Novels sometimes come from boyhood memories.
May 10, 2016
AS A KID, I spent many wonderful summer days at Riverview Amusement Park, the largest in the country. When I was thinking about a plot for the fourth Spencer book, I thought of Riverview and the plot fell into place.
I had to call on some time magic because the park closed in 1967 and the story takes place in 1984, but so far I haven’t had any complaints. As I wrote Missing Boy, the memories flooded back.
There were certainly the rides and the attractions, but do you remember Two-Ton Baker and Wizzo from Bozo’s Circus? I include a lot of the flavor in the book, but there is so much more. And if you ever went to Riverview you have your own memories. But how did it all get started?
In 1879, German war veterans held rifle practice at what they named Sharpshooters Park in Chicago (Belmont and Western), setting up paper targets on land and floating targets on the north branch of the Chicago River, which bordered the park on the west.
After complaints from wives about being abandoned on Sunday afternoons, they installed a playground and opened the park to the public for picnics and band concerts. Rifle practice was ended but shooting galleries (with real bullets) became a part of the later amusement park.
In 1903, George Goldman and William Schmidt purchased the twenty-two acres after Schmidt sold his Sedgewick Street Bakery and his invention of the soda cracker to the National Biscuit Company.
Returning from school in Europe where he had seen parks with rides, William’s son George convinced his father that an amusement park was a good idea and talked him into leasing six acres to two east coast companies. Riverview Sharpshooters Park opened with three rides: the White Flyer, a figure-8 shaped roller coaster, a Merry-Go-Round, and the Thousand Islands boat ride.
The White Flyer was pulled uphill by a steam engine to a death-defying, six-foot drop at six mph. The park opened on July 3, 1904 to a crowd of 32,000. Admission was a nickel.
The name Sharpshooters Park was dropped in 1905 and Riverview was born. By 1910, the park had expanded to 140 acres with a hundred attractions.
I had many wonderful times at the park but not everyone was happy. Lane Tech High School bordered the park on the north and administrators complained that the park contributed to their truancy problem. Which was more fun?
My favorite ride was the Bobs rollercoaster (or the Tunnel of Love depending on who I went with). That first six mph coaster was replaced by many others but the Bobs was my favorite. It reached a height of 87’ and a speed of fifty mph and had no seat belts. Imagine that today! Rumor had it that it left the track at one point but I never found anything to verify that and I didn’t care if it did.
Remember Two-Ton Baker (Dick Baker)? He was the unofficial spokesman for the park and often voiced the Riverview theme: “Laugh Your Troubles Away”. And how about Wizzo the Wizard, from Bozo’s Circus? Wizzo, Marshall Brodien, also spent some time as the barker for the Freakshow.
Then there’s the Disney connection. Walt’s father was a construction worker at the Columbian Exposition (Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. Walt was born too late to see that but he did visit Riverview and that was probably one of the parks that inspired Disneyland.
The park closed after the 1967 season, much to the chagrin of disappointed and confused customers. There were some darker suggestions as to the reasons, but it probably just came down to money… the land was worth more than the profits. No one ever divulged what the sale amount was, but William Schmidt (grandson) said the published value of 6.8 million was too low.
The park is gone, replaced by a shopping center and a police station, but there are a few visual memories. If you know where to look, part of the concrete pad from the ticket booth is still visible sticking out of the ground. The five-row carousel, the first of only four constructed, was stored in Galena, Illinois until 1971 when it was relocated to Six Flags Over Georgia where it is still in operation today.
The Rotor (I learned the hard way that I couldn’t stomach anything that spun!), basically a large spinning barrel where centrifugal force plastered you against the walls and then the floor dropped out, was installed at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. It lasted until 2000 when the operators raised the floor too soon and two girls’ legs were caught between the floor and wall. The operators were fined $1,000.00.
Those of you who never were a part of Riverview can use your imagination. Those of you who were can add your own memories to Missing Boy.