In an era when most amusement parks and picnic groves were owned by a rail company or other entity, Bernesco Park was the creation of one man, Jerome Pifer. Pifer was known for being rather eccentric, venturing into several businesses before building his own amusement park. Born in 1859, Pifer began his career as a tailor, working out of his Nescopeck home. Later, he traveled to Florida, and invested in several orange groves, and eventually the owner and operator of a hotel catering to fisherman.
Upon returning to the area just after 1900, Pifer purchased a carousel and operated it at Hazle Park, in Hazleton. Several years later, he moved it to Columbia Park, near Bloomsburg, possibly after an unsuccessful bid to buy Hazle Park. After making a failed attempt to purchase Columbia Park around 1909, Pifer decided the only way to own an amusement park would be to build it himself.
The park opened in 1910, with Jerome Pifer driving an enormous and loud steam tractor through Nescopeck, pulling two large farm wagons filled with straw behind him. Cloth banners hung from the side of the wagons, exclaiming “Picnicking, Pifer’s New Park, Come One, Come All” and simply the name of the new amusement destination “Pifer’s Park.” Pifer wound his way through town, blowing on the deafening steam whistle as he went, and attracted a large crowd. Some jumped into the wagons, and others followed behind as he made his way to the new park.
Pifer chose a site in his former hometown along the banks of the Susquehanna River, near the end of the bridge connecting Berwick and Nescopeck. Along with his carousel, he erected a large two story pavilion, housing a number of the park’s attractions. The ground level of the immense structure was home to a bowling alley, penny arcade, shooting gallery, and a lunch stand featuring five cent hot dogs and sodas, and 10 cent hamburgers. The shooting gallery had customers taking aim at moving tin ducks with a .22 caliber rifle for a shot at various prizes.
The second floor of the pavilion served as the dance hall, and in later years as the roller skating rink. A popular point on most evenings was the “Shadow Waltz”, when all of the lights were extinguished and a single searchlight swept across the dancers and spectators as the orchestra played. The second floor of the pavilion was level with the roadway at the end of bridge, and a covered walkway extended between the two. This allowed visitors to the park to walk right into the dances after riding the trolley which stopped at the end of the bridge. Visitors from points further away could take a train into Berwick on either the Pennsylvania or Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroads, then transfer to the trolley. Streetcar service to the park ran every 15 minutes in the busy summer season.
The carousel was installed under a newly built pavilion with open sides, allowing the organ music and laughter of children of all ages to escape to the surrounding area. Built by the Armitage-Herschell Company of Tonawanda, New York sometime between 1890 and 1899, the merry-go-round featured hand carved and brightly painted wooden horses and chariots. A ride around on the ponies cost five cents, and it was not uncommon for some to ride it over and over on their visit to the park.
Not entirely happy with the park bearing his own name, Jerome Pifer created an ad campaign in late 1913 or early 1914 to find a new one. He sponsored a contest seeking a new name, and offered an overstuffed chair as the prize to the winner. How many responses he received is unknown, but Pifer decided on “Bernesco,” which combined the names of both Berwick and Nescopeck, the towns the park served.
Along with the large pavilion and carousel, the major draw to Bernesco Park was the picnic grounds and various outings held by organizations, schools and families throughout the late Spring and Summer season. Advertisements for the park noted 1000 patrons could dine at a time, with shelter available for 5000. Benches, picnic tables, small pavilions and dozens of large shade trees provided a welcoming environment for an outing. Parking for horse and carriage, and later automobiles was free, as was admission to the park grounds.
For a number of years, Nescopeck held its village picnic at the park. The first one held, in 1911, took place at Columbia Park, but by 1913 the affair was moved to Pifer’s Park. It continued to be held at the park until at least 1929, and possibly later. Well over a thousand people attended the event each year, enjoying food and festivities, along with prizes for various sporting and other contests. The local school’s graduating class was treated to a picnic every Spring, and events for churches, fraternal organizations and family reunions were held throughout the warmer months. The Bower family held a reunion at Bernesco Park on June 20, 1914, with over 500 relatives in attendance, ranging in age from just six weeks to 85 years old. The family committee in charge of arranging the reunion voted unanimously to return to the park the following year, despite having an invitation from the mayor of Oakland, California to move the reunion there.
The grounds featured various flower beds, shrubbery, lawns and a fountain, and were always well maintained. Younger children could enjoy the sliding board, teeter-totters and other playground equipment, and later attractions added to the park included a miniature golf course and swimming pool. The 100 by 200 foot pool was added in 1928, taking two full boxcars of bagged cement mix to complete. The work was done by the Pifer family, and must have been made tedious by the small mixer that could only hold one half of a bag at a time. Diving boards, a large slide with running water, and a floating platform for sunbathers were also added.
A short-lived attraction was the addition of two live alligators, brought to the park from Florida. An enclosure was built for them to reside in, but they managed to escape into the river. At least one was captured and killed several days later.
By the time 1930 rolled around, Jerome Pifer was joined by his son, Warren C. in managing the park. Also known as “Mullie,” Warren was an avid fisherman, and sold eels at the pavilion that he caught in the river when they were in season. An unusually large carp, also caught in the Susquehanna, was mounted and displayed in the park near the pavilion for a number of years.
While the river provided water for the swimming pool and eels for sale in the park, it also proved to be a destructive force when it flooded in 1936, wrecking a large portion of the park. Most of the attractions on the first floor of the pavilion, including the bowling alley, were ruined. The swimming pool, miniature golf course, and carousel were damaged beyond repair. The flood did spare the second floor of the pavilion, including the dance floor. Warren took over the day to day operations after the flood, and likely assumed ownership as well.
The park continued to hold dances and roller skating in the pavilion into the 1940s, but no longer had any rides or other large attractions. In 1946, the sharp right angle turn leading to the bridge over the river was rebuilt to a more sweeping curve, and filled over the area where the swimming pool had been located. Warren Pifer died in 1950, and the park closed for good. His father and founder of the park, Jerome, died at the age of 96 in 1955.
The flood in June of 1972 likely destroyed most if not all of any remnants of the park, and a decade later a new bridge was built connecting Nescopeck and Berwick. The beginning of the bridge, which remains in use today, is located roughly where the pavilion once stood.