Harveys Lake History

Sunset Park

Sunset Park Carousel at Knoebel's Amusement Resort September 2018
Courtesy of Annabelle Ambrose

Sunset has always served as the principal gateway to the Lake with early highway, trolley and bus service to the area. Sunset had the earliest hotel at the Lake in 1855 and its most magnificent hostelry, the Oneonta Hotel (1898-1919), along with an array of cottages, restaurants, steamboat services, bars, dance halls and other attractions in its early decades of development.

The name Sunset was adopted after the construction of L.C. Schwab’s Sunset Pavilion in 1919, a dance hall built over the Lake from which the evening sunset at the west corner of the Lake could be viewed. Schwab also had bath houses, a beauty parlor, store and gasoline station, novelty booths, ample parking and an ice house with 100 tons of ice for his enterprises. The general area was once known as Schwab’s Sunset Park.

Francis "Red" Ambrose

Since the early decades of the twentieth-century three overarching developers have underwritten Sunset’s history: George Bennethum’s Lake Improvement Company (1922-1946); Francis L. Ambrose and Sunset Park (1949-1965); and Joseph A. Paglianiti’s Grotto Pizza (1953-present).

The Lake Improvement Company built the Lake’s most massive lakeside and beach development in the 1920s until devastating fires in 1928 and 1929 destroyed the lake front development.

The company rebounded in more modest fashion but in late January 1947 the Lake Improvement Company sold most of its Sunset holdings to Francis L. (Red) Ambrose (1909 -1991). In November 1948 Ambrose also purchased the former Schwab’s Pavilion holdings at Sunset. Although born in Mt. Carmel, Ambrose had deep roots at Harvey’s Lake. His maternal grandmother was Stella Starr, who owned restaurants and clubs at Sunset as did his mother Helen Ambrose. Francis Ambrose attended Lehman High School but graduated from Coughlin High School in 1927 as a star football player and wrestler.

On August 19, 1928, Ambrose had a summer job at the Casino bowling alley when a fire broke out. He was the last of the pin boys to escape the boarding rooms. Two pin boys lost their lives in the fire. After Coughlin Ambrose entered Wyoming Seminary, played football and wrestled, and he is a member of Seminary’s sports Hall of Fame. He played both sports at Lafayette University and he received a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ambrose later taught social studies and coached football in Pennsylvania and New Jersey schools. When he retired in 1946 as principal of the Collingdale High school in New Jersey he moved to the Back Mountain. He lived in Dallas and was president of the Dallas School Board and Rotary Club. He was a key figure in the Dallas school jointure and a founder of the Luzerne County Fair.

A Sunset Winter - Sunset Park Carousel Pavilion in Rear - 1958

The 1947 purchase by Ambrose also included a Penny Arcade and eleven cottages owned by the Lake Improvement Company. The cottages were former World War I barracks from Cape May, New Jersey, re-assembled by the Lake Improvement Company at Sunset for summer rentals. They ran along Hillside Avenue which once ran directly to the Lake. With a new highway entrance to the Lake in 1941 the State relocated the cottages, named for various States, to an area behind the present Grotto site. Ambrose relocated the cottages across the new highway to create a parking area for a proposed park. The “State Cottages” were strung along a new Annabelle Road, named for Ambrose’s daughter Annabelle Ambrose.

Ambrose opened Sunset Park in the late Spring of 1949. Ambrose had an associate developer of the park, Don Robinhold, but he left the business in its early years. The park was located in an area along and behind an earlier version of the Grotto restaurant. The Dallas Post on May 13, 1949, noted that Peter Ambrose, brother of Francis Ambrose, now owned Sunset’s famous Cotton Club which later in the year would be renamed the Circle Inn (In 2018 the structure houses Strive Multi-Sports.) Francis Ambrose had filled portions of the inlet basin with red ash which would be topped with finer fill. He was creating more of a childrens’ park than a traditional park and already had a miniature train ride hauled by a “40 and 8” engine, and childrens’ auto, torpedo and airplane concessions-with plans for a small ferris wheel and whip ride later in the Summer-a year before Hanson’s Amusement Park opened its own KiddieLand. The park also offered marina services.

The Dallas Post reported on June 8, 1951, that Ambrose was raising a 400 X 800 feet tract of the inlet basin by 3.5 feet to support concrete foundations for park structures. The main entrance to Sunset Park was on the left side of the main highway entering Sunset. There was a row of refreshment stands parallel to the highway. First was a 12-inch hot dog stand across from Annabelle Avenue. A frozen vanilla custard stand followed serving a Crowley’s dairy product. Crowley’s was based in Binghamton, NY. Next was a pizza stand operated by Bernard Ambrose, a brother of Francis Ambrose. Bernie’s Pizza had a shop in Luzerne and later in Dallas. Then there was a parking area and the main food stand, the Snack Shop (the former Penny Arcade) near Joe’s Grotto Pizza. There were garages behind Joe’s Pizza where Ambrose permitted the American Legion to operate Bingo to support the Legion. In this general area was the “potato room” where potatoes were peeled and prepared for the stands which sold “French Fries.”

