Kansas City's Fairmount Park

by John M. Olinskey & Debra Topi

Chapter 2:  1893
Kansas City's Fairmount Park ~ Kansas City History, Sugar Creek History, Independence, Missouri History, and more
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It was a depression year.  In Kansas City the bottom dropped out of the real estate market.  But you couldn't tell that at Fairmount Park on Opening Day, Sunday, May 14.  The weather was beautiful, high in the mid 80s and mostly sunny.

A lot of the improvements had been made during the off season and no more alcohol would be allowed in the park this year (once was enough!).

The Kansas City Boat Club had moved from Washington Park to Fairmount Park, which was a good sign for Fairmount Park, but not for Washington Park.  A boat house was built two blocks north of 24 Highway and 50 feet east of Northern Blvd.  $2,000 was spent on it.  The 2nd floor had a gymnasium and a club room.  The lake featured a 1/2 mile boat race course marked by buoys and many regattas (races) were planned for the season.  Just west of what is now the tennis courts in Sugar Creek was a lovely flower garden with rock walls and hundreds of flowers, mainly roses, creepers, and vines.

A new bath house had been erected at a cost of $1,500, featuring a subterranean tunnel leading to the beach.  Across the lake, park management had big plans for an athletic field (now known as R. J. Roper Stadium).

A bicycle track, baseball field, and tennis courts were planned.  The dance pavilion was newly opened and the First Artillery Band was playing at the band stand.  

The water from the springs was very popular and was advertised thus:

Cusenbary Spring Water.  Now ready to introduce this long celebrated spring water for your family.  No other water compares with it for purity.  Address for lowest terms and plan for delivery.  J. H. Pickering, General Superintendent, 2nd & Wyandotte.  Telephone 2393

The area around and leading to the spring was known as the Cascade Glen, which was the lovers resort and led down to the springs.  Rustic seats and benches were made out of the trees that were cleared while making the park.  A gazebo had been built around the springs and arc light set the area aglow.

The following Friday afternoon after opening day, the Kansas City Commercial Club boarded three newly purchased summer cars (open trolley cars) on the Air Line, the electronic trolley line that ran from 2nd & Wyandotte to Fairmount Park.  They left promptly at 2:30 pm and, after a couple of stops, arrived at Fairmount Park in the middle of a hail storm.  Walnut sized hail rained down on the group, delaying their tour.  When the rain ceased, the party walked over the ground, giving special interest to the mineral spring.  Below the springs a large mineral pool had been added and was very popular.  The weeks that followed were filled with balloon ascensions and parachute leaps. 

In June, a reporter took a trip out to Fairmount Park and was much impressed.  His trip was made mid week, mid June.  He boarded a car at 2nd & Wyandotte early in the afternoon for the 20 minute trip along the high ground overlooking the Missouri River valley, "As the train pulls into this beautiful spot and stops under the broad pavilion overlooking the lake."  His first stop was the boat house where hundreds of boats are cared for by very competent men.  A narrow wooded path led from the boat house to the Kansas City Boat Club Building, which, like a lot of other things, was described as the "best in the West."  The Ladies Boat Club had a reception room and was in the process of being fitted out.  It was located on the second floor and from the balcony it gave a wonderful view of the lake and the surrounding countryside.

The bathing beach was nearing completion after much hard work.  At that time all the big-time bathing facilities were back east and it was obvious that someone had paid a lot of money duplicating a popular eastern resort.  The bath house was a large 2 story building, located where now the intersections of Northern and Hink Drive meet.

A well known swimming teacher and his wife had been put in charge of the bathing and swimming, giving free lessons to anyone who needed help.  Suits were furnished for a price and there were hundreds to choose from.  The ladies dressing room was located on the 2nd floor and gave an exclusive view of the lake.  Stairs led down to the bathing beach via a vine-covered tunnel; a white sand floor changed into a small sand beach.  Ladies were given the privilege of having the morning to themselves.  Many bathing clubs were formed and every afternoon the beach was filled with society's elite.  Bathing suits owned by the bathers were cared for at Fairmount Park for free.

