Approximately 6 pages
Amusement parks in one form or another have been around since about 1550. The fair and its associated parts have been around for even longer. However they did not exist in a planned landscape. The idea of putting recreational items in a planned landscape started in pleasure gardens such as Louis XIV's "Marly" residence. Tivoli, in Denmark, is one of the oldest surviving pleasure gardens in the world.
From these early developments Europe created places of amusement but they tended to only be located in garden environments. Usually swinging rides, bowling, music, and dancing were the main draws to these places. They were designed for the social recreation and class posturing that seems so distant today.
America would never be limited to such passive activities. America had to create more socially open, more active sort of park. America began to developed these more active parks after passing through a stage of tranquil trolley parks and quiet shore resorts. As Richard Flint writes in Victorian Hotels and Resorts, "the first amusement parks had their antecedents in several resort hotel areas which sought to extend their popularity and business by adding a few mechanical amusement rides."
Trolley parks were generally parks at the end of trolley lines that were originally picnic groves. Owners would add amusements as a way to attract riders on the trolley line. Rhode Island did not have any of these types of parks for the most part, bar one, but Rhode Island amusement parks would become trolley parks when the trolleys came into the already established parks. The reason for this lack of trolley parks was due in part to the wide use of steam ferries that could easily travel to the many places in the Bay.
Shore resorts, which were in places all over Rhode Island, were seaside, lakeside, or riverside areas that tended to be park like in appearance. They would have some sort of pavilion for dinners or entertainment and would be reached by steam ship. Some of these shore resorts would not develop much beyond this stage, such as Westerly, only adding some hotels or other forms of entertainment. It was the shore resorts that added amusements that would slowly become amusement parks as we know them today.
These shore resorts were started about 1840 around Narragansett Bay. But none were considered amusement parks until after 1875, when they developed into amusement parks after Coney Island became the first formal amusement park.
J. Stanley Lemmons, in an article called "Summer Times: From Shore Resorts to Amusement Parks," put forward that the "amusement park was invented at Coney Island." Coney Island grew from a seaside resort to the original amusement park, when in 1875 the Prospect Park and Coney Island railroad was completed. This provided a quick access for people to the park. A first hand assessment of the park from Ralph Julian in 1896 said that Coney Island was the "first made-to-order resort in America." As the prototype park, Coney Island set the precedent for others. The hot dog was invented here; the Elephant Hotel became "a kind of unofficial symbol of amusement parks all over America down to the 1920's;" and the future of Rhode Island's amusement came from a "a young immigrant working at Coney Island." Charles I.D. Looff was the builder of Coney Island's first carousel, the first of 20 at Coney Island, and would be the builder of the Crescent Park carousel in East Providence, which would become the headquarters for his carousel business.
This next advance in creating the modern amusement park was the Colombian Exposition in 1893. This World Fair was where the Ferris Wheel and the Midway were introduced. Future planning of amusement parks were spawned from the design of the Exposition. Basically this design re-formed the old European standard of an amusement park in a garden.
In Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing's book The World's Colombian Exposition, they state that "the World's Colombian Exposition of 1893 out shines [all other World's Fairs]. Twenty-eight million visitors. Buildings stretching a third of a mile long. The world's first Ferris Wheel--with cars the size of buses! The first amusement section ever at a fair." The first amusement section they refer to is the "Midway Plaisance," a mile long, 660 foot wide strip of land that connected the two parts of the fair. This strip was where the "exotic amusements and attractions that were not part of the exposition proper" were located. Rides such as the Barre Sliding Railway, a water propelled ride; the Captive Balloon, which took riders up 1500 feet; the Ferris Wheel, at 264 feet high and holding 40 people at a time in a gondola was the world's largest; a "Zoological Arena," which was a precursor to our modern zoos; and the Ice Railway, an 850 foot long toboggan slide, not unlike the earliest forms of roller coasters which were developed in frozen Russia; were all located on the Midway. The midway was part of the Exposition's fifty cent charge for entrance, but most of the attractions charged an extra fee for using them. The midway in its amusement incarnation would become the middle class' version of a promenade. This legacy of the Exposition has continued to influence amusement park design throughout history.
