Friday, January 04, 2013

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Houston's Coney Island - 1924

Henry Chavez
Originally written December 22, 2010

The Ingersolls
The year was 1924, and the population in Houston had swelled to over 200,000.  Houston was well on its way to surpassing both San Antonio and Dallas as the largest city in Texas.  
In the 1920s, Houston was a good place to do business.  There was opportunity and growth fostered by an eager municipal government that encouraged businesses to settle here.
Such was the case when a couple of Yankee brothers decided to invest their money in this semi-tropical Texas nook.  Le Forest (Bob) and Audley Ingersoll were two of five siblings who specialized in building and managing amusement parks throughout the country.  Their father, Legrand G. Ingersoll, started the family business by opening some of the first profitable amusement parks on both the eastern and western coasts of the United States.  
The venture in Houston would be limited to Bob and Audley Ingersoll.  However, it is important to note that their brother Frederick was the first to use the Luna Park title.  The quintessential amusement park on New York's Coney Island would be the prototype for the Ingersoll business of building rides and parks throughout the world and now Houston.
Before Houston, the Ingersolls built parks in Santa Monica, Calif.; St. Joseph, Mo.; Detroit; Cleveland; Melbourne, Australia; and Pittsburgh to name a few.  The Ingersolls had even opened an amusement beach in Galveston and a large scenic railway in Spanish Fort in New Orleans.  The new Houston park used the successful Luna Park franchise formula and name, but this time they would add, "The Coney Island of Texas" to their moniker. 

The Houston Amusement Park Company - The Ingersolls organized and went public with Houston Amusement Park Inc. on Oct. 18, 1923.  The initial capital stock was $200,000.  The eventual investment rose to over $325,000 ($4.46 million in today’s dollars).  The park would have a mile and a quarter of wooden roller coasters and a miniature railway.  There would be a state-of-the-art dance hall, a seaplane swing, a baby airplane swing, a mechanical caterpillar, a merry-go-round, a picnic grove and perhaps best of all, free parking.  Visitors would be encouraged to bring a picnic and stay for the day.
Before construction started, the business began operating from Suite 918 in the Bankers Mortgage building located at 708 Main.   The process for staging the opening of these parks was a schedule Le Forest and Audley were all too familiar with, and there was much to be done.  Although much of what was planned was already under construction at various sites throughout the country, there was still the question of hiring locals, obtaining permits and purchasing the necessary property.
Some newspapers at the time reported that Le Forest was the company president and project manager; however, official documents listed the younger Audley Ingersoll as company president and project manager.  The confusion arose from the fact that the elder Le Forest was the president of the company back in St. Joseph, Mo., where he ran the Lake Contrary Amusement Park and where some of the rides were built.  As to the manager positions, this was a hat the brothers tossed around as needed to build the new park in Houston.  Le Forest was very prominent at the start of the new park, but his presence faded as the park came closer to completion.  In the end it would be Audley who would live out his life in Houston, while Le Forest would stay in St. Joseph, Mo. 


Location, Location, Location! - There has been much confusion today as to where the amusement park was actually located.  The address listed in the 1925 Houston Business Directory was 2200 Houston Ave. in the First Ward.  The property chosen was from the John Austin's Second League Survey, Beauchamp Springs Tract, Bartels addition.  The tracts were situated south of White Oak Bayou, east of Houston Avenue, north of Ovid Street and somewhat west of Goliad.  At the time of negotiations, this property had yet to be developed, but it had been parsed out into lots.  The same was true for the streets; they were identified and listed on maps, but not yet constructed.
Fortunately for the Ingersolls there were only four owners to contend with for the desired land and one of them was the City of Houston.  As incentive for bringing the park to Houston, Mayor Oscar F. Holcombe sold the associated city streets to the men for a mere $10.  The remaining owners, Fred and Pearl Bartels, Trustee Philip Tharp (for the deceased Julia Bartel estate) and Julia Sonet (listed as feme sole) were much shrewder and got the princely sums of $25,000, $12,000 and $19,500 respectively.  The total cost for the properties was $56,500.
The Houston Amusement Park company put up a combined $4,951.21 as down payment.  The remaining $51,548.79 was mortgaged with each of the sellers for five years at 8 percent interest, compounded biannually.  The deeds were signed and filed by the last day of February 1924.  In December, a small section of gully was purchased on the northwest quadrant of the existing property.  The cost for this small strip was $10.

