Thursday, August 23, 2018

Riverview (Amusement) Park, Aurora, Illinois (1899-1910) - Fox River Park, Aurora, Illinois (1910-1925)

According to legend, Aurora's Senator Henry Evans wanted to build an interurban line from Aurora to Morris and connect with his friend's line, Senator McKinley's Illinois Traction System. Senator Evans was the man who had organized the Aurora City Railway Company in 1882 and began streetcar service with mule-drawn cars which were quickly converted to electric cars beginning in 1890. During the 1890's, he also built many buildings in Aurora. 

By the mid-1890's, streetcar lines in Aurora and Elgin were flourishing. Sections of interurban lines were being built to connect the two cities. There were rumors of a major interurban line to be built from Aurora to Chicago which would in later years become the Chicago Aurora & Elgin Railroad. By the late 1890's, "interurban fever" was gripping the Midwest, and during April of 1897, Senator Evans incorporated his line to run south from Aurora - the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway Co. 

Within three months Senator Evans had secured the necessary franchises to run in and along the roads as far south as Montgomery and was buying land to continue south. However, there was "a hitch" in his plans. The best route from Montgomery to Oswego was through a particular farmer's field, and that farmer did not want to sell a narrow strip for a railroad to cut through the middle of his farm. After haggling with the farmer and threatening condemnation and lawsuits for nearly two years, Senator Evans finally gave up trying to buy just the narrow right of way and bought the whole farm! 

The next question was what to do with the land. It had open areas which could be turned into ball diamonds and campgrounds. The farm had a nice stand of trees along the Fox River and a bubbling clear water spring. The Fox River ran clearly and slowly by the banks and there was an island not too far off shore. What an ideal location for a park - Riverview Park! 

Construction began during the summer of 1899 on both the park and the interurban line running south out of Aurora. Senator Evans didn't order any cars for his new company, but he contracted for service with his Aurora Street Railway Co. 
The Riverview Park depot had room for several cars to load and unload passengers all at once. Here, car 103, a double-truck 12-bench open car built by the J. G. Brill Company in 1897, waits for returning passengers after a day of fun at the park.
The cars begin arriving at the raised platform depot at Riverview Park in this photo from 1900.
Rather than wait until the following spring, Riverview Park was opened when streetcars left Aurora to run as far south as the park. The day was Tuesday, November 7, 1899, and the first cars were operating at 1:00 p.m. Montgomery was decorated with flags and the people were out to welcome the first train. Four cars were running in each direction by 2:00 p.m. when about 500 people were present for the dedication of Riverview Park.


The transfer is almost complete as the streetcars are lined up on north Broadway in front of the CB&Q's roundhouse and shops waiting for the "go ahead" signal for the short trip to the park.
Senator Evans was disappointed that the brass band which had been hired for the occasion didn't show up, but - as the Aurora Daily Beacon story put it - "there was plenty of music in the air when the oratory was on." In a short talk, Mayor Howard said, "This beautiful spot is to be a prohibition park, and if anyone drinks liquor here, he will have to bring it in his clothes. It will be a credit to Aurora and Montgomery," he added. More addresses followed and later in the day, Goddard's string band furnished music for dancing. 
The midway was alive with people in this photo from about 1908. The 1907 consolidation and refurbishing had been completed and a new front had been added to the dance hall in the center, background. The entrances to the Figure 8 and Roller Coaster and other midway activities were behind the lighted facades to the right.
Riverview Park soon closed for the winter months, but it reopened with a gala grand opening in the early spring of 1900. The Aurora Daily News ran the banner headline: Great Crowds Take a Sunday Ride Down to Riverview Park to Attend the Formal Opening. "The weather was ideal and many people went on an outing. The first excursion cars were loaded and a general rush was made for the park. The electric car line was taxed to its utmost as three cars each way were kept busy until night with nearly every trip loaded to the guards - the record running over two thousand passengers. Carriages lined the roads and everyone enjoyed a happy time. The park did not look its prettiest because the trees had not yet leaved and the bare limbs shocked some of the more fastidious visitors; Senator Evans promised to have them clothed in a few weeks. A string orchestra furnished the music, Professor Greenough walked the tight rope and Amateur Banker made the grand balloon ascension and parachute drop in quite a professional manner.”

