In 1860 Judah Sherwood, a wealthy textile mill owner from Paterson, New Jersey, purchased a large tract of land on a sparsely populated island in the middle of Lake Hopatcong, the largest body of fresh water in the Garden State. With the threat of civil war facing the country, Judah wanted a safe harbor for his family: a spacious home, accessible only by boat, on the shore of the island that would later bear his name.
Unfortunately, Sherwood died in 1870, and his house subsequently burned to the ground. A group of investors later purchased the property from Judah's estate and built a men's club on the foundation of the old Sherwood home, but in 1890 the club house, too, was destroyed by fire. Following the destruction of the Sherwood Island Club, the site remained vacant until 1905 when it was bought by developers who built a large hotel on the island. A popular spot with vacationing guests, the beach at Sherwood's Island was affectionately nicknamed "Little Coney" after New York's famed Coney Island.
Then in 1908 schoolteacher Oswald Frantz and his wife built a campground on the island that offered New Jersey families an affordable alternative to expensive hotels. The campground was such a huge success that Frantz gave up teaching in 1919 and opened a forty-room hotel on the island, complete with a dance hall, live music and other recreational activities. In 1921 he purchased the beach and built a boardwalk along it. A major milestone in Sherwood's Island history occurred in 1925 with the opening of the Wildcat roller coaster. By today's standards, its eighty-foot drop is considered tame, but at the time it was built, the $50,000 ride drew large crowds of thrill-seekers to the area.
A third fire struck the island in 1928, this time destroying the dance pavilion. Undeterred, Frantz built a new hall, larger and grander than the first. Rather than invest his own money in further development, Frantz decided to rent out space along the boardwalk to concessionaires. These independently owned refreshment stands, boat rides, photo studios and other attractions brought more people to the island.
Sherwood's Island Amusement Park, as it came to be called, continued to grow throughout the Roaring Twenties, the Depression-era thirties and the post-war forties. Since space on the island was limited, many new rides were built in close proximity to existing ones, and some were even placed directly above or below others. Such was the case with the dark water ride, the Lost River, which was built directly underneath the Wildcat roller coaster.
In 1948 Oswald Frantz sold the park, although the new owners kept him on as a manager until his death in 1955. Under new ownership, Sherwood's Island continued operating until 1983 when yet another fire started in the Lost River and spread to the roller coaster. Although no one was seriously injured, the loss of two popular rides, coupled with rising insurance rates and dwindling attendance made bankruptcy inevitable. Finally, on Labor Day 1983, Sherwood's Island Amusement Park closed its gates forever.
* * *
Shawn McClure and his friends jumped over the fence and snuck onto the grounds of the old Sherwood's Island Amusement Park. In the twenty years since the park had closed, a horde of teens scaled the same fence and explored the ruins within its boundaries. The buildings and concession stands were boarded up, and although some of the smaller rides had been disassembled and sold to traveling carnivals, the more stationary ones—though not operational—remained. The Aero-jets were still suspended two feet above the ground by their wire cables, a smiling skeleton stood ready to greet non-existent riders at the entrance to the fun house and the cars were faithfully waiting in the station to take intrepid passengers up the eighty-foot hill of the Wildcat.
"This place gives me the creeps," Maya Borman remarked as she walked along the dark, deserted midway.
"Why are all these buildings and rides still here?" asked Shawn's best friend, Stu Winwood.
"My dad says that the owners can't find a buyer for the property," Shawn explained. "Nobody wants to live out on the island; it's too far from the interstate."
"I hope they never sell it," Stu declared. "My older brother and his friends used to row out here and party just like we do, and I'll bet my younger brother will do the same when he's our age."
The teenagers walked past the old hot dog stand—now covered with twenty years worth of graffiti—and headed toward the beach, which was liberally dotted with food wrappers, cigarette butts and beer cans. Stu opened the grocery bag he was carrying and took out two six-packs of Budweiser and a pack of Newports.
