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20 years in the Amusement industry

Part 31: Riverview: Lynchburg, Virginia’s lost amusement park

The story of Riverview Amusement Park, which was built near Lynchburg, Virginia from 1962-63, is bizarre legend.

Riverview was purportedly owned by the parent company of Lakeside amusement park, located down the road in Salem. Lakeside was a 47-acre park that first opened as a sandy beach swimming pool in 1920. By 1934 amusement rides had been added when the park was purchased by H. L. Roberts, whose family ran it for 50 years.

As reported in this blog last year, in 1971 Lakeside decided to go big with a second park when development hemmed in Lakeside, not allowing any remaining room for growth. On June 26 of that year, General Manager Beverley Roberts announced that by 1973, Lakeside was going to be phased out after the grand opening of Sugartree, a massive “themed entertainment center” on a 947-acre plot on Route 58 between Danville and Martinsville in Southside Virginia.

But after the November, 1972 groundbreaking, the Sugartree project began falling apart. Water and sewage became an issue with the park located in such a rural setting. Highways were inadequate. Finally, an oil embargo by Saudi Arabia created a gas shortage – and with the park located so far from urban centers, it was determined people would be reluctant to drive that far. By 1976 Sugartree was dead.

But what many park fans (and almost no one else) realize is that in 1962 Lakeside looked into building a second park near Lynchburg, Virginia, called Riverview Amusement Park.

Riverview was built on a bluff overlooking the James River in Madison Heights on land formerly belonging to the Native American Monacan tribe (There is now a park and public river access on that site called Monacan Park). Riverview was intended to be a natural continuation of Riverside Amusement Park, which had grown out of a “River-View Park” occupying that land between 1884 and 1891.

In 1894, developer E.C. Hamner, President of the Committee on Parks for the City of Lynchburg, presented a limited lease between the City and the Lynchburg Fair Association to be used for annual fair exhibitions between the Industrial Society and the Agricultural and Mechanical Society. These groups sponsored a fair each year to highlight farming practices, industrial inventions to aid farmers, such as the chicken incubator which was displayed around 1895, and agricultural advances to promote crop production.

By 1908 the property was a wasteland, sitting unused. It briefly became a tree nursery before plans to create Riverside Park were made in 1914. Those plans, however, went nowhere until 1922, when the City of Lynchburg hired C.R. MacKan, a landscape architect from Roanoke, to come up with a plan for the park. His suggestion mirrored Salem’s Lakeside park, with the creation of a sandy beach lake, with a huge pavilion and dance floor overlooking the lake. Plans also included a place to purchase soft drinks, an alpine pass along the cliff leading down to the river, and large mass tree and plant plantings.

According to Heidi James’ “History of Riverside Park,” the swimming pool officially opened on August 9, 1924. It was 210-ft long and 50-ft wide, with a water depth ranging from 1” to 8-1/2’ at the deepest. It held 500,000 gallons of water and took almost 24 hours to fill. The 35-ft long beach was sea sand imported from Ocean View Beach, connected to a 420-locker bath house.

Attendance during the 1920s soared close to 400,000 annually, but dropped significantly after the depression to only 10,116 in 1936. A combination of factors contributed to this, including the depression, attendance at private country clubs, and possibly even the construction of swimming pools at private residences.

The park continued to decline, as crime increased around the area and racial tensions in the city began to surface. In 1961 all city pools closed rather than integrate, and the park by then was all but dead.

Then, in an effort to renew interest in Riverside Park, the city came up with a plan for a new attraction. And this is where the legend of Riverview Park rears its bastard head.

Construction began in early 1962, utilizing existing landscapes for food stands and flat rides that could easily and quickly assembled in time for the June 1963 grand opening. These reportedly included a Big Eli Ferris Wheel, a Scrambler, a Trabant, and a few others.

To say the grand opening was a bust is a grotesque understatement. Riverview had opened on the evening of June 16, 1963 to a tremendous, yet still segregated crowd. Rides were running, food was being served and everyone seemed to be having a great time when suddenly the unthinkable happened: the Big Eli Wheel, fully loaded with riders, detached from its mounts and began rolling through the park.

According to local press accounts, onlookers watched in horror and others “ran for their lives to dodge the out-of-control wheel as it continued rolling through the park.” Unbelievably, it continued several hundred feet where it eventually crashed through a fence into an electrical substation, built especially for the park.

The steel Big Eli Wheel’s crash into the substation was a Frankensteinian nightmare. Witnesses stated that “sparks exploded into the night sky” as the wheel made contact with the high-voltage transformers. The explosion killed all electricity to the park and neighboring businesses while simultaneously electrocuting many riders who had not been able to releases themselves from their seat restraints. A reported 46 people died, and the next day county supervisors condemned and permanently shuttered the park, leaving Riverview’s legacy as America’s shortest-lived amusement park.

It sounds too terrible to be true. In fact, it is. Riverview is an online hoax.

The story seems to be lifted from the 1979 Steven Spielberg movie “1941,” starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, which featured a scene with a bombed Ferris Wheel rolling down the Santa Monica Pier. Also, a supposed “quote” from the “local press” seems a bit far-fetched when it claimed that “It's a real shame about the accident, but that wheel gave me the ride of my life.”

What is absolute truth, however, is that Riverside Park is today a popular Water Park.

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