At West Point Park, The Last Laugh The Gates Clang Shut On An Era's Amusement

Posted: May 01, 1989

Now there are none.

The last amusement park in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia has died.

The corpse is West Point Park, near Lansdale in Montgomery County. It's just a small place down a side road, an old place under a tall stand of old trees.

In Montgomery County, West Point has died. In Bucks County, Sesame Place lives.

But the Pennsylvania Bureau of Amusement Rides and Attractions - the state agency that regulates such things - has defined Sesame Place in Langhorne as a ''kiddie ride operation," not an amusement park.

So in all the suburbs of Philadelphia - on both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the Delaware River - only Clementon Amusement Park in Camden County survives.

The death of West Point has not gone unnoticed.

It has stirred concern from a resident of nearby Telford, who has begun a petition drive to resurrect the park, and from the family of the Civil War veteran who founded it.

"It's a shame to tear it down," Ruth Ann Munio said the other day, sitting in her living room in the village of West Point, about a mile down the road from the amusement park.

"The family," she said, "is devastated."

The family is that of Hezekiah Zieber, who is said to have founded the park as a picnic grove just after the Civil War. The family sold it in the 1940s when it was still a picnic grove known as Zieber Park.

Munio has been away from the park long enough that she had to consult a local newspaper to get the correct spelling of Hezekiah Zieber.

But she only had to look across the sofa at her mother - Edna Woods, now 82, her next-door neighbor - to see the daughter of the man who sold the park out of the family.

"Trolleys went up the street" from Norristown, Munio recalled of tales she had heard, "and stopped in front of the park." The trolleys stopped running long ago. There are no tracks in the street now.

The family seems to have few ties to the park now.

"When we go to a family reunion" of more than 200 Zieber descendants, Munio said, the reunion is held in northern Montgomery County. "We don't go to West Point Park."

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At the front gate stand two tall toy soldiers - resplendent in the red and white uniforms of those armies seldom encountered beyond the boundaries of childhood.

"Closed," says the sign above the soldiers, left over from last year. ''See You In '89."

No amusement park rides dominate the amusement park.

Trees dominate, trees as tall as four-story buildings, twice as high as any structure within the park.

The trees comment on the lifelessness of the park - winter-black and winter-leafless at a time when magnolia and cherry and dogwood trees have already blossomed.

Under the trees stand picnic sheds and under the sheds are picnic tables, piled three high.

Under the trees stands the low-level roller coaster.

Beyond the roller coaster, a little train - "Star Line Express" painted on the engine - sits under a clear plastic shroud.

Winter still shrouds West Point.

Toilets helped kill the park.

The problem with the park began when runoff from its toilets was found in a nearby stream last July, Upper Gwynedd Township Manager Michael Iacocca said in a recent interview. The village of West Point lies within Upper Gwynedd.

For the last month of last season, Iacocca said, the toilets got a reprieve.

Because the toilet material was leaking from park septic tanks, Iacocca said, the park followed a township directive to flush park waste directly into trucks that carted it to a treatment plant.

This season, he said, the park would have had to connect its toilets to the township sewer line that runs alongside the park.

Rather than shoulder that expense, Iacocca said, the owner decided to sell the park to a housing developer.

"I'm sure it was a very hard decision for him," Iacocca said of the park owner.

In an interview last summer, William Evans, president of the firm that owns West Point Park, noted that amusement parks like his have been dying across the nation.

"Runaway insurance costs, which have doubled and perhaps quadrupled in the past three, four years," have helped kill the parks, Evans said.

So have affluent suburban youngsters, who have no real need to work.

"We've been running ads all summer long," he said last year. "We spend thousands just trying to recruit summer staff."

Over the last two weeks, Evans could not be reached for comment, though several phone messages were left at the park.

"We've been getting calls from nuns saying they'll pray for a miracle" to keep the park from closing, a phone answerer at the park said recently. "A lot of people are upset about it."

John G. Eichenlaub, a developer, said in a brief interview last week that ''we have an agreement of sale on the park."

Eichenlaub said his intention is "basically just to build . . . housing, nice homes that will blend in with the neighborhood."

The construction of nearby homes in recent years might have helped spotlight the park's weaknesses.

"We weren't looking to get rid of the park," Upper Gwynedd Commissioner Roger Poirier said in explaining the township's concern about the toilets. ''We were happy with the park."

Poirier said West Point Park might have had problems with waste in previous years, but "it was never apparent until homes were built back there. Before that, it was just vacant territory."

Then, last summer, Poirier said, "we had neighbors who registered complaints about the sewage . . . and we found there was a health hazard."

Upper Gwynedd has no record of significant complaints about the park in recent years, Township Manager Iacocca said.

"Occasionally, a new resident would say it's noisy," he said. "But we feel they had a good track record."

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