The modern amusement park, by this point, had been created in America. Rhode Island, too, was paralleling this development by having, at one point, seven amusement parks. Rocky Point, Crescent Park, Boyden Heights, Vanity Fair, Island Park, Mount Hope, and Oakland Beach all came into their own over the next years. The oldest and perhaps the best known was Rocky Point.
Rocky Point, the most recently closed of Rhode Island's parks, was started for church picnics as early as 1840. By 1847, the first owner of the park, Captain William Winslow designated the land as "Winslow's Rocky Point," and was fast becoming a major shore resort on the bay. In the mid 1850's, "swings and flying horses, a clam-dinner hall, a bowling alley, skating rink, ice cream parlor, a monkey cage, a Spanish fandango, and the Forest Circle, a theater for minstrel shows..." were added. Although most of these were easily understandable amusements, the one that tends to draw questions is the "Spanish Fandango." According to a chronology by Donald Wyatt, the "Spanish Fandango" was a"forerunner of the Ferris Wheel."
It is at this point that serious attention is made of the park. Byron Sprague bought the land from Captain Winslow and began to create Rocky Point as is most commonly thought of by Rhode Islanders. Eighteen-sixty four saw the addition of a 250 foot observation tower and hotel. The complex was called the Mansion House and Bob Goldsack writes that on "a clear day people claimed to see all the way to Newport" from the tower. Shortly after this development, the American Steamboat Company bought the park from Sprauge.
Over the next few years Rocky Point remained the main place for fun in Rhode Island, but it still was not an amusement park as we know them today. There was a distinct event that triggered the change from a shore resort to an amusement park. On March 16, 1883 a fire ravaged the resort, destroying the hotel, boat house, and shore dinner hall. This would not be the first fire to damage Rocky Point, but it was the catalyst for change. The park managed along until 1888 when Colonel Randall Harrington took over and began the great change.
Under his management the park introduced a Ferris wheel, a new carousel with four rows of jumping horses, a roller coaster, and swinging boats." He also introduced what was said to be the world's largest organ to play music for the carousel and be general entertainment. This organ was said to reproduce the sound of a 60 piece orchestra! The ferris wheel was the first in Rhode Island. Vaudeville shows, Providence Grays baseball games, a Wild West show, and professional bands all played at Rocky Point. The vaudeville shows and baseball games were brought to Rocky Point because Providence ordinances did not permit them to occur on Sundays, when most had the day off. In 1900, the Warwick Railroad installed a trolley loop at the park and cars leave every five minutes. The park had become a trolley park but was still serviced by steamboat.
May 30, 1908 saw the opening day draw nearly 10,000 people to the park. In 1910, Colonel Randall Harrington purchased the park from the American Steamboat Company, but soon after died, and the park was passed on to his son Randall Jr. Paul Catiglioni leased the land from the Harrington's and took sole possession of the park by 1923.
Many of the innovations that would develop under Castiglioni were destroyed in the 1938 Hurricane. This hurricane was the end of most of the shore resorts around Rhode Island, but somehow the park struggled through the tough times. There were two coasters, the Wildcat and the Flying Twins that were added before the hurricane. After the Hurricane, the Harringtons bought back the park but failed to open the park full time. Land was again transferred, first to a land company, then to Frederick Hilton, Joseph Trillo, and Vincent Ferla. It is shortly after their purchase that the park staged a resurgence.
By the 1950's, another hurricane would hit, the park would be rebuilt, and attendance started to climb. In 1961, after the closing of Crescent Park, Rocky Point stood alone as Rhode Island's only amusement park. From this point on the park suffered through fires, declining attendance, and bankruptcy until its eventual closure and auction in the late 1990's.
As a side note, one of the claims to Rocky Point's fame is the clambake. The clam bake was invented by a school teacher from Bristol, Rhode Island. James Chenoweth, in his book Oddity Odyssey, says "the clambake was invented [in Rocky Point] in 1825 by a Bristol school teacher named Otis Storis...." Chenoweth goes on, "[f]ond of occasionally taking his pupils for an excursion across the bay from Bristol, he anchored at Rocky Point and then discovered he had neglected to bring anything to eat." Storris put some clams on an open pit fire, then some seaweed on top, and effectively created the clambake. The idea went on to become a New England classic, spreading all the way to the Colombian Exposition where it was "cooked in pure Yankee style..." and the seafood was brought in by rail car from the north east. And the basic idea that Otis came up with really hasn't changed much since. Whether this story is true or not, remains to be seen, but it certainly instills a bit of Rhode Island pride.
