A look back at NoDa’s Electric Park

With its lake long gone and trees and homes in its wake, it is difficult to imagine a prominent spot on 36th Street as an exclusive destination. In the 1800s it was only for the poor. In the early 1900s, it was only for whites. And if you were a mill family between the early 1920s and 1950s, you and your friends had exclusive access to a place to swim, bowl, dance, or relax.

This elaborate recreational space was Electric Park. Located on what is now 36th Street between Spencer and Holt streets, it was named as such because it was the last stop on the North Charlotte trolley run (electric trolleys ran in Charlotte from 1897 to 1938).

Our knowledge of this plot of land actually dates back to the late 1800s. In 1870, the first county poorhouse was established on the 100-acre property, encompassing 22 buildings, crops, and horses. A stone building there was allegedly used as a pest house during the smallpox epidemic of 1896.

By 1904, the poorhouse had been moved to North Tryon Street and Harris Boulevard, and Highland Park Mill #3 was operational. The Mecklenburg and Johnston mills followed within 10 years.

The first version of Electric Park was an ambitious effort to become a regional destination. Built by Charlotte Consolidated Construction Co. in 1908, the 13 acres included a merry-go-round, a $1,500 military organ, and a pavilion. Occasional balloon ascensions were planned as well as an “electric theater.” The original North Charlotte trolley line, which connected to uptown Charlotte, was extended one stop to end in front of the park. The CCCC envisioned planned excursions from surrounding towns and was slated to run charter trains of tourists directly to the North Charlotte Depot.  The park was for whites only.

A June 1909 Charlotte Observer article welcomed a 7-month-old lion to the “Electric Park Zoo.” The anonymous owner stated the lion – “gentle as a child” but kept in a cage – had come straight from Panama and was on loan to the zoo for the summer. The other “beasts” at this zoo included squirrels, rabbits, and “several score monkeys” that occasionally escaped from their cages.

The fanfare was apparently short-lived, as all attractions but the pavilion were removed within a few years. Summer crowds were small. By 1912, it was owned and operated by Southern Power Co. There was talk of building an amusement park from the ground up, including a swimming pool and a glass-enclosed pavilion that could host dances even in winter. The property was surrounded by massive trees, the stream could be dammed for the swimming pool, and a clear spring at the upper end would provide an attractive area. A fountain had already been built at the entrance.

On June 22, 1914, The Observer declared the park had “risen from the darkness of oblivion,” in part because Lakewood Park had since been “given to negro people,” thus creating a demand for a whites-only park.

Then in 1920, Highland Park Mill announced plans for a community center at Electric Park with a bowling alley, reading rooms, library, gymnasium, and motion picture theater. With hundreds of millworkers and their families living in the neighborhood, owners saw the need for recreational space. Rather than trying to draw regional visitors, it would cater exclusively to mill families.

The October 14, 1920, edition of Mill News, The Great Southern Weekly for Textile Workers lauded the new facility as “… a thing of marvel. No community house has been erected in the State that is as pretty as the one being completed at this park for mill employees alone.”

The magazine describes it as a brick and green-shingled building with stone pillars and paved walks. Inside was a lounge, reading and dining rooms, a kitchen, an assembly room, a bowling alley, and movie equipment. The kitchen and dining room were to be used for “teaching domestic science and other household arts.” There was a cement pool between the community center and the bath house, which some say was the old county pest house. A lake behind the buildings and pool stretched all the way to Spencer Street. It was a city lake that supplied water to the mill villages and parts of Charlotte. (Residents on this portion of Herrin Avenue probably recognize this valley in their backyards.)

Lois Moore Yandle interviewed several residents about Electric Park for her book “The Spirit of a Proud People.” They remember roses planted around the lake and free rowboat rides on the weekends. Residents gathered at a bandstand near the lake for concerts featuring local musical groups or the Woodmen of the World band. Small-pin bowling was in the basement and silent movies on the second floor. Square dances were held on the main floor, and later, part of the main building was turned into a gym for basketball and wrestling. The Red Shield boys and girls clubs met there, and the Salvation Army had an outpost on site.

By 1948, the YMCA had taken over operations of the community center. Then in 1952, the YMCA moved into its current building on North Davidson Street (then North Caldwell). Spencer Memorial United Methodist Church, named for one of the prominent owners of the Highland Park Mill #3, was located where the current YMCA parking lot next to Fat City Lofts sits today. It had held services there since 1907 but was in need of additional space.

In a land swap negotiated by the mill, the church moved to Electric Park and remodeled the facilities while the YMCA built a new building and razed the former church property to create the current day parking lot. Spencer United Methodist remodeled the community center and held services there until its new sanctuary was complete in 1961. The church is now known as North Davidson, A United Methodist Congregation, and development continues.