New England Memories: Riverside Park, Agawam, MA

Retro Staff 88 Comments

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the most exciting place my brothers and I could think to go was Riverside Park in Agawam, Massachusetts. If we were lucky, we could take a friend to celebrate our birthday or perhaps a friend would invite us along. My brothers even got to go with the Cub Scouts once or twice. For us, it was the most magical of places. We had never seen Disneyland, so there wasn’t much to compare it to. The only other park I had visited in the area was Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut and that was a lot smaller than Riverside.

What I remember most from Riverside are some of my favorite rides, like the umbrella chairs, the Whip, Laff in the Dark and the Round Up. One of the landmark rides at that time was the old wooden rollercoaster, the Thunderbolt. I rode it a few times that I remember, but my younger brother and I couldn’t get enough of the newer coaster, the WildCat. This steel coaster was added to the park in 1974. I remember getting off of it and running back around to the line to get on it again. In 1977, when they added a loop coaster (a single loop) called the Black Widow, it was considered a very big deal, so my mother and I were right there to try it out. Of course, now that I’m older, things have changed, and there’s no way I’d get on a rollercoaster now!

We also went to see the Demolition Derby at the Riverside Park Speedway. The race track was built adjacent to the park in 1948. My youngest brother really enjoyed it, so we’d make time to go. I never really got the point, but we always had a great time comparing those drivers to my mom.

Riverside Park first opened in 1840 as a trolley park and family picnic area called Gallops Grove. Set in an area along the Connecticut River, the park was originally owned by the Springfield Street Railway. Like many power companies and trolley owners of the time, they led their railway line to parks to encourage people to ride their trolleys. A carousel and a few mechanical rides were added by the early 1900’s to entice more people to visit. The name was changed to Riverside Grove and eventually, to Riverside Park.

The first rollercoaster was added in 1910 and was called the Giant Dip. It was removed from the park sometime after 1913. Riverside was unable to attract large crowds during the Great Depression and as a result, it was closed. It opened once again after Edward J. Carroll purchased it in 1940. In 1941 the Thunderbolt, a thrilling wooden rollercoaster, was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the park and to attract visitors to the newly reopened park. This rollercoaster still exists and is in use at the park today. The Riverside Park Speedway was built in 1948, replacing a bandstand, and in 1976 NASCAR began to hold races there. In the late 1950’s a theater and bowling alley were removed from the park to make Riverside a purely seasonal amusement park. More rides and attractions continued to be added and replaced over the years.

In 1997 Premier Parks, Inc. bought Riverside Park and after the 1999 season ended, it was renamed Six Flags New England. The speedway was removed after the 1999 season to allow for park expansion. Today the park covers more than 235 acres, has 46 rides plus a water park. There are a total of 9 different rollercoasters, with a little something for everyone. I’d like to take my kids there, but I’ll have to brace myself to see very little resemblance to the amusement park I grew up with. Maybe I’ll let them get me back on the Thunderbolt…or maybe not.