By early summer of 1900, the Aurora & Geneva Railway completed the final segment in the line from Elgin to Aurora, opening up more opportunities for direct streetcar connections to Riverview Park. A month later the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris R y. reached Oswego and by December had completed its line to Yorkville. This tapped a rural population that would ride the Interurbans to Riverview Park for picnics, boating, Chautauquas and other amusements. 

There were many special outings at the park each summer. According to the Aurora Daily News, employees of the Chicago Corset Company (Aurora) had everything "their own way" at Riverview Park when they enjoyed their second annual complimentary picnic. The company chartered ten special cars, besides all the smaller ones. The employees loaded on at the factory and were taken directly to the park. "All the privileges were leased exclusively for them and no one else was allowed to intrude, so they had the best kind of time. Dinner was a grand affair - when all spread out it was a grand picture. A fine literary and musical program was given by Mrs. Emma Skinner-Miller, Huen's full band furnished the band music, and a parade and dance representing all nations was an interesting feature. Barrels of lemonade were at several prominent places on the grounds; ice cream, sandwiches and other refreshments were served in great abundance for the evening lunch." 

The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway began operating from Chicago to Aurora during August of 1902. This opened up the vast Chicagoland area to Riverview Park via a connection between the "Third Rail" interurban line and the Aurora streetcar line in downtown Aurora. 

No admission was charged and accommodations were provided for automobiles and other vehicles. A 5¢ fare was charged on the company's cars which ran every half hour from Aurora to the park. 

Special excursions were run to the park throughout the summer months. The Electric Railway Journal of 1913 reported that the AE&C provided 40 special cars to carry 2500 people from Chicago for a company picnic in August, 1913. To handle such large groups, passengers would board the AE&C's third-rail interurban cars in Chicago for the trip to Aurora where the riders would transfer to smaller city streetcars.

PHYSICAL FEATURES
Riverview Park had many attractions including a roller coaster, auditorium for theatrical and stage shows, a dance hall, restaurant, and a merry go round, to name a few. But the natural beauty of the area is what attracted the first visitors. 
A spacious park atmosphere greeted visitors as they walked through the main gate with the busy activity of the amusements in the background.
According to a brochure about the park, it was heavily wooded, and "from a high elevation slopes gradually down to the river, which at this point is very wide and is studded with several islands. Looking up the river towards Aurora is a splendid view, and opposite the park is a beautiful hill country.
In several places streams break through between the hills and trees making some picturesque spots. A fine drive on the east side of the river, following to the south, is well patronized on pleasant days, and strung all along the banks are parties fishing and picnicking, or indulging in the shade, enjoying the scenery and watching the sports going on about the river."
"To the south is probably the most beautiful scene - about a quarter of a mile down the river is spanned by the railroad bridge. The wooded islands in front and the grand old oaks, looking out from the park over and down the river, make a lovely picture worthy of the palette of the greatest master." From the west end on high ground of the park, farm lands, wooded timber lands, streams and pastures with cattle and sheep can be seen "as far as the eye can reach." 
"The scenery here at sunset is especially enchanting, looking over the rich farm country for several miles; and the sun setting between the trees adds to the scene, making it one of the beautiful spots of the park. Parties enjoy this quiet part for their evening lunch; tables and seats for various sized parties are arranged at almost every shaded nook, with electric lights for the evening adding greatly to the comfort of the evening visitors." 
There was an artesian spring on the grounds which furnished constantly flowing pure water. There was considerable talk of the water having medicinal qualities, and Senator Evans even promoted the establishment of a sanitarium nearby for the purpose of using the mineral water for "healthful and curative purposes". However, nothing ever came of the plan and special pipes were installed to bring up the water, under its own pressure, to a pleasant drinking fountain level. 
By the grand opening in the spring of 1900, several structures were completed. They included a three arch entrance, the station, a dance hall, refreshment hall, bandstand, Chute-the-Chutes, merry go round and swings for children, plus a baseball diamond.

