by Jay Ducharme
(All text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2018.)
In 2017, I was asked to be a part of a team that was planning some changes at Holyoke's Heritage State Park Visitor's Center. The Center was the original building at the park in 1986, at that time featuring a large water sculpture that echoed the history of the city's famous dam and canal system. Charles Lotspeich, the current manager of the Vistor's Center, wanted to re-think how the building, and especially the lobby, was used. For over a decade, it consisted of a few glass cases featuring scattered relics of the city's past. There was a wall of brochures. And there were four large potted trees that took up most of the space.
What prompted Charlie's desire to renovate the space was contact from a local man named Dan Manson, who had acquired one of the Mountain Park midway ticket booths when the park closed in 1987. I was there to watch him load it onto his truck. In the thirty years since then, the original had rotted away. But Dan built a brand new one, identical to the original. He offered it for display at Heritage Park.
Charlie was interested in finding a way to highlight Holyoke's fascinating history, including the vast immigrant culture that built the city. He thought the ticket booth might be a way to draw people over to the Visitor's Center and he asked if I could help create some sort of companion display highlighting Mountain Park. I gave Charlie numerous images which he was going to enlarge to poster size for display. I also began acquiring some memorabilia, such as the commemorative spoon issued at the park's opening in 1897.
But I felt that there needed to be a bigger draw than just pictures and memorabilia. An entire generation had grown up never knowing that Holyoke had an amusement park. Few remained who knew what it looked like or even where it was. The generation that grew up with the park was dying off. Besides pictures and videos, how else could the park be made real for people?
For over a decade, I had wanted to built a scale model of the park. At the time, I wanted to build it in H0 scale and I wanted it to function. In other words, I wanted the rides to operate and have it fully lighted. I chose H0 scale initially because of the large collection of working H0 scale amusement park models manufactured by several different companies. I figured I would save myself a lot of work by using pre-fab kits for all of the park's stock flat rides (like the Scrambler, Ferris Wheel, Whip, etc.). Unfortunately, building the park at that scale would have required about 28 linear feet of space. So I looked into N guage and discovered that even at that tiny scale the park would have stretched for 18 feet. There was obviously no place to put it at the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, and the Children's Museum wasn't interested. So I assumed it would be just another idea I had that would never see the light of day.
So I mentioned the model to Charlie and he loved the concept, but obviously its large scale was a problem. He said he could find room for an 8 foot display, though. In retrospect, it would have been insane to attempt a 28-foot model. Eight feet was much more reasonable. But at that scale, the rides would be absurdly tiny. That, however, turned out to be a good thing. Charlie had been playing around with a 3D printer he had acquired, and that would be a perfect way to create small objects like the rides. I would have to learn how to build each ride in the computer. But since most of the rides consisted of multiple copies of a single object (like Ferris wheel seats), that would be a perfect solution.
It wouldn't be until the summer of 2018 that I would find time to work on the model in earnest. It was a struggle to know how to begin. How would I be able to piece the park together in scale, when my memory of the actual park was growing fainter as the years passed. Fortunately, I had a huge collection of photographs. I also had created a park layout shortly after it closed, while everything was still fresh in my mind.
My starting point was an aerial shot of the park taken in 1962 during the construction of Interstate 91. That particular shot was useful because it was taken straight down on the park, with no parallax to deal with. Because of the age of the photo, the resolution wasn't great. It also didn't help that it was a photo I had taken with my old 35mm SLR camera of a giant 8 foot wide photo that hung in the park office.
So I cropped that photo to enlarge just the midway section, then I printed it out landscaped on standard 8.5 x 11 inch paper. I measured it with my architect's rule, trying different scales. I discovered that at 1.5 inch scale, the printout (minus the ballroom and tap room at the far right) could be placed onto a surface that was six feet by two feet. I had been debating about which era of the park I would recreate. Without the ballroom and tap room, I had no restrictions (since they burned down in 1971). Since I really wanted to include the amazing Out of This World fun house, I settled on 1980, the year I began working at the park.
I happened to have a scrap sheet of 1/2" plywood that was 6 feet by 23 inches. So I glued a supporting frame to it with 2x3 stock. Then I glued down some leftover Homasote for the surface, as I would for a model railroad layout. I needed to use two pieces, and one was quite a bit lighter than the other (and slightly thinner for some reason). But I was planning on painting it anyway. The Homasote was a more pliable surface than the unforgiving plywood. Plus, I needed to build up the surface to create an elevation change. The park sat on the side of Mount Tom, which originally had a fairly continuous slope down to the Connecticut River. The park's midway had been built up with backfill to level it out. The east edge of the midway near kiddieland dropped off sharply toward the parking lot. So the added Homasote would allow me to sculpt that slope.