After an hour of partying, Shawn and Maya set out for the roller coaster station. They had to clear away spider webs and fallen leaves in order to sit in one of the Wildcat's old cars.
"Look at the pathetic excuse for a hill," Maya laughed. "Eighty feet! Hell, I rode Cedar Point's Millennium Force. That has a three-hundred-and-ten-foot drop, and their new coaster is four hundred and twenty feet."
"Wow! That makes this one look like a kiddy ride."
After talking for several minutes, the two teens left the Wildcat and went to what remained of the entrance to the Lost River.
"I bet this old ride saw a lot of action in its day," Shawn said.
"What do you mean?"
"It was Sherwood Island's version of the tunnel of love. Couples used to make out in the darkness of the ride."
"How dumb! Why pay all that money to go to an amusement park to make out? Why not just park somewhere and sit in the back seat of your car for free?"
"Sherwood's Island wasn't like Six Flags, where you can kiss your paycheck goodbye. Admission was free; you only paid for the rides you went on, and on Monday and Thursday nights most were either a nickel or a dime."
"No wonder they went out of business."
"Enough talk about rides," Shawn said as he pulled Maya close to him. "We're standing in front of the tunnel of love."
* * *
Around 11:00 that night, the teenagers rowed back to the mainland and drove to a diner for burgers and fries. When the waitress brought the check, Shawn reached into his pocket only to discover that his wallet was not there.
"Damn it," he swore. "I must have dropped it on the island."
"We'll go back there tomorrow and look for it," offered Stu, who thankfully had enough money on him to pay for the meal.
"I have to go to work tomorrow, and my license is in that wallet."
His friends looked at him with downcast expressions. They were tired and wanted nothing more than to go to bed and get some sleep. They certainly didn't want to go stumbling around a dark, deserted amusement park looking for a missing wallet.
"You guys go home," Shawn suggested, "I'll go look for it. I think I remember where I went most of the evening."
After dropping his friends off, Shawn drove home, untied his boat from the dock and rowed back across the lake to the island where, for the second time that night, he jumped the fence and entered the old amusement park. He slowly walked across the parking lot, down the midway and toward the beach, shining his flashlight on the ground. Unable to find his wallet there, he headed toward the Wildcat and the Lost River.
Laughter from the shadows startled him.
"Who's there?" he cried.
A girl, a year or so younger than Shawn, walked toward him from the direction of the roller coaster station.
"I'm Lily," she said. "Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"I'm Shawn. I was here earlier this evening with some friends, and I must have dropped my wallet somewhere. You didn't find one by any chance, did you?"
The girl smiled and shook her head, an action that sent her long, pale blond hair rippling like a field of wheat around her shoulders.
"No, but I'll help you look for it."
The two searched the area around the Wildcat and Lost River and then headed toward the Aero-Jets.
"What are you doing out here all alone?" Shawn asked as they walked along the boardwalk, which had long ago been paved over with blacktop. "It must be after 1:00 a.m."
"I come here most Saturday nights to ride the rides."
Shawn turned his head sharply in her direction. Was the girl just kidding him, or was she a refugee from the funny farm?
"My father used to own this place," she explained. "I know how to operate them. Come on, I'll show you."
She led him to one of the Aero-jet planes and told him to get in.
"Now what?" he asked.
Lily opened an access panel on the wooden structure that housed the ride controls. She pressed a button, and the motor came to life.
"Awesome!" Shawn exclaimed. "This ride really does work."
"I told you so," Lily said.
She ran to the plane and jumped in as it slowly moved forward.
The ride gathered speed, and the four planes swung out over the lake in increasing distance from the center point.
"Who's going to the stop the ride?" Shawn asked.
"It's set on automatic. After a predetermined number of revolutions, it slows down and stops."
They rode the ride several times, and then Lily announced, "That's it for tonight," as she turned off the motor and closed the access panel.
After locating the missing wallet, they walked back to the eastern side of the island where Shawn's boat was tied up to an old dock.
"I'll be here next Saturday," Lily announced with a laugh and ran off into the shadows.
