Diving horses, dancing, and other diversions
Imagine this. It’s summer. You’re young, single, and smartly attired in your Saturday night best. You’re on a ferry, The Summer Girl, coming from Noank or Masons Island to the Willow Point Casino in West Mystic for an evening of dancing and socializing. The venue has a large dance floor and a band whose music could “liven a cemetery.” Japanese lanterns decorate the pavilion, and lights from boats on the river create a magical atmosphere. It’s a beautiful night in 1915.
The festivities usually break up around 10:30 p.m. when proper young ladies and their beaus head home. Apparently there are some exceptions because one householder, who lives near Casino Road, has complained that she has to take down her hammock on weekends to discourage exuberant young lovers from disturbing her sleep.
Casinos in the early 20th century were amusement parks or recreation centers, not gambling parlors. They were popularized by the advent of trolleys, which made family outings into the country easy jaunts. Amenities included dance halls, skating rinks, picnic grounds, ball-fields, and sometimes even carousels! They were located on coves, rivers, and Long Island Sound, so boating and canoeing were popular pastimes.
Fire and hurricanes seem to have conspired against casinos; Willow Point was destroyed in 1931 by a fire of unknown origin.
In 1903, Quaker Hill farmer Norman Richards saw an opportunity to boost his income. He leased a parcel of land on Smiths Cove to Jesse Bingham and agreed to build a dance platform large enough to hold 800 people. Richards Grove became a popular destination, attracting families and single party-goers alike. Sailors came up from New London for the dances, which were sponsored by the Navy during WWI.
In 1921, Richards leased the venue to another tenant, John Danz, who, I’m guessing, was related to Katherine Danz, one of the owners of the Willow Point Casino. It must have been a family affair because Nick Danz led a seven-piece jazz orchestra at the Willow.
By the end of the decade, casinos were in decline, and the Grove’s facilities were destroyed by fire.
Another fun magnet was the Golden Spur Amusement Park, on Keeney Cove near the head of the Niantic River. It was established by the East Lyme Street Railway in 1905 to increase ridership on their trolley line. The park had the usual features plus a fun house, a Japanese tea room, and some thrilling — if odd — shows. For example, J.W. Gorman presented his World Famous Diving Horses, pretty white steeds who plunged headlong into Keeney Cove off a high, steep wooden ramp. It sounds like a dreadful stunt, but apparently it was a crowd pleaser.
Based on sheer numbers, the early 20th century must have been the golden age of recreation venues. Besides those already mentioned, Groton Long Point had a dance hall and bowling alley in a casino before the 1938 Hurricane demolished it. Today, there’s a building on the same site called “The Casino,” which now houses a post office, restaurant, and the offices of the GLP Association.
New London’s Pequot Colony had a casino along with cottages and a grand hotel, until fire, Prohibition and the Great Depression took their toll.
Yet another casino was built in Wequetequock in 1906 by the Groton and Stonington Street Railway company to promote ridership on their trolleys. That building survived the hurricane but was destroyed by fire in 1940.
Finally — at least for this narrative — there’s Bluff Point State Park and Coastal Reserve in Groton, which was another casino-like site before the 1938 Hurricane blew the buildings away. I went there on a cold, drizzly weekday in early May and was surprised to find it full of people who were having fun despite the weather. Trolleys are long gone and old-style casinos won’t be back, but enjoying nature by the sea remains a timeless pleasure.
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