Tripping the Light Fantastic, and Then Some

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Postcard view of the second Electric  Park
Postcard view of the second Electric Park

On May 19, 1907, 53,000 people attended the opening day of the new Electric Park. Originally conceived as a ploy to bring customers to visit the Heim Brewing Company in 1899, the park had grown into an attraction in its own right. Each night, the 100,000 lights that gave the park its name illuminated a roller coaster, scenic railway, carousel, skating rink, swimming pool, bowling alley, alligator farm, dime museum, theaters, dance pavilions, bandstand, penny arcade, shooting gallery, flower beds, a lake, and rental boats. Most alluring were the nightly performances of costumed young women who danced to a colorful electric light show on a platform on a large fountain in the center of the lake. The park, sometimes known as Kansas City's Coney Island, continued to serve the city's greatest amusement park for nearly two decades.

The first and second Electric Parks were built by brothers Joseph, Ferdinand, and Michael Heim, owners of the Heim Brewing Company. As brewers, the brothers followed in the footsteps of their father, a brewer named Ferdinand Heim, Sr. Ferdinand had emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1854, where he operated a small brewery in Manchester, Missouri from 1857-1862, and a larger one in East St. Louis from 1870-1889. As an expansion of this business in 1884, Ferdinand and his three sons jointly purchased the Star Ale Brewery in the East Bottoms of Kansas City, and specialized in the brewing of German lager beer.

The three brothers quickly built the Heim Brewing Company into the largest capacity pre-prohibition brewery in Kansas City. Beyond their success in beer-making, though, the Heim brothers took an interest in technological novelties. They were the first in Kansas City to open a telephone exchange and operate a 25-horsepower steam engine. They designed the original vertical top-loading icebox. Ferdinand, Jr., was the first Kansas City resident who drove an automobile with a back seat.

One of their riskiest and most important ventures was the construction of a $96,000 streetcar line from the Market Square that would carry visitors directly to the brewery to buy fresh beer. At first this very expensive investment was a dismal failure. Instead of abandoning the venture, the brothers decided to open an amusement park, called Electric Park, at Chestnut and Guinotte, to attract riders on the streetcar and perhaps visitors to the brewery. The Heims' streetcar line soon carried droves of passengers to the amusement park, allowing them to sell the line for $250,000.

In addition to a roller coaster, other rides, fountains, a vaudeville theater with seating for 2,800, a dance pavilion, and gardens, Electric Park provided a giant German-style beer garden. A pipeline carried beer from the nearby Heim brewery directly into the garden. The arrangement was perfect for business because the still-novel electric lighting provided an illuminated experience after dark, when thousands of day workers and their families wanted to leave home to relax and play. In short, it was the most popular working class entertainment venue available in Kansas City.

In the early 1900s, the city was expanding toward the south, and the Heim brothers determined that Electric Park should follow. They picked a location at 47th and The Paseo, and built a larger, 27-acre Electric Park there. The old Electric Park closed, and the new one opened on May 19, 1907, to a boisterous crowd of 53,000. Despite the Heim brothers' close involvement, no beer was available at the second park: a city ordinance now prohibited its sale there. Nonetheless, the park thrived with carryovers as well as additional amenities such as an alligator farm, a shooting gallery, and lake and boat rentals.

The Living Statuary, which featured elaborately-costumed female dancers and a colorful light and water show, was one of the most popular nightly attractions. Equally as important was the bandstand, which attracted top performers, sometimes including "The March King," (the infamous American composer and conductor John Philip Sousa). Sousa reportedly remarked that the bandstand at Electric Park was the best in which his band had ever played.

Amusement parks and other forms of entertainment ebb and flow with popular whims, and Electric Park was no exception. By the 1920s and 1930s, radio and movies drew interest away from amusement parks, and the lights, fountains, and rides of Electric Park were no longer a great attraction. In 1925, a fire spread through the park and destroyed many of its buildings. Swimming and public dances remained popular there until a second fire in 1934 forced what remained of the park to shut down. The Heim brothers could not reinvest in the park because the Heim Brewing Company went out of business after national Prohibition began in 1920. In 1948, the remnants of the Electric Park roller coaster were razed to make way for the Village Green Apartments at the same location. By then, all three of the Heim brothers had passed away, and their entrepreneurial legacy had largely disappeared.

 

View images of Electric Park that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

View images of Electric Park on the Kansas City Public Library's Flickr® photostream.

 

Check out the following books and articles about Electric Park, held by the Kansas City Public Library:

 

Continue researching the Electric Park using archival materials from the Missouri Valley Special Collections:

 

References:

Michael G. Bushnell, Historic Postcards from Old Kansas City (Leawood, KS: Leathers Publishing,2003), 42.

Dory DeAngelo, What About Kansas City!: A Historical Handbook (Kansas City, MO: Two Lane Press, 1995), 118-120.

Dory DeAngelo & Jane Fifield Flynn, Kansas City Style: A Social and Cultural History of Kansas City as Seen through its Lost Architecture (Kansas City, MO: Harrow Books, 1990), 70-71.

H. James Maxwell & Bob Sullivan, Jr., Hometown Beer: A History of Kansas City’s Breweries (Kansas City, MO: Omega Innovative Marketing, 1999), 129.

Mrs. Sam Ray, "Amusement Parks," Kansas City Times, June 3, 1973.

Mrs. Sam Ray, "Electric Park (1st)," The Kansas City Times, June 20, 1973.

Mrs. Sam Ray, "Electric Park (2nd), Flower Beds," The Kansas City Times, August 23, 1985.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a digital history specialist and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. He earned a doctorate in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column. For assistance with general local history questions, please contact the Missouri Valley Special Collections.
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Comments:

I just finished reading a

I just finished reading a short story "Fire in the Sky" by Joel Goldman which featured the fire which destroyed the second Electric Park in Kansas City during the depression years in the 1930s. This story can be found in Top Suspense, 13 classic stories of the genre". This is an interesting story which may have captured some of the flavor of the history of the Electric Park and Kansas City during th 1030s. This was particularly interesting to me since I can remember stories from my Grandma regarding fun times at Electric Park which was near their home located at 4230 Troost AVE in Kansas City, Mo.

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