Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Scott And Carol Present - Fontaine Ferry Is Open For One Last Summer

While you can’t go home again, you can return to at least a facsimile of Fontaine Ferry Park. Located on the southern banks of the Ohio River just west of Louisville, Kentucky, it was a magical place buzzing with excitement from 1905 to 1969. Temporarily open on the second floor of the Frazier International History Museum, Sam and Sue continually invite guests to enter Hilarity Hall.

Beginning as merely something to do while waiting for the freight to be loaded onto the ferry boats, the first entertainment at what was to become Fontaine Ferry Park was supplied by a traveling showman who saw the people standing around with nothing to do. A Louisville tradition for sixty-four years, the Metro area became a sadder place after the events that led to the parks closing in 1969.

Fontaine Ferry Park was opened by the Park Circuit and Reality Company after two years of construction following a design produced by John Miller of the Hopkins Amusement Company. Judge George Wilson was soon appointed as the General Manager, and his assistant was John Singhiser, father of Jack who along with his wife Ruby Singhiser operated the park until it closed in 1969. It reopened in 1972 as Ghost Town on the River, closed again, and opened for a final season as River Glen Park. Lots of the original rides were sold and much of the infrastructure removed.

When you walk through the museum’s doors of West Main Street, the first thing you see is a knight outfitted in armor. You ask yourself what a museum affiliated with the Royal Armouries and dedicated to the history of armed conflict is doing hosting this exhibit. Dr. Madeleine Burnside, Executive Director explains, "Carousels were invented to allow knights to practice their jousting skills so we are exploiting that connection as we strive to make the Frazier International Museum a leader in historical interpretation."

Photo courtesy of University of Louisville

She continues, "We attempt to allow guests to experience history through interactive exhibits, not just look at things." A call to the community for photos led to a wide variety that are displayed in the hallway preceding the exhibit. Just another tidbit of information, Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois has the carousel in storage. It would be good to see this piece of Louisville history returned to the area. The two carousel horses on display are actual horses from Fontaine Ferry Park’s carousel.

The gala opening was wonderful. They had a live band featuring music from the 1960’s, and the food was everything you would normally eat at a park. This included hot dogs, funnel cakes, popcorn and Slushies. The aromas drifted up the atrium towards the exhibit and there were some moist eyes from people who actually got to go to the park before it closed. Listening to people talk about their shared experiences at the park made for a wonderful evening. Owsley Brown Frazier declared "Fontaine Ferry Park is open for one more summer" and the lines for the attractions formed in earnest.

A replica of the crescent moon photo spot sits in the hallway just outside the door to the first room of the exhibit. You can get your photo taken just like your grandparents did at Fontaine Ferry Park. No one seemed quite sure exactly where it used to in the park be but by general consensus it was close to Gypsy Village. Gypsy Village started as an outdoor dance garden with and indoor theatre, back in the day; opera was performed in the theatre. Eventually the theatre was converted into an outdoor dance hall that featured many national touring acts. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and the Tommy Dorsey band all performed in Gypsy Village.

The Kiddie Rides area was called Frontier Village after 1955, before that it was called Kiddieland. A little red fire truck from a kiddie ride is on the right, and one of the first pictures in the hallway is the same ride. We talked with Ronnie Jardt, who worked at the park from 1967-1969. "For my first job, I worked all the time in Frontier Village, which was all kiddie rides. My first ride was the helicopter ride and after three days of constantly screaming children someone decided that I had what it took and moved me to games. I was an assistant in games the rest of the year."

He continues, "The next year they put me in charge of the basketball booth, and I was really full of myself being in charge of something at only age eighteen. Sometimes I went over and helped out on the bumper cars. One of the strongest memories I have is after learning from the experienced workers how to ride the Comet and how cool the air felt on the lift hill after climbing out of the river bottom. I had been afraid to rid the Comet until I was sixteen. It was an interesting place to work, and all my friends could come and see me while I was working."

Interactivity reigns supreme in this exhibit. Nearly 4,000 square feet including over 200 artifacts make up the exhibit. Paddy DeGeorge, herself a veteran of many pleasant times at Fontaine Ferry Park, coordinated the exhibit. She says, "This project was nearly two years in the making." When asked about her favorite ride she replies, "I didn’t really have a favorite ride. Because of my Irish heritage, I always tried to ride the 'Shamrock' horse in Hilarity Hall. I was thrilled when we were loaned that particular horse." The same horse is featured in the display.

A replica of the park entrance leads to the "game" room. The original was destroyed by fire on along with the penny arcade on May 25, 1976. Here locals can play some of the same skee ball machines they played in the park, and many of their favorite game booths have been recreated. They can weigh themselves and blame the changes on the age of the machines.

