close

A vintage view of Riverside Amusement Park (image: ebay)

“In The Park” has visited Wonderland Amusement Park on the near east side and White City on Indy’s north side. The last stop on our tour of bygone Indianapolis amusement parks takes us to the near west side. For over sixty years, Riverside Amusement Park sat adjacent to Riverside City Park at 30th Street between the White River and the Central Canal.

In 1902, Frederick Ingersoll of the Pittsburgh Construction Company teamed with Indianapolis entrepreneurs J. Clyde Power, Bert Feibleman, and Albert Lieber (maternal grandfather to famed Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut) to develop an amusement park adjacent to Riverside City Park. This location was unique—the regional park drew many visitors looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, visit the animals at an early version of a local zoo, or play golf on one of the three public courses that sprang up between 1900 and 1904.

Indianapolis historian Connie Zeigler described Riverside Amusement Park’s early years in her work “Indianapolis Amusement Parks, 1903-1911: Landscapes on the Edge.” She notes that the park’s owners opted to forego an admission fee, instead charging for each attraction individually. Patrons traded their dimes and nickels for a turn on the Circle Swings, a trip through the Walking Glass Maze, or a pony ride. The banks of the White River provided a place for visitors to sunbathe, swim, and launch sailboats and canoes.

Local businessman J. S. Sandy took over management of the park in 1906. In an effort to compete with Wonderland and White City, he hired 120 men to expand his park. New rides, such as an electric carousel, a miniature railway, and a “Gee-Whiz,” were constructed. The enterprising owner also hired entertainers like Buckskin Ben’s Wild West Show, Famous Cowboy Band, and The World’s Largest Trained Steer.  Once Riverside had new attractions, Sandy’s next task was to get people to and from the park. He arranged for additional streetcar services to the area, and by the beginning of the 1906 season, a trolley car arrived at the entrance almost every three minutes! This likely contributed to the Park’s astounding attendance record on May 6, 1906: Sandy claimed that 30,000 visitors passed through Riverside Amusement Park’s gates that day.  Zeigler notes that this figure is questionable, as this would have represented almost one-fifth of Indianapolis’s total population at the time!

riverside.coaster

In 1910, one of the park’s most memorable attractions opened: a six story diving tower, providing a place for young daredevils to show off in front of their friends and potential love interests. On August 27, 1911, the swimming area was the site of a model battleship and airship skirmish called “Battle A.D. 2000.” Unlike White City and Wonderland Amusement Parks, Riverside opted to erect fewer mechanized rides and capitalize on existing assets–namely its easy access to the water. Though both competitors were consumed by fire a few years after their opening, they were not financially solvent, having spent large sums on the newest and most exciting mechanized attractions. They likely would have gone bankrupt, had they survived.

The diving tower at Riverside Amusement Park

The diving tower at Riverside Amusement Park

Lewis Coleman took the helm of Riverside Amusement Park in 1919 and added rides, including: Dodge ‘Em Cars and two roller coasters—The Flash and The Thriller. Coleman’s son, John, headed the park from 1939, until its eventual demise in 1970. The younger Coleman was known for being deeply patriotic and held special events on Memorial and Independence Days. During World War II, the park remained open later at night to accommodate second-shift factory workers.

riverside.ride

Riverside saw a surge in attendance shortly after World War II, but the popularity of the personal automobile opened up new recreation opportunities for the people of Indianapolis outside the city limits. While the swimming and boating facilities remained popular, the rides began to fall into disrepair and required costly improvements. In an effort to boost attendance, a flat admission price was instituted.  Adults paid $1.50 on weekdays and $2 on the weekends.  Children under age 11 were admitted for $1; those under five were free.

riverside.protest

The park’s “White’s Only” admission policy marks an embarrassing chapter in the city’s history and for this park.

The park was only open to non-white patrons on infrequent “Colored Frolic Days.”  In 1963, the NAACP Youth Council protested the park for its discriminatory practices.  The next year, Riverside Amusement Park changed its admission policy to allow “minority” visitors. However, the park’s image never fully recovered from the public controversy. It closed at the end of the 1970 season.

Orders were issued for the remains of the amusement park to be razed in 1978. The land was redeveloped for residential purposes, and remains so today.

17 responses to “In The Park: Riverside Amusement Park”

  1. Evan Finch says:

    My dad took a few photos at Riverside, shortly before it was razed. http://bit.ly/Mj3LO2

  2. Diane Roberts Joslin says:

    Very interesting article! I remember going to this park in the mid 1950’s when I was around 10 years old. Also remembering being uneasy with the “segregation” policy and not really understanding what that was all about.

  3. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Cool pix, Evan!

  4. d m shea says:

    At some point, year uncertain but perhaps in the 60’s, a local somewhat elitist guild created a yearly “black tie” benefit night at Riverside–which turned out to be not only a real money-raiser but also brought back to Riverside that era’s version of “yuppies”. It was a great night, an annual event many in our group created pre-Riverside cocktail parties which were photo-fodder for the local paper’s “society” pages—black tie for the gents, cocktail dresses or ball gowns even, graced the Dodge’ems, the carousel and I vividly remember one dowager trying to hold on to her ballooning gown and dignity in the spinning bowl–can’t remember name of the ride but I was opposite her, and we were chanting “I saw London, I saw France, we see Ardath’s underpants…” to her good natured chagrin.”