Construction Begins - One can imagine the curious thoughts and gossip around town once construction began. First, truck loads of lumber appeared; according to Le Forest, some $1 million feet of lumber was delivered by April 17, 1924.  Le Forest told reporters that 100 workmen would begin work subsequent to all the materials arriving.  So ordained, the first fruits of their labor began to sprout the following day.  What appeared to be an oil derrick rose over the neighboring residential rooftops.  

Derricks were not an uncommon sight in Texas, especially surrounding Houston.  There must have been some confusion once the derrick was raised.  Eventually it was obvious, the tower was for lifting, not drilling.  Instead of using an expensive crane, this derrick, along with block and tackle, were used for hoisting the giant arches that would create the steep drops of the roller coaster and the dance casino roof.

Roller Coaster - The coaster, an "in-and-back” style, was to be built at a cost of $75,000.   It was designed and fabricated in Lake Contrary Park in St. Joseph, Mo., by the Ingersolls and was then packed and shipped to Houston for assembly.  The coaster would be called The Giant Skyrocket.  The highest point of the roller coaster was 110 feet off the ground.  The roller coaster would climb close to 90 feet and drop the same length at terrifying speeds.  This would be the first roller coaster in Houston and the anticipation was great for “youngsters” of all ages.

Image from Kurt Hutton used to show caterpillar.

Mechanical Caterpillar - I think I would have to say that my favorite ride would have been the Mechanical Caterpillar.  It’s small and not nearly as imposing as the Giant Skyrocket.  It looks harmless, almost like an adult merry-go-round.  The Caterpillar was a series of some 20 connected coaster-type cars arranged in a circle.  They were motorized and traveled on an undulating circular platform.  The speed of the cars would build slowly, but eventually the increased speed would generate enough centrifugal force to squeeze couples together.  At that point a canvas cocoon would rise over and encapsulate the whole of the ride.  This is where the name of the ride comes from as this covering gave the ride the appearance of a caterpillar.  Once enclosed, one of the cars would randomly get a blast of high speed air from a hidden fan below the platform.  

Merry-Go-Round - This was no ordinary merry-go-round.  These boys understood Texas and, like the roller coaster and dance casino, this merry-go-round was big.  
“The device has four horses abreast and is one of the largest now in operation anywhere,” according to one description.

This ride was used as a way to babysit children.  It was staffed with “Attendants long trained in the care of children. . .”  I don’t think you could get away with this today, but this same ad went on to conclude with, “It is safe to put the kiddies on the merry-go-round and forget them for a time.”  Times certainly have changed.

Airplane Swings - There were two, the Baby Airplane Swing and the larger Seaplane Swing, the latter being a downsized version of the former and held fewer passengers.  The airplane-shaped gondolas were individually attached to a tall central pole via an assembly of cables.  Passengers would sit in these individual airplanes.  The apex point where the cables were attached to the pole would begin to spin and increase in speed.  Thus, the centrifugal force created by this spinning would magically induce the airplanes to rise and fly high above the park.  
According to an advertisement:
“Brilliantly lighted, this ride gives one the impression of soaring in an airplane high above the clouds where the light of the sun pours down as only it does above the fancy clouds.”  

Miniature Railway - I have long been fascinated with locomotives.  Like most kids, an opportunity to catch a ride on a real steamer was rare.  Well, in 1924 you could ride one as many times as you liked at Luna Park.  The mini-railroad was “. . .the little brother of the Big Baldwins. . .” once found throughout the country belching black smoke and steam.  Just as any little train enthusiast would expect, “It ha[d] a throttle, smokestack, boiler, tender and everything like the big ones.”  The ride traversed over one thousand feet of track around the park.

Dance Casino - Indeed, folks of all ages were targeted for their entertainment dollar.  Young adults, for example, could look forward to a new dance floor.  The dance hall was said to be so great, that one could dance all night long and not get tired.  From a distance, the dance hall resembled a big-top circus tent.  In fact it was more like a dome, built with a combination of arches.  As a result, the weight of the roof was carried on said arches, which in turn negated the use of internal pillars.

