The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

May 3, 2010

Amusement park capped long, varied career


By Lynn Reichen
For The Daily Item A teacher who became a physician, then a Union surgeon, then a politician, spent the last of his 78 years living in a cottage on the grounds of a Valley amusement park he built.

---- — One of the most prominent figures in Riverside's past, Dr. Abraham T. DeWitt was the youngest of seven sons and born in August 1837 in Northumberland County to William and Elizabeth Tressler DeWitt.

Until the age of 16, Abraham worked on his father's farm and then at his brother William's mill. In 1885, using the money he made at the mill, Abraham enrolled in an academy in Boalsburg, in Centre County, and pursued a teaching career.

DeWitt abandoned teaching and studied medicine in Dauphin County. In 1861 he entered the University of Vermont to complete his medical training and graduated in 1862. After graduating, DeWitt returned to Northumberland County and opened a private practice in Snydertown.

In 1861, the Civil War had begun. DeWitt felt it was his duty to help his country and in 1863, after passing the test for Army services, DeWitt was appointed assistant surgeon of the 54th Pennsylvania Volunteers, who were call the "Emergency Men." After his 100-day term expired, DeWitt received his discharge from the 54th Volunteers, re-entered the Union service and was appointed assistant surgeon to the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery. The regiment was discharged by general order on Jan. 29, 1866.

After the war, DeWitt returned to Snydertown and resumed his practice. In 1873, DeWitt was elected to the state House of Representatives and in 1875 was appointed transcribing clerk. At the end of his term, he retired from politics and resumed his practice in Snydertown.

In 1878 he moved to Riverside. He erected a small white cottage at the corner of Avenue H and Sunbury Road. This cottage became known as "DeWitt's Drug Store." DeWitt's practice prospered in Riverside and he became one of its most esteemed citizens.

About 1896, DeWitt bought 28 acres of the Van Norstran farm at the south end of Avenue E in Riverside. His dream for the property was to turn it into a "pleasure resort" for the public. Brush was cut out, old trees removed and a water drainage system installed. Wells were sunk, a large pavilion — 50-by-110 feet, with a band stand — was erected and a cook house with a large dining hall was built. The following several years, new acquisitions and spots for entertainment were added.

A shooting range and baseball diamond with a grandstand stood in the south corner of the park. In the north was a lawn tennis court and private stalls for horses. Around the park was a driving and bicycle path that could be used for horse racing. Inside the park, paths were cleared for walking and picnicking. There were carnival booths and a movie house in the park. Dances were held twice a week.

Many prominent dance bands and orchestras came to DeWitt's Park — Fred Waring and his orchestra was one such band. In 1905, DeWitt even went so far as to install a merry-go-round at the cost of more than $2,000. Trolleys connected to the park with Danville, Bloomsburg and Berwick.

The park became a popular resort and was visited by thousands every season. As you read articles in the old Danville newspapers, many meeting, reunions and family outings were held at DeWitt's Park.

DeWittt must have had a difficult time scheduling all the church picnics and other organizational events held there. The Farmer's Tri-County Picnic was one of the largest attractions at the park, bringing crowds in as large as 20,000 people.

Eventually DeWitt closed his medical practice, built a cottage in the park and spent the remainder of his life working and improving the park. After suffering a stroke in 1912, Abraham lived with his son, William, until his death on July 21, 1915. Abraham received the burial rites of the G.A.R. and was buried in Mount Vernon Cemetery, Riverside.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the automobile, the popularity of DeWitt's Park declined. People were more mobile and wanted to go farther afield for outings. DeWitt's Park closed and the only thing left is a grove of trees at the end of Avenue E. Homes surround the park along Avenues D and F. Homeowners there say pieces of old block foundations can be found under the brush.

Clearly DeWitt led a diverse and giving life. In his 78 years, he was a teacher, physician, soldier and politician.

He would likely approve of being remembered for his gift of the park to Riverside and Danville that brought so much pleasure to the citizens of the area, and put Riverside on the map as a premier vacation spot.

While Riverside is not in Montour County, Riverside residents do consider the borough part of the history of Montour County. Those who grew up in Riverside have heard of DeWitt's Park most of their lives and wish the park was still flourishing to enjoy all it had to offer.

n "Once Upon A Time In ...." is a Monday feature provided by the historical societies in Union, Montour, Northumberland and Snyder counties. The columns focus on people, places and objects of historical significance in those counties. Lynn Reichen is president of the Montour County Historical Society. Yearly membership is $15 per individual or $25 per family. A lifetime membership is $300. FOr more information, write MCHS, PO Box 8, Danville, PA 17821 or call 275-7875.