Backtrack: A Short Ride

For five years, Indy residents flocked to the ill-fated Wonderland Amusement Park.

May 2017Add a comment

In early May 1906, activity at the corner of Washington and Gray streets, three blocks away from what’s now Rural Street, was causing a stir. The source of the ruckus: Wonderland Amusement Park, soon to appear on two near-eastside city blocks that had been a baseball field.

By May 13, the frame of the Scenic Railway coaster was visible above the gates. An article in The Indianapolis Star described the ride as “immense,” with 10-seat tandem cars on four interweaving tracks that would take passengers on a half-mile whirl.
On the railway and throughout the park, there were enough electric lights to illuminate a city of 35,000, according to the Star. Not only were the buildings and rides lit with individual bulbs, there was also a 10,000-candlepower searchlight, “such as is used on United States battleships,” noted the newspaper, ready to pierce the night sky and guide fun-seekers to the park.

Wonderland’s gates opened on May 20. Nearly 8,000 happy patrons rushed through them in anticipation of the fantastical world that mechanized amusement parks, a new entertainment in the early 20th century, provided. At this park, along with the Scenic Railway, there was the Shoot-the-Chutes log flume, a Johnstown flood re-enactment, the “mysterious Third Degree” ride, a fun factory, circle swings, the Mystic Maze, and the Bump-the-Bumps slide.

In addition to the rides, visitors could walk the beautiful grounds or climb the tall Electric Tower. They could watch an elephant bathe in the pool of the Shoot-the-Chutes, or stare in wonder at the real-life tribe of Iggorrotes, straight from the Philippines, living in an “authentic” village inside the park walls.

But no matter how awe-inspiring or thrilling these rides and attractions were, the most exciting offering at Wonderland was the Kann War Airship, a huge dirigible. Powered by an engine designed by IMS founder Carl Fisher, the airship was the size of two streetcars. Each day and night, it rose above the treetops and flew over the awed crowd below.

Wonderland delighted the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, for five years. But in 1911, it met the same fate as many other amusement parks of the era. Constructed of wood and full of spark-producing mechanical engines, these playgrounds had short lives. Late on the night of August 26, a fire, allegedly started by a smoldering cigarette, soon engulfed the park. In a few hours, nothing was left but smoke and burned cinders. Wonderland was gone forever.

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