* * *
On Saturday evening Shawn took Maya to the movies. After he dropped her off at her house at the end of the night, he returned home, got into his boat and rowed over to Sherwood's Island where Lily was waiting for him at the dock. A pretty little girl, five or six years younger than Lily, was standing next to her.
"This is my little sister, Marta," Lily introduced her, and the younger girl giggled.
"Are you going to ride the Aero-Jet, too?" Shawn asked Marta.
"We're going into the Fun House tonight," Lily replied.
"Are you sure it's safe?" he asked, not too anxious to enter the dark ride.
"Of course," Lily said. "I checked it out. There's nothing in there to be frightened of."
Still, as the metal car chugged along the track toward the opening of the Fun House, Shawn felt apprehensive. Then the car burst through the wooden doors with a loud clang, and the three riders were thrust into darkness. Fortunately, the ride ended without incident.
"That was great!" little Marta cried. "Can we ride it again?"
After three more rides through the Fun House and five rides on the Aero-Jet, Lily announced that it was time for her and her sister to leave.
"I hope your parents don't ground you for keeping your sister out so late," Shawn said when he looked at his watch and saw that it was nearly 2:00 a.m.
"Why should they? They know she's safe with me."
Once again, Lily walked Shawn back to the dock where he had tied up his boat.
"Will you be here again next Saturday?" he asked hopefully.
"Sure. See you then."
* * *
The following weekend, Shawn passed up the chance to accompany Stu to a rock concert in order to see Lily at Sherwood's Island. This time when he rowed up to the eastern shore, she was waiting with both her sister, Marta, and her brother, Seth, who was midway in age between his two sisters.
"Seth, which ride do you want to go on?" Lily asked once Shawn joined them on land.
"My favorite is the Whip," he replied.
They rode the Whip several times. Seth literally screamed with joy every time the car raced around the turns and threw him against the seat. After riding the Whip, they returned to Marta's favorite ride, the Fun House, and finally to Lily's favorite, the Aero-Jet, but the ride was cut short when a sudden rainstorm erupted.
"I'll see you next Saturday," Shawn called as he ran toward the dock, pulling his shirt up over his head in an attempt to keep his hair dry.
On Shawn's subsequent trip to the old amusement park, another brother, Bertram, who was a year older than Seth, joined his siblings. Bertram chose to ride the Ferris wheel. Because the weight had to be somewhat balanced on both sides of the wheel, Lily remained near the controls, to start and stop the ride so the others could board.
Shawn, who had always liked to observe an amusement park from atop a Ferris wheel, found the view from this particular ride disturbing. When he looked to his right, he saw nothing but the dark, deserted park. To his left was the blackness of Lake Hopatcong. The only lights were the windows in the houses across the lake, and they were not much brighter than the stars in the sky.
After they'd had their fill of the Ferris wheel, the rest of the evening went as Shawn had expected: the five kids rode the Whip, the Fun House and, lastly, the Aero-Jet.
* * *
It was Saturday again, and now the warm days of June had given way to the hot days of July. As Shawn rowed across the lake, he imagined how crowded the beach must have been on such days before the park was forced to close in 1983.
This time when he tied his boat to the dock, he saw Lily waiting form him with a toddler in her arms.
"This is Edwina, the baby of the family," she said.
"How many sisters and brothers do you have anyway?" Shawn laughed.
"I have two sisters and three brothers."
"That's a big family. I'm an only child myself."
As they walked up the midway, Shawn and Lily took turns carrying Edwina.
"Horsey! Horsey!" the little girl laughed when she spotted the Carrousel Pavilion.
"We're not going in there, are we?" Shawn asked.
"Of course we are," Lily replied. "The merry-go-round is Edwina's favorite ride."
"But it's all boarded up."
"Wait here a moment," she instructed.
