Thursday, January 2, 2020

West End Park, Champaign, Illinois (1893-1912)

Many street railways created amusement parks as generators of traffic. Not to be outdone, Harris set up the West End Park Company to operate such an amusement park for the Twin Cities.
A tract of land was set aside on West Church Street, just beyond the Champaign city limits. (This is the present-day Eisner Park.)  Here a pavilion, casino, bandstand, and grandstands were erected, baseball diamonds and tennis courts were laid out, and a 500-foot gravity powered “switchback railroad” (what we would today call a roller coaster) was built. (The Gazette devoted half a column to an ecstatic description of “the acme of sensations” to be enjoyed on the switchback railroad.)

Construction got underway in April 1893, but various problems delayed the opening until Saturday, June 17th. That evening, large crowds came out to the still-incomplete park, completely swamping the streetcars provided for them. Trains of at least three cars were run, moving huge crowds until the park closed at 11 p.m. In fact, there was one minor accident, when an emergency stop of a fully-loaded three-car train which had the motor car in the middle of the train caused the leading, motorless car to break free, bruising a few passengers. The street railway built a siding into the park, and installed a new passing siding along the line on Church Street to downtown Champaign, to increase its crowd handling capability.

Harris was very careful that West End Park has the best possible reputation. From the first announcement of the project, and in all the advertising, it was emphasized that intoxicants were not allowed, and that order would be strictly kept.

During the winter of 1893-94, further improvements were made in West End Park. A new refreshment pavilion was built, and the casino which had formerly served this purpose was extended and remodeled as a summer theater, seating about 600 people. A three-lane bowling alley and a shooting gallery were also added. City water was piped in, “modern” arc lighting installed, new landscaping arranged, a photographic studio set up, and a new dancing pavilion erected which “gives the dancers such seclusion as is desired” (according to the Gazette). The Florence Miller Burlesque and Vaudeville Company were engaged for the opening week of the season, beginning in April of 1894.

Beginning in 1894, elaborate Fourth of July celebrations were staged at West End Park. Band concerts, baseball games, dancing, acrobatic shows, and of course a grand fireworks display, were among the attractions that year. Such celebrations continued every July Fourth for a number of years.

The whole purpose of West End Park was to generate streetcar traffic. At first, the park itself had no admission charge, but later, there was a 5¢ entry fee. A free admission ticket to the park was given when you paid 5¢ to ride the interurban streetcar to West End Park. 

None of the structures survived.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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