What a ride! Detroit's 20th century amusement parks
On July 2, 1927, Edgewater Park opened for business at Seven Mile and Berg near Grand River in Detroit. It advertised seven rides, including a roller coaster, a petting farm, a bandstand and dance band, a lagoon with canoes to rent, picnic grounds, “thrills, laughs, cool breezes and fresh air!”
It was started during an era of local amusement parks in or near big cities, the most famous example being Coney Island near New York City, as well as Riverview in Chicago and Euclid Beach in Cleveland. But the Detroit area held its own: Along with Edgewater, there was Eastwood Amusement Park on Eight Mile and Gratiot, Jefferson Beach Park in St. Clair Shores, and Walled Lake Amusement Park in Walled Lake.
They all were tied to the granddaddy of all amusement parks in Detroit: Electric Park. Founded in 1906, it was located on the Detroit River just west of the Belle Isle Bridge, an area that’s now Gabriel Richard Park.
Electric Park was the dream-come-true of Arthur C. Gaukler, a well-known insurance man around the turn of the 20th century who believed what Detroit needed was a first class amusement park. He visited amusement parks in the U.S. and Europe and designed his park based on that research.
His park had several roller coasters, dance halls, high-wire and circus acts, a windmill, coliseum, and oddly enough, a very popular scale model of the 1889 Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania that killed thousands. According to a Detroit News article on the Grand Opening, “the first attraction offered will be the Great Chick, tramp cyclist and comedian. Chick is well known as ‘the funniest man on wheels.’”
When Electric Park opened, a young man named Henry Wagner was an assistant county sheriff — a 22-year-old turnkey at the county jail — and involved in Detroit politics. But Wagner led a double life, operating the “dime a dance” in the evenings at the Pier Ball Room at Electric Park. Wagner had caught the amusement park fever, and it never let him go.
When Electric Park closed in 1927, Wagner started his first amusement park, Eastwood, with a partner. Soon he bought a portion of Jefferson Beach Park, then Edgewater Park in 1947. In the mid-sixties Henry Wagner's sons bought Walled Lake Park. In fact the Wagner family owned or partially owned at various times almost all of the amusement parks around Detroit, except Boblo Island.
The Wagners did well in the amusement park business, and lived in a large house on Boston Boulevard. Henry Wagner’s sons — Milton, Alvin and Cyril — recalled performers such as Rudy Vallee coming for dinner at the family house. Years later it was big-band leaders like Tommy Dorsey.
Henry Wagner was a generous man and at times opened the parks to poor children for free:
“Ten thousand children are expected to enjoy the hospitality of Henry Wagner … today. Transportation will be furnished and all attractions of the amusement park will be free including the roller coaster and pink lemonade. Settlement workers [social workers] have seen to it that shut-ins from the poorer sections of the city will enjoy the outing.” -- Detroit Free Press, July 30, 1928
Although Edgewater Park started with only seven rides, by 1947 it had expanded to 23 rides, all jammed onto a compact 22 acres of land. In contrast Boblo Island had 200 acres and a 100-acre parking lot. Cedar Point operates on 364 acres, and the behemoth Disney World owns 47 square miles of land, although it uses only about 13 square miles.
When rides break
Despite the fact that the city inspected the park and the rides several times a year and that the Wagners claimed to be scrupulous in maintaining the park’s machinery, things broke or went wrong with frightening consequences.
One ride at Edgewater called the Roundup was a spinning ride that people rode standing up in cages. As it picked up speed, riders were pressed to the back by centrifugal force. The Roundup then lifted off the ground at a 45-degree angle as the floor detached from the bottom. Riders were suspended above the ground. In one instance in 1963 riders heard a loud clicking, then a shaft on the Roundup broke and it slammed to the ground. Nine riders were injured.
Two men died after falling from the roller coaster – one in 1937 and another in 1950. Fires also were a menace. In 1951 the Penny Arcade burned to the ground.