Crescent Park was Rhode Island's second park and was opened as an amusement park in 1886. In its heyday, the park was billed as the "Coney Island of New England." It was part of the larger scene at Riverside along the Seekonk River where all manner of amusement flourished and boasted "a collection of shore resorts, dining halls, camps, and parks..." Later, after the Civil War, Riverside became a "middle class resort area" where "[t]he Providence and Warren Railroad and steamboats provided access to the area." According to J. Stanley Lemmons, "[t]he whole Riverside area evolved into a resort town, and by the 1890's, it had the largest concentration of summer residences on Narragansett Bay."
George Boyden opened Crescent Park by buying the land next to a popular hotel, the'What Cheer House.' He ran the land a small resort with some amusements and rides, but it was not until 1893 that the park became the second most popular park in Rhode Island. Boyden boasted of the "largest dance hall on the eastern shore." He had Wild West shows, a midway, and to support the new craze at the time, he built a bicycle racing track. But it was when Boyden had Charles I.D. Looff build him a carousel in 1892 and another in 1895 that the park really took off. This carousel was a "66 horse, four-abreast [carousel]...adorned with cherubs and neo-baroque carvings [with] outside figures [which] were stationary with 'jumpers' on the three inside rows." The carousel was one of the most amazing rides and still exists today.
Charles I.D. Looff was an interesting personality in Rhode Island's history and is worth exploring. Looff personifies the importance of amusement parks in Rhode Island. A National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Looff Carousel at Crescent Park does the best job at telling the story of Looff and it is a story worth telling.
"A native of Schleswig-Holstein, Looff immigrated to New York in 1870. Although he was trained as a furniture maker, he soon began to use his spare time constructing a carousel for Balmer's Pavilion at Coney Island, New York (1876). The first on Coney Island, it was wildly popular with the public. Looff was probably the first man in the country to both carve the horses for these rides and to make their frames. He entered the business full time in 1880, opening a plant at Greenpoint in Brooklyn. His operation never grew to be a large one, when compared to other carousel makers as the Philadelphia Toboggan Company or Gustave A. Dentzel, although during his career Looff designed and built carousels throughout the United States. He did much of the carving himself, and closely supervised assistants who joined his workshop. The quality of his work quickly earned him a considerable reputation.
Looff was hired out to construct copies of some of the rides at Coney Island. Amusements included "the Flying Toboggan Ride and the Rivers of Venice (a tunnel of love). He built a music hall, bowling alley, and a new dining hall." Looff finally moved to California, but left his son in charge of the carousel operations on the East Coast.
The park soon had over 300 acres, many more than Rocky Point and offered at least four carousels, a shore dinner hall, a huge dance hall called the Alhambra, a hotel, and its own cottage resort. Attendance on weekends was estimated to be 50 to 75,000 people, coming by steamer or train.
Crescent Park has provided Rhode Island with one of the best examples of the definition of recreation. As John Kelly had written, "Recreation had to be provided for, organized, and even taught." At the Crescent Park carousel, the teaching of recreation was a daily process.
In an unpublished document on folklore of the carousel, Michael Bell, the state folklorist at Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, discusses how riders have a learning curve when trying to capture the legendary brass ring.
Another tradition is to take home the last ring a person catches nearest to the end of the season. Seemingly, in folklore tradition, this notion is that if you take the ring, you will return in the next season. It becomes sort of a pattern of closure.
The carousel was the central part of the park. It was the first and last ride for many who attended the park. It was the centerpiece. Michael Bell's folklore of the carousel captured the words of Frederick Williamson, the State Historic Preservation Officer:
"Of course, the most striking thing about the carousel: it's just a wonderful blaze of color and fantasy. The horses, the Looff figures, are just the sort of thing you've never seen anywhere else. He had a fantastic imagination.
