You can take a bus or a car to the historic mansions of Fairmount Park this holiday season, but in the past a sleigh would have carried you there. Here’s WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston on the sights you may have seen along the way.
Before advent of television or even radio, Fairmount Park was the main recreational spot for those who lived in and around Philadelphia. When the snow was good and the river was frozen, thousands turned out to skate, sled, and toboggan. There were snowball fights, of course, and sleigh riding. The automobile hadn’t been invented yet so there was no need to clear the roads, and snowy streets and carriageways meant a trip through the park. Riders bundled up in all kinds of conveyances to take the river drives up to and through the Wissahickon. Imagine a beautiful scene with the snow on the trees and sleigh bells jingling.
Reality check: The Schuylkill proved a dangerous place to skate, and so a couple of lakes were created in the park to move skaters off the river. Many of the mansions were open as comfort stations, places to warm up and buy a hot or cold drink. These days the historic homes are decked out for the holidays and open to the public as part of A Very Philly Christmas At the Historic Houses of Fairmount Park.
MUSIC: “Jingle Bells” from the CD, A Musical Christmas Tree, Morton Gould
Meridee Duddleston: A cold snap brought out the first real evidence of winter: news that the pool behind the dam for the Fairmount Waterworks was frozen over. On a weekend, skaters would fill the Schuylkill River in front of Boathouse Row.
Darren Fava: There was all sorts of activity out there. From elderly folks you see here to children. I dare say we wouldn’t have any ice thick enough to do today.
MD: Darren Fava manages the historic homes in Fairmount Park for Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department. With images and newspaper accounts he’s painting a wintertime picture of the park in the late 1800s.
DF: You see a nice sleigh here and then a “clunkier” vehicle. It was big news to write that there was enough snow to go sleighing. And they would always mention "Jingle Bells" and they would always talk about how it just like an old-fashioned Christmas.
MD: Fairmount Park was the primary recreational venue for everyone in and around Philadelphia, summer and winter. A Currier and Ives-type of Christmas comes through in this newspaper account from 1898.
DF: And this is another favorite part of mine. Once in the park, the winter panorama spreads out like an immense Christmas card. The frozen river with its crowds of gracefully gliding skaters is a roadway boundary on one side, while snowcapped trees and icicle-draped rocks loom up on the other.
MD: Skating and sleighing were great equalizers. And the old summer homes of the wealthy overlooking the river were “comfort stations” open for all to come in from the cold.