By Mary Heyl
Lace up your hiking boots and get ready for the opening of Rock City Park in Olean this Monday, May 1! Located at 505 Route 16 South, Rock City Park has one of the largest natural displays of quartz conglomerate in the world and attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. Since 1890, guests have enjoyed the park’s enormous rock formations, scenic views, and hiking trails. There’s something for every member of the family (even the furry ones) to enjoy!
Rock City Park was founded in 1890 by five local businessmen who made their fortunes from the railroad and the area’s vast timber and oil resources. In fact, Rock City Park was originally part of the Pennsylvania Oil Fields, which produced 75 percent of the world’s oil in 1900. The park’s founders also owned the Western NY and PA Traction Company, an electric railroad, which was the primary way visitors traveled to the park from Olean and Bradford, PA.
Over the next 30 years, the park became a major attraction, with visitors traveling far and wide to see the natural wonder. To accommodate the growing number of visitors, the owners built a beautiful large hotel, the Bon Air, in 1895, as well as a dance pavilion, carousel, box ball alleys, photo houses, rifle range and train station. The park had its share of famous visitors, including boxing champion John L. Sullivan, opera singer Lillian Russel, and composer John Philip Sousa. You can see these guests’ signatures in the hotel register in the park’s museum!
In the 1920s, traffic to the park slowed down considerably, as the increased use of automobiles and new attractions like movie theaters provided other leisurely activities. Local people still enjoyed picnics and hikes in the park, even though it was no longer a commercial attraction.
In 1927, the hotel was torn down and parts were used in the construction of new homes in Olean. The pavilion, which had long since been abandoned, burned down in 1939. The park was leased by a local engineer for Dresser Rand in the 1950s and in 2001, it was sold to the current owners, Dale and Cindy Smith.
Although many assume that glaciers created Rock City, a survey of the region conducted by Dr. Charles Ashburner back in 1877 confirmed that glacier movement had stopped at Olean. The park was actually created by the collision of the African and North American continents, which also forced up the land that is now the Appalachian Mountains. Over 300 million years ago during the Early Pennsylvania Period, the land that is now Rock City Park was the shore of a large, shallow inland sea. The rocks that visitors see today were deposited in the Appalachian basin of that sea.
To learn more about the formation of the famous Olean Conglomerate and the history of the park, visit the museum, which is included in park admission. There, visitors can discover a variety of gems and rocks, as well as artifacts from the park including old photographs, items from the Bon Air Hotel and the history of the Seneca tribe’s early inhabitance of the land.
The 23-acre park has a natural 0.53-mile hiking trail, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, although it’s difficult not to pause frequently to take in the natural beauty of the park. Several of the rock formations are named, such as Signal Rock, Dining Hall Pass and Fat Man’s Squeeze, and visitors can still see the name carvings of some of the park’s earliest visitors. One of the pump jacks that drew oil from beneath the rocks is still a part of the park, reminding visitors of the valuable natural resources just below the surface.
Rock City Park is open daily May 1 through Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is $5 per person and $3 for children ages 6 through 12; group and senior discounts are available. Planning to be a frequent visitor of the park? A season pass is just $12! Pets are welcome within the park as long as owners use a leash and plastic bags for waste. For more information about Rock City Park, including season pass information, events and group bookings, and wedding reservations, visit www.rockcitypark.com or call (716)372-7790. Check out Rock City Park on Facebook for news and photos!