Certainly Crescent Park was becoming the place of dreams. But George Boyden's dream ran out with his hold on his lease and he was forced to turn over the land to the actual owners. These owners built some of the most fantastic parts of the park. They constructed the Exhibition Hall, framed with nearly 3,000 light bulbs. They built many of the roller coasters and small amusements that made the land profitable.
In 1906 these owners sold the land to the owner of Rocky Point. Colonel Harrington became the "amusement park czar" of Rhode Island with this purchase. Harrington was in charge of, what was renamed, Harrington's Crescent Park, Rocky Point, and the concessions in Roger Williams Park. In 1910, after Harrington purchased Rocky Point outright, and refocused his attention, the park was changed hands again, this time to Charles Looff's son and his family, who guided it through the end of the park in the 1960's.
The park muddled through the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1938, but unlike Rocky Point, there were other problems beyond constant owner changing. By 1941, the park could only pull 15,000 on a very good day. The park made a good try at bringing in patrons, by having 14 major rides including the Comet roller coaster, and 13 kiddie rides by 1958, but to no real avail.
Nothing could save the park from rising costs and low attendance though. The land was auctioned off in 1976 and the park did not reopen in the 1979 season. Crescent Park in name remains as a housing complex. But, the only physical remaining piece of Crescent Park is the carousel, now listed as a National Landmark.
Island Park was Rhode Island's third longest surviving park, but that does not say much for how long it survived. In June of 1898, the Newport-Fall River Street Railway, or the Old Colony Street Railway started operations between the two cities. Shortly after its beginning operation, a summer colony and amusement park started. Thus this began Rhode Island's only trolley park. The state historic survey report of Portsmouth describes the park with the most detail.
"Along Park Avenue, in the northeast corner of town, a summer resort and amusement park was established around the turn of the 20th century. An electric trolley service from Fall River to Newport began in June 1898. In the same year, the first merry-go-round was built, and, in 1901, when a shooting gallery started, the name Island Park first appeared. During its heyday, in the 1920's, the park boasted glider swings; rental row boats; the merry-go-round; a dance hall, featuring 'big bands' at the Island Park Ballroom; amusements; concession stands; tea rooms; and gasoline stations. The park had the second largest roller coaster in New England--'The Bullet.' Thousands of visitors frequented the park. The 1938 hurricane wiped out the entire complex except the merry-go-round, which was sold in 1939. In 1956, a roller rink, the last surviving building of the amusement park, burned to the ground."
So by 1938, Rocky Point was struggling, Crescent Point was making a good try of surviving, and Island Park was wiped out. This was the downturn of amusement parks in Rhode Island. They were the major players in the state. Yet, throughout the history of these three parks there were other smaller parks that came and went, of course none lasted as long as Rocky Point, Crescent Park, or even Island Park. They may have been just as spectacular, but were plagued by factors such as small attendance and difficult economies. Of these small parks, Vanity Fair was perhaps the most spectacular in rides, details, and unfortunately, failure.
Vanity Fair had a song about it in the early 1900's: "Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair. Everything is open but nobody's there." The cost to enter was just not worth those that could venture down the shore to Crescent Park. The attendance levels stayed low for its entire history.
Vanity Fair was north of Crescent Park and was the "most ambitious, grandiose amusement park on Narragansett Bay." It had all the rides including a Chute the Chute, roller coaster, and carousel. It boasted a hotel, boardwalk, dinner hall, Wild West Show, dance hall, Japanese Village, circus, an Indian congress, and wild animal area. It had sideshows like the baby incubator, borrowed from the idea at Coney Island. Perhaps one of the most spectacular events ever was the "Fighting the Flames." "Fighting the Flames" was a mock city that would, every afternoon, have flames shoot from gas jets and actors would call for help, followed by an exciting rescue by the "fire fighters," who had the actors jump into nets, arms of fire fighters, or were carried to safety.
Vanity Fair was the first park that was opened as an amusement park. Vanity Fair set itself apart by charging admission, having a planned midway, and a overall design scheme. It was most obviously based on the "White City" design from the Colombian Exposition, several years earlier in Chicago. The midway was surrounded by white buildings with lights outlining each structure. A photograph of Vanity Fair shows "Tours of the World," "[?]essina Earthquake," a ride called "Over the Rocks," which was most likely the scenic railway, and the infant incubator.
