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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Kansas City's First Amusement Park Illuminated the East Bottoms




The excitement mounted as the streetcar pushed north from the Market Square toward its final destination. The wait for the electric line was said to be worth it even as passengers pushed themselves into the small space. 

There was standing room only, the women and children sitting in the lacquered wooden seats as the men held onto their hats with one hand as they stood grasping the leather straps dangling from the roof with the other on the bumpy ride.

Kansas City had never seen anything like this in 1900. The chatter inside the Heim Line electric streetcar was of the treasures that lay nestled below in the East Bottoms.

The car took the turn south from 5th St. to Lydia and dipped steeply downhill. A few squeals from eager children would indicate that this journey seemed to be the first of many rides of the day. The car pushed on east down Guinotte Ave.; the first view was of the Heim Brewery’s red brick smokestack towering hundreds of feet in the air, puffing promise into the sky. The men licked their lips as the women and children crooked their heads toward the windows ready to witness what they had only read about. The final turn was on Montgall Ave.- the frenzy and commotion escalating, the brick buildings quickly disappeared to reveal something never seen before in Kansas City. Smiles coated the faces of the streetcar passengers as women abruptly stopped fanning themselves under their large hats.

The entrance to Electric Park, cir. 1901
Standing well above them were two beautiful rounded cupola’s flanking the entrance. The brick buildings surrounding the East Bottoms were replaced by the freshness of white architecture framed with multiple American flags. The entrance in and of itself was comparable to the great expositions of the day. Beyond these gates was something that Kansas City was ready to witness- perfectly manicured gardens, amusement rides and musical entertainment all in one location.

They had arrived at their final destination, thirsty for the thrills of Kansas City’s first amusement park.

Nearby, the Heim brothers surveyed the scene from an upper story window. A swarm of people, one streetcar after another, were walking to the entrance of their new park. They looked at each other and smiled widely.

Their plan had worked.

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The Ferd Heim Brewery in 1900, Electric Park in the background

To understand the motivation behind a bunch of brewers building an extensive (and expensive!) park designed for families, we need to briefly look at the history of Heim. 

Plus, Kansas City loves their locally crafted libations! 

In 1856, Ferdinand Heim immigrated from Prussia to Missouri and settled on the other side of the state. From 1857 to 1862, Ferd owned a brewery in Manchester, Mo. and then operated a brewery in East St. Louis from 1870 to 1889. The success of the operation set his eyes to the west.


Ferdinand’s three sons, Ferd, Michael and Joseph, moved to Kansas City and expanded the Heim line in the East Bottoms in 1884. The Heim’s quickly became the largest pre-prohibition brewery in Kansas City and built multiple buildings for their operation.

But their location, minus the railroads that ran through the area, made it not easily accessible to the public. The Heim brothers had envisioned building their brand through personal outreach. The only way to get their customers straight to their door was to use the latest technology.

In January 1899, the Heim brothers began construction of an electric streetcar line from the City Market to the East Bottoms. Ferd Heim proudly told the Kansas City Star, “We will operate six cars at first.” Set to finish the line by July 1st, “Heim Road” had 130 men working to lay the tracks. The line ran west over Guinotte Ave. (in front of the brewery) to Lydia, south on Lydia to 5th St., then west to the City Market.

The connection would link the City Market to the East Bottoms for the first time, but more importantly, it linked the city to Heim. The Heim Road was three miles long and the trip took 18 minutes from start to finish. After a few snags in the construction, the line was opened up for business (months behind schedule) in November 1899. Five cars were ready to round up thirsty Kansas Citians and take them to Heim.

An engraving featured in a souvenir book from Electric Park
showing a Heim Line streetcar
But no one came.

That streetcar line had cost Heim $96,000. Failure wasn’t an option.

They put their heads together and hatched a plan to entice people to pick up the Heim Road at City Market. They needed to give people a reason to ride down to the Bottoms.

Building an electrically powered park for people of all ages was the answer. Other cities had them, and the Heim’s were ready to invest more money that would build up their storefront business.

