Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Lost City of Gold in Weehawken: Eldorado Amusement Park

If you're of a certain age, you might remember Palisades Amusement Park, the entertainment complex that once stood high above the shores of the Hudson River in Cliffside Park and Fort Lee. Between the rides, the pool and the entertainment, it was a big draw for families in the New York metropolitan area until it closed in 1971. Real estate values, it seems, trumped the need for nearby fun, and besides, the host towns appear to have grown weary of the crowds overtaking the park. Municipal officials had hastened the closure by rezoning the property for high-density housing.

Palisades, however, wasn't the first big attraction on the Hudson Cliffs. The Eldorado Amusement Park in Weehawken was a haven for pleasure-seeking visitors starting in 1891, offering a more refined experience. I stumbled upon the story while wandering Boulevard East in search of the site of the Alexander Hamilton-Aaron Burr duel.

Eldorado spanned from the cliffs of the Palisades west to current day Highwood Avenue, bordered by Liberty Place on the North and Duer Place on the South. It lacked the rollercoasters and other rides of more pedestrian parks of the day, preferring to offer more impressive attractions, if the superlative reports of the day are to be believed. Civic leaders, incorporated as the Palisades Amusement and Exhibition Company, built a Moorish themed casino, amphitheater and cliffside castle surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. Hungarian impresario Bolossy Kiralfy staged massive shows with casts as large as 1000 performers in the huge music pavilion. A 30 foot fountain on site was said to be the tallest and most expensive structure of its kind in America.

New Yorkers had long been ferrying across the river to flee the hot city summers, and they came to Eldorado in droves. Then, as today, visitors on the shores of the Hudson are greeted by the sight of the massive Palisades, and roads at the time weren't as helpful as they are now in making one's way to the top. An ingenious elevator and train system brought them from ferry slips at the river bank to the park 150 feet above. The marvel was featured in an 1891 issue of Scientific American, sounding very much like a steroid-fed version of the trams we see at amusement parks today.

Information on the park is a bit sketchy, but it seems that a large fire at the casino building in 1898 was the beginning of the end for the Eldorado. Its owners demolished the remaining buildings and sold the property as lots for an exclusive residential subdivision. Proximity to Manhattan was a huge selling point, but fortunately high-rises weren't yet in vogue. Though packed somewhat tightly by suburban standards, the houses that were built on the lots have plenty of character.

Today, the only signs of Eldorado in Weehawken are a historic marker on Boulevard East, and an Eldorado Place. Much like the lost city of gold, it's as if it never existed.

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