Next Stop, Spring Grove Trolley Park

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on June 8, 2015.

(Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

(Posted with permission from the Wellesley Townsman)

Every convenience brings its own inconveniences along with it. So goes the old proverb.

This was no doubt the case with electric streetcars. In an era dominated by horse-drawn carriages and railroads, the streetcar was hailed as a new form of transportation that provided convenient access to nearby communities. Wellesley residents, for example, could now more easily take shopping trips to Natick or visit family and friends downtown after the first trolley came through town in 1896.

With that convenience, however, came such unpleasantries as excess noise, blinding headlights, harassment from the non-local ridership, and frequent accidents and derailings.

Then there were the establishments created to take advantage of the access the streetcar provided people. Of special note were the so-called “trolley parks” where riders could enjoy picnic and recreational grounds for the day or the evening. Although many of these were popular with the local citizenry — such as Auburndale’s Norumbega Park and Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire — not all trolley parks were as well accepted.

Here in Wellesley, for example, was Spring Grove, a relatively modest and short-lived trolley park on the north side of Worcester Street nearly opposite the current site of Sprague Elementary School.

Established in 1908 by Samuel McCracken towards the rear of his sprawling property, Spring Grove consisted primarily of grassy fields and dense forest with a large open-air pavilion, a dining hall, and a bandstand (all located near the current site of the intersection of Bristol and Wynnewood Roads). And convenient it was. Just catch a trolley on the Boston & Worcester Street Railway line, stop at the McCracken property a bit west of Kingsbury Street, follow the dirt path up the hill, and you’re there.

To be fair, much of the activity at Spring Grove was harmless. Patrons of the park just enjoyed a night of music and dancing and then went home.

Spring Grove was also a popular spot for company retreats, church picnics, and club outings — some groups from Wellesley, but most having arrived in special streetcars directly from Boston. Hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors spent the day participating in recreational activities and numerous sporting competitions, the latter of which included the standard 100-yard dash, tug-of-war, and three-legged race, as well as some odd events such as log sawing contests and greased pig chases. The main event, however, was almost always a baseball game — usually the married men versus the single men, although the gathering of the United States Fat Men’s Club in 1916 featured the Lean Fat Men’s team against the Regular Fat Men’s team. (The umpire called that game after five innings due to player exhaustion.)

The problems at Spring Grove, however, mostly occurred during the public dances. Although alcoholic beverages were strictly prohibited, plenty of visitors were able to sneak in booze. Naturally, fights would then break out, requiring the police to arrive and haul the offenders to the jail in the basement of Town Hall.

One of the worst incidents occurred in 1910, when Wellesley Police Officer David Cronin was attacked as he attempted to place a 23-year-old Natick man under arrest. Left with a ripped uniform and a lost badge, Cronin was only able to escape with his arrestee because a fellow officer had come to his rescue after hearing him blow his police whistle. Together, the officers commandeered a Natick-bound trolley to flee from the mob, got on the first eastbound streetcar they passed, and then barreled past the violent crowd that had gathered at the Spring Grove stop. The offender was then taken to the police headquarters (located at the time at the Hose 2 fire station on Worcester Street in Wellesley Hills). Catastrophe had been avoided.

Not surprisingly, these types of incidents led the Board of Selectmen to issue an order the following year requiring that police officers must be present at all public dances at Spring Grove. They also made obtaining the necessary permits to run the park difficult for Samuel McCracken. Why would Town officials — who were all deeply concerned about any business that could tarnish Wellesley’s reputation as a wholesome community – not close a trolley park that enabled such unwelcome behavior?

That probably explains why Spring Grove shut down in the early 1920s. With the enactment of Prohibition and the subsequent closure of drinking establishments in surrounding towns, perhaps the trolley park had become the scene of too many events involving drunk and belligerent patrons.

Regardless of the exact reason for its closure less than two decades after it opened, Spring Grove quickly became an afterthought in Wellesley history. And by the late 1930s, the only buildings that remained on the property were the houses of the McCracken family at 679 and 701 Worcester Street.

Life in Wellesley similarly moved on after the last trolley came through town in 1932. Sure, the electric streetcar had provided increased mobility for Wellesley residents up through the early 1920s. But with the rise in popularity of automobiles and the independence they gave their owners, ridership on the trolleys plummeted.

Of course, even this new mode of transportation created an inconvenience that we’re still dealing with today: traffic.