Roller Coaster

Detroit’s first amusement grounds, Electric Park, offered myriad thrills at a strategic location.
Up and Down: Electric Park’s Trip Thru the Clouds roller coaster and the Shoot the Rapids, were among several popular rides at the iconic park in Detroit. // Photographs courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library

Detroit’s must-see sensation on June 7, 1908, was Oscar V. Babcock’s act at Electric Park, the amusement grounds at the foot of the Belle Isle Bridge. Billed as “The World’s Greatest Cyclist,” the sequined Babcock, an early day Evel Knievel, plunged down a ramp on his nickel-plated bicycle, building up enough blurry speed to loop-the-loop. And it wasn’t a one-time offering. “Babcock’s dare-devil act will be performed at 2 and 8:15o’clock daily,” an advertisement promised.

Electric Park had opened two years earlier, but by then the environs had already been used for miscellaneous purposes. Half a century before, Philip Kling and two partners acquired “property between East Jefferson and the Detroit River near the future location of the Belle Isle Bridge,” reports one historical account. Kling’s Peninsular Brewing Co. grew to prominence here, and when a fire destroyed the brewery in 1893, an ambitious new plant opened in its place.

Meanwhile, a trolley park developed at this strategic locale where three streetcar lines end- ed their run.

Trolley parks — Coney Island in New York being the most renowned — were burgeoning nationally, often where streetcar lines ended at an alluring natural feature. The streetcar companies promoted their parks to increase weekend ridership. Besides picnicking, people listened to concerts and enjoyed fireworks.

Historical summaries say Arthur Gaulker first owned Electric Park. The use of “electric” as an eponym is, in itself, a story. In those days, electric light plants effected dramatic changes in Detroit. To have the option of a glittering attraction day and night was a novelty. “The old night crawlers well remember that night life in Detroit then was hardly on what you might call an established basis,” historian George W. Stark wrote, thinking of another kind of nightlife. “It was a sporadic commodity, indulged in covertly.”

Electric Park's Shoot the Rapids
Electric Park’s Shoot the Rapids

Colorful hype about Electric Park in the Detroit Free Press stated, “Rome, with its seven hills, will be a poor second to the roller coaster which is to be installed on the western side of the park.” The grand opening, on May 26, 1906, featured the Great Chick, a tramp cyclist and comedian described by The Detroit News as the “funniest man on wheels.” This Vaudevillian split the bill in the park’s inner court stadium with aerialist Mademoiselle Patrice, whose “dizzy descent from a high platform via the hair-raising Spanish Web is a thriller.”

The ballyhoo about roller coasters was well justified. Several coasters operated at Electric Park. Trip Thru the Clouds opened in 1915 and may have been the grandest, although the Ferris wheel took people higher. Shoot the Rapids headed the other way, guaranteeing riders a splash.

Beyond electrically-powered rides of all types, a large windmill was built at the entrance of the park, with a sign that read, “The Boardwalk: Just for Fun.” The park included a popular interactive model of, yes, the 1889 Johnstown Flood. Of course, there were also dancing pavilions and famous bands, but one historic photo reveals something that remains a constant type of attraction to this day: an automobile giveaway. Back then, a banner hanging near Shoot the Rapids proclaimed a Saxon auto — made in Detroit from 1913 to 1922 — would be awarded “every Monday Eve.”

Another attraction called Inferno, Menz Devil, suggested a different type of amusement park standard: a trip through Dante’s underworld. Sadly, Electric Park’s problems were living infernos. Palace Gardens, the dancing pavilion, burned down in May 1911, causing a loss of $130,000. A decade later, the largest concession area was consumed by fire.

During its 21-year run, Electric Park became known as Luna Park and was operated by Kurt Kling, a successor in the family’s brewing business. The glory days were over, though. In 1927, the city issued an ignominious condemnation. Demolition followed the next year, and the public park created on this long-useful space was eventually named for Father Gabriel Richard, co-founder of the University of Michigan.

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