According to the June 26, 1924, Houston Chronicle:
“Luna Park’s dancing casino is the last word in modern architecture.  So constructed as to eliminate all posts, both on the dance floor and that section of the structure reserved for spectators, this casino ranks far ahead of any in the Southwest.  More than 5,000 electric lights will cast radiance over the merry dancers when the first soft strains of the orchestra start the ball.  The floor is a spring floor and is constructed independently of that portion of the gigantic building set aside for those who would watch the dancers.  This method of construction eliminates all vibration and makes dancing on this floor a novelty and a real pleasure.”
The hall could hold over 5,000 people. The idea of hosting dance-a-thons was part of the long-term plan to generate business.

Horse Diving - Perhaps the most sensational entertainment was free – that is once you had paid for admission into the park.  The renowned Dr. William Frank Carver and his high-diving horses performed twice a day at Luna Park.  The good doctor was a dentist by trade but certainly not by notoriety.  Instead, when he was young, he fashioned himself into a frontiersman and joined what he thought would be the likes of the great showman Buffalo Bill.

He was a recognized marksman and self proclaimed “Indian killer.”  He won many shooting contests and performed feats of amazing accuracy; however the “Indian killer” portion of his lore is suspect at best.  The photograph of Dr. Carver shows him wearing his award for breaking 885 glass balls out of 1000 at San Francisco on Feb. 22, 1878.  The badge was inscribed with “Champion Rifle Shot of the World.”  Despite all that, it was his diving horses that brought him his much sought-after fame, not to mention a steady income.
The Carver and Ingersoll families were longtime business associates.  Their success together went back to the original Luna Park in Coney Island.  Carver’s business grew with the building of amusement parks throughout the country as his services were used throughout those parks.  It was only logical that the two families would continue this association in Houston.  
The act was advertised as the "somersault horse in novel high dive."  The poor creature was billed as Lightning and used by the "Intrepid Girl Rider!"  There was also Lorena the "premier woman high diver."  Lorena Carver was Carver’s young daughter and the first woman to do the horse diving stunt.  The horse diving show would begin when Lorena would appear at the top of a 40 foot perch where she would remove her capelike robe revealing her modest, dark, one piece bathing suit and white swimming cap.  Soon the horse would trot up to the platform and meet the curvaceous beauty.  Lorena would climb upon her steed, and after a tension-building pause, they would dive head-first into a pool of water below the platform.
For a woman to perform such a feat was amazing for the time.  The show continued with another horse climbing to the 40 foot platform and not only diving but also somersaulting and splashing head-first into the same tank.  The newspapers reported that the amusement park management would not permit the somersault act to be performed with a rider as the danger was unacceptable; yet, the public reaction to these shows centered on the horse and not the girl.  
Soon after arriving to Houston, there were outcries of animal cruelty and the Harris County Humane Society sent a Mrs. Berly to investigate the accusations.  The investigation must not have amounted to much as the show went on for years, not only in Houston, but throughout the country.

Delays - Everything was going according to plan and by mid April 1924, the newspapers announced the park would open by the end of May.  However, in these parts, winter often refuses to quietly recede to the north where it belongs.  This was the case on May 7, 1924, on the ending crest of the early morning hours.  At approximately 9:00 a.m., a cold front smacked into the moisture-dense 68 degree climate, and, like tossing water onto a grease fire, the resulting storm exploded with thunder, hail and destructive wind.

The construction site at the would-be park quickly turned into a dust-bowl as a tornado formed and cut across the park.  The wind brought down some 200 feet of the highest section of recently constructed roller coaster tracks.  Several carpenters working on a trestle some 75 feet in the air held on for their lives as 27 sections of the roller coaster came apart under the weight of the tremendous winds.  By the grace of God, the carpenters’ sections were spared destruction and all survived without a scratch.  The same could not be said for one worker who sustained a serious head and shoulder injury from a flying beam; six other men on the ground also received minor cuts and bruises.
The cyclone left behind destruction, debris, rain and cooler temperatures; a calling card Houstonians are all too familiar with.  The grounds were covered with ambulances as the injured were cared for.  Some had to be taken to St. Joseph’s Infirmary.  Audley Ingersoll, who kept an apartment on the park grounds, was quickly on the scene, shouting commands and talking to reporters.  Workers were quickly mobilized to clean up debris and secure beams and guy lines.  
Reporters were quick to question the safety of the roller coaster’s construction and the likelihood it would fall again under similar circumstances.  Audley Ingersoll explained that the portion that actually fell had not been secured yet and was only held up with guy ropes.  He said all that heavy steel guy wires and concrete blocks were yet to be set into the ground and assured everyone that, “Never in the history of the roller coaster has one fallen after it was completed.  There will be absolutely no danger of that, for this one will be of more than ordinary strength.”
He closed by saying the delay in opening the park would only be three days and cost a mere $3,000.
In a business, the cost of delay can never be recovered.  Just as time passes into eternity, so does the potential for profit during that lost time.  The plan to open Luna Park by the end of May was designed to include the summer from beginning to end.  Audley Ingersoll had downplayed the destruction of May 7th, but the fact of the matter was that the first note of $2,848.79 on the property was due in June.  The cost would be significantly more than $3,000.00 and the delay more than a month.
To add to these problems, it seemed like every attempt at constructing a water-tight tank for the diving horse was proving a failure.  Whatever they tried, water leaked out of the 10-foot-deep contraption.