Photo courtesy of University of Louisville

There is a wall mural of the Angel Slide from Hilarity Hall, along with some of the old mirrors. People lined up to look at their reflections just like they did over forty years ago. One indelible scene was a grandmother attempting to show her grandson the "secret" to the ping pong ball game.

Another way the stories live on is through a video that Jerry Rice wrote and directed in 1992 which was produced by Tim Young. He remembers about seventy-five different contributors back when he started on it. "It grew out of presentation project. When we arrived, there were people lined up out the door and down the street. The contributors started calling us as soon as they heard we were making it and it grew faster than we expected. While it was a labor of love for eight years, it did sell 6,000 copies in six months."

Jerry continues, "Like most early parks, Fontaine Ferry Park was affiliated with the Louisville Railway Company. The company generated their own DC current and the park used the excess to operate the rides. Jack Singhiser told me once he got a bill from them for over $100,000. He called them up and told him they had an agreement from long ago, and due to it being DC they could do nothing else with it. Jack thought that was hilarious." The video is available for purchase through the Frazier Museum Store. They have some wonderful recreated Fontaine Ferry Park souvenirs in the shop that are not featured on the store’s web page.

Fontaine Ferry Park featured many roller coasters over the years. The Loop-the Loop was the one of the first, but it was destined to have a short lifetime due to poor design and capacity issues. Like most of its type, it attracted more spectators than riders. It coexisted with a Scenic Railway, a John Miller design built by Fred Ingersoll that closed in 1910. It was replaced by another coaster from this duo, the Racing Derby, which thrilled riders for 26 years. When it was time to replace the Racing Derby, John Miller had his own company and he supplied the Velvet Racer. This coaster was destined to suffer through two of the worst floods in Louisville history. Just barely a year old, the park rebuilt it only to have it suffer through another flood two years later.

The Fontaine Ferry Park roller coaster most remembered is the Comet. Designed by Herbert Schmeck of PTC, the Comet and the Little Comet both lasted through the end of any amusement park on the banks of the Ohio by Louisville. They both survived through two ownership changes and the riot. They were the last coasters in the park.

The Sunday following the Derby was the traditional opening day, but May 4, 1969 would prove to be totally unexpected. Some reports have the crowd being a little bit restive but no one expected a full scale riot to occur. The park had been integrated for five years and to all appearances the tensions had eased. The park was quite successful catering to its integrated crowds. The Twenty-five policemen were required to restore order and after the chaos quieted, over $18,000 dollars of damage was recorded. Some elderly workers had been injured, and money stolen. This disappointment was too much for Jack Singhiser.

Jim Singhiser talks about his uncle, "He was devastated; He sold some of the rides, the machines in the penny arcade, everything that he could. He even took the wiring out of the ground to sell the copper. Fontaine Ferry Park was nothing more than a memory."

The Frazier Museum is hosting several special events and educational programs related to Fontaine Ferry, including Gypsy Village Night at the Frazier, Collectors Day and Family Discovery Days. A July 14 panel discussion, entitled "Outside Looking In: Fontaine Ferry & the Struggle for Civil Rights," will feature moderator Steve Crump and panelists Senator Gerald Neal, author and historian Lynn Renau, Karen Edwards-Hunter and others who will discuss the 1964 integration of Fontaine Ferry in the context of the broader Civil Rights movement. The museum has also created a website especially for the exhibit.

Our thanks to the Frazier Museum & all those collectors who shared treasures for this display. If any of y'all are anywhere near Louisville, don't visit a chance to see this exhibit.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting about this. I live in Louisville and was only 2 years old when the park closed. I was never there, but I was taken by my parents to Ghost Town On The River once, and I have always found the history of this park to be fascinating. Thanks so much! I will definitely be spending a lot of time at this museum this summer!

Scott and Carol said...


We never made it to the park, but have always been interest in it's history.

The exhibit is the next best thing to being there!


Scott & Carol

lbroughton said...

Hi Scott & Carol:THANKS SO MUCH
I grow up in the Portland neighborhood.I would pickup pop bottles to sell,mow grass and anythig else I could do to make money to go to Fontaine Ferry Park.I was 12 and I would walk about 30 blocks to the park by my self on Saturdays.It was my get away from my 2 bothers & 2 sisters.A few bucks would go along way there.THANKS AGAIN,Lonnie B.

Unknown said...

I took some fine art prints of the exhibit and I thought you might be interested in seeing them. I went the the park as a small child but took the photos for my dad. I am glad I did these have become some of the most popular photographs on my old fine art site. I recently moved to a new web host and I expect that they will eventually become the most popular photos there as well. People loved that park. To my dad it was almost a religious experience.

You can see the photos here: http://williamburnettphotography.zenfolio.com/p346540579