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Friday, August 31, 2018

Meet Me in Electric Park!

Michael Heim, with his large belly and hopeful eyes, walked up to the site that was once the Kansas City Driving Club’s headquarters and quickly threw out $46,000 for land at 46th and The Paseo. This would be the new location of Kansas City’s Coney Island – the pleasure palace that had pumped the Heim beer directly to their thirsty patrons from their East Bottom’s brewery.

Heim Brewery in the East Bottoms with Electric Park in the background
The future of the city was slowly shifting to the south, and investors were buying up land near parkways and boulevards that had access to the streetcar system. At the end of the summer season in 1906, Michael Heim and his brothers J.J. and Ferd felt the need to uproot their successful Electric Park and push it south, too.

As described last month, the first Electric Park electrified the East Bottoms and brought it to life starting in June 1900 (read the story about the FIRST Electric park by clicking HERE!).

The old Electric Park had covered just shy of ten acres, and by moving to the southern edge of the city, the park tripled in size. Their last season in the East Bottoms attracted 900,000 visitors, so moving was certainly a risk.
Ad for the second Electric Park
from the Kansas City Star, 1907

Before opening for the 1907 summer season, Michael Heim, working as foreman, had 325 carpenters, 75 laborers and 30 painters working long days to reassemble the park at its new location while also adding to their attraction list.

The “Scenic Railway” would be new and span one mile long from 60 feet in the air. Its width of 185 feet caused the new ride to require additional rides to be within the center of the track. The “hair raising drops” from high in the sky had Kansas Citians ready to see the new Electric Park firsthand.

Gardens designed by George Kessler beautified the grounds;
the covered promenade can be seen to the left
The new band pavilion would seat 10,000 people, said to be more seating than was even offered at the Convention Hall. The German Village was to have seating for 4,000 and the new lake freshly dug was 3 and a half acres big.

Set to open May 19th, 1907, the new Electric Park included a half mile covered and paved promenade that led patrons to concessions from the entrance. The promenade was said to have been modeled after the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. This was innovative for the time, and Melville Stoltz, considered an authority on amusement parks across the nation commented, “I wonder if Kansas City knows that this is an amusement resort ten years ahead of [its time].” 

Patriotism was evident at Electric Park
This new promenade ended at two white towers covered with 10,000 electric lights each at the edge of their new pool. Resting in the center was the famous electric fountain with live acts in the center.

Flower beds 200 ft. x 150 ft. were designed by George Kessler and included 62,000 plants and flowers. In addition to the “Scenic Railway,” new additions included rowboats in the lagoon, a skating rink, a giant swing, a shooting gallery, billiard room, penny amusement parlor, Hooligan castle, an arcade, photograph gallery, dancing pavilion, and the “Norton Slide” that had a series of long inclines 1,280 feet long.

The park was so large that three entrances were fashioned: the main streetcar entrance at 47th and Lydia, a carriage, automobile and pedestrian entrance at 46th and Lydia, and the Vine Streetcar entrance at 45th and Woodland. Surrounding the entire park, painted white, were 324 American flags varying in size from two to twelve feet waving in the wind amidst 100,000 electric lights.

Frankly, the only “old” thing about the new park was the 10 cent entrance fee. Opening day was an incredible success with 53,000 visitors crowding the park- equal to how many people visit Disney World in one day today.

A young Walt Disney
If you’ve ever waited in line at Disney World, you know that’s a lot of people. And to no surprise, Electric Park was host to Walt Disney when he was a child living in Kansas City. It is said that the park influenced the young man so much that he modeled his world-renowned amusement parks after what he witnessed firsthand at Electric Park.

There was one thing missing on opening day that didn’t go over well for the Heims.

The park was dry of Heim Beer.

When Electric Park moved, they expected that their liquor license would move with them to their new location… even though they knew the 12th Ward where the park was newly located was vehemently opposed to granting anyone a saloon license. The police board of three made it vividly clear they weren’t about to grant them a transfer of license.  The Kansas City Star seemed to hold their own opinion when they wrote May 2nd, “Those who desire [liquor] are the ones who should not have it.”


