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Patrons stroll along the path at the Trolley Park at Cape Cottage. This image is from a postcard that is part of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society archives.

During the late 1800s the invention of the electric trolley system of mass transportation between larger cities and outlying suburbs provided an easy commute for workers and shoppers. Additional trolley lines were created to bring passengers to a specific location at the end of the trolley line. These gathering places were known as trolley parks.

A trolley park was a destination for those wishing to enjoy a relaxing afternoon or evening riding open-sided trolleys out of the city and into the fresher air of the countryside. These attractive areas often included a theater and refreshment stand to complement the extensive landscaping and scenic views.

Upon its completion in 1896, a trolley track ran from Monument Square in Portland to Fore Street, across the old Portland Bridge into South Portland, through Knightville to Broadway and ending at the newly built Casino at Willard Beach.

The huge success of this venture prompted formation of the Cape Elizabeth Shore Railroad Company, which contracted to build a connecting track loop to bring passengers to the new Trolley Park at Cape Cottage. Completed in May 1898, the park entrance was across the street from the present post office substation on Shore Road.

This trolley park’s main attraction was a summer theater at the southwest corner of the extensive grounds. The large, square framed structure designed by John Calvin Stevens featured a wide veranda leading into the foyer. From there, the large balcony was reached by means of two flights of stairs. Private boxes installed on each side of the main floor brought the total seating capacity to 1,024 plus standing room.

The stage was large enough to accommodate the summer-stock theater companies. The drop curtain was hand-painted by New York artist H. Logan Reid, and the full floor plan included an orchestra pit in front of the stage and five dressing rooms on each side. The building was officially known as McCullum’s Theatre in honor of famed Portland actor Bartley McCullum.

Several well-known actors and actresses from that era performed in many dramas and lighthearted comedies. The first production in the inaugural year, on June 11, 1898, was “The Dawn of Freedom.” Five additional productions followed throughout the summer.

An added attraction at this location was The Casino at Cape Cottage. Situated at the far end of the acreage on a cliff overlooking the harbor, The Casino, built around the same time, featured shore dinners plus a panoramic view and easy access to the theater.

Round trip trolley fare from Portland was 5 cents per person. It increased to 20 cents if admission to either the matinee or evening performance was desired. Dinner at The Casino was extra.

Paid admissions of 6,741 were recorded through the week ending July 2, 1898. Trolleys were filled to capacity with crowds wishing to attend the theater performances or those just wishing to dine at The Casino. A full house with standing room only every night through the final week ending Sept. 10, 1898, indicated this new venture was a success.

Throughout the season ladies were seen in their long-skirted, pastel-colored dresses and elbow-length gloves. Their wide-brimmed matching hats, sporting feathers or flowers, perched atop the bouffant hairstyles of the day. Occasionally a parasol could be seen protecting the lady from harsh sunlight.

Gentlemen were observed in their sartorial splendor of fine three-piece suits with coordinating tie and a straw hat; sometimes a walking stick was clutched in a gloved hand.

A young girl’s knee-length dress with a wide sash at the waist could show off her long black stockings and black high-button shoes. Most girls wore matching wide-ribbon bows in their hair. Young lads were clothed in short jackets, dress shirts, knickers, (pants fastened just below the knee), and black stockings and high-button shoes.

It was a pretty sight to observe as they all walked sedately along the paved pathways admiring the colorful blooms of seasonal plantings, lush green grass and perhaps stopping to chat with friends as each enjoyed the fresh air. Exotic and colorful birds chattered from cages suspended from the trees along the pathways.

The second year of operation of the Trolley Park at Cape Cottage continued successfully. A direct route from Portland without the detour by Willard Beach shortened travel time to a mere 20 minutes. By 1901 the Portland Railroad Company assumed full ownership and the area became known as The Cape Theater.

Weather contributed to attendance or lack thereof; profits were measured by a combination of round trip and theater admissions. It was considered a successful venture, but not really a money maker. However, the week ending Aug. 1, 1901, showed 9,400 patrons, with 1,350 attending that night alone, more than 220 above the seating capacity.

By 1919, popularity of the automobile made it easier and enjoyable to travel farther away to seek other forms of relaxation during the summer months. After two years of poor returns, The Casino ceased operations as a dining facility, the trolley tracks were removed from Shore Road and the era of the Trolley Park at Cape Cottage came to an end.

The theater was dismantled and sold in 1921; the following year the Casino was reopened as the Cape Shore Inn. Eventually the land was subdivided into house lots for development.

Image from a post card, CE Historical Preservation Society archives.


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