Mountain Park Reborn
August 15, 2009

Karen and I drove to Holyoke on a hot sunny Saturday afternoon.  After twenty-two years of dormancy, Mountain Park was being brought back to life by Holyoke entrepreneur Eric Suher.  He had owned the property since 2006 and after some false starts, his vision of concerts on the mountain was being realized.  For one weekend, a stage had been erected.  Saturday was a free concert featuring local bands.  Sunday would cost $30 to see The Decemberists.

We turned at the lights on Route 5 and headed up the all-too-familiar Mountain Park access road.  A small red and white sign tied to a post at the bottom advertised the concerts.  There were a few cars in front of us.  (One was pulling a boat.)  I guessed that some joggers were still practicing their daily routines around the reservoir; some stray cars were parked along the side of the access road near the bridge over Route 91.  About a half-dozen attendants in bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the Mountain Park logo were directing traffic as it flowed through the main gate, welcoming people as they entered.  We were steered to the left and parked close by.  The tangled vines that once hid much of the parking lot from view were gone.  For the first time in recent memory, the park appeared well-groomed.

The concert had begun at about two o'clock.  We arrived about four.  I was pleased to see how many people had turned out.  We had been directed off to the side because the main area was full.  There really hadn't been a lot of time for publicity for the concerts, and I had worried that few would come.  But apparently Mountain Park still held an attraction for people.  It was strangely exciting to see all the cars there.  I could barely remember the last time I saw vehicles in that lot.  

Cars continued streaming in as we began walking down the old trolley road toward the north end of the park where the stage was.  There were no signs that an amusement park had once been here.  To our left, the high ground that once held the midway was flat dirt with occasional piles of ground up concrete.  New grass had apparently been planted on the slope but had not yet sprouted.  The once heavily-shaded midway was now bare except for three skinny pine trees that stood on the cliff where the Cutie-Caddy used to run.  They looked like frail sentinels.

We walked past the old road that used to climb up between the carousel and the Dodgems and encountered a make-shift gate with tables under small white tents.  The table on the left was to get a wristband in order to purchase alcohol.  The other was to get a hand stamp to enter the stage area.  I thought that was odd, since the day was free.  But perhaps they were practicing for the paid evening.  People were being stopped if they had any food or drink with them.

To the left of the tents was once the huge concrete buttress for the Sky Ride entrance.  But no sign of it remained.  We continued walking.  The vast picnic grove down to the right offered shade, and though the stage wasn't very visible a lot of people had set up their camping chairs there.  To the left was the blue steel picnic pavilion that took the place of the ballroom and tap room after they burned down.  It had been spruced up a bit and contained about a half-dozen vendors selling hot dogs and drinks.  Two bright banners hung there.  One on the side facing the road simply said "FOOD" with the Mountain Park logo on either side.  The other faced the grove and ran the length of the pavilion, proclaiming the different offerings inside.  It all looked rather festive.

Next to the pavilion was the big stage, erected so that it faced the ballfield hill.  It was the perfect place to put it; the crowd was able to use the natural slope of the hillside for seating.  People were milling about, maybe a few dozen on the hill.  Orange tape was used to rope off the old road going up to the ballfield, keeping a clear access path.  A band was doing a sound check and setting up.  I walked to the top of the hill and looked out over the scene.  I had stood there so often in the past, on fire extinquisher duty for the park's firework displays.  In my years as watchman, I had created a disc golf course on the park grounds and the top of the ballfield was one of the tees.  But the sight now seemed so alien, with dirt stretching in every direction.

I walked down the old road toward the big glacial erratic that still stood solidly, as it had for millennia.  A father and his two small children walked by and the children squealed with delight when they saw the giant rock.  I walked back to the pavilion and re-joined Karen.  I heard a voice call my name; it was Dan Overton, a photographer who had taken many pictures of Mountain Park after it had closed, and also documented the reconstruction of the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.  We talked for a while about the past.  Karen walked over to the pavilion to get something, but came back empty-handed.  A bottle of water cost three dollars and an ice cream cone cost five.  That seemed a bit pricey.

A rock band started playing.  We strolled through the shade of the picnic grove, escaping the sun that still burned hot even in the late afternoon.   The ground was fairly clear but was very soft, as if it had just been tilled.  At the far back of the grove we encountered the foundation of the Sky Ride's turnaround.  Nearby was the remains of the concrete stage Roger Fortin had built.  To the south was a pile of lumber, fencing and weeds -- the remains of the old Animal Land zoo.  We turned around and headed back up toward the parking area.  As we walked through the dirt strewn with rocks and broken tree roots something caught my eye, an out-of-place blue color in the grey dirt.  I stooped down and to my amazement picked up an old blue golf ball from the miniature golf course.  It was packed with dirt but otherwise intact.  I might even have handed it out to a customer nearly a quarter century earlier.  I slipped it into my pocket, a last memento.  In my final days of working at the park, there were so many souvenirs I could have taken.  But I left them behind to eventually be stolen or eventually burned.

We walked back to our car.  There seemed to be many people doing the same thing, the curious who came to see what the park had become and perhaps relive some memories.  The music didn't interest us.  We had returned to the mountain looking for some sign of our youth.  But it wasn't there.

Sweating profusely, we climbed into our air-conditioned car.  The parking attendants had begun directing cars up the reservoir access road and then through the original parking lot entrance at the southwest corner of the property.  As the lot continued to fill up, we drove back out the entrance and headed home.  We had spent only about an hour there.  That was all we needed.  There was a finality to our visit, a lingering impression that the Mountain Park we grew up with was gone forever.  Up until this day, I had clung to the hope that the park would rise from the grave like a phoenix.  I imagined that the rides would all somehow magically return, that we'd be playing miniature golf again or that I'd hear the blast of the Satellite once more.  But all of those dreams evaporated, and I realized that my memories will be the only connection I will ever have to the Mountain Park of my youth.

William Loomis created Mountain Park as a picnic grove with entertainment in 1895.  Eric Suher has revived and re-invented it, bringing it full circle.  It seemed to be off to a good start.  The teens and children roaming the grounds never knew the park that I knew.  They had no expectations and seemed to be happy simply to have music around them.  They will begin to make their own memories and tell their own children about when they were young and the fun times they had up at Mountain Park.