Many of these pre-prohibition party poopers protested in Jefferson City against granting Heim’s Electric Park a license to sell their booze. Heim responded by launching a petition and hiring lawyers to fight the stall of their license transfer. By June, it was declared that the subject of liquor at the park was a source of “political agitation.” In response, they published a letter in the Kansas City Star. They declared that, at the old park where beer and wine was sold, “There was never an arrest for drunkenness.” They asked, “Should we be denied the privilege which others enjoy under the law?”

Unfortunately for thirsty patrons and for Heim’s pocketbook, the letter and petitions did nothing to sway the police board. They took their fight all the way to the Supreme Court after appealing to the Jackson Co. Circuit Court. They denied Electric Park’s applications to advance their license on their docket. The court predicted it would be two years before they’d get to their case.

Even though the park would inevitably stay “dry,” the Heims were raking in the dollars. In the off season, Michael would travel all over the country to search for the newest and greatest amusement park finds. Numerous headlines reading “No Beer at Electric Park!” were replaced with exciting updates on what would be state-of-the-art for the coming season.

New in 1908 was “The Tickler,” an eight-person ride featuring a circular washtub-shaped car. It was designed to release parkgoers at the top and pivot them against padded poles as it descended to the bottom in a zig-zig pattern. For four minutes, passengers would be whiplashed all the way to the bottom.

Each year created additional challenges to stay current and the best amusement park option in the city. Fairmount Park and Forest Park tried to rival Electric Park with free admission and gimmicks such as balloon launches.

No balloon launch was going to beat the crowds and attractions at Electric Park.

Rides such as the “Spiral Coaster” were added in 1910 along with an ostrich farm and a miniature railroad. The following year, the park abandoned the boat rentals on their lake and focused on building a bathing beach that would allow for 5,000 swimmers at once.

In fact, Michael Heim is credited for being the man who “made swimming a fashionable and almost universal sport” in Kansas City.

"The Bowls of Joy" drawing depicts the coaster that never got off the ground
“The Ben Hur Racing Coaster” was added in 1913 and gave park visitors yet another reason to cough up the money to ride on one of the largest and fastest coasters in the nation. Another addition that year included “Bowls of Joy,” a ride invented and financed by a Kansas City post office worker. $15,000 was wasted on the ride and created six months of mechanical problems for the park. “Bowls of Joy” became known as “Bowls of Deferred Hope” due to its failure.

Most of Electric Park’s additions were a success. By 1915, the freshwater pool was extended to be 53x133 feet and ranged from three to eight feet deep. It took 430,000 gallons of water to fill it, and the four and a half acre lake took six million gallons of water. For each season, Electric Park ordered over one and a half tons of swimsuits.

My own great-grandmother, Jean Fetter (1900-1984)
mentions Electric Park and riding the "Ben Hur" and
 "Millers Dream" in her diary entry from Aug. 27, 1917!
“Alligator Joe,” a large attraction at the first Electric Park, continued his alligator antics for several seasons at the new location. In May 1915, five alligators two to three feet long escaped into Brush Creek. Three were recovered within a few days, but two were still missing.

In late August, the two other alligators were found in the Missouri River…

…in Jefferson City.

Constant updates to the park’s innovations made Electric Park a draw for people all over the Midwest. The Heims heavily invested in new attractions in order to stay relevant – they had new competition that included silent movies and the ability to be mobile. The affordability of the automobile had Kansas Citians taking “driving tours” in lieu of taking the streetcar to their park.

In 1917, Electric Park featured the “Greyhound Ride” that Michael Heim declared “is the highest and longest thriller in America.” Water rides including “The Whirlpool” and “Millers Dream” kept them in competition.

Minus nine injuries on the “Ben Hur” caused when a car at the end of the ride wouldn’t stop and an incident on the “Greyhound” where a man dropped a lit cigar on the ride and caused the shavings under the rollercoaster to catch fire, the park was miraculously free of major injuries.

