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Early Denver Amusement Parks

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December 26, 2014 by Pamela Nowak

Amusement parks caught on swiftly in early Denver, though many of the earliest took more the “park” form than “amusement.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were several parks. Two of them, Elitch Gardens and Lakeside, remain in business today.

Denver’s first “amusement park” was River Front Park, which opened ca 1880. It was located just east of Union Station, near the Platte River between 15th and 19th Streets. The brainchild of John Brisben Walker, the park boasted a variety of recreational opportunities. Included were a race track, a gymnasium, tennis courts, a skating rink, a toboggan run, a bandstand, boating channels, and a baseball diamond. A Castle of Culture & Commerce and weekly fireworks displays were also featured. Walker dammed the Platte to create a channel for an excursion steamboat/casino and hosted the city’s first rodeo, as well as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and P.T. Barnum’s circus. Walker sold the park to the City of Denver in 1893 and went on to other pursuits such as automobile manufacturing, promoting the country’s first auto race, ownership of Cosmopolitan magazine, and development of Red Rocks Ampitheater. River Front Park closed in 1903.

Elitch’s Gardens was Denver’s second amusement park, opening in 1890. Elitch’s began as an orchard/garden area and zoological park. It soon expanded to a full amusement park with rides, a theater, and later, a ballroom. The park was originally located at 38th and Tennyson Streets and remains in business today. It relocated to downtown Denver in 1995.

Manhattan Beach opened in 1891and was located on the northwest side of Sloan’s Lake. Like Elitch’s, it included a summer stock theatre and a zoo. The Animal House measured 365 feet by 65 feet and contained over 40 species of animals. Trained African ostriches pulled Cinderella’s coach around the park and visitors could take elephant rides. Once, its sea lions escaped into the lake! Advertising itself as a “pleasure resort,” it also featured a steamboat on the lake. Despite its size, the park enjoyed less success than Elitch’s and closed after a fire destroyed the theatre and the steamboat sank. The park reopened as Luna Park in 1909 but went out of business during World War I.

Denver’s Arlington Park opened in 1892 with an extravagant theatrical production that included an erupting Mount Vesuvius. A large fireworks display accompanied the eruption. An estimated 12,000 people attended the Fourth of July opening. Yet, the park closed a year later, during the Silver Crash. It briefly reopened 1898-1902 as Chutes Park with a water ride as its main feature. During that time, “Professor Barnes” and his herd of diving elk were lauded with the elk marching up a 60-foot high ramp and jumping into a tank of water. The park experienced fires in 1901 and 1902, when it closed for good.

Local brewer and investor Adolph Zang (Zang’s Brewing Company, the Oxford Hotel) turned his attention to amusement parks in the early twentieth century. White City (later renamed Lakeside Amusement Park) opened in 1908 with its bright white buildings, lit by some 16,000 electrical lights. Located at 46th and Sheridan, on the shores of Lake Rhoda, its original attractions included a 150-foot high Casino tower, a German Rathskeller (pub), a roller coaster, and a ballroom. Other features were a swimming pool, burro rides, ice and roller skating rinks, lawn tennis, ping pong, and a miniature railroad. Zang originally invested $175,000 in the park but sold it in 1933. It remains in business today.

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Next week, I’ll explore a bit more of early life in Denver, looking at the development of the street car lines that allowed people to get to the parks. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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