July 17, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
Typically, when we hear about amusement park disasters today, they concern freak accidents on thrill rides. But many disasters in the earliest days of amusement parks were related to fires.
Dreamland, on Coney Island, operated for seven years (1904-1911) and was considered one the best parks of the time. With unusual rides and attractions, it drew huge crowds. Yet it took just one fire—ignited at the Hell Gate ride—to level the entire park and shut down Dreamland forever.
Saltair Pavilion was located in Utah, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. It opened in 1893 with an aim of sponsoring a wholesome environment. Its centerpiece was a four-story grand pavilion with domes and minarets that sat on more than 2000 pilings above the lake. The park drew close to 500,000 visitors annually until the pavilion burned down in 1925. It was rebuilt but never matched the original and visitation dropped until the park was closed in 1958. Ironically, the second structure was destroyed by fire in 1970.
Luna Park, the most famous of the Coney Island parks, was created in 1903 by Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy, who became icons in the amusement park business. The park led the way into the future of thrill ride parks with an emphasis on high concept rides that transported the public into imaginary worlds. In 1944, the famed park was the site of a huge fire that started in a restroom. The park closed permanently a few years later.
Yet, not all fires resulted in closure. Tivoli Gardens, near Copenhagen, Denmark, opened in 1843 as a pleasure garden. Like many of the early parks, it featured gardens and music. By the 1900s, the focus shifted to rides. Tivoli was set on fire during World War II by Nazi sympathizers but managed to survive and remains open today.
Denver’s amusement parks were not without their own disasters.
Manhattan Beach, located on northwest of Sloan’s Lake opened in 1891. An early accident involved Roger the Elephant. During one of its popular elephant rides, the animal was spooked by a hot-air balloon and bucked its passengers. A six-year-old boy was trampled and Roger was put down. The park’s theatre caught fire in 1908 destroying the park and sinking the steamboat on the lake. Though it was rebuilt as Luna Park, it never regained popularity and closed permanently in 1914.
Elitch Gardens managed to survive two fires—both in the same location. In 1914, just four short years after it opened, the Monitor and Merrimac theatre, with its full-sized models and elaborate mechanical and electrical special effects, burned down—a tremendous loss for the park. The attraction was replaced by a new ride, the Old Mill Tunnel of Love, on the same site. On July 16, 1944, disaster hit again. A massive fire burned the Old Mill, trapping six inside. By the time firemen arrived—delayed by a locked gate—the wooden structure was a raging infernal with billowing clouds of black smoke. Limited by the single fire hydrant in the park, hoses were attached to hydrants on the stree and were not long enough to adequately reach the fire. Those trapped inside died of smoke inhalation. After a lengthy investigation, the park recovered with a host of new safety measures and the City of Denver responded with a new fire code and a new inspection system.
In exploring more recent amusement park disasters, I found lists differ substantially—mostly in how disaster is defined (number of deaths vs amount of damage to the park; ride failure vs . Here are a few of those considered among the deadliest of the parks that had ride failures.
Expoland, in Osaka, Japan opened in 1970 and had a great safety rating until 2007. That year, cars derailed on the Fujin Raijin II roller coaster. The accident killed one and resulted in 19 injuries. An investigation revealed a broken axle was to blame and that axles had not been replaced for 15 years! Though the park reopened after the accident, it closed permanently within seven months.
The wooden Derby Racer at Revere, Massachusetts, was built in 1911. The same year, a rider was catapulted from the ride and killed. Six years later, another man died when he was thrown in front of the coaster train and run over. In 1929, yet another rider was thrown from the train and killed. The coaster was demolished in 1936.
Action Park (Vernon, New Jersey) lad one of the first water parks in the U.S. The park opened in 1978 and closed in 1996 due to injury reports and declining customers. Six people died over the years it was open due to drowning, electrocution, one heart attack, and facial injuries. The wave pool was nicknamed the “Grave Pool”. Thought the turbulent pool had 12 lifeguards on duty, as many as 30 saves could occur in a single weekend! A drowning occurred in 1982, two in 1984, and one in 1987. The park closed in 1996 but reopened in 1998 under a different name.
In Somerset, England, the Middlemoor Water Park’s Human Trebuchet turned deadly. The ride was modeled on a siege engine and catapulted riders into the air. Two missed the safety net and were killed. According to local lore, police arrested the ride operators and cited them for operating a medieval siege weapon without t license.
King’s Island in Mason, Ohio was said to be haunted since 1991. On June 9, a man fell into a pool. The simple accident was complicated when two rescuers stepped in to rescue him. All three suffered electrical shock and died. Later the same day, a rider died when she fell from the Flight Commander ride. The park remains open today but the ghosts of those who died are said to linger.
The Mindbender is considered among the world’s largest triple loop coasters. At Galaxyland Amusement Park in Alberta, Canada, missing bolts on a wheel assembly causes a derailment in 1986. Passengers were thrown off and three died. The fourth was seriously injured. The accident was witnessed by crowds of concert goers and the ride closed for seven months.
In London, the wooden Big Dipper coaster at Battersea Fun Fair was the site of one of the worse coaster accidents in history. The rope hauling cars to the top of the launch hill snapped in 1972. When the anti-rollback safety mechanism also failed, the chain of cars fell, killing five and injuring 13 more. The park closed two years later.
The Eco-Adventure Valley Space Journey at Overseas Chinese Town East in Shenzhen, China was an indoor thrill ride than simulated a rocket launch. In 2010, one of the cars came loose and ricocheted around the chamber and started an electrical fire. It then plunged 35 feet to the ground with 44 people in the car. Six were killed with 10 others seriously or critically injured. The accident was due to a faulty screw.
Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville was the site of a devastating accident for a thirteen-year-old in 2007. While on the Superman Tower of Power, a cable snapped and wrapped around her neck and legs. She was able to free her neck but her legs were caught as the ride descended and her feet were severed. Fortunately, surgeons were able to reattach them. The ride, however, was removed permanently from the park.
Other amusement park “disasters” are less about machine failure and more about human stupidity.
In 1997, a group of 33 teens crowded the water slide at Waterworld USA in California. The slide was unable to handle the weight and it collapsed. One died and the others were hospitalized—seventeen of them were still in wheelchairs a few weeks later for their graduation ceremonies.
A 1984 fire at the Haunted Castle, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township, New Jersey cost the lives of eight teens. While most guests were able to flee, flame were fanned by the wind and reached a temperature of 2000 degrees, trapping eight inside. Their bodies were burned beyond recognition. A later investigation determined arson as the cause.
Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta was the site of a careless accident in 2008. A teenager lost his hat near the Batman: The Ride roller coaster. Because he considered that particular hat a good luck charm, he climbed over two fences to retrieve it, ignoring warning signs, and crossed directly into the path of an oncoming coaster train. He was decapitated on impact. This was the second coaster-car impact death at the park. Six years before, a groundskeeper was killed when struck by the leg of a passenger who had failed to keep his limb in the car.
And then, there are simply freak accidents.
At Sea World’s Discover Cove in Orlando, a snorkeling tourist cut his toe on a piece of coral. Normally, such a minor accident would require only a bandage. However, the man was a hemophiliac and suffered complications in the days that followed. He collapsed in the airport on the way home and later, back in England, he went into septic shock and his leg was amputated. The man eventually died from organ failure related to group B streptococcal septicemia.
Bush Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia was the site of one of the strangest freak accidents. In 1999, the park bestowed the honor of the inaugural first ride on its Apollo’s Chariot roller coaster to Fabio, the model known for his romance novel covers. While on the ride, at a rate of 73 miles per hour, he collided with a goose. Fortunately, Fabio escaped with just minor face injuries. The goose, which exploded on impact, was not so lucky.
Next week, we’ll stay in the serious mode. Lottie, my heroine, is an incest victim and I’ll share a bit of insight into incest and incest recovery. 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.