    But, because the sponsoring group was dedicated to helping children, the racial aspect and the deteriorating park ended the event, again, year uncertain.

  5. Ron Fortner says:

    I remember going to Riverside every summer. That is what summers were for in the late 40’s qnd 50’s. I think the first time I went was in 1949 when I was seven. I suppose we went every year thereafter. I think there was a skating rink there too. I remember the sparks above the dodge ’em cars and the motorcycle daredevils reverberating around the thunder dome.

  6. Bob Palma says:

    Interesting commentary on these former parks and recreational areas. So many of them end with the property being leveled for a variety of reasons and now “just part of the city” as to being residential.

    How close The Indianapolis Motor Speedway came to having the same fate.

    It’s interesting to reflect on how an article like this would have been written had the Motor Speedway been demolished after WWII and the 16th and Georgetown area become just part of residential Indianapolis. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.

  7. denise crofts says:

    My mother died when I was 2. I had 2 older brothers. I vividly remember all I wanted to do was ride the ponies over and over. My dad would patiently walk me round and round the dirt circle that parents had to lead their kids around. My brothers were always off on the coasters. I remember one I think called the mouse or something like that my brothers always talked about. I was under 5 at the time. I remember because my dad remarried when I was 5 and my stepmom wasnt with us ever at Riverside. I miss being a kid when things were not about drugs and overdosing teens. When neighbors were neighbors. Makes me sad

  8. Glenn says:

    Hi Denise the ride was called the wildmouse very scary made you think you were go8ng off the track in the corners

  9. Jim McBride says:

    I lived on Harding street and Burdsal Pkwy until I was about 9, but enjoyed Riverside Amusement Park until early teens. (early ’50’s). I remember my father taking me when I was quite young to an amusement park for younger kids across from Riverside Park call “Little America”. Any info on that? Love to share any experiences with anyone during those years. I live in Denver but visit Indy regularly.

  10. Nancy Wilson says:

    We went there a lot in the summers when was in my early teens, in the later 60’s. For a few dollar we could ride the rides as much as we wanted. It was in pretty bad shape then, and probably more dangerous than I’d like to know- crazy but fun I guess. At least I wasn’t in Nam

  11. Barbara Haunton says:

    My uncle took me to Riverside in the mid-forties. It was like a first ‘date.’ When I was nineteen he did set me up with a handsome blonde policeman who took me out in a canoe. My mom had taken me there in the early forties. She had no way to heat our hotdogs, so we ate them cold. Ugh.

    I was totally unaware of the shameful segregation which was probably typical of that era.

  12. Anonymous says:

    2.5

  13. Hoz Holla says:

    The owner of Riverside was a rabid racist. Even though as time went by he had to admit minorities he hated it. I remember seeing signs that read “”Riverside’s policy has not changed”.

    In the end he’d rather close it down than continue.

  14. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Yes, it’s truly appalling and I sure wish it had been different. We are all in this together, and it’s unfortunate how many don’t seem to get that.

  15. Michael Cheatham says:

    In the wake of recent events, I was thinking about this park. I am a Black man that was born in 1956 and lived just two blocks from the canal, directly in line with Riverside Park. When I was 4 or 5 Years Old, so 1960 or 1961, I was out playing on a summer afternoon, and could see the roller coaster from my front yard and hear the people shrieking with laughter as they enjoyed rides and fun. I asked my Dad if he would take me to ride the roller coaster and his reply was “sorry Son, they won’t let Negros in today.”
    It is the same underlying mentality that segregated an amusement park that allowed a cop to dig his knee into a Black man’s neck for 9 minutes, it is the same attitude that allowed officers to serve a “no knock” warrant on a Black Woman working on the front lines of a pandemic and shoot her dead, even though the person they were supposedly looking for was already in custody, and it is the same energy that motived a father/son vigilante team to hunt down and kill a Black Man out for a jog…when does it end?

  16. Tiffany Benedict Browne says:

    Hi Michael, thank you for sharing this memory with us and you are so right.

    I imagine it broke your father’s heart to have to tell you that, even more so that this was the reality of the day.

    I winced when I first learned about it and hate that such policies were allowed at Riverside and so many other places in Indianapolis.

    I have long wanted to write a longer article about Riverside Amusement Park and it’s history of racism and I will be working on more articles focused on black history when I finish a book I am working on right now and start writing again for HI. I’d love to talk to you about your experience if you are willing to share more about it. Again, thank you.

    This never should have happened to you or anyone else.

  17. PATRICIA Vaughn says:

    I am so sorry you went thru that, Michael. Nobody should ever have to say those words to their words to their child. I remember going but it was never really fun for me.
    I hear every word you say!! I fear for my greatgrandkids!!!! I’m glad the park has been torn down……..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *