The Golden Age of Kansas City’s Amusement Parks

(originally published 5/30/19)

I was born the same year Disneyland opened, and the only kind of amusement park I’ve ever experienced is in the mold of what Disney created – the theme park. Theme parks don’t just have rides and attractions. Every aspect of the experience conforms to the fantasy that each theme suggests. Themes might be foreign countries, historical periods, fictional places or trips through time, but they are all an escapist’s paradise. Ironically, Disney’s early inspirations for theme parks was to recreate the very un-theme-like parks of his youth in Kansas City, when the rides were attraction enough to draw crowds, happy for just a few hours of mild adventure or to relieve the city’s summer heat walking among twinkling lights set against the night sky.

Amusement parks were great promoters of the relatively new electrification of America. The parks were fantastic displays of what electricity could do. Electricity powered the rides, and illuminated the night enough to keep the parks open longer hours. Indeed, many of the earliest parks in the country (including two in Kansas City) were named “Electric Park” for this reason. Coursing energy through the endless strings of bright bulbs that outlined every feature of the park, electricity brought a sense of magic and romance to a place that, in the cold light of day, was often dull and dirty.

The proliferation of these parks was also fueled by transit, and the new trolley car system that large cities were constructing, a system itself advanced by electrification. The parks were destinations created by the railways’ need for passenger revenue, and by developers who wanted to entice the local population to move to different parts of the city. This pattern is particularly apparent in the amusement parks found in Kansas City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In researching the old Kiddieland Park for the history of Waldo, I found a wonderful article in a 2006 issue of the Jackson County Historical Society’s quarterly journal, sharing the history of some of Kansas City’s earliest parks. Many Kansas Citians have heard of Kiddieland (there was more than the one in Waldo, by the way), and Fairyland Park at 75th & Prospect. They may even be familiar with Electric Park near Brush Creek and The Paseo. But the JCHS article looks at six of the area’s lesser known parks. It’s a long and thorough article, if you’re deeply interested in the topic. But using that article and some additional research, I here offer some quick sketches of the parks the article discusses: Washington and Fairmount parks in Independence, Troost and Forest parks in Kansas City, Missouri, and Chelsea and Carnival parks in Kansas City, Kansas.

Independence Parks

Washington Park: 1887 – 1900. Today, the site of Mt. Washington Cemetery, 614 S. Brookside Avenue, on the south side of Hwy 24/Winner Road. (est. 200 acres)

Washington Park has the distinction of being tied for the oldest in this group, both opening July 4, 1887. It is also the largest, with 200 acres. The park was created by Willard Winner, for whom Winner Road is named. Winner built the railway that ran to the park to help him market a residential development North Evanston, adjacent to the park. He created a 20-acre lake for boating and swimming, a dance pavilion and a bandstand. For thirteen years, Winner continued to add to the park’s permanent features, while attracting special entertainments for special occasions, like the “aeronaut” pair of Prof. F.A. Squires and (presumably) his daughter, Miss Madeline Squires. The duo took turns riding a hot air balloon above the park grounds – purportedly as high as 5,00 feet – and then parachuting down to the cheers of the crowd below.

Winner closed the park in 1900, and drained the lake. The Bryan article cites Mrs. Sam Ray, Kansas City historian and preeminent postcard collector, saying the park was closed because the competition with the nearby Fairmount Park was too great. But much of the natural beauty built into the park site remained when a non-profit association converted the property into Mt. Washington Cemetery, one of the area’s most historic cemeteries.

Fairmount Park: 1893 – 1939. Formerly located near the current site of Fairmount Park in Independence, just south and east of the intersection of Kentucky Avenue and Sterling Road. (50 acres)

Fairmount is a park of distinction. At 46 years, it was the longest operating park among those profiled here. Further, Kansas City’s renowned railroad baron, Arthur Stilwell, is the man most associated with Fairmount Park’s development. While the park started out as a summer beer garden owned by the local Goetz Brewery, Stilwell bought it in July 1894 as an attraction for the new rail line he had built connecting Kansas City and Independence.

Like Washington, Fairmount Park became known for its special “death-defying” attractions. Fairmount had its own balloon ascension attraction, as well as Speedy’s Great Dive (a 100-foot dive into a 35 inch water tank), and Chiko, the Brazilian Flying Monkey Man. But it also had a great range of more tranquil amusements. The 8-acre lake was home to the bath house and bathing beach, a dance pavilion, a picnic pavilion, and the park’s best viewpoint for the regular fireworks displays. By the early 1900s, Fairmount had more rides than other parks, including a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel (first seen at the recent 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition), a fun house, mechanical jumping horses, a circle swing, a miniature railroad. By 1907, there was an Angora goat far, a roller rink, and the second golf course in Kansas City.

Fairmount operated a long time, but when it finally declined, it literally went down in flames. A 1931 fire destroyed the fun house and some of the concession buildings. In 1933 and 1935 respectively, the women’s and the men’s bathhouses burned down. Two fires in 1936 took out first the picnic pavilion and the main administrative building, and then the last of the summer cottages. Fairmount Park closed in 1939, with nothing left but a polluted lake that would eventually be drained.

