Columbus theme parks were once entertainment hotspots
The story of the Columbus Amusement Palaces is a story worth telling. We would do well to remember the great parks because in a time of hard work and difficult times they brought great pleasure to many people.
Historically, amusement parks have evolved from a number of different sources. Medieval trade fairs attracted people looking to buy, sell or trade all kinds of things. Fairs also attracted acrobatic acts, jugglers and musicians, and by the 1800s they had become attractions in their own right.
The mechanization of rides in the 1860s led to roller coasters, big wheels, and carousels – all of which had to be ridden somewhere permanently. The 1800s also saw the arrival of world fairs and other trade shows, which combined these attractions and attracted a lot of people.
In Columbus, the era of the amusement park has come more slowly. The small capital had grown considerably in the years following the end of the Civil War in 1865 as a center for the cattle and leather trade and the manufacture of goods, such as tools and glassware.
An old slogan said that Columbus was known as the place of “beef, beer, and strollers.” In 1880, Columbus was a city of 50,000 and called itself “the buggy capital of the world.”
As it was:Fairs have always been popular in Ohio
Many Columbus residents have spent their newly acquired leisure time in city parks and known spots for picnicking and swimming along the riverbanks. In 1880, resident Robert Turner purchased a picnic area along the Olentangy River about 4 miles north of the Statehouse and just outside the city limits. In 1881, he landscaped the land, built a tavern and called the neighborhood “the Villa”.
In the early 1890s, most of the various horse-drawn tram lines were merged into a new company that electrified the streetcars. The new Columbus Railway Power and Light Co. sought to increase ridership by having an attraction at the end of the line. The company bought the Villa in 1895 and added electric lights to the park.
In 1899 the Dusenbury brothers bought 100 acres of the Villa and called it Olentangy Park. They added a roller coaster called Figure Eight and started building. Their theater by the river was the largest in America, and a dance pavilion, built in 1907, was also the largest in America. Over the years, the Dusenbury brothers have added a Ferris wheel, a Shoot the Chutes (a ride in which a flat-bottomed boat glides along a ramp in a lagoon), and the world’s largest swimming pool.
After experiencing financial problems, the Dusenbury brothers sold the park to local investors operating as “The Olentangy Amusement Company” in 1923. This company operated the park until 1929 when it was sold. to Leo and Elmer Heanlein. The brothers added a playhouse, expanded zoo properties, and then stood their ground as the depression wreaked havoc on amusement parks.
Olentangy Park changed hands again in 1937, when it was purchased by the LL LeVeque Co., which sold the rides and equipment and built an apartment complex. The swimming pool remained for many years, but it was eventually filled in to make way for the construction of other apartments.
The Gooding Amusement Co. owned part of the Columbus Zoo and purchased the carousel, Ferris wheel, and other rides, which eventually ended up at the adjacent Wyandot Lake amusement park.
Olentangy Park was not the only amusement park in the city. In 1905, Charles Miles and Frederick Ingersoll opened Indianola Park on 19th Avenue and North Fourth Street. Its large pool could hold up to 5,000 people, and the park also offered rides and a variety of other attractions.
Although financially suffering, Indianola Park remained open during the very hot summers of the 1930s before closing permanently in 1937. In 1948, the pool was filled and became a parking lot for a shopping center on the site. The north side of what had been the park was sold earlier and became the headquarters of Indianola Middle School.
Minerva Park’s life was even shorter. Opened in 1895, it was linked by rail to Columbus. Its large hall was called a “casino”, but no gambling had ever taken place. Minerva Park, named after its founder’s wife, could not compete with Olentangy Park and closed in 1902. The village of Minerva Park now sits there.
The arrival of the automobile, radio and cinema offered new entertainment alternatives. Combined with the economic depression, the big parks have closed. But their legacy of fun lives on in smaller parks like Wyandot Lake or sites like the many water parks and campgrounds in central Ohio, or when the occasional circus or carnival comes to town.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for This week’s community news and The Columbus Dispatch.