One amazing local business coming to the rescue in the midst of the “food desert” of Indy’s East Washington Street corridor is Tlaolli, an incredible lavender house of tamales in a sea of post-industrial gray. Almost directly across the street from Tlaolli is an advertisement for help of a different sort. If you’re familiar with the Near East Side, you’ve probably seen a large billboard outside an old abandoned battery factory there. Located near the intersection of East Washington with Rural Street, this side of the block, at least, needs all the help it can get. The colorful billboard announces a Hispanic Pentecostal church, La Hermosa, housed in what appears to be a former auto body shop. Sprawled across a photo of the Soldiers & Sailors Monument on the billboard are words proclaiming: “Trayendo el poder sobrenatural a Indianapolis — Bringing the supernatural power to Indianapolis.”
Just over a century ago, two men with very different claims to the title “modern Moses” — and who called on a superhuman, if not supernatural, strength — came to this place.
In the early 1900s this spot was home to one of Indy’s lost amusement parks. HI’s Gwen Sunkel has already collected some colorful old postcards of the short-lived park, which show how different the neighborhood looked a hundred years ago. Begun in 1905 and opened to the public in May 1906, Wonderland was built on the site of the old East Washington Street Ballpark, the Indianapolis Indians’ original home. In the days when electricity was still a wonder in itself, Wonderland’s owners outfitted their rides with enough light bulbs to illuminate a medium-sized town. With amusements like Shoot the Chutes, Bump the Bumps, vaudeville acts, a half-mile-long “scenic” railroad, and a wooden roller coaster, this was truly the Coney Island of the East Side. Owners Edward H. Rentsch and Minnie Wilson even arranged a re-enactment of the tragic Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood for their guests, who gladly forked out the paltry admission fee — a nickel for kids, a dime for adults.
Due to a lack of nocturnal entertainment at the State Fairgrounds, the crowds of 1906 often turned to the parks at Riverside, White City in then-rural Broad Ripple, and Wonderland.
Probably the most amazing performers that year were Charles W. Oldrieve, the “river walker,” and his wife, champion oarswoman Caroline Oldrieve. Contemporaries hailed Charles as a “human water spider” — like Moses, he possessed a special aptitude for getting across large wet spaces. Pontoon shoes made out of strips of cedar wood and canvas made possible his aquatic trekking as early as 1889, when he walked across Massachusetts Bay. By 1898, he had also sauntered down the Hudson River from Albany to New York City, traversed Long Island Sound, and even announced plans to walk over the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. As a performer, Oldrieve, who weighed just 120 pounds (twenty less than what his shoes would support), traveled as far as Havana, Cuba, to thrill audiences — though he went to Cuba by boat. His wife Caroline, a Nova Scotia native, was described as “a six foot brunette weighing 250 pounds.” She took up rowing during their courtship. And an interesting courtship it must have been.
Just a few months after performing at Wonderland in September 1906, the Oldrieves accepted an incredible $5,000 bet, though it seems low for what they did. To win it, they would have to travel downstream from Cincinnati to New Orleans in forty days — Charles walking, Caroline rowing. The distance? Sixteen-hundred miles as the rivers flow. Leaving Ohio on New Years’ Day, 1907, the water spider and his equally athletic spouse won the bet when they made it to the Big Easy on February 10… with just forty-five minutes to spare! Tragically, on July 4, 1907, during a water-walking exhibition in Greenwood, Mississippi, Caroline Oldrieve was badly burned while igniting fireworks on a flatboat. She died of her injuries a few days later. Distraught, her husband Charles committed suicide in Memphis on July 12 by inhaling chloroform. He’s buried there — on Elvis Presley Boulevard. She was 32, he was 39.
The couple toyed with death in Indiana, too. Next time you drive down U.S. 40, remember this Indianapolis News report from Wonderland:
Like the incredible Oldrieves, Wonderland itself had a sad demise. Its end came from water’s oldest enemy, fire. But first it had to endure the perils of booze.
Already under investigation by 1909 for the possible presence of a Blind Tiger — not a scary zoo animal, but an illegal speakeasy — the shadow of beer was casting doubt on Wonderland’s reputation. Despite its Mayberryesque image in old postcards, Wonderland probably had some “seedy” appeal. At least that’s what the ever-watchful, temperance-minded mothers of the Near East Side thought. When its rival amusement park, Broad Ripple’s White City, burned to the ground in 1908, Wonderland enjoyed a spike in attendance. But just three years after it opened, the place was already in decline.
Considering the racial realities of the time, the owners’ decision to open up Wonderland to an all-African American fraternal convention in 1911 probably shows how much attendance had dipped. (The Near East Side was almost entirely white then.) Whatever the reason was, in mid-August 1911, the amusement park hosted an “after party” for the largest gathering of African Americans ever assembled in the city. With many out-of-staters among them, crowds came partly to hear a man whose visit to Indy has been as forgotten as the Oldrieves’ — author and educator Booker T. Washington, called “a modern Moses.”
Founder of the historic Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Washington passionately advocated African American self-determination. A teacher’s college and technical training institute, Tuskegee spearheaded education in black communities all over the U.S. In speaking engagements around the country, Washington promoted not only education, but a commitment to agriculture, arguing that even if African Americans were barred from skilled trades, sticking to the land wasn’t a bad choice in itself.
When he came to Indianapolis to deliver a speech at the State Fairgrounds, Washington told a reporter for the News: “the colored man… must attach himself to the soil. It gives him a degree of independence. It makes him feel that someone else is depending on him instead of his being dependent on someone else.” During the great exodus of southern blacks to northern cities, he uttered another statement that still holds true: “Unfortunately for our race, when a crime is committed by a negro everybody hears of it, but when negroes are successful in business and in life the news of their success travels slowly.”