Through the winter and spring of 1899-1900, the Heim’s used land to the north of the brewery and began building. Modeled after Coney Island in Brooklyn, Electric Park was an ambitious feat that would feature curiosities that residents had never seen in the city.

The first ad for Electric Park, May 30th, 1900
The Kansas City Star 
On June 3rd, 1900, Electric Park opened its doors to the public and the Heim brothers stood in the shadows to see if their plan would work.

17,000 antsy people jumped on the Heim streetcar line and took that 18 minute trip to a new wonderland- a fairyland illuminated at night with lights.

Imagine how long those passengers waited in the City Market to grab a valuable seat- they only had five streetcars!

Entrance to Electric Park was 10 cents, and entrance to the theater was between 10 and 20 cents, depending on the talent that was featured. Weekday afternoons featured free admission.

Visitors were greeted with an electric fountain with “living acts” in the center, a German village, a billiard room and an open-air theater seating 2500 people. Of course, the most important feature of the park was the German Beer Garden that offered patrons fresh beer that pumped through perfectly placed lines directly from Heim Brewery.

Cheers!

At night, the park was beautifully illuminated with lights, therefore giving people another reason to stick around well past dusk. A souvenir book printed by the Electric Park Amusement company proclaimed that the illuminated lights "must be seen to be appreciated."

Jarrow the Strong Man
The quick success of Electric Park had their manager searching for new vaudeville acts, comedians, and musicians to come to perform. The headliner at the beginning was the Seven Reed Birds, who did “a musical farce that has never been West before.”

One act brought in from Chicago was Jarrow the Strong Man. Emil Jarrow, only 24 years old at the time, weighed 134 pounds and was rumored to be able to lift 180 pounds above his head… with one hand. Before he performed for an eager Kansas City crowd, a few local men, including a Kansas City detective, sat with him inside one of the offices. The detective, weighing in at a reported 240 pounds, sat back in a wooden chair. Jarrow the Strong Man stood up, cradled the bottom of the detective’s chair with one hand, and lifted the detective above his head.

With one hand.

Electric Park sure was electrifying!

On a darker side of history, some of the acts included blackface performers, also known at the time as “negro imitators.” After a successful run of Billie Rice’s Minstrel’s in July 1900, the following performers had big shoes to fill. Lew Hawkins and 20 other black faced “comedians” were set to perform, and according to the Kansas City Star, they were “better than expected.”

Electric Fountain drawing found in an early souvenir book
sold at the park
The incredible success of Electric Park in its first season had the Heim’s talking to the Metropolitan Street Railway Line so they could bank on the profits of this privately constructed streetcar track. An agreement was made- Heim sold the line for $250,000- a profit of $155,000 in just over one year.

Licensing for liquor sales at Electric Park was questionable for their second season in 1901. The city was slow on granting a license, which the Heim’s deemed unacceptable since this was the very reason they built their park. They were forced to open without their most popular feature- their Beer Garden. The Heim’s threatened that it was “an injustice to keep the park dry any longer.” For opening weekend, ginger ale and ice cream were the substitutes for Heim suds. Those five dry days didn’t stop people from coming, but it certainly was never the intention of the Heim-owned park to be without Heim beer.

But no worries. . . the license was pushed through and the beer flowed yet again. Kansas City’s “pleasure resort,” as it was coined, was back in the beer business. A streetcar left the City Market every two minutes in order to transport passengers to Electric Park.

A view of the Promenade, cir. 1901 
From season to season, changes were made to the park. In 1901, visitors strolled past checkered gardens, some in hues of purple while others were dotted with green and yellow accents. A souvenir book from the early days of the park proclaimed, "What nature lacked here has been abundantly replaced by artificial means and one might travel far indeed before finding another such enchanting place."

Sounds of the distant orchestra thumbing tunes in the German village and screams from children as they gazed up at the large electric fountain would be illuminated with the brilliancy of thousands of electric lights at dusk were common scenes at Electric Park. People swarmed like ants throughout the park, thirsty for what entertainment would be available from day to day.

The owners promised that "a day in Electric Park will ever be remembered," and they seemed to prove this to be true.