Kansas City, MO Parks

Troost Park: 1888– 1902. Built in the area between 27th and 31st Streets, Tracy Avenue to Vine and Grove Streets, with its entrance at 29th and Tracy, just two blocks east of Troost. (est. 50 acres)

Troost Park was the tool the Kansas City Cable Railway used to promote ridership on its newly opened Troost Avenue line, which ran along Troost between 8th and 31st Streets. Through purchase and lease arrangements, the company put together the 50 acres needed for the park. When it opened, its only “attractions” was a hastily built dance pavilion and a picnic area under the trees. For the first few years, the added features were modest – a merry-go-round, a bowling alley, and a shooting gallery among them. But in 1894, the Switchback Railway, an early version of the contemporary roller coaster, was built in the park, and was, according to the Bryan article, the first amusement ride in Kansas City. Others would follow, including a Shoot the Chutes water ride that terminated in the lake that is known today as Troost Lake, which occupies much of the park’s original location. In fact, of all the parks discussed here, Troost Park’s lake is the only constructed feature that is still in existence.

Troost Park was, in one sense, a victim of its own success. The trolley lines and their trolley parks were intended to grow the city, and by 1902, the need for roads was greater than the need for an amusement park. When the city extended The Paseo Boulevard, they built it right through the site of the park.

Forest Park: 1903-1912 Built at the southwest corner of Independence and Hardesty Avenues. (10 acres)

Because it was one of the later of the city’s parks to be built, this park was not on the city’s edge, but in fact in the middle of development, which likely accounts for it being the smallest in our sample, at just 10 acres. And being in the midst of development, it’s not surprising there was vocal opposition to the park, most particularly because its owner, Col. John Hopkins, planned to serve liquor. Hopkins had previously managed a similar park in St. Louis, where apparently (but not surprisingly) there had not been the same level of concern about alcohol. The tactic the nearby residents adopted was to request the city to put in a street running through the length of the property, making its use as a park impractical. But there were other concerns. The park intended not to charge admission, which prompted nearby residents to imagine that the park would attract (to quote the Bryan article) “the worst element of society.” Hopkins’ experience had led him to be proactive on this latter point, and he incorporated strict rules of conduct into his park policies, and to employ sufficient security to make sure the policies were followed, policies which included the requirement of visitors to wear coats and collars.

To compete with existing parks, Forest Park provided the most current and (for the times) thrilling enticements, each occupying its own building. Originally there was “The Gypsy Camp,” “Cave of the Winds,” and the “Phantom Swing.” Subsequent seasons saw the inclusion of the “Helter-Skelter Slide,” “Tug of War on Wheels,” and the “Kansas City Cyclone,” a mechanical and scenic production…to imitate realistically a tornado.” A roster of the attractions that came and went each season indicates that most of the park was completely revamped each season, or as a 1909 Kansas City Star ad claimed, “Everything new but the trees.”

The park closed at the end of the 1912 season, but based on newspaper accounts, the reasons are mixed, though not necessarily contradictory. One thing is clear – the park’s lease was up January 1, 1913, and the owners had announced that the lease would not be renewed. The first reason given for the nonrenewal was the owner’s opportunity to develop the land. But the lease renewal seems to have predated another reason cited in the paper. The Jackson County Negro Association was going to have its convention there at the end of the season, and citizen opposition to the convention gave the owner at least one other reason not to renew the lease. (More about that story next time.)

Kansas City, KS Parks

Chelsea Park: 1887 – 1900 The West Height Park area of today, generally from Stewart to New Jersey Streets, between 19th and 22nd. (25 acres)

As mentioned earlier, one of the two parks that had their grand opening on July 4, 1887 was Washington Park in Independence. Chelsea Park was the second. Once again, rail was the driver. The Inter-State Consolidated Rapid Transit Railway connected the Missouri-side west bottoms across the Kansas River to Kansas City, Kansas, making a critical connection for the city, and expanding the market for what was still a novel attraction. For the most part, the rides and amusements at Chelsea were what has become standard but it did have a man-made volcano, which sounds interesting until you learn that the eruption happened only twice a week, and was nothing more than fireworks. If Chelsea had a claim to fame, it was likely the Zoological Garden, the first (and still only?) zoo in Kansas City, Kansas. Chelsea’s demise was largely attributed to the growth and changes in the transit lines drawing much of its patronage in other directions.

Carnival Park: 1907 – 1911 14th & Armstrong, today the site of the Bishop Ward High School athletic field. (13.5 acres)

Carnival Park is the last of the six here to be built, and had the shortest life span, just 4 years. Carnival Park was the collective vision of the Carnival Park Amusement Association, the brainchild of some local businessmen. In the beginning, the association envisioned the park in the imagined style of American Indian “architecture,” playing on the legends of the local Wyandotte people they claimed to be honoring. The restaurant was to be called, and built in the form of, the Wigwam, and there was to be an Indian Village where several tribes would be housed during park hours.

Based on picture postcards of the park, thankfully of that came true, and Carnival Park took on the same look as most of the others, stark white buildings, linked by long promenades and wrapped in fanciful lighting, and populated with what by this time were beginning to be common amusements, so familiar to Kansas City patrons that they had lost some of their appeal. The market apparently could not support yet one more merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, or dance pavilion. Carnival Park had come too late, and financial losses finally closed it in October 1911.

Here’s a link to a pdf of the Jackson County Historical Society article which served as the basis for most of this piece:

“Before Electric Park: A Promenade of Early Kansas City Area Amusement Parks”

This is a link to an Independence Examiner article on Fairmount Park:

“Fun in the Days of Old Fairmount Park.”

(Photos: Vintage postcards depicting Carnaval Park in Kansas City, KS (top), and Fairmount Park in Independence (bottom)

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