Sunday, December 29, 2019

Watchtower (Amusement) Park, Rock Island, Illinois. (1882-1927)

In 1882 the Watchtower Park was opened on the bluff above the Rock River at Rock Island, Illinois, now the site of Black Hawk State Park. Until 1927 Watchtower Park provided enjoyment for tens of thousands of people annually.
Watchtower Park, named for its commanding view of the Rock River Valley, was the first and largest amusement park west of Chicago. It was an end-of-the-line amusement park, built at the end of the trolley line to encourage ridership. Admission to the park was included in the cost of the streetcar fare, an arrangement that tied the fortunes of two enterprises together.

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.
Davenport developed the Watchtower into a "public pleasure spot and health resort." He built an open summer pavilion on the crest of the bluff, installed picnic benches and established walking trails. A spring located in the limestone bluff was advertised as a "health-giving spring" and the water as the "best medicinally north of Kentucky." Families could board the streetcar, ride to the park, and enjoy a day of picnicking and hiking.
In April 1891 Watchtower Park was purchased for $7,000 ($198,000 today) by D.H. Lauderbach, managing director of the Davenport-Rock Island Street Car Company, a business formed when several independent streetcar lines were bought out by Chicago businessmen and merged into one. Horse-drawn cars were phased out as electric [train] cars came increasingly into use. Lauderbach, who managed the company from Chicago, intended to expand the park and promote the railway. By September electric cars on the newly christened "Tower Line" were running every hour.

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.
During the "amusement season" (May 15 to September 15) visitors could take advantage of the park's tennis courts, croquet grounds, billiard tables, and walking trails. One could also have his fortune told, attend Summer Theater and opera, delight at the vaudeville and sideshow acts, listen to band and orchestra concerts and view balloon ascensions. A magnificent inn on the crest of the hill - Black Hawk's Watchtower Inn - offered fine dining and dancing. The Queen Anne structure, completed at a cost of $10,000, was officially opened on July 15, 1892. It housed a dining room, cafe, ice cream parlor, and ballroom.
In 1895 work began on a stage with an amphitheater capable of seating one thousand people. The stage was used for theater productions, vaudeville troupes, and side-show acts. Acts were booked for seven to ten-day stints, and shows were given every evening during the season with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Attractions for the 1895 season, according to a park press release, included “The remarkable midget Rossow Brother... The famous Hardin and Ah Sid with their acrobatic pantomimic acts... Calini’s troop of educated dogs and monkeys... Capitane the Aerialist... (and) Caleedo, The king of the Wire.” There was culture offered too in the appearance of “Princess Lilly Dolgornsky, the greatest of lady violinists.” The famous One-and-a-Half Harringtons were also booked for the season. According to the newspaper account “Mr. Harrington is six feet and three inches tall while his partner the “Collar button” is three feet and six inches tall and a more comical pair of comedians never stepped upon the stage. Their act is simply irresistible. One can only imagine! 
The crowds attending the park’s summer performances were not reluctant to express their feelings. In 1896 the Cherry Sisters sang to a disappointed crowd, causing one journalist to note: "No one seemed to want to throw any cabbages or eggs, though one ear of corn did travel toward the stage, the desire to yell, in a sort of chorus, possessed all hands and this rhythmical eruption was about as musical as the songs from the stage and maybe accounted a triumph of sound."

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¢. 
Orchestras booked in the bandshell performed free. The Royal Hungarian Band appeared in native costume in 1895, and Albert Peterson’s Orchestra performed two concerts in 1897 that included works of Strauss, Rossini, and Sousa. John Philip Sousa himself conducted the Great Lakes Orchestra at the Park in 1917.
The most popular attractions, however, were the amusement rides. There was a tunnel of love, a merry-go-round, shooting gallery, bowling alley, and roller coaster. The first roller coaster was constructed in the mid-1890s and collapsed with no one aboard in 1898. The second, known as “The Figure Eight,” was constructed in 1905. It had four loops (one was a thousand feet long) and rose to a dizzying height of sixty feet. Rides cost 5¢.
The most famous ride and certainly the most popular was the toboggan slide or “Shoot the Chutes.” The toboggan slide was invented by J. P. Newberg of Rock Island in 1884, and the “Chutes” at the Watchtower was the first such attraction in America. Soon the toboggan slides were being built throughout the country. The Chutes were located west of the Inn and ran from the top of the bluff down to the river, a drop of one hundred feet.
The slide consisted of a greased double-track built of oak. The flat-bottom boats slid down the track and as the boats reached the bottom the bow lifted and the boat skimmed out over the water. The conductor, who rode standing up all the way down, then poled the boat back to the base of the slide. The boat and its occupants were hauled to the top via an electric cable powered by the streetcar line. It cost 10¢ to ride the Chutes and it was worth every penny. 
That exciting ride made such an impression that those who rode the Chutes as small children today vividly recall their first ride. That the ride was thrilling leaves no doubt.  In the exciting words of a contemporary journalist: ...here you start in a boat on an inclined plane five hundred feet from the water. The boat runs in a greased track and you commence to descend. The speed increased and the wind whistled past like a tornado. You hang to the boat with one hand and grasp your hat with the other and hold your breath to prevent its getting away from you. Then you strike the water and the boat gives a big jump, landing twenty-five to fifty feet distant right side up...
The Bowling Alley.
Independence Day or the Fourth of July was an exceptionally special day. Families packed their picnic hampers, boarded the trolley, and rode out to spend the entire day at the park. The park management made special bookings and entertainment arrangements in honor of the holiday. In 1896 Sam Lockhart and his “wonderful quintet of performing elephants” began a ten-day stint on the Fourth. In 1897 the circus appeared, and for a 10¢ entrance fee visitors were entertained by trained animals, trapeze artists, and slack wire artists. More than fifteen thousand visitors jammed Watchtower Park that day. Every Fourth of July, free of charge, afternoon displays of fireworks imported directly from Japan were given for the crowds' pleasure. A river carnival was held in the evening.
Shooting the "chutes" is taking a toboggan chute slide down an incline five hundred feet into the water and returning to the starting point by electricity; a duplicate of Paul Boyton's great "chutes" in Chicago that has created such enthusiasm among pleasure seekers.
In the western part of the grounds is a first-class museum, a regular "old curiosity shop," where the visitor may see thousands of relics, freaks, curiosities, animals, birds, and wonders from every part of the world.

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.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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