Lily found a loose board, pushed it open and squeezed through. A few minutes later the pavilion was alive with light and music. Shawn, waiting with Lily's sisters and brothers, soon heard the Wurlitzer band organ play Bicycle Built for Two. He and the younger children then followed Lily's path. From the outside, the Carrousel Pavilion looked like the other buildings in the park: rotted wood, graffiti and hundreds of pock marks left from BB guns. Inside, the place was as well-kept as a ride at Disneyland. Surprisingly, there were no spider webs hanging from the rafters, no smell of age and decay. The horses looked like they'd recently been painted, and their reins shone like new.
As Shawn marveled at the condition of the merry-go-round, Lily passed by him, riding on a white stallion. Edwina clapped her hands joyously. The older sister reached down, and Shawn handed the toddler to her.
"Go horsy!" the little girl laughed.
The Wurlitzer's song came to an end, and Pennsylvania Polka began to play.
Shawn jumped on a palomino. It had been years since he'd ridden a merry-go-round, and he suddenly felt like a small child again.
The time flew by; all too soon Shawn was in his boat rowing back to the mainland.
* * *
"What are you doing tomorrow night?" Stu asked when he saw Shawn the following Friday.
"Nothing much," Shawn lied.
He had told no one about Lily and her brothers and sisters or his Saturday late-night trips to the island.
"I don't have to work this weekend," Stu continued. "I thought we'd hang out together."
"I was going to row over to Sherwood's Island," Shawn said.
"Great! I'll have my brother get us some more beer. I'm sure Dina can make it. What about Maya?"
"I don't wanna ask the girls to go."
"I'm meeting someone over there."
"You devil!" Stu teased and playfully punched Shawn's arm.
"It's not like that. She's just a friend."
The next night Shawn picked Stu up at his house and drove him to the mall.
"I thought we were going to the island."
"Not until later. Lily won't get there till around midnight," Shawn explained.
"Why so late?"
"I never asked her. Maybe she sneaks out after her parents go to sleep."
Three hours later the two friends boarded Shawn's rowboat and headed for Sherwood's Island.
"So where's this girl, Lily?" Stu asked.
"I don't see her. Perhaps she's late. Let's go look for her."
They passed by the Ferris wheel first. The full moon made the ride more visible than on Shawn's previous visits. He could clearly see that half the cars were missing. So, too, were a number of the metal supports.
"You said you actually rode this?" Stu asked with disbelief. "You're lucky you're alive to tell about it."
"It was really dark the nights when we rode it. I had no idea it was in such a sorry state of repair."
When they came to the Whip, Shawn was astonished to see that it, too, was in far worse shape than he remembered it. Stu turned from the wreckage of the ride and faced his friend with a dubious look.
"Are you pulling my leg? This ride couldn't possibly work."
"I tell you it did."
As they neared the Fun House, Shawn saw a large spider web stretched across the doorway.
"I'm not going in there," he announced uneasily, and Stu agreed.
"Maybe she's down by the Aero-Jets."
But no one was there either.
"I suppose you rode this one, too," Stu said as he looked at the planes hanging askew from broken cables.
"Someone must have cut the wires during the week. I've ridden this ride every Saturday night for the past five weeks."
"No offense, Shawn, but I just don't buy any of this. These rides are in shambles, and there's no sign of Lily or her sisters and brothers."
As the two young men headed back toward the beach, they passed the Carrousel Pavilion.
"Wait a minute!" Shawn said hopefully. "I'll bet that's where they are."
Stu shook his head with disbelief but humored his friend and followed him inside. It was dark in the pavilion; there were no lights or music tonight. Stu reached into his pocket and took out his lighter. In the flame of the Zippo, the young men could plainly see that, except for twenty years worth of dust and litter, the pavilion was empty.
"Were you drunk or something?" Stu asked. "There's not even a merry-go-round in here!"
Shawn was too dazed to reply.
* * *
The following week dragged by. Shawn could think of little else but the strange transformation he'd witnessed at Sherwood's Island. Had he only imagined going on the rides with Lily, Marta, Seth, Bertram and little Edwina? He doubted it. He had never had much of an imagination before.