The Electric Park Theater, cir. 1901
There were other parks, mind you, that offered amusements. Both Troost and Fairmount Park had amphitheaters with entertainment, but they were lacking two distinct features: balls of light and cold beer.

Travers Vale (1865-1927), later a silent film director of 78 moving pictures in Hollywood, performed with a troupe of actors (called Travers Vale Stock Company) for Electric Park. Plays like “Olga,” “The Stockeye,” and “After the War” were penned by the director and performed in the German village.

Success is an understatement for what Electric Park brought to the city, and the Heim brothers knew it. Bringing even better entertainment was part of the package of operating the first amusement park in Kansas City.

In 1902, the Kansas City Star asked, “Have you looped the loop?” Over the winter months, the Heim brothers made the decision to bring a “railway” to Electric Park. And by “railway,” they meant what we 21st century folk call a roller coaster.

The newspaper deemed that the Loop the Loop, as it was named nationwide, would sure be popular “notwithstanding the element of danger.” It was one of the first modern roller coasters in the nation; Coney Island had introduced the Loop the Loop just one year earlier as their second railway – I mean, rollercoaster.

The Loop the Loop at Coney Island (1901-1910) was an exact model of the one at Electric Park

Passengers of the Loop the Loop would travel 1200 feet in 40 seconds at 60 miles per hour. As the name represents, the Loop the Loop would turn passengers upside down, “but they turn so quickly that the passengers do not have time to fall out.”

What?! TIME to fall out?! I’m pretty sure there weren’t any seat belts on this ride.

A general view of Electric Park from a promotional book cir. 1901, featuring the "new" pavilion in the background.
No thanks. I took my risk with the Zambezi Zinger at Worlds of Fun. It didn’t have a seatbelt, but it didn’t turn me UPSIDE DOWN.

I figured through my research I would find hundreds of accident reports from Loop the Loop victims, but shockingly, I only found one. A man lost his hat on the ride and tried to recover it after he had left the car at the end of the ride. He went to retrieve his hat and another car ending its ride ran into him.

One- don’t wear a hat on a ride. Two- watch where you’re going?

He suffered broken ribs and tried to sue Heim, but the case disappears from the records.

The German Village 
The Loop the Loop was popular- people stood in line for hours for a chance to risk their lives on Kansas City’s first roller coaster. And money was good; the loop made Heim 80 cents per minute while it was in operation.

Other attractions added in 1902 included enlarging the German Village to accommodate more seating, a den of snakes (including one that was 26 feet long), and a ranch with hundreds of pure bred Angora goats. Fortune tellers were ready to charm you and elephants even graced the East Bottoms. The German Village was described by its owners as "a very odd and attractive spot" where fun "can be had at all times while listening to the Tyrolean warblers, anything good to eat or drink; a specialty being made of such dishes as are peculiar to this class of place." 

A view looking toward the bluffs, cir. 1901
On the weekends, up to 20,000 people per day would ride down to the East Bottoms to see what Electric Park had to offer. With a population of about 164,000 in Kansas City, Heim Brewery operating under the Electric Park Amusement Company had successfully snagged a great deal of the community.

Think of it this way: today, 44,000 people visit Disneyland per day. TODAY.  Disneyland is 85 acres, and Electric Park was much, much smaller.

In fact, the crowds were so large that Heim purchased more land in 1902 to extend the park in three directions, maxing out their space at just under ten acres.

1903 started roughly when massive flooding in late May covered Electric Park. It took 28 days for the park to reopen after it was completely submerged, and many buildings toppled over under the water’s pressure.

The Ferris Wheel and the Loop the Loop were restored and a swimming pool was added (insert obvious joke here). The opening included famed Italian musician Allessandro Liberati (1847-1927), who had written a score called “Kansas City Star March” in 1896. He had traveled all throughout the country in earlier years and spent a great deal of time performing in Kansas City in 1891. This may have inspired his most well-known tune of the day. His song was the opening music for WDAF in the 1940s. Please take two minutes to listen to a recording of Liberati's "Kansas City Star March" in the attached video! 

