Memories of Fontaine Ferry Park

This is for all my “hometown” friends who remember this Icon.

I spent some summer days in the 1950’s and through the 60’s at “Fountain” Ferry Park, as everybody used to pronounce it.  I am sure there are some people like me, who are old enough to remember the Park.  My early memories of the park are like little film clips, which I now try to assemble into a movie.  They are however, very vivid. My memories are not unlike most other folks.  Most of all I recall the sounds and smells and the “impossible to duplicate” atmosphere that only comes with age.  The pea gravel on the ground, tree trunks painted white, everything made of wood with a million coats of paint and the sounds of the shooting gallery, merry-go-round, and splashing in the pool all combined to create a wonderful experience for a child of the 50’s. Mostly I remember that at the end of every school year every pupil in NA-FC school district got a coupon card from Mayor C. Praille Ernie with their final report card. It included a bus ticket from school to the park in the morning and a return trip at 6 p.m. Also was a ticket to Hilarity Hall, ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and tilt-a-whirl. (I think that is right) When I was cleaning out my house after I sold it last fall, I found one of these in one of my old report cards. What a find!

 I remember the Majestic Main Entrance to the Park off of the Parkway, and the side parking lot where The Rocket Carousel, the Skating Rink, and Gypsy Village all stood.  There was a refreshment stand on the corner of this lot that had a Big 7UP sign on it.  The Park grounds were covered in smooth river stone gravel.  The swimming pool seemed so large and intimidating to me, especially the high dive. Of course, the pride of the park was the Comet.  I used to always wait for the rear seat because everyone said it would leave the track a little on the dips.  The Comet roller coaster, was terrifying.  It had no restraints to hold you in your seat, and it seemed people who rode it were crazy, to do so.  I was one of the crazies but not until I was well into my teens.  The Pony Rides were a favorite.  It was heaven to get onto a little Calico Pony and ride around the little oval without the attendants holding the reins.  I recall the “Tunnel of Love” (Ye Olde Mill) being removed and replaced by the Turnpike.  The little red, blue, green, yellow cars with finned rear quarter panels were terrific!  The center stage had shows most everyday.  The Carousel was so beautiful and created a wind as it spun around and around.  The “Rock-O-Planes” were fun because you could lock the handle inside the cars and make your self go upside down.

Hilarity Hall-The two laughing clowns who would welcome you to Hilarity Hall are forever etched into my mind. The Hilarity Hall with it’s Devil’s slide and The Angel Slide was fun, but the most fun thing in the hall was the Wheel of Joy.  The Sugar Bowl made me ill to get into it and spin around stuck to the wall of the bowl.  The Bumps just gave me a headache.  They used to have the Hilarity Hall wired so that a man in the main ticket booth in the center of the hall could jolt people who sat down on benches that were scattered around the hall.  The Wheel of Joy was also wired so that the last person left on the spinning turn table would have to let go when he/she received a shock from the man in the elevated booth. Also, there were mazes of mirrors and of screen doors in which you could easily get lost for quite a while. There were spinning tubes to walk through and shifting floors to deal with and it was always a blast.

 The Rides- The Helicopter ride was great for a kid because it gave such a feeling of control.  Push the bar forward and go down, pull it back and go up.  The little hand-cars that you would crank around a track were pretty fun, as was the Turnpike, a track for gasoline-powered mini racecars.  The other must-rides included the big silver rocket ships that spun around and got higher with speed, the Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambler and the little steam train that afforded you a good view of most of the park.

 Some of the kiddie rides were little wooden boats that floated around a circular tank.  Little cars and fire trucks, little helicopters, and others I can’t remember.  The Dairy Del was just across the Parkway for ice cream on a hot summer night.  The Dude Ranch on the northern end of the grounds offered trail rides on horses.  There was a lot to do.  I miss it and wished that it was still around.  

 The Extras-
     Remember the “Grab Bags”?  They were full of great surprises, and you would always get one just as you were leaving, to keep the magic going just a while longer.  Cool stuff like squirting flowers, Chinese finger cuffs and jumping plastic spiders.

I hope my kid’s and grandkid’s memories of Disney World, King’s Island, Six Flags, and Kentucky Kingdom give them the same kind of rewards when they get to be my age.  

Here is the park’s history I obtained from the internet for those of you are are interested.

 Park History

 A short history of the site will help develop an understanding of how Fontaine Ferry Park came to be one of the nation’s most famous amusement parks.  Captain Aaron Fontaine, a Virginia militiaman, settled in west Louisville in 1798.  He built a boat landing on the shore of his 44-acre plantation.  During the Civil War, Captain Fontaine housed prisoners fleeing slavery.  After the abolition of slavery, the landing site provided a fertile ground for the Fontaine Hotel and beer garden.  Over the years, other famous performers came to the area such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and the Dorsey Brothers.