Opening Day Press - On Thursday, June 26, 1924, the newspapers were jam-packed with stories and advertisements announcing the formal opening of Luna Park.  If you didn’t know about Luna Park by that Thursday morning, you were certainly going to read about it in that day’s newspaper.  Each yarn was carefully crocheted into a clean and wholesome tale of entertainment that was as inviting as a warm sweater in the chill of winter.  

The following is one such quasi-story written by Luna Park Management and titled, “Story of Luna Reveals Grit of Houstonian’s . . . a monument to the endeavor and vision of a band of Houston men who, in the face of almost unsurmountable [sic] obstacles made Luna Park possible --- brought to this city, attractions of a character never before introduced --- gave employment to those who were out of work --- brought a haven of pleasure within reach of Houston’s 200,000 men, women and children.”  
The story described the vision and investment for a neglected populace that had been lacking a proper venue for entertainment.  The gallant efforts by the, “. . . veterans of the world of make believe. . .” to “. . . bring a park that would rival the nation’s greatest.”
The whole family was encouraged to attend as, “There will be fun --- only clean, wholesome fun --- and in large quantities. . . . One may bring his mother, sister, wife or sweetheart to Luna Park knowing that nothing to be seen or heard within the 36-acre enclosure would in any manner offend their delicate sensibilities.” 
Finally, the ad concluded with a comparison that was a stretch at best according to an item in the Houston Post on June 26, 1924.
“Luna Park is here as a permanent institution --- even as is Rice Institute, the public library.  It is here to entertain Houstonians during every month of the year.  Follow the crowds to Houston’s own the Coney Island of Texas.”
In addition to these faux-stories, there were also obvious advertisements paid for by management.  The paper carried a half-page ad with the heading: 
“Let’s Go!  
The Coney Island of Texas
Formal Opening Today June 26th 1:30 p.m.”

Congratulatory Adverts - It was the custom at the time to congratulate new companies who brought your company new business.  This was done by purchasing a congratulatory advertisement honoring the newcomer and at the same time getting your company’s name published and associated with the new firm.  Companies in the June 26, 1924, edition of the Houston Post included such advertising from Burkhart’s Laundry and Dye Works:

“Burkhart Extends Congratulations to the men who have made it possible for Houston to have high class, clean and healthy recreation, In the magnificent new amusement center ---  LUNA PARK”
Still a larger ad from Branard and Son Plumbers was a bit more self serving:

“We take considerable pride in saying we installed all the plumbing, sewerage, water and gas lines in LUNA PARK  We say this for we feel they have had us install every possible convenience along the lines of sanitation, comfort and protection for the public.  A complete system of sewerage, water and gas lines run under the ground from one end of the park to the other, serving it completely.  Large or Small Jobs Solicited Branard & Son PLUMBERS”

More Delays - The published enthusiasm belied the reality of Luna Park on that opening day.  Carver’s diving horse act had to be canceled as the 40,000 gallon water-tank had yet to hold water.  The Giant Skyrocket roller coaster and Seaplane Swing were not ready for guests and it seemed that the crowds all chose to drive to the park from Washington Avenue to Houston Avenue, which caused a massive traffic jam.  Even though the Woodland Trolley ran every hour and stopped at the gates of Luna Park it appeared that folks decided to take advantage of the “well policed” free parking.

Of course none of these problems were reported until days after the opening.  Folks arrived in droves, just to be the first to get in when the park opened on Thursday at 1:30 p.m., according to the June 27, 1924, edition of the Houston Post.

“Luna Park on Houston Avenue, known locally as ‘Texas Coney Island’ opened its gates to the tune of more than 500 paid admissions, which figure was [sic] swelled by thousands during the evening hours. . . Houston folk took to the big $350,000.00 playground much as a baby takes to a milk bottle.”