Organizing the event was the Colored Knights of Pythias, the African American branch of the fraternal order often just called “the K. of P.” The Indianapolis Star estimated that 40,000 visitors came to the Fairgrounds. The News claimed it was “the largest gathering of negroes ever held in the world.” Most visitors were black, but the city’s progressive mayor, Lew Shank, was given a “handsome floral design” in appreciation of his help.
At the State Fairgrounds, thousands of Knights camped in tents. Some belonged to a 1,000-strong delegation from Chicago led by Major General R.R. Jackson of the Eighth Illinois National Guard, an all-black militia regiment organized mostly in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Reorganized as the 370th Infantry, the regiment served with distinction in both World Wars. The Eighth Illinois’ band entertained guests at a huge ball held at the old Farmers Coliseum. On a quiet Sunday, part of the regiment performed a “calisthenic drill.” Members of Indy’s African American Y.M.C.A. held “interesting exercises” (Indianapolis Star). At Tomlinson Hall, vaudeville actors performed for the city’s guests.
The night he attended a reception at Wonderland, Booker Washington stayed with Dr. Sumner A. Furniss, one of the city’s pioneer African American physicians. At a time when blacks’ role in the medical field was usually limited to stealing bodies from cemeteries (in the pay of white doctors) for white students to cut up on dissecting-room tables — the corpses they nabbed were usually black, too — Furniss and his brother Henry were unique. Born in Brooklyn in 1868, Henry Furniss was one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School in the 1890s. He later taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and served as U.S. consul in Bahia, Brazil, and as U.S. Minister to Haiti. In Indianapolis, his brother Dr. S.A. Furniss was one of the first black graduates of Indiana Medical College, forerunner of IU Medical School. He practiced medicine on New York Street. In 1909, Furniss — the first black doctor on the staff of City Hospital — helped establish all-black Lincoln Hospital, which survived until 1915. A member of the Indianapolis City Council, Furniss lived at 824 North West Street, right across from St. Bridget’s Church.
The Colored Knights of Pythias had managed to reserve Wonderland during the entire week of their grand Indianapolis event. The park had actually been temporarily closed due to the drop in business, then opened briefly for the International Interdenominational County Fair from August 12-19, 1911 — an event that saw a police raid on the suspected “blind tiger.” (Police found nothing, though the park’s manager, Peter B. Trone, probably just stalled them long enough for his bartenders to hide their stash of hooch.)
A hundred years later, it’s hard to say what the population of the mostly white neighborhood thought about a thousand or more African Americans coming to this part of town, which wasn’t known for its racial inclusiveness. (Unlike today, the Near East Side was fairly well-to-do in 1911. Whites were terrified about black newcomers causing their property values to sink, a fear that has never served cities well.) The Pythians’ event went ahead as planned, with the park rides “operated exclusively for the benefit of the colored people.” A reception for Booker T. Washington was held at Wonderland on the afternoon of August 22. No incidents were reported in the papers. The crowd — about 1,000 people — went home before midnight. Washington took a train east the next day, but the Knights of Pythias arranged for Wonderland to remain open through Sunday, August 27.
On Saturday night, August 26, the last guests left around 11:00. In the wee hours of August 27, Wonderland went up in flames. R.C. Buchanan, night watchman, spotted the fire when it was still small, centered in a place out back called the “flatiron building.” Firemen, however, were hampered by low water pressure, since fire hydrants were too far from the burning buildings and rides. Connecting their engines and hose lines to the pool at the base of the Chutes ride, the men extinguished the inferno, but most of Wonderland lay in ruins. One firefighter, William Pallikan, suffered fractured ribs and severe burns.
What caused the blaze remains a mystery. A Star reporter said the park’s new owner, Emanuel I. Fisher, “put little faith in the theory that it was of incendiary origin.” Fisher suspected a cigar or cigarette stub chucked into a trash bin or a spark from a passing train on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had only taken out $5,000 worth of insurance on property valued at $20,000 and told reporters he wasn’t going to rebuild. A local Jewish businessman, Fisher died of an opium overdose, taken as a pain reliever, in October 1913.
There’s a chance that a week of happy reveling by African Americans angered somebody in the neighborhood and that arson was to blame. Loud Sunday beer parties at Dietz’s Grove in nearby Irvington brought down local wrath against “carousals” in 1913. And in the 1920s Klan membership was high in this middle-class part of town, but that was a decade away. The newspapers made no reports of a “fire bug.”
In 1921, General Electric built a facility on one corner of the site but never moved in. P.R. Mallory & Company, makers of Duracell batteries, moved their headquarters here from Port Chester, New York, in 1924. In the mid-1960s, 1,500 employees worked in the 125,000-square-foot building located at 3029 East Washington Street. Since 1978, it’s been an empty eyesore.
At the time of this writing, most of the property is overgrown and houses La Hermosa church and a tasty food truck out back, Taquería Morales. Since about 2012, there have been some slow-going plans in the air to redevelop U.S. 40’s old industrial corridor, hindered by the recent fallout from RFRA. The Mallory building has been eyed for offices or apartments, and the neighborhood would benefit by designation as a historic district. If these plans ever come to fruition, Wonderland’s site might serve as a catalyst for the revival of a once-prosperous neighborhood in sore need both of jobs and love. Support from not-for-profit CDC’s have helped several small startups point the way forward.