Welcome to Wonderland Amusement Park!
As Punxsutawney Phil scampered back to his lair, frightened by the sight of his own shadow, Mother Nature was preparing to dump this winter’s 44th inch of snow on our fair city. Six more weeks of subzero temperatures and record snowfall? It’s probably safe to say that Indianapolis is growing weary of this “winter wonderland.” At the turn of the 20th century, however, residents flocked to the east side of town for a day of frolicking and recreation at a different kind of wonderland—Wonderland Amusement Park.
Wonderland was located at the corner of Washington and Gray Streets. The site, which covered two city blocks, was the original home of the Indianapolis Indians until the team relocated to the Washington Baseball Park in the early 1900’s. In 1905, local entrepreneurs Edward H. Rentsch and Minnie E. Wilson teamed with Richard Kann of Milwaukee to form the Wonderland Construction Company. They began building on the land, which was conveniently located near the end of the Irvington trolley car line. They hoped to “organize, promote, and carry on pleasure resorts” for the growing population of eastside residents seeking recreation opportunities. Wonderland opened its doors to the public on May 19, 1906.
Admission to the park cost ten cents for adults and five cents for children. In her 2007 work, “Indianapolis Amusement Parks, 1903-1911: Landscapes on the Edge,” historian Connie Zeigler noted that patrons were eager to hand over their dimes and nickels to experience Wonderland’s many delights. There were rides like the Bump-the-Bumps, circular swings, a fun house, and the famous Scenic Railroad, a Coney Island-style wooden roller coaster. An elephant bathed himself in the pond next to the Chute-the-Chutes ride. Patrons enjoyed a skating rink, dance hall, vaudeville acts, and nickelodeon movie theaters. They watched a re-enactment of the historic Johnstown flood and viewed a tribe of Iggorrotes from the Philippines in hushed amazement. In a June 1967 Indianapolis Star article, Indianapolis resident Sam Becker recalled his favorite attraction: the loop-the-loop traversed by a daredevil on a bicycle. While the lights, mechanized rides, and fantastic attractions of Wonderland captivated both young and old, the park’s architects kept ample green space and planted landscaping to evoke a pastoral setting amongst the mechanized rides and electric lights.
One of Wonderland’s most beloved attractions was the Electric Tower. This 125-foot tower was lit with enough twinkling lights to “illuminate a city of 10,000.” Visitors could climb the tower to catch a glimpse of the entire park. In 1907, park employee Mr. T. Vinton Carpenter and his bride made local history when they wed atop the Electric Tower. Though the wedding was decried by leading Indianapolis clergy who said such a public spectacle would never last, the Carpenters were married for over 60 years.
Though Wonderland was beloved by many, it was not free from opposition during its short-lived life. The real estate surrounding the park was not densely populated at the time, but the owners distributed season passes to those within earshot of the fun and fray as a gesture of goodwill. Neighbors were happy enough to put up with the summer’s crowds and noise in exchange for the privilege of frequent and free visitation for themselves.
The park’s owners did not enjoy the public acceptance they had hoped for when they applied for a beer license in 1909. Women’s temperance groups protested and quickly filed a remonstrance against the addition of a proposed beer garden. The company eventually withdrew the petition, but in the early months of 1911, rumors circulated that a new attraction called the Blind Tiger would be opening later that year. Police knew that “blind tiger” was a slang term for an establishment selling alcohol without a license and raided the establishment on its August 17 opening day. The bar’s manager had gotten a tip about the raid and staff hid the alcohol before authorities arrived. Though no were arrests made, the police promised further scrutiny if the Blind Tiger remained open.
Just ten days after the Blind Tiger incident, more trouble befell the park. Like most amusement parks of the day, Wonderland did not grant admittance to non-white patrons. But on August 27, the last day of its 1911 season, Wonderland opened its gates to local black visitors for the first—and last—time. After a day of reveling, the final guests left the park around 11 pm. Shortly after 1 am on August 28, night watchman R.C. Buchanan reported a fire in the park, later believed to have been started by a discarded cigarette. Firefighters were unable to extinguish the blaze in time. Wonderland was destroyed, never to re-open.
The corner of Washington and Gray streets looks much different today. The spectacle of Wonderland is long gone, replaced by a brick building, now abandoned. Where there was once music and laughter, the din of traffic hums instead.