Oakwood Amusement Park
“Kalamazoo’s Coney Island”
In 1893 Kalamazoo’s horse-drawn street railway system was converted to electric power. Looking to expand evening and weekend trade, the Citizens Street Railway Company extended its Asylum Avenue line two-and-one-half miles to the southwest along the old Asylum road (now Oakland Drive) and established a leisure resort on the shores of Woods Lake (then known as Wood’s Lake after early settler, Smith Wood).
Lake View Park (1893–1897)
Opened as Wood’s Lake Park on 28 June 1893 and shortly thereafter renamed Lake View, patrons enjoyed a variety of entertainments typical of the era, including band concerts, a merry-go-round, balloon ascensions, baseball games, boating, dancing and picnicking along the cool wooded shoreline.
Lake View Summer Theater (1898–1903)
By the turn of the twentieth century, summer theater had become a key attraction at Lake View Park, thanks largely to the shrewd management of the Mittenthal Brothers. The Lake View Casino, located at the east end of Woods Lake (where the city beach is today), was an open sided theater with professionally made stage scenery and permanent seats for more than a thousand on the hill directly behind, forming a natural amphitheater. Checkrooms and dressing rooms were provided, including a spot where fashionable bicycle-riding patrons could check their “wheels.”
Shows at the Casino consistently received rave reviews and drew sizable crowds for each performance. Attendance of nearly a thousand or more was common, and Sam Mittenthal was often complimented for the quality of his shows and the manner in which he conducted affairs at the park.
Casino Park (1904–1906)
Between 1904 and 1906, the park became known as Casino Park and was managed by two prominent local musicians, Ted Daken and Banks Baird. Vaudeville, light opera and burlesque dominated the bill, with occasional musical attractions (ragtime being all the rage), minstrel shows, and flickering films from Thomas Edison’s new gadget called the Kinetoscope. Kalamazoo audiences saw many historic cinematic firsts at Casino Park, including films like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery and scenes of the devastating San Francisco earthquake.
Oakwood Park (1907–1924)
In 1906 the Michigan United Railways (MUR) conglomerate assumed ownership of Kalamazoo’s street railway company (Michigan Traction Co.), and Casino Park was closed. In its place, a larger, more modern and versatile park was established at the opposite end of Woods Lake along the southwestern shore.
Oakwood Park was first opened to the public on Saturday, June 29, 1907, and featured a new dance hall, a new band stand, a nickelodeon theater and a boat house, along with its premiere attraction – the “Dizzy Figure-8” roller coaster. Balloon ascensions and band concerts were frequent attractions, with Chautauqua assemblies and specialty entertainment providing hours of summertime activity, usually for the mere cost of a trolley ride.
Peak Years (1911–1915)
Oakwood Park’s peak came during the 1911–1915 seasons when upwards of 15,000 patrons or more visited the resort each day. A new baseball field was constructed in the northwest portion of the park (Broadway & Lorraine area today) where local and regional teams waged bitter battles in defense of titles and reputations. A new bandshell was constructed in the southwest corner of the park (where Broadway Avenue meets Parkview today), which carried the sweet strains of Fischer’s Exposition Orchestra, Chester Z. Bronson’s Symphony Orchestra (a forerunner of today’s KSO), and numerous others throughout the park during the warm summer days.
“The Jazz Years” (1920–1924)
Then, in the words of former park manager Ed Esterman, “The War changed everything.” Soldiers returned from the First World War with new dreams and great expectations. Americans began to discover broader horizons via the automobile and interest in small resorts such as Oakwood Park began to decline.
Yet Oakwood’s dance hall flourished during the Roaring Twenties with nightly dances before capacity crowds during much of the warm-weather season. In 1922, Oakwood Park made history by giving the Kalamazoo community its first introduction to the miracle of radio when a concert by Fischer’s Orchestra was broadcast from Milwaukee and played to a delighted audience at an Oakwood Park “Radio Dance.” During cool weather, the Oakwood pavilion became a Mecca for roller skaters and ice skaters.
Park Closed (1925)
Owing to declining patronage and following a disastrous 1924 balloon exhibition which resulted in the death of the feature performer, the park was permanently closed to the public on the 3rd of May, 1925. The park property was subsequently sold and subdivided into a residential neighborhood known thereafter as Parkdale. Parkdale plats first went on sale in September 1927, although nearly twenty years would pass before large-scale development took place. Residential homes in the Winchell Neighborhood now occupy most of what was once Kalamazoo’s “Coney Island.”
Evidence of Oakwood Park Today
Although virtually no trace of either Lake View Park or Casino Park can be found at the east end of Woods Lake, several items along its southern and western shores lend valuable clues about Oakwood Park’s location and activities. Though the auditorium building itself was razed in 1927, its foundation remains intact beneath the home at 2336 Crest Drive. Lumber from the roller coaster and station house is known to have been used in the construction of several homes in the nearby Oakwood Neighborhood, and the tongue-and-groove flooring from the auditorium’s popular dance floor has been traced to a hayloft in a barn on ‘D’ Avenue in northern Kalamazoo County.
In addition, recent construction projects in the park area have yielded numerous artifacts, including soda bottles, bricks, bullet casings and broken china (from the shooting gallery), a roller skate wheel, a woman’s hair comb, and more. Similarly, the streetcar tracks in front of the park entrance were briefly exposed during recent road work on Parkview Avenue. Interestingly enough, various sources have reported seeing debris from the park (perhaps including parts of the famous roller coaster) while scuba diving in the murky depths of Woods Lake, although no firm documentation of such yet exists. In 2010, Kalamazoo’s Red Sea Pedestrians recorded a song called “Dust on the Carnival Bells,” which spins a tale about the old Oakwood Ferris wheel, and ponders whether it might still be in operation at the bottom of the lake.
Nonetheless, the various parks at Woods Lake provide stunning examples of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “trolley parks,” where tens of thousands of visitors enjoyed a refreshing break from the dirt and toil of urban living. In addition, these parks provide us with a fascinating and insightful overview of the development of American popular entertainment, as seen from a local perspective, beginning during the height of the Victorian era and continuing until the dawn of the Great Depression.
Written by Keith Howard, Kalamazoo Public Library Staff, 2004. Updated November 2010.