Liberati was a crowd favorite, and he returned for many weeks that summer and for years to come. When Liberati left Kansas City, a group called Banda Rossa entered the scene and took the town by storm.

In 1904, always on the edge of the newest amusement rides, Electric Park added a toboggan slide called a “gravity railway” at the cost of $25,000. It was a 150 foot slide. Small cars holding six people were pulled up 75 feet in the air. They would start downward and travel a distance of a half a mile in three figure eights, one on top of the other.
Michael G. Heim

Yeah, I’m guessing no seat belts on this one, either.

Obviously, the Heim’s and their Electric Park Amusement Company felt it was necessary to keep up with the times. As quick as the iPhone seems to be obsolete and needing an upgrade, Electric Park was in need of another overhaul.

In 1905, Electric Park was completely revamped under the direction of Michael G. Heim. Heim had traveled east several times and visited other parks to survey what the big cities were doing. In this new design, a dancing pavilion and Hale’s “Tours and Scenes of the World” were added. George C. Hale, a retired Kansas City fire chief, had designed this concept and introduced it at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.

A drawing of Hales Tours and Scenes of the World
featured at Electric Park. Courtesy of the Kansas City Star
Using film of scenic places around the world, “passengers” would enter an imitation railroad coach that sat on a circular platform. The coach would stay stationary as panoramic images on both sides would move. The car would slightly rock back and forth (courtesy of some hidden employees underneath) as it took curves in the scenery. A wind machine and sounds matching the landscape created a technological innovation never seen before.


The two panoramic scenes offered at opening day at Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World were the Brooklyn Bridge and a trip down Broadway as well as a scene traveling over a rocky gorge, deemed “most realistic” by the Kansas City Star. New scenes were offered as often as they could in order to keep the public paying for this newest attraction.

George C. Hale
Space was an issue in the park, but that didn’t stop the Electric Amusement Park Company from adding to the little pieces of land they had left. An alligator farm, encompassing the final three acres, was added in 1906. Called “Alligator Joe’s Farm” after the portly Floridian aptly named  none other than "Alligator Joe", the new addition held 52 alligators and crocodiles from 15 to 24 feet long. Alligator Joe didn’t just stand by and throw meat at his friends- he was known to jump in the waters in front of screaming women and eager children and wrestle them.

Other additions in 1906 included moving the German village to the middle of the park, a covered gate as people entered, and a Japanese tea garden complete with “real Japanese servers.”  Apparently, monkeys were part of the stirring scenery, as it was reported that one escaped from a cage at the park and had quite a bit of fun exploring Electric Park. M.G. Heim tried to capture the monkey with the crook of his cane but failed.

Surprisingly, very few incidents were reported regarding negative goings-on at Electric Park, minus people shooting paper wads at those monkeys and a few accidents with the streetcars on their way to the park.

Drawing from the Kansas City Star, July 29th, 1906 of 
"Alligator Joe's" antics
There wasn’t much more monkeying around after the sixth season of Electric Park in the East Bottoms, because it was vividly clear that the park was in desperate need of more space. The Heim family knew it was a gamble to uproot their pleasure palace and move, but they were left with no choice.

At the end of September 1906, the rumors were laid to rest. No, the park would not be called “The White City” as reported, but yes, they would be moving to 46th and the Paseo. The last big event at Electric Park was the Corn Carnival, a harvest festival featuring balloon ascensions, the sale of locally-made jams and preserves, pumpkins and other farm products.

Then, the park went dark.

What was Kansas City’s first amusement park laid empty for years. In 1925, a fragment of the land (just over four acres) was donated to the city to be used as a playground. Today, Heim Park exists as the only landmark of what once was Kansas City’s Coney Island.

And the new park at 46th and the Paseo would start with one big problem: the police commissioners and nearby residents wanted it to be dry.


Part 2 of Electric Park coming at the end of August!

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A view of the gardens at Electric Park, cir. 1901
Ferd Heim Brewery 

Inside the bottling plant at Heim around the turn of the century

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