Ghosts of the Midway

by Megan Shepherd

06/10/2015

I pull into the gravel parking lot on a bleary, sleeting morning. An Oklahoma sheriff keeps watch from a corner parking space, while a woman moves from car to car offering to clean windows for quarters. The sheriff doesn’t seem to mind. A man sleeps on himself a bit out of view. Horns blowing from the crisscrossing train tracks behind me catch my attention, and I look back to see the Route 66 arch and the Crystal City marquee. I am in the right place.

Crystal City was once a bustling, popular landmark in west Tulsa, welcoming travelers into the Red Fork community via Southwest Boulevard, which would become Route 66. Today, it’s known more for its H&R Block and Dollar General than its historical significance. Back in the day, though, Red Fork was an oilman’s playground. Founded in 1889, the city was home to Tulsa’s first oil well, the Sue A. Bland, and the rapidly ensuing boom thereafter had many thinking the city might actually outpace Tulsa. With hopefuls flocking to the area in droves, Crystal City took off as the community’s electric playground. Today, the space it once occupied sits deteriorating, no one quite sure what to do with it next.

Laying the tracks 

I’ve been fascinated by amusement parks as long as I can remember. No matter how sure I am of a ride, there’s an element of risk inherent in climbing aboard. Moreover, I can never shake that irksome feeling I get when passing a theme park in the off-season—a hub of life sitting still and unused. When I heard that Oklahoma was once home to more than a dozen of them, I needed to know more.

Like many Tulsans, my first “real” roller coaster ride came in the form of the rickety, wooden giant known as Zingo at Bell’s Amusement Park, that dodgy, family-owned theme park on the Tulsa Fairgrounds. Still, by locals’ estimation, it was a beloved city landmark. Taking a ride on the Zingo coaster was a Tulsa rite of passage. In time, the coaster came to be known more for its chipped-away paint and slinging force than its safety, but we didn’t seem to mind.

One day in ‘98, my brother and I badgered our mother into taking us to the park for an afternoon. While I normally waited shamefully on a bench as my brother took his turn on Zingo, I thought, Today is the day, and I traded the splintering wood of the bench for that of the coaster.

I felt a rush of accomplishment and thrill pulse through me as my car dropped from its first hill, soaring down through the gaping mouth of a cartoon joker. Afterward, it was all I could talk about. After years of watching my brother and his friends ascend the tracks and ride the curves, I’d finally done it. At eight years old, it felt like the greatest accomplishment in the world.

Climbing the hill

In the nineteenth century, when days were long, dusty, and hot and swimming holes were in high demand, “trolley parks” were taking the country by storm. By using the power at the end of a rail line to feed electricity into a park, sourcing energy for rides was a snap. Add a swimming area, a dance hall, and a few concession stands, and you’ve got a weekend hit.

In 1902, Delmar Gardens—named for the famous St. Louis park of the same moniker—opened in Oklahoma City. The art nouveau-style amusement park featured a dance hall, a race track, a swimming hole, a penny arcade, a ball park, a zoo, and rides, and even attracted the likes of Buster Keaton and Lon Chaney Sr. All things considered, Delmar Gardens was ahead of its state’s time, but the playground couldn’t withstand the mounting pressures of Prohibition, or the strain of flooding from the Canadian river. It closed after just 10 years.

Around the same time in Tulsa, a local developer named Samuel Orcutt decided to open up his family’s private water source to the public as a swimming hole. He added some additional attractions—concession stands, a few smaller rides, and Tulsa’s first roller coaster. Orcutt Park sat on the present-day residential area of Swan Lake and was a hit among Tulsans, drawing some 10,000 people to the park’s 4th of July celebration in 1910. Its run was short, however, and the park closed by 1917.

