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The Gargantua of Amusement Parks

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 4/30/21

It was supposed to be the largest amusement park in upstate New York, rivaling California's famed Disneyland. Combining fantasy, history, adventure, and learning, together with every variety of …

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The Gargantua of Amusement Parks

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It was supposed to be the largest amusement park in upstate New York, rivaling California's famed Disneyland. Combining fantasy, history, adventure, and learning, together with every variety of recreation and fun, it was supposed to attract “new people and new dollars which will benefit the year around residents in Liberty and the surrounding area.”

Sadly, after four years of planning and land purchases and even some construction, Wonder Mountain was never built.

It grew out of a failed project called Mystic Mountain, first organized in 1959.

The brainchild of Sullivan County businessmen Fred Rosenberg, Max Brender, Sidney Applebaum, Leon Greenberg, Sam Gordon, Ed Lustbader, Sidney Gaynes, and Max Jaffe, and under the general management of Harold Hargreave, Mystic Mountain was envisioned as a multi-million dollar amusement center planned for 200 plus acres at the top of Walnut Mountain, on what the Liberty Register newspaper called “Sullivan County's highest and most picturesque site.”

The men first organized under the corporate entity Walnut Mountain Development Corporation, and the ambitious project was called Mystic Mountain. Then in July of 1960, Walnut Mountain Development Corporation, which was riddled with debt, was disbanded and all assets and liabilities were transferred to a new corporation, called American Playlands, with Rosenberg as the president.

In its May 12, 1960 edition, The Register reported that the “gargantua of all amusement centers” was under construction and would give “Liberty and Sullivan County the shot in the arm they have needed for some time.”

That subtle editorial comment on the deteriorating economic conditions in Sullivan County at the time may surprise many people today, though historians who have seriously studied the resort industry here know that signs of trouble had already begun to appear as early as 1958 with the growth of the so-called fortress hotels. The county's unemployment rate had been increasing steadily, from 4.8 percent in 1958 to 5.1 percent in 1959 to 5.7 percent in 1960 and would reach 6.7 percent in 1961. By 1962, the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors reported that the county “is one of the State's least industrialized counties because of its false sense of economic sufficiency in its resort and poultry industries. The error has only recently been widely recognized.”

So Mystic Mountain, with its amusements, restaurants, amphitheater and motel, was viewed as an economic savior that would have no trouble filling its 5,000 car parking lot and draw enough tourists to the region that other businesses would benefit as well.

The New York Times described Mystic Mountain as a “theme park that will be a survey of the life of this planet through the geologic ages culminating in the story of mankind.”

The Register took its readers on an “imaginary trip through the wonderland-to-be and veritable paradise of mountainous beauty.”

“Carefully laid out colored paths will take you through Noah's Ark into the Animal Kingdom, a colorful collection of wild and domestic animals dramatically displayed in their natural environment, not to mention the animal nursery and many other displays.

“Just a short stroll from animal land you return to frontier America. Here you will board the mine train special for an exciting trip through the Lucky Nugget Mine and then to entertainment appropriate to mine town days. All of this is designed to give you the feeling of having lived during our country's days of pioneer development.”

Other planned attractions included a replica 1865 train, custom made for the thrilling ride to the pinnacle of the mountain, and the Fairyland Canal, “where dreams could actually come true.”

Another section of the park was devoted to dinosaurs, where visitors would travel through the Ice Age and the Stone Age while riding on a “Thunder Lizard.” That was followed by a “motorama” and finally by a real old time country fair, featuring an authentic German Carousel with 72 steeds aboard.

In its September 22, 1960 edition, the Register featured a front page story headlined, “See Start Soon on Wonder Mountain's Construction Work” and subtitled, “New Park May Open by Next Summer; Will Be Aid to Local Economy.”

The reorganization and name change reinvigorated the project for a time, but the stock market's dramatic “Kennedy Slide,” that began in December of 1961 and continued well into the following year, derailed those plans as well, and it soon became apparent that American Playlands would not be constructing its park.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. E-mail him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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