Traveling around Yates County in past centuries was challenging, but by the very end of the 19th century, anyone who wished to travel around the village of Penn Yan, or take a trip out to Branchport, could hop onto a trolley.
This eliminated the headache of hitching horses up to a wagon or carriage, canceling trips due to poor weather, or driving the rough country roads for the very few who had cars.
The trolley company, the Penn Yan, Keuka Park, and Branchport Railway, completed laying tracks to Branchport in October of 1897. Upon completion, fare was only a nickel in the village, and 15 cents to Branchport, or 25 cents for a round trip. The cars carried both people and freight between the two communities faster and much more easily than before. There were stops along the way in small communities, such as Kinney’s Corners (now Bluff Point), that allowed residents there an easier way to get to town for shopping, church and visits to friends.
Although Branchport had pushed to be connected to Penn Yan for business purposes (they had been left off the steamboat route), many Yates County residents used the trolleys for entertainment.
On the opening day, young people in the area were reported to ride the cars back and forth through the entire day, just for fun. The trolley cars traveled at 20 mph, a breakneck speed when compared to the horse and carriage, which only went about 5 mph. Special runs were offered for events, such as concerts and ice cream socials, which enabled young people and families to enjoy what surrounding communities had to offer.
With increased ease of transportation, the demand for day trips and outings grew. The trolley company owned several operational buildings in Whittier Park on Brandy Bay, which was not visited frequently because of its isolation. As soon as the trolley tracks reached Whittier Park, the trolley created a stop and rebranded it as Electric Park, open free to the public. The grand opening of Electric Park was Aug. 14, 1897.
Electric Park a hit
Electric Park was a hit with Yates County residents. The park boasted 1,500 feet of lakefront property and a dance pavilion, and was, of course, illuminated with electric lights. It opened to fanfare, the crowds so thick the trolley conductor had to move along very carefully and slowly.
On a regular day at Electric Park, ice cream and strawberries were regularly served for free, while lemonade, peanuts and candy were for sale. Liquor was not sold or allowed on the premises. Band concerts rang through the air as park attendants danced, ate, and walked the shoreline. The park also included croquet sets and swings, and boats for rent. When ready to leave for either village or stop along the way, there were 4-6 cars leaving through the evening.
Over time, Electric Park became a go-to venue for church and organization picnics, family outings, family reunions, and a place for teenagers to dance and socialize. Keuka College students were less than a mile away and visited frequently. The park began to host a boat race. In 1900, a couple named Lindsay performed a series of Shakespearean plays in the park. The park even obtained a bear named Jocko that was kept in an enclosure. Cottages sprang up nearby.
The trolley line finally made it to Branchport that autumn, and was opened to another great celebration. Even though Branchport was now a destination for day-trippers, Electric Park maintained its popularity for many years.
Unfortunately, despite the park’s popularity, the automobile was even more popular. Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, cars became more accessible and cheaper. People enjoyed the freedom of going where they wanted, when they wanted, without needing to follow a trolley schedule. As Americans began embracing the car, the trolley slowly died. This included the Penn Yan, Branchport and Keuka Park lines.
The trolley company went out of business in 1927, and with it, Electric Park went under. The company tried to stay open by running bus lines. Ironically, in one of the last mentions of the park in the newspaper, one of the new motor buses coming from Branchport had crashed nearby. This was a short-lived endeavor by the company, and they eventually closed for good.
In 1936, the WPA employees removed the last trolley tracks from the streets in Penn Yan.
A return to nature
Once Electric Park closed, the trolley company’s buildings sat vacant and the area went back to nature, covered in weeds and vines. In 1932, the old park was cleaned up and sold to H. Allen Wagener, a developer. Wagener built most of his property in Brandy Bay into cottages. For himself, Wagener made an interesting choice. Instead of building himself a grand, new cottage, he reused the old trolley company’s Power House, which had been completed in 1893. Too sturdy and well-built for demolition, Wagener renovated the building into a single-family home.
Surprisingly, even though it began its life as an industrial building, the Power House was turned into an elegant, Greek Revival-style home that blended well with other historic buildings in the county. Wagener sold the home to Paul Harvey, who used the immense house as a summer “cottage.” In 1958, the Coombes family purchased it to use year-round. Renamed “Brandywine,” it is still standing in the Bay View area of Brandy Bay.
Now full of densely packed cottages, few driving past on their way to Keuka Park or enjoying the beaches there for swimming or boating know that this strip of shoreline was once home to a beloved park, enjoyed by thousands for decades, which was born and died with a short-lived mode of transportation.