Crystal City shines

As I stand in the center of the Crystal City parking lot, I try to imagine the layout. In my mind, I see buildings stacked tall with native rock, metal rides tumbling across the skyline, and a small train stretching across 30 perfectly manicured acres. I try to conjure up the sounds of Bob Wills echoing from an imaginary dancehall, its floor reverberating with the bounce of Western swing. I try to find the sticky sweetness of popped corn and hot dog relish, but instead I’m met with engine exhaust and the stink of trash. The memory of Crystal City has been perfectly forgotten, it seems, a marquee sign its only trace of existence.

In Tulsa’s early days, patrons trekked to Crystal City amusement park on weekends and summer afternoons for hot dogs on the midway, dancing at the iconic Casa Loma dance hall, and unlimited rides on dollar days. Crystal City opened in 1928 after absorbing a smaller amusement park nearby called Electric City. Funneling its power from the Tulsa-Sapulpa Interurban Line, the park housed all kinds of rides and attractions, including a behemoth of a roller coaster called the Zingo, which would later serve as the inspiration for the icon at Bell’s. At its height, crowds upwards of 15,000 a day packed into Crystal City. A fire destroyed the famed Casa Loma dance hall in the 1950s, and the park held on a few more years before closing for good in 1958. Investors bought the property with plans to create the Crystal City shopping center that sits there today in memory of the park. While the name has stayed the same, not much else has.

Many of Crystal City’s rides were sold off to other trolley parks across the nation, but some rides found a new home in Lakeview, another Tulsa amusement park located near Mohawk Park.

For an amusement park opened in the late ‘40s, Lakeview had it all: a dance hall, a Ferris wheel, a terrifying, rickety roller coaster, a classic “Pretzel” funhouse ride, a bingo hall for adults where a win would get you a pack of cigarettes, and a true penny arcade complete with chickens pecking out songs on pianos and scantily-clad women removing articles of clothing for coins. It would have been a young boy’s dream to explore Lakeview untethered to a parent.

After the park closed, an Oklahoman and theme-park enthusiast by the name of Lowell Burch tried to buy remnants from the park, but Leon Russell had already beat him to the punch. Rumor has it that Russell purchased the remaining rides and stored them on the Okmulgee Beeline before shipping them off to California. Where they eventually ended up is a mystery. The last of Lakeview’s remains were finally bulldozed into the soil sometime around 1997.

Rough waters at Springlake

Drive by the Metro Technology Center campus at Springlake and MLK Avenue in Oklahoma City and you’ll see a sprawling layout of perfectly inoffensive educational buildings. Forty years ago, though, you would’ve seen quite a different sight.

In the early 1920s, Roy Staton of Oklahoma City opened his private swimming oasis up to the general public, as many of Oklahoma’s amusementeurs had done before. From there, he bought a few rides from another OKC amusement park that had recently closed, Belle Island, and repurposed them for his new project, Springlake. The Big Dipper roller coaster, which most Okies would come to associate with Springlake, was added in 1929. Springlake would rule OKC for nearly 50 years.

At the peak of its fame in the 1950s and ‘60s, Springlake offered Oklahomans a reprieve from the belting summer rays with a public community swimming pool—public for whites, that is. Despite being located in a predominantly black area of town, African Americans were still unwelcome in certain areas of Springlake. When integration spread into Oklahoma City after the Civil Rights Act, owner Roy Staton had no choice but to integrate the park’s pool. While white patrons were fine to share Springlake’s midway with blacks, swimming in mixed waters was apparently out of the question. In an attempt to keep the attraction in operation, Staton made the pool a members-only aquatic club, unattainable to members of the surrounding black community. When a competing OKC amusement park, Wedgewood, integrated its pool soon after, Staton instead turned his swimming pool into a dolphin show, slashing the park’s revenue.

The tension between white and black patrons built slowly over the next few years before coming to a head in 1971. On the morning of the park’s Easter celebration, children lined the gates of Springlake for the annual egg hunt—the state’s largest at the time. In photos, white children carry woven straw baskets, while many black children tug paper sacks behind them.

