Present day historians as well as people who are just plain curious can still see many remnants of Robison Park today, if they look in the right places. However, upon finding some of these remnants one could scarcely comprehend what they were a part of during the heyday of the park. Memories are mostly what is left now but to the slightly ambitious, at least some of the artifacts can be found.
Built by the interurban trolley line Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway Company in 1896, it was one of many such trolley-company-owned parks throughout the midwest. This park was special, though. This park had many of the same entertainment attractions of large cities, the ride attractions of the large parks, and the scenic beauty that one may not expect to find in northern Indiana – all right here in Fort Wayne. The park site was not chosen by randomly picking just any suitable acreage. It was chosen for very specific reasons, one of which was the Wabash & Erie Canal.
The first part of the Wabash and Erie Canal to open for business was the section from Fort Wayne to Huntington. February 12, 1834 was the date that the first canal boat, the Indiana, made the innaugural voyage on this man-made waterway and in doing so opened up a new era in prosperity for its customers throughout the area. Because Fort Wayne is the highest altitude point along the entire 459 mile length of the canal, water for its operation had to be supplied here, at the summit level. That feat was accomplished by the feeder canal. The summit level also gave rise to a commonly used nickname – the Summit City.
The feeder canal was a seven mile long canal whose sole purpose originally was to supply water to the main canal. This was accomplished by building a dam on the St. Joe River north of Fort Wayne and then using water from the backwater lake thus created by that dam to fill the main canal. It all worked very well and the Wabash and Erie Canal was a functional success immediately.
For a variety of reasons the W&E canal was only significantly operational for a little over ten years, although sections of it were used for several decades for other purposes than originally intended. It never made a profit for its owners, significant or otherwise. One of those other uses was the creation of a place called Robison Park, and its popularity with the public proved to be very high, similar to the canal, and its money making power was just as dismal. For you see, both ventures were wildly successful for those people who were customers, but neither of them made their owners any money. This spelled doom for them eventually, but in the meantime a lot of people enjoyed what they had to offer.
M. Stanley Robison and his brother Frank DeHas Robison were two entrepreneurs from Cleveland who were into making money, or at least trying. Frank had built a successful trolley line in Wisconsin before coming to Fort Wayne. They both tried their hand at being major league baseball owners at the same time. A few years before coming to Fort Wayne they purchased the St. Louis Browns team, renamed them the Cardinals and added some rookies, including one by the name of CyYoung. The creation of the Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway Company was simply the next venture for the brothers.
Building an amusement park out in the 'country' was an ideal way to utilize a dedicated trolley line. They built a double line to the park and it was supposed to be the only way visitors could gain entrance to the park. Since a person could ride round trip to anywhere in Fort Wayne for 5 cents or less at that time they were sure that charging 20 cents for the trip to Robison Park would be more than enough to pay for the park. Therefore they decided that there should be no admittance fee to visit the park; nor should there any charge for any entertainment once they arrived there, although very small fees were charged in its later years. An expensive trolley ride to a lot of free entertainment would surely spell success for the park. And what a success it was – beyond anyone's wildest dreams!
Originally, the park was named Swift's Park, after Alonzo Swift, the farmer whose land had been purchased to build it. That name only lasted a few days of the park's life, not even until the grand opening. Almost immediately after the general opening day late in June the name change to Robison Park was announced.. The reason for the change is unclear but Robison Park was born into an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation.
Pre-grand opening entertainment gave amazed visitors a glimpse of what excitement was to come in the next few years. The only major building that visitors saw first upon arriving at Robison Park was the main pavilion, a large, castle-like structure over 125 feet long and 100 feet wide. It housed the other major attraction for those first visitors, the Welte Orchestrion. It was a mechanical orchestra that featured musical instruments being controlled with a paper roll similar to a player piano. The similarity with a piano ended with the paper roll because this Orchestrion was nearly 13 feet tall and 9 feet wide and cost $9,200. Its music could be heard over the entire park. As far as permanent structures is concerned that is about all the park had to offer opening day visitors. Other smaller structures could be found like picnic areas, gazebos, boating facilities and the like; the significant permanent attractions were still to come in later years.
Grand opening day drew a crowd of people whose numbers had never before been seen in Fort Wayne at one time. Newspaper accounts place the number of people in attendance at about 35,000, and astonishing number considering there were only about 45,000 people living in Fort Wayne at the time. However, if certain facts are studied carefully that number can be lowered drastically, down to maybe 10,000 or fewer, which is still an impressive number. However many attended that day is of little practical importance today but the number illustrates how popular Robison Park was right from the start.