     John Willard, the designer of Palisades Park in New York, conceived the idea of Fontaine Ferry Park.  The owners, The Park Circuit and Realty Company, began construction of the amusement park in 1903.  At that time, there were several methods of transportation to Fontaine Ferry Park, the most common being steamboats.  Fontaine Ferry’s landing predated the first Ohio River bridge by 70 years.

     During the park’s first years, its success was so overwhelming that at least seven other amusement parks sprung up over the “Kentuckiana” area.  Some of these were Sennings Park Zoo, White City, Ninaweb Park, Liberty Grove, Hammers Park, Glenwood Park, Rose Island, and Kiddieland Amusement Park.  Fontaine Ferry’s competition didn’t last long.  All of these parks closed within three years after their opening.

     Over the years there were four major roller coasters in the park, all on the same site.  They were: The Scenic Railway, The Racing Derby, The Velvet Racer, and The Comet.  In 1937 the flood wiped out The Velvet Racer, but did virtually no damage to the rest of the park.  This was because the roller coaster was built in the flood plain, whereas the rest of the park was not.

     Problems with Fontaine Ferry Park began in 1941.  On November 7 of that year, allegations of the rides being too rough began.  People were cited for standing up on the roller coasters.  The Comet roller coaster tossed a rider while two others were killed on the Racing Derby.  Another child was thrown from one of the smaller rides inside a building.  Roller skaters were even hurt along with a swimmer.  An aerialist fell 25 feet, missed the net, but was not hurt.  Also during this time accusations were made that the waters of the Tunnel of Love were infested with snakes.  The story was believed by the public and Fontaine Ferry was forced to replace the tunnel with the Turnpike.  Later, the snake story was proven false.

     Fontaine Ferry Park was faced with problems far greater than rough rides during its 64 year existence.  In 1964 a man named William Dady was prohibited from entering the pool because of his race.  Many of the other park visitors were afraid of being in the pool with a “Negro.”  Dady and his friends wanted to come to Fontaine Ferry and swim but were told that the pool was a private club and that city laws of integration did not apply.  By forcing his way in, Dady and his friends entered the pool a second time.  After being removed again, they decided to obey the court order.  This all took place near the end of July 1964.  By August 9, the court order was extended to keep Dady out for a longer period of time.  The season of pool operation ended before an “anti-discrimination” law or court order could be issued.

     On opening day, May 4, 1969, many youths attacked workers and looted Fontaine Ferry Park.  Many items were destroyed, especially the portable food stands and some buildings.  The damage cost the park $18,000 and took 25 policemen to handle.  The park closed that day, never to reopen as Fontaine Ferry Park.  The buildings and rides sat idle for some time, only to reopen as another amusement park.  Opened in 1972, the aptly named “Ghost Town on the River” lasted only three years.  The area was also later renamed River Glen Park, but its duration was even shorter: one year.

     On May 25, 1976 the gate and penny arcade burned down.  The sparks set off other fires around the park.  After the fire, the auctioned-off rides ended up in various locations across the country.   The carousel, presently located at Six Flags Great America, near Chicago. It is worth $1,500,000.  Since the acquisition of Kentucky Kingdom into the Six Flags chain, the city of Lousiville has been working on getting the carousel returned to its original home.   The Hrubetz Paratrooper, which was relocated to Knoebels Amusement Park in 1970, and the carousel are the only two visual images of Fontaine Ferry Park remaining. But the countless mental images and souvenirs will live on forever.

Until next time, take care and God Bless,

Judi

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Memories of Fontaine Ferry Park

  1. Richard S

    Judy:

    Really enjoyed reading this today. Mom talks all the time about fountain ferry park. This was really neat to read.

    I don’t know what to say about your hoosiers. All I can say is it will get better. Just hang in there.

    Hope all is well.

    Richard

  2. Janet Beatty

    Judi,

    I just love you!!! What a trip down memory lane. I remember going to the park on a first date. I did not know where we were going and wore a dress that night. My date had a cast on his broken leg. We went to Hilarity Hall and were in one of those turning tubes you walk thru. I will never forget rolling around in that tube, with my legs flying over my head, how embarrassed I was. I just could not get myself out. My date (with a broken leg) came in and got me out. I wanted to die!!!!

    Bob and I were at the park on May 4, 1969. We began to hear things falling and breaking. We left the park, but really did not know what was going on until later.

    I had not thought of Fontaine Ferry Park in years. I enjoyed the memories and the history lesson. You must have been a great teacher. Bless you, Janet

  3. Ellen Venhoff

    Please explain all the rides/attractions in Hilarity Hall. What was the difference between the sugar bowl and the other ride that spun people off/out from center?(not the barrel of fun) Is there a list of all these rides or photos?

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