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Amusement Parks

Harlem Park

Harlem Park Amusement Park, 2333 Harlem Boulevard. Opened in June 1891. Incorporated as Harlem Park Company by George F. Penfield, John Camlin, Colvey Haven and Lester B. Halsted. They intended to build a park up the river from downtown for a summer resort with various attractions. They built a switchback railway roller coaster, a restaurant, a boat house with boats to rent and other attractions to draw the people there on warm days and nights. Attractions added later included the Flying Circle Swing, Auditorium, Dance Pavilion, Zoological Garden, Steamboat Wharf, Bathing Houses, and a Search Light Tower that gave patrons panoramic views of the park. It also featured the largest roller skating rink in the state at the time  Located 2 miles north of downtown Rockford on 47 acres north of the  "High Bridge" on the  west side of the Rock River with the main entrance from Harlem Boulevard between Harper and Brown Avenues. It was accessible by street or river. The most popular way was by The Rockford & Interurban street railway or by excursion boats or small steamers navigating the Rock River. On the Fourth of July the park was the place to go to see a fireworks extravaganza.

The main park entrance was located several feet below street level so a stair way was necessary to access the park from Harlem Boulevard. On the busy midway by the main entrance at right is the popular laughing gallery which was a "fun house" and one of the parks many souvenir and novelty shops amongst other amusements and concessions. In this view you are looking toward the main stair case.

This is a view opposite from the above postcard as this was the view patrons were greeted with on their way into Harlem Park. After descending the main stair case, looking east toward the Rock River. It was advertised that no visitor should leave the city without trying the Famous Switchback Railway, most exhilarating amusement ride that can be imagined, Cars ran 1100 feet in 26 seconds and the track contained giant drops to thrill the riders and cost only a nickel to ride.

The Famous Switchback Railway Ad circa 1891

An early view of the Midway right inside the main entrance of Harlem Park. On the left is the Laughing Gallery fun house, and one of the many novelty stands along the bench lined walk.

This auditorium at Harlem Park had seating for 5,000 and a stage that was 50 by 100 feet. The stage was built for band concerts, lectures, vaudeville shows and public meetings. This structure also hosted the annual Chautauqua in Rockford starting in 1902. A Chautauqua was an adult education movement highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day along with playing games and food. The Rockford Chautauqua drew over 80,000 people annually to the 15 day event which was held from the middle of August to the beginning of September. Tents could be brought in or rented at the park and families camped out for the two week event.

Built in 1890 one of Harlem Park's popular attractions was the towering electric Circle Swing giving patrons a great view of the city and river. The circle swing had six cars shaped like boats that could seat four passengers each. Because of the simple design of the ride, similar swing rides can be found at carnivals and fairs to this day.


With its many trees the walks and midway were lined with benches and fountains with plenty of grassy areas. The park was lit up with beautiful electric lights at dusk which was quite a thing in those days as many people had no electric in their homes. It also had pure water pumped throughout the park which also supplied water to the parks many fountains. The center walk was bordered on both sides with various attractions. such as a dance pavilion, arcades, lunch rooms, games of skill, ice cream parlors, skating palace, souvenir stands, bowling alleys, and more. The rides were located near the river to give patrons a scenic view.

One of the many fountains installed in Harlem Park. At left is the electric merry-go-round building. Beyond that is the station for the miniature railroad. By 1905, Harlem Park was known throughout the country as one of the nation’s finest amusement parks. At the height of its popularity, it attracted as many as 15,000 patrons daily.

The miniature Railway Station at Harlem Park

Patrons enjoying dancing at the Harlem Park Dance Pavilion

Harlem Park as it appeared from the deck of the steamboats or pleasure craft that made their way up and down the Rock River. In the distance is the towering Circle Swing. With all of the tents it looks like this was during one of the Chautauqua meetings.


Harlem Park Midway looking north toward the picnic grounds which was  equipped with fountains, benches and facilities for the pleasure of patrons that wanted to enjoy a quieter time at the park  like a picnic, hiking, resting, searching for wild flowers or to just gather quietly.with family or friends.

The steamer Illinois shown docked at the steamboat wharf at Harlem Park around 1910. There were two excursion steamboats offering  transportation to the park. They would make the trips between the Mulberry Street dock downtown and the park as often as every half hour. The Illinois could carry 1,000 people and many would often dance and listen to popular music on the top deck. The twin stacks of the Illinois were hinged because they were so tall that when passing under the highest part of the High Bridge they could be laid back for passage.

Old Mill at Harlem Park was added sometime after 1905 and was an indoor boat ride built close to the Rock River to provide plenty of water for the ride. It was a popular with romantics as this was Harlem Park's "Tunnel of Love". A river front swimming pool was also added to the park around the same time as the Old Mill and became a popular spot for swimming during the summer.


Another penny postcard view of the Old Mill at Harlem Park

Figure Eight station, Harlem Park. The figure eight three way scenic railway roller coaster was built in 1905 along with the electric Carousel, the Maze, Shoot the Shoots, Penny Arcades, Knife  Boards, Novelty Parlors with a photo gallery where people could pose for a commemorative Eastman Kodak real photo postcard made using various backdrops such as in a hot air balloon or steamship deck to name a few.

Carrousselle Building, Harlem Park. The first carrousel or merry-go-round was a steam operated ride. It was removed and replaced in 1905 with a new electric carrousselle and a new building to house it in after the owners, Harlem Park Company invested $25,000.00 into rejuvenating the 15 year old park.

The steamers Forest City Queen and the Mary Lee docking at Harlem Park

Figure Eight and Circle Swing,. The train ran through a figure 8 shaped course before returning to the boarding station. This design was one of the first designs to be featured in roller coaster design, along with the out and back roller coaster The figure 8 allowed for more turns than the out and back design, offering riders a more exciting experience. The Figure Eight roller coaster at Harlem Park was designed by John A. Miller.

Lovers Lane was along the Rock River near the north end of Harlem Park where love smitten couples could take a leisurely stroll along the tree shaded and secluded walk or stop to rest and talk on a bench overlooking the river.

Another view of Harlem Park as seen from the Rock River with the carrousselle on the right side of the postcard.


The Harlem Park Annex on the east side of the river across from Harlem  Park was  serviced by an electric ferry boat that was sixty feet in length and  eighteen feet wide and could accommodate two hundred people. The ferry  shuffled  back and forth from the annex to the park and had music playing  so patrons could dance on the decks as they traveled across the river. At  the time the Interurban line ran north to Beloit, Wisconsin on the east side  of the river so a right of way was secured from the stop at Snow's Crossing  through the Harlem Park annex, also known as Malcolm Love's Park for  the man who owned the property. With as many as 15,000 people visiting  the park daily including many soldiers who were stationed at Camp Grant  this was an area for picnics, hiking and some peace and quiet away from  the bustle of the main park area.

Looking up the Rock River in the same vicinity as  Lovers Lane. By the mid 1920's Harlem Park's popularity started to fall out of favor. The automobile,  radio and movies spelled the end for Harlem Park which was closed on September 9, 1928. Owner Charles O. Breinig moved some of the more popular attractions to Central Park Gardens Amusement Park which he also owned. The land was sold for an exclusive homes subdivision, Rock Terrace.

Birdseye View of Harlem Park From Search Light Tower.

A souvenir Harlem Park Chautauqua Auditorium plate in our collection.

Interurban car 837 shown at the entrance to Harlem Park in 1912

A picture from the Harlem Park photo booth with props.

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