Watchtower Park was the brainchild of Bailey Davenport, a local businessman who owned the land on which the park was built. In 1882 Davenport became owner and superintendent of the Rock Island and Milan Steam and Horse Railway Company. He bought a trolley and built up his interurban line. It's not clear which came first, the trolley line or the park.
A flurry of construction followed during the period 1891 through 1896 as the park's popularity increased. Excursion parties from outlying communities frequently rode the train into Rock Island, transferred to the streetcar line and went on to the park. The park was so popular that by 1897 cars ran to the park every ten minutes. Round-trip fare, which included admittance to the park and to some attractions, was 25¢ for adults and 10¢ for children.
|Entrance to Black Hawk Watchtower and Inn, Rock Island, Ill.|
Theater troupes from Chicago performed plays and operas. Shakespeare's “As You Like It” was a tremendous success. Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” and the “Mikado” were presented in 1895, and a year later the park began booking serious opera. Coupon books entitling the subscriber to twelve performances sold in advance for four dollars, while tickets at the door were 50¢ and 75¢.
|The Bowling Alley.|
A thoroughly competent lecturer entertains and explains the multitude of interesting objects to be seen. New features are being added to this collection constantly.
Adjoining the Watchtower grounds on the west is the beautiful and picturesque "Mount Lookout Place," where furnished rooms for summer tourists and camping grounds and carriage yards accommodate the public.
July 4, 1896, was a bittersweet day. The previous day the Watchtower Inn had caught fire, probably due to faulty wiring, and burned to the ground. Undaunted, crowds jammed the park as plans for a new inn were announced. The second Watchtower Inn, built for twenty thousand dollars, officially opened June 25, 1897. Five thousand people attended the grand opening and were entertained by Albert Peterson’s Orchestra. At dusk, hundreds of lanterns hanging in the trees were lit, giving the park a fairyland appearance.
The new inn, which reigned over the Park’s heyday, 1897-1916, was a three-story clapboard-sided structure. A double veranda encircled the striking salmon-colored building. The kitchen and manager’s quarters were located in the basement and the first floor housed the ice-cream parlor and dining room. Dining facilities were also available on the open veranda. The Watchtower was noted for its superb meals. At an 1898 banquet, the menu included such delicacies as baked Columbia River salmon and roast blue-wing teal duck. The second-floor ballroom featured bands on Saturday nights for the enjoyment of dancers. The first inn at Watchtower park to be open year-round, it served as a magnet to area residents and out of town visitors. Sadly, the twenty-year-old inn burned to the ground in 1916.
Undaunted, the park management ordered the construction of another inn. The Classical Revival building was completed in sixty days at a cost of sixty thousand dollars. It too had dining facilities on the first floor and a ballroom on the second. The frame and stucco structure was heated with steam and had “fully modern plumbing.” Times changed and the park’s popularity declined. The First World War wrought a tremendous change in the tenor of American life. Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T suddenly made automobiles affordable. The auto, in turn, changed the face of America and revolutionized leisure time. No longer were people dependent on the electric streetcar for transportation. New vistas were opened and with that, the tastes of Americans changed. Many visitors to Watchtower Park drove or rode bicycles and with the park financially dependent on revenues from street-car fares it soon went bankrupt and closed its gates.
In 1927 the Illinois state legislature appropriated two hundred thousand dollars for the purchase of Watchtower Park, renaming it Black Hawk State Park. The Chutes, roller coaster, shooting gallery, bowling alley, and other concessions were demolished and in 1936 the Watchtower Inn was razed to make way for the present lodge, as seen below.