The story of the amusement palaces of Columbus is a tale worth retelling. We would do well to remember the great parks because, in an age of hard work and hard times, they brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.
Historically, amusement parks evolved from a number of different sources. Medieval trade fairs attracted people looking to buy, sell or trade all sorts of things. The fairs also attracted acrobatic acts, jugglers and musicians, and by the 1800s had become attractions of their own.
The mechanization of rides in the 1860s led to roller coasters, Ferris wheels and carousels – all of which needed to be mounted somewhere permanently. The 1800s also saw the arrival of World’s Fairs and other trade expositions, which combined these attractions and drew a lot of people.
In Columbus, the age of the amusement park arrived more slowly. The small capital city had grown significantly in the years after the end of the Civil War in 1865 as a trade center in livestock and leather, and in the manufacture of goods such as tools and glassware.
One old slogan said Columbus was known as the place for “Beef, Beer and Buggies.” By 1880, Columbus was a city of 50,000 and was called “The Buggy Capital of the World.”
Many residents of Columbus spent their newly acquired leisure time in city parks and spots known for picnicking and swimming along the river banks. In 1880, local resident Robert Turner bought a picnic area along the Olentangy River about 4 miles north of the Statehouse and just outside the city limits. In 1881, he improved the grounds, built a tavern and called the area “The Villa.”
In the early 1890s, most of the diverse horse-drawn streetcar lines were merged into a new company that electrified the streetcars. The new Columbus Railway Power and Light Company looked 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 the Figure Eight and began building. Their theater near the river was the largest in America, and a dancing pavilion, built in 1907, also was America’s largest. Over the years, the Dusenbury brothers added a Ferris wheel, a Shoot the Chutes (a ride in which a flat-bottom boat slides down a ramp into 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. That company operated the park until 1929, when it was sold to Leo and Elmer Heanlein. The brothers added a funhouse, expanded zoo holdings then held on as the Depression took its toll on amusement parks.
Olentangy Park changed hands again in 1937, when it was purchased by the L.L. LeVeque Company, which sold the rides and equipment and built the Olentangy Village apartment complex. The swimming pool remained for many years, but it eventually was filled in to make way for the construction of more apartments.
The Gooding Amusement Company owned part of the Columbus Zoo and bought the Carousel, the Ferris wheel and other rides, which eventually ended up at the adjacent Wyandot Lake Amusement Park in southern Delaware County. .
Olentangy Park was not the only amusement park in the city. In 1905, Charles Miles and Frederick Ingersoll opened Indianola Park at 19th Avenue and North Fourth Street. Its large swimming pool could hold as many as 5,000 people, and the park also offered rides and a variety of other attractions.
Although suffering financially, Indianola Park stayed open in the very hot summers of the 1930s before closing for good in 1937. In 1948, the pool was filled in 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 home of what is now 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 ever took place there. Minerva Park, named for the wife of its founder, could not compete with Olentangy Park and closed in 1902. The village of Minerva Park is now at that location.
The arrival of motor cars, radio and the motion picture offered new alternatives for entertainment. Combined with economic depression, the great parks closed. But their legacy of amusement lives on in smaller parks such as Wyandot Lake or sites such as the many waterparks 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 ThisWeek Community News and The Dispatch.