In the park as it developed there was a miniature golf course, childrens’ amusement rides, and a fenced area for pony rides. The pony rides were offered by Norman and Ken James from the near-by Mohawk Riding Academy along Old Lake Road. There was also the “train barn”, a tunnel which housed the miniature train ride which ran along a rail loop into the marshy area of the inlet. Passengers sat in cabs which could carry four adults, two across from each other, similar to the miniature train ride at Hanson’s Amusement Park. Riders had glimpses of the inlet marsh on both sides of the train to spy aquatic plants, flowers, birds and small reptile life. The train was owned by Pittston’s William James who had it built for the park and operated it as a concession at Sunset.

Lady of the Lake Contest - Sunset - August 1958

Near the custard stand was the carousel. The carousel was built circa 1910-1918 by the Brooklyn firm of Stein and Goldstein. The early years of the carousel are unknown but it ran at Croop’s Glen (1926-1940) at Hunlock’s Creek until its purchase by Lawrence Knoebel in 1948 who operated it at area fairs. In 1950 Francis Ambrose purchased it for Sunset Park. The carousel had 16 still horses, 16 jumpers and 2 chariots. It does not have its own organ. By 1953 the carousel’s canvas top needed replacement at a cost of $3,000.00 as the carousel was outdoors and not protected within a pavilion. For a time Ambrose advertised the carousel for sale, but then decided to retain it and to build a pavilion to enclose it. Since there was no organ as musical accompaniment, the carousel operator ran a record-player as the sound feature.

Sunset Park had a 110 foot beach front at the Lake. Ambrose improved the beach in 1951 with tons of a fine gravel which had greater stability then the usual sand for a beach. There was also an 80 X 16 foot dock and a series of small pavilions or concessions along the beach. The first pavilion was at the foot of the dock and featured hot-dogs. After a short stretch of beach there was a second pavilion commonly known as the “drug store” which sold notions and had a counter for milk shakes with a juke-box for music. Approaching the bridge were one or two other small public stands.

For several years Sunset Park was also the site of Lady of the Lake annual contest, sponsored by the Harvey’s Lake Lions Club, from 1950 through 1964. In 1950 the contest was at Sandy Beach. From 1951 through 1958 it was held at Sunset Park before returning to Sandy Beach from 1959 through 1964. The history of the Lady of the Lake contest is covered in a separate article on this website.

In the early 1950s Sunset Park generally opened in early April but in later years a May opening was more common with the season ending in late summer. The park advertised little in area newspapers but in the earliest weeks of the season the park did advertise that it was open evenings and Sundays at 2:00 PM. Otherwise, the park had regular daily hours during the main seasonal weeks.

By the early 1960s Ambrose Sunset Marina was also hosting the sale of Cutter and Sea-Mac boats and Mercury outboard motors. But increasing insurance costs for operating amusement rides was impacting the park’s future.

Sunset Park Carousel at Knoebels - 2018

When Sunset Park closed after the 1965 season, Ambrose maintained for a time a refreshment stand, the miniature golf course, marina, and his rental cottages. The carousel was sold to George Perluke, a Beach Haven businessman. In 1976 Knoebel’s Amusement Park purchased the carousel and still operates it under a pavilion with an adjacent 1900 era German organ restored in 1983-1986 to accompany the Stein and Goldstein carousel.

When Ambrose purchased Bennethum’s Sunset interests in 1947 he declined to purchase Bennethum’s La Casa bar and restaurant which was then retained by Harold Heiter, a son of Estelle Bennethum, the widow of George Bennethum. She also owned the Castle Inn on the Dallas-Lake highway. (Estelle Bennethum died in late August 1952 while playing Bingo at the Lake). Heiter lost the liquor license to La Casa in August 1957. Ambrose then purchased the La Casa but did not reopen the bar. He created the La Casa Amusement Center as an arcade adjacent to Sunset Park and later converted it to a boat storage facility serving his marina. During the morning of August 23, 1973, the La Casa was destroyed in a fire battled by over 70 firemen from five area fire departments. The La Casa (once the Lakeview and later the Plantation Club) was likely the oldest Sunset structure fronting the Sunset beach area, dating back to the Hotel Oneonta era.

In 1970 Francis Ambrose sold a portion of beach front property to the Harvey’s Lake Beach Association at Sunset. The association’s purchase extended the club’s existing water front from earlier holdings Ambrose once owned. Ambrose sold another smaller water front portion in 1972 to Tommy O’Brien for his scuba-diving school. Other Lake interests were sold in succeeding years including the site for the Lake’s American Legion building but the far greater share of the Ambrose holdings including the site of Sunset Park and Ambrose’s remaining water front was sold to Joseph Paglianite of Grotto Pizza in September 1977.

 

This article is based in part on an April 28, 1982, interview with Francis “Red” Ambrose. Very helpful information was also provided by Annabelle Ambrose, Massachusetts. Additional information was offered by Norman James, Mohawk Riding Academy. Photographs of Sunset Park were not available but will be added to the site if available at a later date.

 

Copyright 2018 F. Charles Petrillo

 

Copyright 2006-2017 F. Charles Petrillo