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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 7: Live Fast, Die Hard -- Richmond’s Idlewood Amusement Park

May 30, 1906 was the grand opening of what then was called “The finest amusement park south of Philadelphia” -- Richmond, Virginia's own Idlewood Park.

(Picture: From Richmond Times Dispatch, May 31, 1906)

Idlewood was the brainchild of Jake Wells, president of the newly-formed Richmond Amusement Company (RAC). His intent was to build in Richmond what was being created in practically every major city across the country, a “Pleasure Park” at the end of the streetcar lines, in this case Boulevard. Wells and the RAC bought a sizeable tract of land near the intersections of Idlewood Avenue, South Davis and Meadow Streets, the area that is today Byrd Park (the park extended approximately from the present carillon to east of the reservoir).

A huge amount of money was invested in construction. Visitors were beckoned through a magnificent oriental-styled entranceway, then down a boardwalk brilliantly lit with electric lights. The park included a 4,000-seat horse show pavilion, a vaudeville show, casino, picnic grounds, a natatorium (what we call today an indoor swimming pool) and extravagantly illuminated lakes and lagoons.

The centerpieces of the park were the three major rides: a roller coaster (presumably a Philadelphia Toboggan product, billed as “the biggest in the country”), a swing ride, and a “mammoth Carrousel”, described with typical turn-of-the-century embellishment as being able to carry “100 people!” This “mammoth Carrousel” was actually Philadelphia Toboggan Company Carrousel #10, a 3-row machine commissioned in 1905 by the RAC and delivered in time for Idlewood's grand opening. Being a 3-row unit, it more truthfully carried about 56 people.

Fifteen thousand paying guests showed up for the opening, with July 4 the peak operating day for that season with twenty thousand guests (in comparison, Kings Dominion pulls in about 20,000 guests on a typical operating day during the peak summer days).

With such an outstanding first season, no one could have imagined that twelve months later the park would be direly in debt, unable to pay its bills. The RAC finally declared bankruptcy September 1, 1908, and by early 1910 Richmond City Council ordered the park's destruction to make way for a residential neighborhood. With just the roller coaster, Carrousel and horse pavilion left, the Virginia Railway and Power Company bought the park in a vain attempt to salvage what was left. The park limped along until 1914, when City Council again ordered these attractions removed. The horse pavilion and roller coaster were torn down, and the Carrousel was purchased by Sand Springs Park, a similar amusement park built by oil baron Charles Page outside of Tulsa Oklahoma.

While it was television that almost killed the amusement park in the early 1950s, the fledgling motion picture industry was a major contributor to Idlewood's dissolution. “Such is the price of progress,” lamented an unidentified Richmonder to the News-Leader, “… there is now a motion picture on every street corner - where one can view the wonders of the world and the underworld - all for the price of carfare. Shed a discrete tear for the Idlewood that was.”

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