After a good swim the cafe was open for business.  Its location is now the first house on the north side of Northern and Lexington Avenue, just west of the tennis courts.  It was a large white building with a round rock patio facing the lake and a mostly screened in English style dining room with a fireplace.  The cuisine was French and was some of the best eating in town.  In the evening the place to be seated was on the cafe patio which faced east toward the lake.  A new electric fountain (where the tennis courts are today) was in place and in the evening it was turned on creating an enchanting scene of multicolored lights in a shell of mist.  It must have seemed quite spectacular to people, some who were seeing this new technology for the first time.

North of the cafe was the Crystal Maze.  There were only three in the world; one in Paris, one in New York, and now Fairmount Park.  Crystal Maze was a building in which hundreds of mirrors were placed in every conceivable position, reflecting hundreds of times the image of the visitor.  The Crystal Maze was built at a cost of $5,000, a tidy sum in 1893.

The springs were manned by 4 young men with cups to accommodate the hundreds of people that lined up to take a drink of the famous Cusenbary Spring water, reported to be shipped all over the known world at that time.  The Cascade Glen was magnificent.  The sides were hedged with brambles and curtained with twining vines and honeysuckle.  An outdoor gymnasium, complete with everything, was free to all and was very popular with both boys and girls.

In the evening as the day merged into night, the electric lighting was quite popular with the society set, who would sometimes take a late trip to the park to catch the transformation of the park into "one big bower of loveliness".

On Sunday, June 18, Joseph Leuvenmark, champion diver of the world, set the first of many world records that would be set at the park.  He dove 90 feet down from the tower at the north end of the lake.

The following Thursday was the Grocers Picnic.  Now, they knew how to have a good time!  Many arrived early in the morning and before the day was over 10,000 people were in attendance.  The whole park was leased for the day and opened to the public.  The best parts of the picnic besides the food were the great prizes and a lot of winners.  There were five bicycle races on the athletic field (R.J. Roper Stadium), three one mile and 2 half mile races, with prizes like a new boys 24 in bike, food certificates, five dollar gold pieces, a gold watch, and racing shoes.  There were 27 activities called "other events", which included boat and foot races, sack and fat man's races, a boxing match, cake walks, and a tug-of-war.  There was a greased pig and duck catching contest.

In the evening a fireworks display that was to be launched from a boat in the lake caught fire and the spectators were treated to a spectacle that can only be imagined.  The pyrotechnician escaped with his life by jumping into the lake as the show commenced to blow up, burn, and sink, much to the merriment of the crowd.  

The 4th of July in 1893 came on a Tuesday and wasn't the seemingly dull event that it is now, like sparklers and lady fingers.  There were some spectacular fireworks.  Young boys threw small bombs and the big boys carried pistols to shoot in the air to celebrate the nation's birthday.  It wasn't a one-day affair, either.  It usually began the weekend before and lasted until the 4th.  This year the place to go was Fairmount Park.  The crowd was believed to have been 25,000 to 30,000 people.  The Air Line was "feathered out," a term meaning the cars were not only full, but they had people hanging off the sides.  Many people at the 2nd & Wyandotte Street depot gave up after a few hours in frustration and never made it to the park.  The big attraction of the day was the Crystal Maze.  Somehow it was possible for a person to sit in a small room and be seen without being found, because a very pretty girl was seen eating ice cream, but was never found.  The park that day had 50 ice cream stands and 6 soda stands going and was very busy.

A baseball game took place on the new athletic field.  A high dive by Professor Leuvenmark and a fireworks display capped off the evening.

Towards the end of the season, much fun with bicycles came to the park.  One attraction was a one-legged man by the name of Kilpatrick, whose claim to fame was that he had ridden his wheel down the steps of the White House in Washington, D.C.  Not the east steps that were only 40 feet long, but the west steps that were 100 feet long and at an angle of 45 degrees.  Each step had an 8 inch drop and there were 82 of them.  Now he traveled the country duplicating the feat. 

At Fairmount Park the steps built for him were 110 feet long and 50 feet high.  There were no side rails and they were only 5 feet wide (sounds very dangerous!).  He started out a little rough but settled the bike down halfway to the bottom.  His wheel finished the bottom half as if moving over glass, his one foot on the peddle, with no brakes.  When reaching the bottom he continued to travel across the field for several hundred feet; this done twice a day thru the weekend.

A bicycle tournament was held there the 1st of September and featured champion cyclist Arthur A. Zimmerman.


Copyright 2005 - 2008 John M. Olinskey

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