Electric Park at night
The biggest crowd ever documented at Electric Park happened in midst of World War I when former President Theodore Roosevelt came to speak there on Sept. 24, 1917. 55,000 people piled into the park for one dollar, and all the proceeds for admission were given to the Red Cross.

The influence of the World War could be seen and experienced at Electric Park after its end. In 1919, “Hales Aerial Travels” and “Race Through the Clouds” were additions, the latter supposedly the longest ride in the world. The significance of the War also influenced ticket prices when the war tax was issued. Electric Park finally raised their prices to 15 cents- 13 cents for admission and two cents for the war tax.

"Alligator Boy" Henry Coppenger, Jr. taken in Florida in front of
hundreds of people
In addition to the 100,000 electric lights illuminating the park, firework displays were another regular draw to the evening festivities. At one point, they even added TNT to make extra noise.

Perhaps because “Alligator Joe” had retired south to Florida, Michael Heim grabbed “Alligator Boy” in 1919 to be another feature at Electric Park. “Alligator Boy,” whose given name was Henry Coppenger, Jr., was billed “the most interesting youth in America.” He swam in tanks of water with 34 alligators more than six feet in length.

One day, Michael Heim walked past Alligator Boy’s massive display. He pointed to Alligator Boy, and without any warning, an alligator attacked Heim and nicked his finger in the process. Although the injury wasn’t serious, Heim was spotted the next day “wearing a bulky bandage” as he retold his harrowing fight.

Electric Park's 643 year-old alligator
Courtesy of John Dawson
Even Alligator Boy wasn’t safe from harm. By July 1919, he was home with an arm torn, hand crushed, and the fingers of his left hand broken.

Prohibition in 1920 put a dent in the Heim brother’s profits as their main income was the Heim Brewery. When the tap ran dry across the nation, they focused on their real estate holdings and their beloved Electric Park.

The “Big Dipper” was added in 1922; passengers plunged straight down 80 feet sixteen times in a row for over a mile. A new beach with a “sea breeze” drew more patrons in 1923. They must have not noticed the fans tucked into the two towers in order to create the gusts of wind on the artificial coast.

Michael Heim, the brainchild of Electric Park from the beginning, was tired. It’s as if a higher power was listening when on May 26th, 1925, a fire engulfed much of the park in flames.

Ironically, Electric Park was almost completely annihilated because of its initial draw: electricity. The fire chief said a wire from a transformer in front of “The Bug House” became overheated. When the wire broke, it fell on an extremely flammable building. Damages were estimated at over $100,000.

The fire damage from May 26, 1925- published in the Kansas City Star
“One of these years, a May will come when Electric Park will not open,” Michael Heim commented the next day. “Ultimately – possibly in a year or so- it is planned to replace the amusement park with an apartment development and a large shopping center.”

Mounting taxes complicated things; plus, a new park called Fairyland had opened a few years’ earlier. They admitted that the success of the 1925 season would make their final decision.

The Electric Fountain with "living acts" in the center
was moved to China after the park closed
They could have thrown in the towel after the fire, but it wasn’t in the character of Michael Heim or his brothers to end their amusement park reign on a negative note. The decision was to continue their plans that season, and it was said on their opening day the damage was “scarcely noticeable.”

Profits were lower than anticipated, and the decision to close Electric Park was reached. It was time to end of 25 years of entertainment.

August 1925 was the final month for the Electric Park era. A Mardi Gras celebration and a corn carnival were the final festivities that closed a chapter for so many Kansas Citians. The park had been the site of countless memories, laughs and thrills.

The famous electric fountain was shipped off to Guangzhou, China. Its fate is not known.

The pool and dancing hall were all that remained of the park until a fire in 1934 destroyed the final pieces of the pleasure palace.

The same month and year that the second Electric Park closed, another chapter opened for the Heim family’s legacy. A dedication ceremony at the original site of Electric Park in the East Bottoms was conducted to introduce the city to a new public playground. Heim Park opened in 1925 as another park closed for good.