Saturday night he paced the floor of his bedroom until 10:00 p.m. Then once more he rowed back to the island—this time without Stu.
"We missed you last week," Lily greeted him from the dock.
"I rowed over, but you weren't here."
"Sorry, something came up and we couldn't make it."
Shawn and Lily walked to the beach where the younger children were playing in the sand.
"What's with this place?" the perplexed young man asked. "When I was here last week, everything was different. I didn't see one ride that looked even remotely operational, and the carousel was gone."
"You must have been looking through the eyes of an adult. It takes the innocence of a child to see the magic of an amusement park."
Suddenly, Shawn could hear the echoes of the Wurlitzer playing Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Lily took Edwina's hand in her left and held her right hand out to Shawn.
"Come on," she called. "It's time to go on your favorite ride: the roller coaster."
"I like roller coasters, but I've never ridden the Wildcat before. I wasn't even born until after this place closed."
"Don't be silly, Shawn. The Wildcat has always been your favorite ride."
* * *
The Sunday morning newspaper was late; it was nearly noon when Stu heard the familiar thud of the Star-Ledger hitting the front door.
"It's about time," Stu's father called to the paperboy. "What took you so long?"
"I had to wait for my delivery," the boy explained, hoping the lateness of the hour would not affect the size of the tip he would receive on collection day. "The papers were sent out late because the editor wanted to include full coverage of the fire."
"Fire? What fire?"
"Didn't you hear? That old amusement park on Sherwood's Island burned to the ground last night."
Stu, who had been watching TV in the living room, heard the paperboy's reply.
"Can I see the paper when you're done, Dad? I want to read about the fire."
The father removed the sports section and handed the rest of the newspaper to his son.
"Go ahead and read it. I want to see how the Yankees made out against the Red Sox last night."
FIFTH FIRE ON ISLAND RAZES ABANDONED AMUSEMENT PARK the headline read. The article, which took up the entire first page and continued onto the second, told of the destruction of Judah Sherwood's home in the early 1870s, the fire that damaged the men's clubhouse in 1890, the conflagration that leveled Oswald Frantz's first dance pavilion in 1923, the blaze that raged through the Lost River and spread to the Wildcat roller coaster and, finally, the one that wiped out the remaining traces of Sherwood's Island Amusement Park.
Stu dropped the paper, reached for the phone and dialed Shawn's number. Mrs. McClure answered and, weeping, told Stu that her son had not come home the previous night.
Had Shawn been crazy enough to return to the island?
When Stu bent to pick up the fallen newspaper, he noticed several old photographs on the front of the local news section: pictures of Sherwood's Island Amusement Park at the height of its popularity. Women in long skirts strolled arm-in-arm with men in straw hats. Young women of the twenties vied for the coveted title of Miss Sherwood Island. Handsome soldiers danced with their sweethearts to the sound of Big Band music in the dance pavilion. Toddling baby-boomers, who would in later years flock to the large theme parks with their multimillion dollar thrill rides, were cutting their teeth on kiddy rides at Sherwood's Island.
Stu turned the page and saw several more photographs. These, however, were of an even earlier era. There was a picture of Oswald Frantz's campground, the "Little Coney" beach, the Sherwood Island Men's Club and lastly Judah Sherwood's home. Stu read the caption below the oldest picture.
Judah Sherwood (far left) died of pneumonia in 1870. His wife, Alice, (far right) was killed in the blaze that destroyed the family home. The tragic fire also claimed the lives of Sherwood's six children: (from left to right) Edwina, Seth, Bertram, Marta, Lily and Shawn.
Stu stared in horror at the old photograph and, in particular, at the oldest son, for the young man's countenance bore an uncanny resemblance to Shawn McClure.
This story was inspired by Bertrand Island, an amusement that was once located in Mt. Arlington, NJ. It is where my love of roller coasters was born. Most of the history of the fictional Sherwood's Island is based on the former NJ amusement park. The park was torn down and townhouses put in its place.
Some people (and cats) just can't take those rough rides!