By Thomas A. Bergbauer, Retired Courier-Post Editor
For many living in that part of the city it was a great escape, especially during the warm summer months. Many spent hours there swimming or playing baseball.
This piece of city property, bounded by North 6th Street on the west, North 8th Street on the east, Erie Street on the south and the Delaware River on the north, provided all types of recreation for city residents. The park was known for its great Independence Day celebrations. Pyne Point Park’s celebration was not just an observance of the Fourth, it was an institution.
William Cooper settled there in 1679 from Burlington County and for years the area remained unchanged. It was said that George Washington at one time tied his horse to a large oak tree that once stood near the Cooper mansion, but we are not sure if the Revolutionary general once slept there (in the mansion, of course).
In 1909 Camden Mayor Charles H. Ellis created a playground board making Pyne Point Park, (a.k.a. Pyne Poynt Park) one of five playground sites in the city to be furnished with recreational equipment. In the 1920s several improvements were made to the park and it became a great recreation area and between 1935 and 1939 the WPA (Works Progress Administration) poured millions of dollars into Camden County between focusing on urban beautification including planting trees and shrubs at Pyne Point and other parks.
But each year up until the late 1960s you could say that the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in the air gave proof through the night that Pyne Point celebrated the birth of the nation in all of the glory, tradition and might it could muster.
According to early newspaper articles that customary tradition at Pyne Point started in 1900. It came about when a patriotic-spirited resident by the name of Oscar Boehm put on a fireworks display near his home at 6th and Bailey streets each and every 4th of July. That year some of the neighbors, including Boehm, came to the conclusion that it would be appropriate to put on a bigger display each year and perhaps add some games to the celebration.
This was the beginning of the Pyne Point Athletic Association. The association included 15 men who were able to raise $36 that year for a bigger and better Fourth. Every year after that the association was able to add laurels to the splendor of the celebration, the glory of the tradition to the delight of thousands who flocked to the park from around the city.
The day’s activities usually began at 6 a.m. with firing of a 21-gun canon salute and the raising of the flag. “It started off with a BOOM,” says Dan McCabe of Scottsdale, Ariz., who grew up nearby at 10th and Vine streets during the 1930s and 40s. “It announced the beginning of that best of (all) days, July 4th,” he recalls. During the day picnickers and visitors delighted in competitive matches like baseball, wrestling and boxing bouts and an evening vaudeville show before culminating the day with a grand fireworks display.
McCabe remembers a gazebo in the center of the park where a band played most of the day. “There was also a large covered pavilion with picnic tables, where if you arrived early enough to get one, you had it for the day and enjoyed your lunch there,” he says.
The park also hosted all sorts of games for the kids, sack races and one-legged races. “There was cotton candy to be had, balloons and watermelon eating contests,” he says. Later years included a dance floor for those wishing to “Trip the Light Fantastic,” a phrase coined by John Milton in his 1645 lyric poem, “L’Allegro.”
During the days there would be a parade ending at the park. “Kids from all over town marched in the parade and if you had a bike you decorated the wheels with red, white & blue crepe paper wrapped between the spokes,” McCabe remembers.
The homes surrounding the park were all decked out in their finest red, white and blue displays. McCabe says the houses were all two-story “row” houses with front porches, and for that day, they were all decorated. “Hundreds of American flags were seen flying from every house,” he says. “It was a beautiful sight.” Each year a prize, like War Bonds or war stamps, were usually given to the best-decorated homes and their porches.
During the 1946 celebration, its 46th year, wounded World War II veterans and liberated prisoners-of-war were guests of the celebration. The liberated POWs, according to records, were all North Camden residents.
Over the years things started to change in Camden. “By 1969,” says Phil Cohen, creator of a website on Camden, “The city, we seniors have known for years, had been losing jobs and residents for a quarter century due in large part to urban decay, highway construction, and racial tensions. “There were two race riots, the first in 1969 with sections of downtown being looted and torched, and another in August 1971 with a lot of damage being done in North Camden.” Cohen says.
We were unable to find out exactly when Pyne Point ceased putting on their spectacular display of fireworks and Fourth of July festivities. Courier-Post records show that the athletic association was still sponsoring a celebration as late as 1966, but it is believed that the gala came to an end around the time of the city riots.
“It was pretty much fun and games and food all day long,” McCabe points out. “We lived in a carefree world at that time, at least for a kid it was carefree, for our parents, well maybe not quite so carefree,” he says. For McCabe as for many others, he explains, “It was just after the depression and just before World War II.”