Defunct Amusement Parks in Rhode Island

by by Erin Schikowski

So they never boasted any Top Thrill Dragsters or Kingda Kas, but still there is a certain aura of quaint charm surrounding old-time amusement parks. With Tunnel of Love rides, bustling dining halls, menageries, five-cent Dodgem rides, and hand-crafted wooden carousels, amusement parks of yore were sweeter, gentler. They also included more community-geared attractions—like live performances and dance hall events—than today’s monster amusement parks.

Here in Rhode Island, as elsewhere, most bygone amusement parks are no longer in business, though traces remain. Bits and pieces of steel, wood, concrete, and old signs lie flat where they once stood. Whether sharing a beach with washed up horseshoe crabs or disintegrating under Evening Primrose and blue Chicory, remnants of these parks are still detectable with a bit of dedicated exploration and hunting about.

Rhode Island’s better-known defunct amusement parks are Crescent Park, Rocky Point, Vanity Fair, and the Enchanted Forest. There were at least three other parks, though: Aquidneck Island Parks, Boyden Heights, and Oakland Beach.

Though they aren’t much to look at now, defunct parks located near the waterfront have a history of being especially hot real estate. While some of these properties have been redeveloped, a good amount of land remains neglected and unused, lying under broken concrete and disassembled steel rides. This land could be put to better us, and has been in one former Massachusetts amusement park where Midway Realty is currently working to build affordable housing units as part of their redevelopment plan.

Dismantled steel and stone: a graveyard by the sea
At the end of one street in the quiet Warwick Neck suburbs, where trees’ shadows spread over the ground in thick layers of shade and where personal gardens are well groomed and vibrant, lie the remains of Rocky Point Amusement Park. Now a graveyard for cinderblocks, cracked PVC pipes, and rusting steel rides—all thoroughly disassembled—Rocky Point is off limits to the public and protected by the state Department of Environmental Management. Inside the property, old rides rest broken like gigantic, immobilized steel insects against painted concrete, faded by the sun.

Rocky Point closed only about fifteen years ago, in 1995. The park originally opened in the 1840s as a seaside resort with a few attractions—flying horses, a clam dining hall—to serve people coming by boat for Sunday outings near the sea. Rob Lewis and Ryan Young write in their book Rhode Island Amusement Parks that the 90 acres originally purchased by Captain William Winslow in 1847 changed hands when Colonel Randall A. Harrington bought the park in 1910; the park flourished under his control until he died in 1918. In later years the park featured rides and attractions like the Forrest Casino (which housed ballroom dancing and vaudeville acts), the Russian Toboggan and Wildcat roller coasters, a saltwater pool, and a Dodgem ride which, in 1920, cost visitors only five cents.

Like other Rhode Island parks, Rocky Point was damaged several times by severe weather storms. The dining hall, the Russian Toboggan coaster, and the Wildcat coaster were destroyed in the New England Hurricane of 1938. Afterwards, the dining hall was rebuilt as the Shore Dinner Hall, only to be destroyed when the 1954 Hurricanes Carol and Edna swept through New England.

According to Lewis and Young, “A typical shore dinner consisted of Bermuda onions, relishes, clam chowder, clam cakes, drawn butter, fish, baked potato, sweet corn, brown bread, lobster, and watermelon.” Far cry from the soft pretzels and fries sold at chain-run amusement parks today.

In the 1990s Rocky Point acquired several new thrillers including the Flume, Skywheel, the Cyclone rollercoaster, the Corkscrew, and the Free Fall. But in 1994 when Rocky Point failed to pay its taxes to the state, the park declared bankruptcy. All Rocky Point assets, including the park’s major rides, were put up at auction in 1996.

The bankruptcy statement indicates Rocky Point had been making large loans to companies owned by Rocky Point shareholders, though those companies were not necessarily related to the park. In recent years, the property has been seriously vandalized at least once in 2004 when vandals set fire to one of the park’s major buildings, the “Big House.” A building by the water also caught fire in 2006—though it is unclear whether vandals did this or not.

Dream real-estate at Rocky Point
With such a vast and unblemished view of the water, the Rocky Point property has long been appealing to real estate agents and wealthy individuals alike. In July of 1990 the New York Times reported that J.D. Rockefeller purchased the land with hopes of building a summer home at the former “Coney Island of Rhode Island.” But this never happened. Instead, the federal Small Business Association acquired the park in the mid-90s.

One plan proposed in October of 2008 would have created 225 townhouse-condominiums going for about $500,000 each, but Rocky Point was ultimately purchased by the city and state last year. The Providence Journal reported in February that the Department of Environmental Management wanted to preserve a section of the park as open space—space that Senator Jack Reed, on his website, imagines might be used for “fishing, bird-watching, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking”—instead of it going to private developers.

At the site of another old amusement park, the two visions of housing and open-space were successfully combined to form what is now an open-space, public park and condominium complex at Crescent View.

The Looff lives on in Riverside, Rhode Island
From the late nineteenth century to 1979 when all its property was put up at auction, Crescent Park stood alongside the Providence River about half an hour southeast of downtown Providence. The park was first built up in 1886 when George Boyden bought the premiere seaside resort Viu du Lieu Hotel in Silver Spring, several miles north of the site where Crescent Park would soon be. With 65 dollars, he installed various attractions several miles from the Viu du Lieu, and thus was born Crescent Park.