Heim Park in the East Bottoms, the original location
of Electric Park. Courtesy of KC Parks
The original Electric Park went dark in 1906, the only piece of it remaining being Heim Park resting in an area that has seen better days.

But there is hope soon yet for revitalization of the electrifying days that once stood next to Heim Brewery.

On August 28th, 2018, in the shadows of where Electric Park once stood, Andy Rieger, co-founder of J. Rieger & Co., addressed a crowd that included most of the city council and Mayor Sly James. This announcement will change the landscape of the East Bottoms and is being spearheaded by J. Rieger & Co., a revitalized pre-prohibition distillery that uses the Heim Brewery bottling plant as their headquarters today.
A view of the future of Electric Park and J. Rieger & Co., housed in the historic Heim bottling plant
Courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.

Heim Brewery bottling plant was built in 1901 and is one of two surviving structures of Heim Brewery in Kansas City. With the addition of the bottling plant, Heim was able to produce 125,000 bottles per day and at one point was the largest pre-prohibition brewery west of St. Louis, Mo.

Andy is extremely thoughtful when it comes to preserving the historical significance of J. Rieger & Co.’s headquarters. “I love how we are going to keep the building looking as historic as possible.  Historic buildings that are renovated to remain historic, but updated in a cool way with a cool use are about as good as it gets in my eyes,” Rieger commented.

Andy Rieger, co-owner of J. Rieger & Co.
is working hard to preserve history
and revitalize Electric Park.
Photo courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.
J. Rieger & Co. itself has a history that began in the West Bottoms in 1887 and ended with Prohibition, until the founder’s great-great-great grandson resurrected the distillery in 2014 with partner Ryan Maybee.

Even though Electric Park went dark in the East Bottoms in 1906, it has been Andy Rieger’s goal to bring life back to the neighborhood and rebrand it. Their current space of 15,000 square feet will expand to 60,000 square feet between two buildings. This expansion includes renovating their distillery space and the historic Heim Brewery bottling house and adding daily tours, a bar, lounge and cocktail spaces, event spaces for small and large-scale events, a gift shop and a free interactive historic exhibit on the main floor that will include the history of Heim Brewery, Electric Park and J. Rieger & Co.

“All these things are the big focus of being able to revitalize the name ‘Electric Park’ and what it once was,” Andy stated.

New sidewalks, streets, landscaping and a parking lot will help transform the outside grounds. Rieger’s hope is to rebrand the ‘East Bottoms’ name back to Electric Park. “We are really proud to be the ones bringing back the entire nature of Electric Park,” Rieger commented. “We want to bring that motto back to the neighborhood.”

The investment in what will be coined Electric Park includes the city recognizing the past contributions of innovators such as Heim Brewery and current contributions by J. Rieger & Co. Mayor Sly James stated, “This investment is equivalent of the pioneer investments that were made in the West Bottoms and in the Crossroads.”
A view from the new entrance to J. Rieger & Co. facing southeast
Courtesy of J. Rieger & Co.

Taking a risk on a multi-million dollar investment in the area isn’t something that just anyone would do. But just like the Heim brothers in 1900, J. Rieger & Co. is willing to roll the dice and draw people down to Electric Park to see what progress and advancement looks like firsthand.

Kansas City needs more businesses like J. Rieger & Co. and more people like Andy Rieger. He is completely devoted to the city he loves, and this love is apparent when you meet him.

“All these projects started with somebody being willing to make an investment in an area that people weren’t investing in,” Mayor Sly James said.

By 2019, what was once referred to as the East Bottoms will have a completely new face with the help of the history of Electric Park. J. Rieger & Co. is proud to tell the story of the past and incorporate it into their ideas for their own company’s future.

 “History is our brand,” Andy Rieger stated. “We are so lucky to be given this nearly limitless basket of an authentic past.”

I hope you will #meetmeinelectricpark!

Check out their cool video below. :) 

* To read more about J. Rieger & Co.'s interesting history, check out the article I wrote on them HERE!

To stay up to date on all of my writing, search "The New Santa Fe Trailer" on Facebook and LIKE my page! :) 

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