The triple arch entrance was at the north end of the park because the vast majority of visitors traveled to the park from the north. The arched entryway was built of wood studs and siding and actually spanned the single track mainline of the Aurora-Oswego line. The western portal was fenced, while the eastern portal was a gate constructed of the same wooden fencing material. 
Fox River Park Dance Pavilion.
The station platform, raised about two feet off the ground, was constructed of wood and was well over 100 feet long - long enough to easily accommodate half a dozen cars. A portion of the platform was covered by a wooden canopy constructed to normal railroad waiting platform guidelines. Under the canopy were simple wooden benches capable of seating approximately fifty people. A single track stub spur was installed toward the south end of the park in front of the ballpark which could easily accommodate ten or more cars waiting for the end of a game or special outing. 
The original dance hall was constructed of wood and was 62' x 114', large enough to accommodate hundreds of dancers. A park brochure said, "the floors have been carefully laid and have that desirable elasticity that is a delight to those who trip the light fantastic." It was lighted at night by electric lights. In addition, portable seating could be brought in for special events. Although usually left open, the dance hall could be enclosed on the sides by means of drop shutters. 

The refreshment or dining hall was 50'6" wide by 113' long and was built entirely of wood. On the south end of the building were two bays which were enclosed for a kitchen and living quarters. Only a part of the rest of the building was enclosed. 

An eight-sided bandstand was built as part of the original compliment of buildings, but it was later removed to provide additional space for new buildings and to encourage customers to use the dance hall. A new bandstand was incorporated in the later remodeled dance hall.
The chutes, rather crude by modern standards, consisted of a double-track incline constructed of wood. A somewhat rectangular shaped flat-bottom boat was hauled to the top of the incline by a motor driven chain. The boat was moved over to the other sets of rails by an operator and the passengers, who had walked up steps to the top, were loaded into the boat. Once aboard, the operator's helper would climb in, too, and the boat would shoot off at an ever increasing speed into the river below. Once in the river, the boat had a tendency to float down river away from the park; the helper "poled" the boat back to the dock so that the now wet riders could get out.
The Riverview Park Shoot-the-Chutes were crude even for those days. A flat bottom boat was pulled up the right track, moved over to the left track and was sent splashing down to the river to the thrill of the riders.
One of the major amusements, "The Flying Dutchman", (merry-go-round) arrived in Aurora on March 30, 1903. The machine was so large that it required an extra-large freight car for the shipment of all the parts. The parts were quickly unloaded so that artists and painters were able to put the finishing touches on the merry-go-round to make it one of the finest in the country. A magnificent automatic organ, containing a program of some 20 pieces of up-to-date music, was a feature of the merry-go-round. 

THE AE&C REBUILDS 
All of the previously mentioned streetcar and interurban lines, plus Riverview Park, were consolidated into the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railroad Company in 1905. By 1907 the consolidation of the various companies had settled in and railroad operations were running smoothly. The management turned to thoughts of improving the park. The first step was the adoption of a comprehensive plan for development which would capitalize on the naturally attractive topographical features of the park. 

The main thoroughfare extended across the park from the entrance at the electric railway station to a bridge leading to a pavilion on a wooded island. The bridge to the island and the pavilion were proposed at the time of the map, but it seems that they never were built. 

All of the concessions and amusement features were arranged symmetrically on the thoroughfare. At the time of the reconstruction several of the buildings, already on the grounds, had to be moved at a cost of $1,000. 

In addition, a unifying theme was adopted, and the dining hall and dance hall were given entirely new entrances of 2"x6" studding and lathing covered with a stucco finish in the "mission" style of architecture. A new gateway was added which greeted visitors just as they got off the trolley cars and entered the grounds. They, too, were constructed of 2"x6" studding and covered with lathing and a stucco finish. They were adorned with a cluster of five lights within frosted spheres. 