Today Crescent Park remains a valuable historical site because of the Looff Carousel, which still operates at 700 Bullocks Point Avenue. Across the street, the scenic Rose Larisa Memorial Park sits overlooking the water, atop old park grounds.

If not for two rows of curiously laid out, wooden posts sticking up from the beach—and the carousel of course—you would have no reason to believe an amusement park existed here only 30 years ago. Paw prints and couples’ shoe marks weave across the sand beach, and children ride bicycles along paths overlooking the water. Past the occasional fishing dock jutting into the water and the gliding white masts of boats is a clear view of downtown Providence.

The story of Crescent Park is not unlike that of other parks in the area, and like others it was badly damaged by the 1938 hurricane. It thrived during the 1950s, though, and did not begin to decline until the 1970s when changing tastes, neglect, and financial difficulties made it hard for the park to survive. In 1962, the Satellite Ride broke free of its axis and injured several visitors; several years later, in 1969, a terrible fire ravaged the Alhambra Ballroom. The park was finally forced to close in 1979, put its attractions up at auction, and tear down its major structures.

Rhode Island Monthly magazine has reported that the Crescent Park Carousel is the largest and most elaborate carousel in the state. Built by master woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff in 1895, the carousel still runs for only 75 cents per ride. Its operators promise, “As soon as you hear the music and smell the popcorn, you will be transported back to a kinder, gentler time.” But for the efforts of several dedicated citizens, the Looff Carousel would have been torn down along with the rest of the park; because of their work it still stands across from the public park.

Low-income housing designs on Crescent Park
In order to save the carousel, Gail Durfee, Jobelle Aguiar, Richard Lund, Linda McEntee, and Robin Peacock found themselves in and out of court with both the city and the Kelly & Picerne real estate company. Durfee explained that the group endured, among other obstacles, a $57 million counter-suit by the city of East Providence. In an email to the Independent, Jobelle Aguiar added that, “When it became apparent the City had made up its mind, behind closed doors, about how the land and carousel would be disposed of, we [filed a suit] to stop the City from breaking up the carousel and selling it piece-meal and allowing K&P to build 451 units of low income housing and Section 8 housing on the property.” Section 8 is a federal government program designed to help income-eligible people afford safe homes.

The group was not completely against having some housing on the property, though. When K&P gave up the suit and ceded all the land on the Providence River side of the old park property to Gail Durfee et al., the group of citizens managed plans for single family housing on the Bullocks Cove side of the premises. Aguiar says the group “allowed” K&P to build Section 8 housing for the elderly and handicapped near the carousel in a complex now called Crescent Park Manor. As it stands now, the Crescent Park property offers a mix of housing offerings and open space available to the public.

From defunct park to affordable housing
Just beyond the border where Rhode Island and Massachusetts meet is the old Lincoln Park property. Currently, the land Lincoln Park once sat on is being redeveloped under a Massachusetts program to create affordable housing. The plan for The Village at Lincoln Park promises 44 affordable housing townhouse units starting at $130,000—a price based on market rates of the surrounding area—as well as 37 townhouses, 63 apartment buildings, and eight age-restricted units. The developers also plan to build a 56,000 square foot commercial section to include a restaurant, park, and above-shop housing.

The project at Lincoln Park is made possible largely because of Chapter 40R, which seeks to increase housing construction and facilitate “smart growth”—that is, using the land for mixed uses, offering affordable housing, using compact design strategies, preserving important environmental areas, and providing various transportation choices. Chapter 40R encourages developers to use land already well-developed and located near transit stations and cities.

So is there potential for a Village at Lincoln Park-type development program in the Ocean State? Rocky Point seems an eligible location, and there certainly has been debate about whether to use the land for open space or housing.

As far as affordable housing goes, it’s no secret Rhode Island is in bad shape. Between 1986 and 2005, the numbers of privately-owned units being built in the state fell dramatically from 7,274 to 2,836, according to the U.S. Census. HousingWorks RI, a coalition working to provide good-quality, affordable housing to Rhode Islanders, says on its website that “Rhode Island’s per capita construction rate is already among the very lowest in America and shows no sign of improving.” HousingWorks lists outdated zoning as one of the three main factors contributing to Rhode Island’s shortage of affordable housing, the other two being the high price of land and an extremely slow permitting process.

In Hope Valley, 31 acres of Enchanted Forest is up for sale and zoned for commercial development. As of 2001, though, the Rocky Point property was zoned as primarily residential, meaning developers could build “single-family, condominium, or assisted living development,” according to Providence Business News.

The HousingWorks website recommends, as a ‘booster shot,’ “another 13,000 attractive, affordable homes as quickly as we can build them, for renters and first-time homebuyers alike.” Developers have been eyeing the Rocky Point property for years now. In terms of affordable housing, Rocky Point would be a particularly interesting location because the other waterfront homes nearby are fairly expensive.

Dietrich Neumann, Brown professor in the History of Art and Architecture department, explained that “what made them [amusement parks] particularly appealing for later historians was their role as a space where different social classes would mingle, where a certain amount of freedom to interact was common and tolerated. They were, in that respect, also a utopian space.” Neumann also suggested that, in light of their history as utopian spaces, old amusement parks would be fitting sites for new, affordable housing projects.

Perhaps with a little help from the city or state, and some careful planning, the land can serve both a public purpose as an open-space park and those in need of affordable housing options in Rhode Island.

ERIN SCHIKOWSKI B’11 would eat coaster breeze, for breakfast.