Vanity Fair was doomed to fail. It went into receivership in its first year. It struggled on for two years until in 1910 it went bankrupt. By 1915, Standard Oil bought the land and created a tank farm. The park has passed into Rhode Island's memory, never to be resurrected. Many times that is the fate of the parks of Rhode Island.
Boyden Heights, just up from Vanity Fair and Crescent Park, was a bit more similar to Crescent Park in its piecemeal design, but it was also a typical park with many of the same rides and events as Vanity Fair. Boyden Heights was even more doomed than Vanity Fair. Although it was a typical park, it never caught on. George Boyden, after being forced out of Crescent Park, made a try near Squantum Point. He constructed "boardwalks and a pier, a shore dinner hall, rides, and a dance hall, but by December of 1902 he was bankrupt." The park is now a residential area, but at one time had a scenic railway, a dance hall, and even diving horses! It had only survived a year. Now the park is gone and all that remains is a house that was converted from the bandstand.
Another park that has passed into history without any evidence remaining is a park that was a small park that was established on Mount Hope in Bristol. This park was developed around 1897 and died away by 1901.
Bristol at the turn of the century was a summer home for the people of Fall River. Mount Hope on the eastern shore of Bristol Neck, was an easy stop for the Fall River steamboats that used Mount Hope Bay. When the land was bought in 1897 for use as an amusement park, it had already gone through one version as a summer resort, but was to be developed to have many of the same amenities as a regular amusement park.
This park is interesting, because there is little in books or secondary sources that document the park. Most of the information was discovered through deeds and transfers. Structures such as the Chute the Chute were mortgaged and as a result described in the deeds.
"...a chute or water toboggan slide built on a raft or float at the end next the ship channel of the freight wharf owned by said Mount Hope Park Company and known as Mount Hope Park directly east of the Shore Dinner Pavilion..."
The Bristol Phoenix, dated April 1898, wrote that "John Donohue, who is with Paul Boyton Amusements, was elected manager." Paul Boyton Amusements, the owner of most of the rides, was shown as based in Fall River, but the same name is used in discussions of Coney Island and Sea Lion Park in Chicago. In leasing this land they were stipulated to not use the land:
"...except for the purpose of maintaining and operating a Railway, or Switch Back, a Pony Track and a Circus, so called, and any three other places of amusement or entertainment which they may see fit to operate or maintain, providing same is of a moral nature..."
Other research has turned up evidence that there were, lunch stands, popcorn machines, a photograph gallery, a phonograph, a soda fountain, a ball game, a range finder, African dodger, and a striking machine. Quite a list of amusements! A hotel, a dance hall, a ball park, bowling alleys, and pool tables--even a merry-go-round--were all on the grounds.
Still the park did not last long because of its accessibility from Bristol and because of problems with drunkenness. To access the park from Bristol took a carriage from the center of town. Trolley service was intended but never built. Those that did make it made it worth the while. There was constant reports of drunkenness at the park. A police force was formed to patrol the park, but it still was a problem. Liquor licenses were revoked and the park suffered. By 1901 the park was closed. It was only opened for about three years total, but it was a grand park for the time it was open.
The last park that was of any significance was Oakland Beach. The main reason for Oakland Beach, in Warwick, to exist was to try to take away business from Rocky Point. Of course it failed miserably. By 1873 there was a hotel on a peninsula south of Rocky Point. House lots and dinner halls were added. "The hotel was surrounded by a pleasure garden and amusement park..." Attractions like roller coasters and small rides were built in the attempt to take business away from Rocky Point. In 1903, the hotel burned down and "part of its grounds were subsequently occupied by concession stands, an amusement arcade, a carousel, and a movie theater." It never succeeded because there was very little way of reaching the park unless by boat.
Rhode Island's amusement parks have all disappeared now. There are some carousels still remaining on shore resorts, but they cannot rival the former glory that was Rhode Island's amusement parks. There is only the Crescent Park Carousel to remind people of the former glories. This is the sad story of amusement parks all over the New England region. Canobie Lake in New Hampshire, Riverside in Agawam, Massachusetts, and Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut are the remaining New England amusement parks. But it was the Rhode Island parks that were the real day trips for those of the middle class, as they tried to attain the Newport way of living.