Another thing I did was to add a 3/4 inch lip all the way around the bottom. The model was going to be on exhibit and unmonitored, so there needed to be something to protect it. I suggested to Charlie that it be covered by a plexiglass case. The lip would give the plexiglass an edge on which to sit.
Once everything had dried, I began measuring the photo with my architect's scale. I divided the photo into six sections and marked off the Homasote accordingly. That way I could make sure all of the objects on the midway were lining up correctly. I began with the Mountain Flyer roller coaster, starting on the left edge. I was fortunate in that I had been able to acquire the coaster's original blueprint. I knew exactly how many feet it occupied and where all the structural pieces went. So it was a matter of corroborating that with the tiny rendition in the aerial.
Next I tackled all of the buildings. I started with the largest building in the park, the Clambake Pavilion at the far south end. It was actually an amalgam of three (or perhaps five) separate structures that had been gradually built up with varying configurations and roof lines, and it sat straddling the slope. The pavilion itself (once used for roller skating, but most people remembered it being a large Bingo hall where Larry Chesky's band played polka) occupied most of the area, with the domed stage at the south end. But it also housed another structure at the north end known as The Towers that contained food concessions including beer and pizza. Across from that (to the west) was the Mini Arcade, a long thin cinderblock structure that also included the Gifts and Cigarette games. The structure was capped at the north end by the curved Frosty Joy ice cream concession.
I then drew out all of the buildings that abutted the length of the Mountain Flyer. Originally known as "Arcade Row", the buildings included the park's two dark rides and Out of This World. Most of the buildings housed games, like water guns and Wacky Cats, and also a large arcade. Then I turned my attention to the other large buildings on the east side of the midway, including the Whip, Merry-Go-Round and Dodgems.
That whole process took about a week. Then next week was spent filling in all of the rides. I mostly used a simple compass, since the majority of flat rides had nothing but a circle as a footprint. This is where I needed additional frames of reference. The 1962 aerial was shot in the off-season, when many rides were in storage. I also had an an isometric aerial from 1988 after the park closed, but many of the rides by then had been sold. So I played detective and searched through my images for specific rides and perspectives, trying to visually line up where they all were located in relation to each other. The lines I had drawn at foot-long intervals were a big help in that regard.
The Sky Ride posed an interesting dilemma. Sitting just north of the Dodgems, the ride originally extended off through the picnic grove to a zoo at the far east end of the park. I was cutting off my model just past the main midway. So I decided to include the Sky Ride's station and just two of the carrying posts, leaving the impression that the ride continued off to the east.
The final section of the groundplan was the train and intertwined mini-golf course. I cropped the highest resolution image I could find and applied high contrast in order to recollect the course structure. There were all sorts of objects on the real course, with many novelty features such as nursery rhyme statues (like Humpty Dumpty), turning waterwheels and multiple levels. But at such a tiny scale, there was no way I'd be able to replicate those features, even using a 3D printer. The layout alone would have to suffice.
Before I continued with sanding and painting, I wanted to mark all of the footers for the roller coaster. I had thought of using 3/4" wide plastic toy ladders, but that would have cost over $600. It was too big for 3D printing. So I decided to just mark the footers and deal with the assembly later. I was stunned to discover that from the base of the lift hill to its top occupied exactly 10 inches. The actual length was 160 feet with 20 "bents", or vertical structural members. Bents were usually placed 8 feet apart on coasters during that period. (I later discovered, however, that the Mountain Flyer bents were 10 feet apart.). So doing the math on that, it turned out that my entire layout had been drawn at a scale of 1/16 inch to one foot. I measured the Merry-Go-Round building with my architect's scale and sure enough -- the building measured 80 feet across, exactly what it was at the park!
Marking the footers for the coaster's bents was going to be a very tedious process; the ride was constructed of close to 200 of them. But now that I knew the exact scale, I fabricated a coaster jig out of a paint stirrer, drilling three sets of holes spaced at 3/4 inch wide and 1/2 inch apart (assuming I was going to use the 3/4" wide ladders). I left a half-inch at the back end to line up with the last set of holes and I drew a centerline to match up with the coaster's centerline. Then it was simply a matter of placing the jig down and using an awl to punch holes into the Homasote. When that was finished, I dug out the "below ground" area at the base of the lift hill. And with that, the basic groundplan was completed by July 5.
Something that escaped me at the time (and there would be many more such incidents) was the choice to make the bents 3/4" wide. In scale, that would mean that the track was 12 feet wide! It was supposed to be 8 feet, which would have translated to a half-inch. So my jig was 1/4" too wide but I didn't realize it until I had finished the entire set of footers. I would need to go back later and re-punch all of the holes on the outside of the ride's bents. But before I rushed into that, I wanted to wait until I knew exactly what I was going to use for the structure. If my only choice was a 3/4" wide toy ladder, then that's what I would use.