Boardwalk Park By Anthony Borgo June, 2019
Amusement and theme parks have become popular attractions for diversion, fantasy and a bit of thrill. They are also big money makers. In the United States, the revenue generated from amusement and theme parks is forecast to amount to over 22 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 and this is expected to continue to rise in the future.
On July 17, 1955 Walt Disney opened the gates to his dream project Disneyland. When Disney started on Disneyland, his wife used to say, "But why do you want to build an amusement park? They're so dirty." He told her that was just the point - mine wouldn't be. While there are amusement parks which date back long before the opening of Disneyland in the 1950s, it was Disneyland that popularized the idea of the theme park which has since become a model for other parks around the world.
Whiting, Indiana was home to one of these early amusement parks, it was located at the corner of Indianapolis Boulevard and Calumet Avenue. The project was christened the “Atlantic City of the West.” The Boardwalk Park opened its doors to the public on July 4, 1925 with a formal grand opening on July 15th. It was designed by John A. Miller, head of the Lake Front Amusement Park Company and one of the builders of the Riverview Park in Chicago.
The boardwalk of the park was covered which provided fun and frivolity rain or shine. Charles Huffman, a veteran of the amusement racket, was hired to run the day-to-day operations of the venue. Park goers did not pay an admission fee. But instead people paid for individual rides and amusements, which there were plenty.
Boardwalk Park contained a merry-go-round, electric railway for children, a magnificent one-hundred-square-foot refreshment building and even a $100,000 ballroom. According to Archibald McKinlay in his book Oil and Water, “Among its rides and amusements were a giant airplane swing that gave riders a thrilling view of Lake Michigan; a sixty-foot-high, gaudily lighted Ferris wheel that could be seen for miles and provided graceful motions for those who wanted a slower ride; the ‘Whip’; a shooting gallery; a penny arcade; ‘Dodge ‘Em; a photo gallery with artificial animals and other paraphernalia that simulated an African jungle; and an old mill and water chute.”
However, the crown jewel of Boardwalk Park had to be the King Bee roller coaster. The King Bee at one point was considered the largest roller coaster in America, it came in at a half-mile long, with eleven dips. Mike Madura’s “Ball Em Out” game stand was located preciously under the ninety-five-foot drop of the King Bee. He remembered the experience with both amusement and horror, “The coaster started at Roby went hedge-hopping with lesser dips to Five Points, curling back down Calumet Avenue at bolting speed over the ballroom to its point of origin.”
Two days into the park’s operation there were already accidents. Andy Savko, a thirty-year-old from Schrage Avenue tried to ride the roller coaster standing up. His forehand came in contact with an iron bar leaving a nasty gash. Three weeks later Hammond resident Charles Ryashus refused to remain seated during the same ride, which resulted in a serious injury when he fell off the coaster. Likewise, around the same time Dale Good, of Gary, lost his life when he attempted to ride the King Bee without security straps. Michael Madura recalls in Oil and Water, “It was a terrifying ride and cost many a life, especially with Saturday night drinkers who challenged the ‘Don’t Stand Up’ sign.”
On September 21, 1928 Boardwalk Park hosted the World’s Championship Marathon dance. Prizes totaling $5,000 in cash was awarded to the dancers who could hold out the longest. It was purported that Al Capone was a regular of this six-hundred-hour contest. A team of doctors and nurses were at the ready to aid anyone who got weak during 23 days and nights of dancing. The rules of the contest permitted contestants to dance for forty-minutes and then rest for twenty minutes. Contestants came to the dance marathon from Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania.
One of the highlights of the contest was the marriage of two of the endurance dancers. Darrell Morgeson and Evelyn Nelson of South Bend were married at 10 p.m. on August 29, 1928. Bobby Dixon and Billy DeFrier served as best man and maid of honor. Darrell and Evelyn’s parents were both on hand for the ceremony. The winning couple, Nora Ryan and her partner, set a world record by staying upright for one thousand hours.
Alas, Boardwalk Park was not long for this world. In 1929 the Hammond Park Board acquired the rights to Boardwalk Park. In April they sold the property at the corner of Indianapolis Blvd. and Calumet Avenue to the Lever Brothers Corporation for $125,000. Two weeks later Robertsdale’s White City was demolished to make way for Lever Bros. $5 million soap factory. The Whiting-Robertsdale area is truly a unique place. In this quaint community, its residents have seen U.S. Presidents, professional athletes, movie stars, and gangsters to name a few. Whiting, Indiana’s history never ceases to amaze me.