Once within the gates, the visitor found several paths leading to a semi-circular thoroughfare around which the concessions were grouped. The plan of arranging the buildings in semi-circular form was chosen because it made the best impression on the incoming visitor. It was found to be desirable to keep the attractions grouped closely together because there was a tendency for a crowd to form and add to the enthusiasm. As new buildings were constructed from year to year, they were connected by an ornamental wall or peristyle of the same stucco finish. This was done so that the visitor, as he entered the park, was greeted by a complete semi-circle of amusement structures with ornamental connections. 

The great auditorium appears to have been built at this time since it was well planned and was the most solidly constructed building at Riverview Park. 

It had a steel frame, including latticed columns on concrete piers, steel trusses and purlins, wood roof sheathing, wood sash, and a shingled roof which was 135 feet in diameter. 

The sides of the auditorium were open to a height of 8½ feet, above which was wood lattice work. The entrance to the auditorium was constructed of wood, with its exterior walls covered with wood lath and cement plaster. At the east end of the auditorium were the stage and dressing rooms. The auditorium covered an area of 5,895 sq. ft. and had a seating capacity of 3,500 on a tanbark floor. 

The building housed a complete installation of theater properties, including dimmers and similar mechanisms for artificial lighting. 

By 1909 the following amusement features were operated from the semi-circle: Figure eight; Roller coaster - 3,000 feet long extending to the river bank and back to the circle; Dance hall; Restaurant; Auditorium; Merry Widow (swing); and Carousel. Other features included rental canoes and a paddle wheel boat ride on the Fox River. Most rides were 5¢ c and 10¢. 

At the south end of Riverview was the baseball park. From about 1907 to 1921, Riverview's ballpark was the scene of many exciting games played by the Wisconsin/Illinois League. The traction company furnished the field and stands and even money at times to help support the Aurora team. In the 1910-1915 era, the late Casey Stengel played with the Aurora team in the WI League. 

After the Fox & Illinois Union Railway was completed in 1915, special trains were operated from Morris for the baseball games. 

From the records available, it appears that the name of Riverview Park was changed to Fox River Park in 1910. This probably was done because of the rising prominence of Riverview Park in Chicago and to avoid the confusion that must have arisen. 

On December 13, 1912, Fox River Park was in danger of being destroyed by fire. High grass in the park had been set afire by tramps, and flames were spreading to the baseball area and other buildings in the park. 

Division Superintendent Moorman of the traction company was notified of the fire and appealed to the Aurora Fire Chief for aid. The Aurora Chief sent the Number 3 Automobile Truck Company to the park even though it was outside the city limits. Had it not been for the aid of the Aurora Department, the grandstands and bleachers in the ballpark and the buildings in the amusement area would have been destroyed. 

It appears that the years 1900-1915 were the best for Riverview Park and Fox River Park. Records show that as many as 40 special cars at a time would come to the park for special events hosting upwards of 5,000 people. 

The decline came quickly after the war. Local people had their own automobiles. They could go longer distances for their entertainment. The opening in 1922 of the Central States Fair and Exposition (Exposition Park 1922-1931) in North Aurora was probably "the last nail in the coffin." Exposition Park featured a large swimming pool, many amusements and a race track. The ball fields at Exposition Park took away one of the major sources of revenue for Fox River Park. Finally, the interurban line to Yorkville was abandoned in January of 1925. It seems that Fox River Park was abandoned at the same time.

For several years after the close of the park, the old entrance light stands could be seen overgrown with weeds. The auditorium, the last building remaining on the property, was dismantled in the late 1920's. In addition, the old Fox River line city cars were scrapped on the siding in the late '20's. Even after the park was closed, Boy Scout outings were held on the campgrounds. 

The property was later sold. Part of it was subdivided and a large factory was built on a portion of the site. In recent years the factory has become the Montgomery plant of the Western Electric Company. The company has managed to maintain some of the beauty of the former wooded park along the banks of the Fox River. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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