“Norumbega on My Mind,” by Joyce Lazarus

Take a stroll along the west bank of the Charles River facing the Marriott Hotel in Newton and you will notice an old boat house, some canoers enjoying a lazy fall afternoon, one or two swans, and hundreds of Canadian geese in the sparkling waters of the Charles. Cross a bridge and continue your walk east of the hotel and you will reach a thirteen-acre conservation area along the river, with trails passing through meadows, marshland, small forest groves, and picnic spots. Joggers pass by and dogs with their masked owners enjoy the open space. You might be surprised to encounter here and there the ruins of stone pillars and moss-covered walls, ghostly remains of a once magical place: Norumbega Park.

In June 1897, the owners of the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway built an amusement and recreation park at the end of the old trolley line running from Boston to Auburndale, Newton. Its name was taken from Norumbega Tower, a stone tower near South Street, not far from 60 Turner Street, that marked the supposed Norse settlement of Norumbega. The new park provided affordable recreation outside of Boston for a growing middle-class urban population.

Norumbega Tower

The park apparently succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, attracting hundreds of thousands of patrons every season for 66 years. It included a deer park and zoo, amphitheater for plays and musicals, carousel and huge Ferris wheel, bumper cars and other motorized kid rides, canoes and paddle boats, and early motion pictures.  You might even have seen occasional acrobats on a high wire suspended across the river. If you visit the Newton History Museum you will find old photographs of thousands of canoes on the Charles River near Norumbega Park, where couples enjoyed romantic moonlit outings and athletes competed in races.  The park’s “Pavilion Restaurant” was first managed by Chef Joseph Lee, a former slave from South Carolina.

Beginning in 1930, Norumbega Park opened its most popular venue, the Totem Pole Ballroom, which, for more than three decades thereafter, featured the most famous entertainers and musicians in the United States, including Frank Sinatra, Frankie Laine, Dinah Shore, and the swing bands of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Music from these concerts was nationally broadcast on radio and later television networks.

Several BOLLI members shared their reminiscences of Norumbega Park with me. Judy Kushinsky remembers going to the park with her parents as a young child and later, unchaperoned, as a teenager.  “Floating down the river on a paddle boat was great fun, but the ultimate grown-up experience was going on a date to the Totem Pole. We danced to the big band music and sipped soft drinks on the banquette seating surrounding the dance floor.”

Totem Pole Ballroom

Liz David also remembers dates at the Totem Pole during her high school years: “…the deep, plush couches that my date and I could get lost in, the sounds of the big bands – Tommy Dorsey… and many more. I met my husband Barry at Newton High School when I was sixteen and we were dates for the Junior Prom at the Totem Pole.” Ruth Grabel remembers taking a bus along Commonwealth Avenue from Bullough’s Pond and thinking how nice it was to have an actual amusement park down the street. Bill Hollman, who grew up in Brookline, remembers making “frequent bicycle trips along Commonwealth Avenue to Norumbega Park, getting an admission ticket to the trails and zoo, and listening to free Sunday afternoon concerts from a bandstand.” He said he was too young to attend (or afford) dances at the Totem Pole.

Bill’s story has an interesting twist: “One day in 1952, on a canoe ride with a girlfriend, I recognized the Director of Admissions of Brandeis and his son in another canoe.  We talked for almost an hour.  I didn’t realize that this was an interview. It ended with an invitation to visit classes. I decided to attend Brandeis – the best decision I ever made.”

What ultimately happened to Norumbega Park and why did it close? Its popularity apparently declined after the war years as automobiles and new highways drew area residents to the mountains and seashore on summer weekends. The amusement park closed in 1963 and the Totem Pole Ballroom followed a few months later, in 1964.

Norumbega Wurlitzer

If you wander long enough along trails by the river, you might hear ghostly sounds of couples dancing to the music of a swing band or sounds of a carousel.  One “living” reminder of this era remains: the restored Wurlitzer band organ from the park, which occasionally makes its appearance in a parade or celebration. I plan to look for it.

 

 

Directions to Norumbega Conservation Land: From the intersection of I-95/Route 30, take Commonwealth Avenue (Route 30) east to Islington Road. Turn left on Islington Road and park. Look for two stone posts engraved with storks near the corner of Commonwealth Avenue and Islington Road to mark the entrance to a trail. Take the trail for about 15 minutes and you will pass by Lyons Field and then Auburndale Park, with its picnic tables and playground.  Keep going on the trail by the river into the woods for another 10 minutes and you will see a small sign, “Conservation Land.” There are many different trails on this conservation land.

History of Western Commonwealth Ave, Boston MA

4 responses to ““Norumbega on My Mind,” by Joyce Lazarus”

  1. Lawrence Schwirian says:

    The old boat house was the park ranger headquarters at the turn of the 20th Century. The rangers had binoculars and a telescope and if you were caught canoodling you were subject to a $25 fine – a lot of money in those days. It is said there were thousands of canoes on the river between Auburndale and the dam in Waltham on weekends in warm weather. Canoeing was so popular because it was one of the few places a young couple could go without benefit of a chaperone.

  2. Elizabeth David says:

    Hi Joyce, thanks for reminding me of the sweet memories of yesteryear. I can picture it all.

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