A fire at the Wagners’ Eastwood Park made national news in May 1936. In the concession called the Jungle, a narrow maze was lined with long, dry grass, and mechanical animals with lighted eyes leaped out at thrill seekers. Of course, everybody then smoked cigarettes or cigars; what could possibly go wrong? Wagner and management claimed to have tested the grass and said that it was not flammable, but that night it went up in flames like … dried grass. It also produced a lot of smoke.
The dim lights above were burned out in the heat so the poor souls trapped in the Jungle couldn’t find a way out. It was considered miraculous that only three people died but many were burned. The fire department praised the bravery of park employees who ran into the maze and pulled out people overcome with smoke.
Big parks, big advantages
The trend by the 1960s was for larger parks built on undeveloped land, away from cities. The Wagners had closed Eastwood in 1949. Henry Wagner died in 1952. In the late 1950s, the Wagners’ Jefferson Beach Amusement Park sold off the Looper, Rocket Planes and double-dip roller coaster and turned itself into a marina, which brother Alvin Wagner ran.
But they continued to invest in Edgewater, buying the Octopus ride and a German-themed fun house. Milton told the newspapers that their German-built rides were expensive: “The Octopus cost more than what we paid for the entire park.”
Cyril saw a giant 110-foot Ferris wheel at the Canadian National Exposition in Toronto and bought it, bringing it back to Edgewater, where it was a main attraction, complete with neon lights on the side that created quite a show at night.
However, the massive, impressive rides were also getting so expensive in the 1960s that only the large parks could afford them.
In 1962 90 percent of city amusement parks in the U.S. were family owned and operated, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks, but the new large parks such as Cedar Point, Six Flags, King’s Island and Disney Land were publically traded corporations with access to capital for rides that could cost $400,000 in the early ‘60s. Private capital from a family could never keep up.
Adapting to survive
A real innovation at Edgewater was Pay One Price or POP. It was Milton Wagner’s idea and it boosted revenues in 1960. Milton was a graduate of the University of Michigan and wrote the advertising copy for the park. In 1960 he and Cyril determined that the typical Edgewater customer spent $1.10 per visit. So, they offered POP at $1.50 to ride all day, as often as you wanted. It was so successful it gave them enough revenue to buy Walled Lake Amusement Park. It was an idea that was copied at parks across the country.
The season ran from March to Labor Day, and in a good year they attracted 400,000 patrons. To serve them the Wagners hired about 100 local youths to work in the park. During the season Milton and Cyril worked seven days a week. Cyril slept in a trailer at Edgewater.
In the 1960s the park patrons were white children, parents and teens, but by the mid-1970s that demographic changed to black children, parents and teens. The park adapted and the yellow and turquoise Big Beast roller coaster was now the Soul Train.
Other things were changed in the ‘70s. The old Himalayan Ride was enclosed in white fiberglass and rigged up with colored lights and strobe lights and redubbed Space Wars. The petting farm was down to two ducks and a goose, but little ones could still ride the carousel and Ferris wheel and little boats in a pond. And for traditionalists there was the Tilt A Whirl, the Octopus and the giant slide named The Cake Walk. The Showboat Fun House with shifting floor and darkness was scary for kiddies at least, while for the more daring there was the Devil’s Graveyard – Voyage A La Lune.
The Wagners kept Edgewater Park going financially by renting it out to groups for a day or a weekend, which meant that the park was closed to the public on most weekends during the summer season. It had a reputation that it harbored troublemakers. Milton Wagner responded, “People are very modest and quiet out here. It’s like a church.” But by the late 1970s the crowds thinned and began to disappear.
Soon Edgewater was being called an eyesore and public nuisance as grass went unmowed, rides grew rusty, and vandals did their thing. The giant Ferris wheel broke down in 1978 and they sold it off. The Wagners shut the park down for good in 1981 and held an auction to get rid of what they could.
In an interview in the 1980s, Cyril Wagner admitted, “I love the business. I’m bewildered to be leaving it. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the people and the noise and the music and the lights.”
So do several generations of Detroiters.
A special thank you to Jim Futrell, historian with the National Amusement Park Association.