Subsequent years saw the construction of two greenhouses to raise the 25,000 landscaping plants the were put out each of the first few seasons. The theater, which started out as a tent, was replaced with a building in 1898. The Blue Streak, a wooden, double figure-eight roller coaster, came along in 1904. An island was placed in the middle of the lagoon at the mouth of Swift Creek, and later the Circle Swing was built there. It was a tall tower from which gondola cars for passengers were suspended by long cables. When the tower rotated the gondolas spun in an ever-widening circle. The Shoot the Chute came along in 1908. It featured a wooden boat that slid down a steep, 60 foot high ramp, and into the water of the lagoon, amid a great splash. Its riders hoped to get drenched, just like similar visitors to modern day amusement parks. A Dentzel Carousel tried to make its riders dizzy at the north end of the main midway, just north of the food vendors. (Unlike the attractions, the food was not free.) A ferris wheel was added to complete the list of the large ride concessions available at the park.
A major blow was struck to Robison Park early in 1905. The dam on the St. Joe River was washed away by a spring flood. Weakened by three consecutive floods in the spring of the previous year this flood, although not as severe as the other three, was enough to destroy the dam. The resulting water loss to the park was extreme. The centerpiece of the park had been the lagoon and around it were nearly all of the major attractions, and one, the Circle Swing, was right in the middle of it. The loss of the dam drained the lagoon and Swift Creek was once again contained by its banks. The backwater lake, that 12 mile long exxageration of the St. Joe River above the dam, also went away. Most boating went with it since its 16 foot depth from the park to the dam had been lowered to about three feet or so. A boat would have still floated, but access to it was gone because the piers and decks were so far from the water.
The immediate response to the water loss was to construct two man-made lagoons near the point where the Bequette's Run Creek crossed the trolley line at the far south end of the park. A series of concrete dams and abutments were constructed which created the two small lagoons. Unfortunately for the park, all those lagoons could do was give a bit of eye candy to park visitors being carried by passing trolleys. Their location far from the main part of the park could do nothing to replace the charm that the Swift Creek lagoon had provided.
It took three years before a new plan was devised to refill the original lagoon with water. A small dam and accompanying backwater ridges were constructed across the mouth of Swift Creek less than 50 yards from where the new Shoot the Chute was being built. The ridges extended all the way to the high banks of the ravine to form a wall to hold back creek water from the St. Joe. The dam, although small compared to the one on the St. Joe, was enough to refill the lagoon. Dry land once again became submerged as about 3 or 4 feet of water brought its surface high enough to support operation of the Shoot the Chute ride and some boating concessions. It wasn't the same as before, but it was a cheap alternative to the expense and difficulty of rebuilding the large dam on the river.
Any customers lost because of the disappearing water might have been lost anyway because by 1910 attendance had fallen to disappointingly low numbers. Apparently sensing the impending doom for the park, its owners, the Fort Wayne and Northern Indiana Traction Company, sold " the buildings, apparatus, and entire equipment at Robison Park" to Charles H. Williams about 1911. Trolley line ownership was retained by the Traction Company and Williams owned all the rest, although who owned the actual land itself was unclear.
C. H. Williams was an ideal person to take over the operation of the park. He had one particularly useful commodity for the park – he had quite a bit of money. Even though park management had long since begun to charge a small admission to the park and to the attractions, monies raised didn't come close to covering costs. The difference was made up by Mr. Williams. He always paid bonuses to his employees at the end of the year, even in 1915 when there was an $8,000 loss for the season, the worst of the park's existence.
In December of 1919 the FWNITC sold their assets to the trolley line and those assets did not include Robison Park. Unknown to the late season patrons of the park in 1919 was the fact that their visit would be their last opportunity to visit that place of former grandeur. In the spring of 1920 park operation had apparently been placed at least partly under the control of the Traction Company. Unable to make all the necessary repairs that Robison Park needed they decided not to re-open the park that summer.
Thus one of the most celebrated parks of its day had its demise. Partly because automobiles allowed people to get to the park without riding the trolley, partly because everything cost far too much to be given away for free, Robison Park quietly slipped into hibernation in the early winter of 1919 and never awakened the following spring. A few people mourned and perhaps a few cried, but it came as a surprise to no one.
Subsequent tries to revive or at least utilize the park property got nowhere in any big way. At least one ahead-of-his time developer had great plans for it but they were met with significant resistance by people who may very well have not understood just what was at stake – the loss of Robison Park. Eventually two housing addition were built, Robison Park and North Point Woods.
About all that is left of the park artifacts are concrete and stone foundations, depressions in the ground and a few other items. However, with some effort you can still see it all, given a map and some time. You can still get a good idea of what it must have been like to be a visitor of Robison Park.