Norumbega Park opened in June of 1897 in the Auburndale section of Newton, Massachusetts. The amusement park was built by the directors of the Commonwealth Avenue Street Railway in an attempt to increase patronage and revenues on the trolley line running between Boston and Auburndale. The park's name was taken from Norumbega Tower, a huge stone structure located across the river in Weston, built to honor the Viking explorers who had sailed up the Charles River around 1000 AD. When Norumbega Park first opened at "Auburndale-on-the-Charles," it featured canoing, picnic areas, an outdoor theater, a penny arcade, a restaurant, a zoo, a carousel, and an electric fountain. The parks Pavilion Restaurant was managed by Joseph Lee, a noted chef who had been born a slave near Charlestown, South Carolina in the 1850. Lee, also a very successful inventor, had owned and operated the exclusive Woodland Park Hotel in Auburndale before taking over the Norumbega restaurant.
Norumbega was tremendously successful, attracting hundreds of thousands of patrons each season. Its location on the Charles River meant that the park was accessible by water as well as by land. In the early years of the twentieth century, the Lakes District of the Charles was the most heavily canoed stretch of water on earth, with more than 5000 canoes berthed along its 5.8 mile length. Norumbega, along with the Riverside Recreation Grounds in Weston and more than a dozen other local recreational facilities in Newton and Waltham, became famous for recreation, competition, romance and fun. People from all walks of life came to the riverside via steam trains and electric trolleys. By the 1905 season, the outdoor theater at Norumbega had given way to an enclosed facility. The beautiful new theater featured topnotch vaudeville entertainment, musical plays, comedies, and melodramas, as well as Mr. Edison's "moving pictures" shown on a device called a Komograph. The Great Steel Theater at Norumbega was the largest theater in New England, and the parks zoo was also the largest in the six-state region.
Norumbega’s success continued through the 1920s, with new attractions added frequently. Rides included the Caterpillar, the Bug, Dodgem Cars, Custer Cars, Seaplanes, and a huge Ferris wheel. In 1930, buses replaced the trolleys that ran along Commonwealth Avenue. Also in 1930, the Great Steel Theater at Norumbega was converted into the Totem Pole Ballroom. From the day it first opened, the Totem Pole was something special. More than a hundred ballrooms were advertising in the Boston newspapers, but the Totem Pole was generally acknowledged as the best and the most elegant. Virtually every famous swing band in the country appeared at the Auburndale venue, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Harry James, the Dorsey brothers, Lawrence Welk and Ozzie Nelson. Frank Sinatra sang at the Totem Pole, as did Dinah Shore, Frankie Laine, the Four Lads and the Von Trapp Family. Music from the ballroom was broadcast nationally over the NBC, ABC, and CBS radio networks.
The park and ballroom successfully co-existed for decades. Young lovers danced the night away at the Totem Pole, pausing only to flirt and cuddle in Norumbega's cozy nooks and lush gardens. Canoes and pedal boats dotted the river, and the rides, penny arcade and refreshment stands bustled with activity. During World War II, a USA Army Ordnance company was stationed at the Norumbega restaurant. Roy Gill, owner of the park, organized numerous war bond promotions, scrap metal drives and charity events.
The parks ball field was home to a womens professional softball team, the Totem Pole Belles.
Norumbega and the Totem Pole began a long, slow decline after the war years. Millions of automobiles, along with new and better roads, signaled the end of many local amusement parks. Families were more likely to travel to the mountains or the seashore on summer weekends. Amusement parks across the country, many of which had been built in the last century, were beginning to show their age. Huge theme parks like Disneyland were on the horizon. Norumbega's gates closed forever on Labor Day, 1963. The Totem Pole closed a few months later, on February 8, 1964.
Today the Norumbega land is the site of a large and successful hotel. East of the hotels parking lot is an area of approximately ten acres owned by the City of Newton the Norumbega Park Conservation Land. But there are still thousands of old-timers from across southern New England who recall with affection and nostalgia what used to be one of the most exciting spots in the world - Norumbega Park!