Millions of people visit Allegany State Park every year, but how many have ever visited the zoo?
Tucked up on the hill, behind the Red House Administration Building among the maples, Scotch pine, and cherry trees, sits the stone foundation of what was once a highly-visited tourist attraction.
Like so many other places on the East Coast, this area (in what is now Allegany State Park) was logged from the 1860s to the 1920s. Hemlocks, white pines, and hardwoods were harvested to supply large cities with building materials. While humans built houses, many local animals lost their homes and habitat.
The Outdoor Museum and Zoo was built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was intended to exhibit the local animals, birds, plants, fungi, and rocks of this area. The Zoo’s rectangular foundation (25×40 feet) and 3 ½ foot high walls were built from local sandstone quarried off the hill behind the museum. Chestnut and cherry posts supported a shake shingle roof. Shelves and brackets around the sides of the museum building supported animal cages, insect trays, unique plants, and rock and mineral exhibits. Cement pools with dry platforms housed aquatic creatures such as frogs, turtles, muskrat, and fish. Since this was a seasonal museum, the CCC oversaw collecting specimens for the Zoo. Upon its opening in 1933, the exhibit hosted a raccoon, skunk, woodchuck, rabbit, chipmunk, porcupine, five types of turtles, and several different species of frogs, toads, and salamanders. Five kinds of snakes had their own special snake pit separate from the rest of the museum. Irving Knobloch, a National Park Service naturalist oversaw the museum and its animals during the CCC days, after which the Allegany State Park (ASP) rangers and naturalists operated the zoo.
Two of the first residents of the Zoo were “Smoke” and “Soot.” The bear cubs were rescued by forest rangers during a fire caused by sparks from the smoke stacks of the trains carrying lumber out of the area. The rangers decided to take the bears home, but as they grew, the small cubs became too much for the rangers to handle; so, they built them a small bear den surrounded by wire. They eventually escaped and roamed the area for handouts.
Another famous creature of the zoo was Cleopatra, a golden eagle, owned by Egbert Pfieffer, a world-renowned bird specialist and ASP naturalist. Cleo was a trained eagle who would sit on Mr. Pfieffer’s arm as he walked around the area. Pfieffer also supplied the museum with a red-tailed hawk, great blue heron, owls, and other birds of prey.
The Zoo was open from May until early October, when all the animals were released back into the wild. It was closed in 1944 due to World War II and was never reopened. The building was torn down in the 1960s, but the foundations remain.
The cages and displays are long gone; but the Environmental Education Department still tells the story of the zoo. You can find amazing small wildlife like millipedes, salamanders, toads and frogs in or near the pools once inhabited by turtles and fish. One of the frogs, Louise, a green frog, was named by a kindergarten class who first discovered her two years ago.
Come visit the zoo, sit quietly on the moss covered stone walls, and imagine the sounds of excited children as they rush from one exhibit to another, looking at and learning about the wonderful wild things of long-ago Allegany.
To learn more about the Zoo and the history of the CCC and Allegany State Park, visit the Allegany State Park Historical Society.