. . . and on the third day . . . - Really, it was on the third day, a Sunday no less, when the park rose to its full potential.  The roller coaster was completed on Friday, June 28, 1924.  Workmen were recruited to take the first ride.  Hats flew and unsecured tools fell to the ground as the Giant Skyrocket did its thing for the very first time.  Without exception, the workmen praised the ride, “as the greatest thrill in their lives . . . and they tested its safety for all those who are to follow.”  

As to Carver’s leaky diving tank, a heavy tarpaulin was obtained; it was covered with pitch and attached to the bottom of the tank.  This finally provided a water-tight solution.  Carver would put two shows on Sunday, one at 4 p.m. and one at 10 p.m.
It is unclear what delayed the Seaplane from flying. However, according to newspaper reports, by Sunday afternoon it was ready to whirl.

Folks were encouraged to take the Woodland Trolley and streets like North Main to enter the park from the north as well as the south from Houston Avenue.  This was a vast improvement to the congestion of opening day.  Houstonians finally were able to enjoy the full breadth of entertainment that Luna Park had to offer.  

The Beginning of the End - In the early 1920s, Luna Park looked like it would become a permanent fixture in Houston.  Sadly, that would not be the case.  The first signs of decline were reported March 18, 1927, in the Houston Post.  Audley Ingersoll sold the park for $600,000 to a Houston attorney by the name of Abe W. Wagner.  It seems that the Ingersolls could see that the years leading up to the next decade did not favor them.  The sale of the park would see them survive the turbulent economic times that would soon grip the country.

Wagner, on the other hand, told reporters he was investing one million dollars to enhance the park.  With the help of the local newspapers, he organized a contest to rename the park.  On Memorial Day, May 30, 1927, the name Venice Park was unveiled.  A new address also was bestowed, 2212 Houston Ave.  This is why there is confusion concerning the correct address of Luna Park.  I can only guess that Mr. Wagner wanted to distinguish his new place from the original.  Alas, the country’s troubling financial waves were building and Venice Park would soon be swamped, new name and address not withstanding.

Sydney Van Ulm, a prominent cartoonist, photographer, reviewer and reporter for the Houston Post was well acquainted with Mr. Wagner and years later recalled the following in an interview with Louis J. Marachiafava at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center:
“ We had a man that was sort of an oddball in Houston here, a lawyer.  I won’t tell you his name [Abe Wagner].  But over on Houston Avenue, there was a park, and Buffalo Bayou [White Oak Bayou] trickled by there.  This man—I don’t know how he did it, but he contracted [he bought it] with the authorities of this park his idea he was going to have Buffalo Bayou dredged so big ships could come up as far down to Houston Avenue to this park, and he’d get the benefit of the traffic that came off of these ships.  And on the opening night, he had a band of Indians in their brilliant feathers and costumes and everything, and there was this lovely building he had erected.  I went over there with some of my friends to the opening, and he invited me to come over and see this building.  We walked in, and one of the first things I saw was a door with my name on it — Public Relations, Sid Van Ulm.  I said, ‘Heck, I don’t know anything about this.  You never told me anything about this.’  He says, ‘This is a surprise.’  We opened the door, and there was beautiful furniture in there, a filing cabinet, a typewriter.  I never went over there at all.  The thing flopped, of course.  The man had an idea, and it was one of the craziest things that I’d ever heard of.”

The End - For all of Abe’s efforts, the park went out of business at the dawn of the 1930s.  The city’s economy simply could not sustain such a park during those trying times.

Sadly, Audley Ingersoll fared worse.  After selling the park, he opened a “shooting gallery” at 506 Fannin.  He lived at the Texas State Hotel, two blocks away and appeared to be doing fine financially.  Although, he had survived the crash, tragically, on June 11, 1931, he was accidentally shot in the chest by a customer who was ignorantly loading his pistol in the wrong direction.  He was transported to St. Josephs Infirmary where he died nine hours later.  He was only 50.

You will not find a trace of Luna Park today.  Instead, Mathesan Tri-Gas Company and the Katy Freeway occupy the same tract of land once used to entertain Houstonians.  Like a lot of things in Houston it blossomed, faded and died.  But in all things there is rebirth and the city would once again beget other parks, each with their own memories.  Just as Luna Park once was, so shall others be, in their time.   

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