Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Golden Nugget Rides Off Into The Sunset

"The Talk of the Walk"
The Golden Nugget Mine Ride 1960-2009
Last Saturday, despite the wind and the piercing cold, I had to find my way to the boardwalk in Wildwood. You see, there was a funeral for a friend.

Area baby boomers - over 700 of us, many with children in tow - came to say goodbye to The Golden Nugget.

If you grew up in the Delaware Valley during the boomer years, you'll understand exactly what that means. And if you didn't, there may never be a way to make you fully comprehend what the loss of a dark ride can mean to a generation. But, heck, I'll try.

Part coaster, part dark ride, the Golden Nugget was the premiere amusement on the late, great Hunt's Pier. Now, for those of us who did grow up here in the 60's and 70's, Wildwood was the place to be in the summer. Every summer my mom and dad would load us in the station wagon and we'd head down south down the expressway. The four of us would be in the back, making up verses of "Michael Rode the Boat Ashore" and playing license plate bingo or other games to pass the time during the two hour ride.

I remember one of those games - one of the favorites of my siblings - was "Torture Mary," in which said siblings would rub that styrofoam cooler against the window of the wagon, emitting a high pitched squeal that would give me chills up and down the spine. I'm getting goosebumps just typing this.

But finally, finally!, we'd turn down the curve off of the Garden State Parkway and see that sign, "Welcome to The Wildwoods." That's when the summer truly started for us. Again, this might be one of those "you had to be there" things, but I have a feeling most of us have a similar place, the kind of place that symbolized the joy and the freedom that summer meant to us growing up.

Days, of course, were spent at the beach, making sandcastles, jumping over waves, and digging for water. This was back when that was possible, before nature deposited generous amounts of sand from the northern beaches along the Wildwoods, growing it grain by grain into the expanse it is today. Back then, though, the water came right up under the amusement pier, and we could dig for it with our shovels, scooping out first the dry soft sand, then the wetter mud until we could touch our own well of water if we put our arm into the hole and wiggled with pointed fingers.

But the real magic came after dinner, when we left my great-grandparents' home on 23rd street and headed to the boards. We lived right down the street from Sportland Pier, but we rarely stopped here. Instead, we'd turn right on the boardwalk and walk the few blocks to Juniper, the home of our own version of Disneyland, the most magical place of summer, Hunt's Pier.

Hunt's was the premiere amusement pier of the Jersey shore (you can't tell me otherwise!). Each square inch seemed filled with flashing lights, each shining on a different adventure - from the pirates of the Skua to the first drop on the Flyer; from the exotic animals in Jungleland to the crazy capers of the Keystone Kops. We'd soak it all in while mom and dad stood in line at the ticket booth, but there was no doubt where we were headed first - the back right corner of the pier, home of the Golden Nugget.

Last weekend, we gathered to say goodbye to the Nugget, the last remaining ride from those glory days on Hunt's. All the other rides are gone now, dismantled and dispersed, victims of age and technology, which always calls for bigger, better, faster, flashier. All those things are great - I'm always up for the latest coaster ride - but they made the playland of our childhood seem quaint. And "quaint" does not sell tickets, my friends. It's that easy, and that sad, a fact of life.

That's not to say there hadn't been efforts. The decision to raze the Golden Nugget was a difficult one, but a combination of things - practicality, cost, asbestos, stricter ride codes - made a rehab almost impossible. The end came, as ends almost always do. Another of those sad facts.

But at least the old ride went off in dignity. The Moreys - owner of Moreys Piers - gave the Golden Nugget a farewell ceremony on January 31. Before the demolition began and the plug was pulled, we were given a last chance to go into the building, hear once again of the summers of our childhood, and get our picture taken in one of the remaining mine cars. My son Max and I each walked away with a piece of the chain drive, a souvenir of the glory days of the Golden Nugget.

I walked away with memories, too, the kind that used to warm me through the south Jersey winters, when a magical playland by the sea was waiting for the last bell of the school year. Goodbye, Golden Nugget. In our hearts and in our memories, long may you run.

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