flyer were still intact. The remains of the mini-golf course were nearly untouched. Roger said that Suher wanted it left alone. Past the golf course, the large metal structure of the blue picnic pavilion was still standing. Roger marvelled at the condition of its concrete foundation, still smooth and intact after all the years of neglect. Then we walked up the hill to the old ballfield. That too had become a small forest, but now was completely cleared and mowed. It looked like it had when the park was open. I could easily imagine a large concert stage there, with Little Mount Tom forming a natural acoustic shell.

We walked back down toward the parking lot. The pavement was rippled from the old trolley track ties underneath. To our right, the original rounded concrete stairs of the Tap Room still looked great after 100 years. Roger pointed out rare trees on either side of us that had been tagged so that no one would touch them. Back in the parking lot, Roger chatted with the bulldozer operator. If it weren't for the absence of the buildings and rides, I might have imagined that the park was getting ready for another season.

It was heartening to see that such care was being taken with the property. Suher spent a lot of time and money restoring the Calvin Theater back to its original glory when he could have simply done a cheaper restoration to get the building up to code. In the same way, it looked like he was trying to preserve whatever he could of the original park. But if he were putting in a concert stage, why would he bother? For nostalgia?

I returned to the park about a month later to check on the progress. Not much had changed. Sadly, the Dolly Pitch was gone. Some of the foundations had been bulldozed. But the Cutie Caddie track was still there. The rings for the Tilt-a-Whirl and Satellite remained. And the golf course hadn't changed. But most significantly, a sign had been affixed to the entrance gate that read, "See you in the summer of '07 -- Mountain Park." A few weeks after that, a friend of mine told me that Suher's lawyers had purchased from him a copy of the old Mountain Park logo (with a rollercoaster on it). Was it possible that the Queen of the Mountain was going to be reborn?