As the day wore into night, news of one passenger pushing another out of a car on the Big Dipper spread throughout the park’s attractions. Workers and patrons reported it was a black rider who pushed a white kid. Others refuted, saying they’d heard it was a group of whites that had pushed a black passenger to the ground. Amidst the swell of rumors and misinformation, a race riot broke out across the park. Bottles and property flew as bystanders took cover throughout the park.

In the end, the actual cause of the riot was never settled. The final toll of the race riot left many injured and arrested, as well as an air of fear and skepticism over Springlake. Incidentally, the park’s owners put out several ads in the local paper attempting to reassure Oklahomans of Springlake’s safety. But despite attempts to restore its status as a family-friendly operation, Springlake never fully bounced back, and closed its doors in 1981.

 

Bell’s is (maybe) back

I remember hearing that Bell’s was closing back in 2006. At the time, the news was barely a blip on my adolescent radar. I was more interested in watching the Real World and staying out past curfew than probing local history: Why was Bell’s leaving? And where was it headed? It took eight years for those questions to come to me, along with a wonder of why amusement parks couldn’t survive in Oklahoma.

For more than half a century, Bell’s ruled Tulsa, dishing up cheap thrills and good times to Okies from 1951 into the early 2000s. With its home secured by a 50-year lease issued by the county, the Bell family had little to worry about in preserving the Tulsa institution. Favorites like the Phantasmagoria kept patrons coming back for decades. Company picnics, conventions, summer concerts, and dollar days had solidified Bell’s as a Tulsa staple, despite coming under fire for malfunction-caused injuries and a fatality that occurred on the Wildcat coaster on April 20, 1997.

In 2006, an unforeseen blow from the county put an end to Bell’s glory days. After 56 years of business, the county decided not to renew Bell’s lease, and gave the owners 120 days to relocate. Estimating that it would take something closer to nine months to dismantle and relocate an entire amusement park (and about half a million dollars), owner Robbie Bell asked Expo Square President Rick Bjorklund for additional time to get out. In the end, they disassembled the property in six months.

After seven years of searching and broken deals, Bell’s has started rebuilding itself next to Swick’s Saturday Flea Market & Auction lot in west Tulsa. So far, they’ve reinstalled five “kiddie rides” from the original park and have plans to rebuild other old favorites as time and money allow. Robbie Bell keeps the public updated on the new park’s development via videos and blog posts. As I watch them, I feel a strange empathy for him: an odd, misplaced mix of nostalgia and defeat.

There’s a strange element to all of these places and spaces, many of which now sit unused and tomblike across Oklahoma, if they even still exist at all. Something like a mix of wonder and preservation. Original structures from Delmar Gardens can be found at the Oklahoma City Public Farmers Market, and unsold remnants of Bell’s can be found in a stagnant lot near 11th Street. By today’s count, Oklahoma has been home to at least 18 different amusement parks over the years. Of these, Frontier City in Oklahoma City, Kiddieland Park in Duncan, and Kiddie Park in Bartlesville are the only ones to have stood the test of time.

Despite Bell’s end, its traces have lived on throughout Tulsa. Friends of mine used to sneak out and rove around abandoned ride pieces in the 11th Street lot, nodding politely to the homeless as they passed, toeing the rubble amidst a landscape of run-down rent houses, one-room delivery restaurants, and empty gravel. They’d walk the old Log Ride flumes and get high, reminiscing about being younger, quietly paying their respects.

If you put any stock in the first law of thermodynamics—the concept that energy can neither be created nor destroyed—then it might be fair to say that the energy of these Oklahoma icons hasn’t been lost at all. Rather, it’s been recycled back to the land for a new generation. Instead of waving our hands in the air, we keep them stuffed firmly, nervously, into our pockets, but the excited trill remains the same. It’s fertilizer in the form of crushed popcorn degraded into the dirt, spilled cola watering the grass, paint chips littering a field, 25-cent hot dogs decomposing into the soil. These are the things that don’t relocate when a structure disappears. It’s unbridled thrill, anxiety, and bliss soaked into a place for decades.


Originally published in This Land: Spring 2015.