At the turn of the twentieth century, amusement parks flourished on the outskirts of every major and most minor cities in the United States. New York had Coney Island; Chicago had Did brakemen, engineers, mechanics and common laborers on the tracks move from struggling with enormous engines and seeing fellow workers crushed by them to riding for fun on the miniature railway? White City Park and Riverview; Cleveland, the nation’s sixth largest city in 1908, had, among others, Euclid Beach Park and its own White City, both in Collinwood, on the shore of Lake Erie. Visitors escaped the grind of factory labor, crowded city streets, and cramped apartments to find fanciful pavilions, elaborate dance halls, beaches, staged spectacles, and rides. In a culture still coming to accept unsupervised contact between young men and women, sites such as Euclid Beach encouraged touching, socializing, and bumping bodies, whether in the sand, the dancing venues, or on the roller coasters.
The amusement parks also turned burdensome and even tragic aspects of urban-industrial life into simply thrilling spectacles. Fire, for example, posed a constant danger not just in Collinwood but in all turn-of-the-century American cities, where safety codes failed miserably to keep up with population growth. On Coney Island and in Chicago, parks constructedEdison Studio, Fire and Flames at Luna Park, 1904. King Rose Archive. mammoth sets of city blocks with multi-story buildings in flames. Smoke and fire pushed through the windows of cast iron facades as “firefighters” rushed with hoses, nets and fifty-foot ladders to save “victims” on upper floors. They reached some by climbing while others leapt from the fifth floor into safety nets.
While “Fire and Flames” turned urban blazes into action fantasies, early amusement parks also re-built the railroad as an undulating thrill ride, struggling to add roller coasters quickly enough for the millions of customers who clamored for the ride. Euclid Beach Park, for example, built the Switchback Railway in 1896. In 1904, the Figure Eight replaced it. In 1907, the Park added Scenic Railway and Carousel, c1910. Humphrey Collection. CSU. The carousel sits to the left and the Scenic Railway, one of the nation’s largest roller coasters, rises behind the crowd.the still larger Scenic Railway. The Velvet Coaster and the Derby Racer opened in 1909 and 1913. Adding further to its fantastical empire, the park ran a miniature railroad, shrinking the mammoth scale of the nearby Lake Shore and Michigan Southern facility to fairy-tale size.
How did the people of Collinwood, almost all of whom either worked in the nearby railyard or had close friends and relatives who did, experience the tracks and cars at Euclid Beach Park? Working-class people, including railroad workers, flooded amusement parks. They danced, ate popcorn, lounged on the beach, and swam. The ever-more imaginative rides hinged on adaptations of industrial technologies, and visitors, in general, delighted in having machinery and tragedy turned to their amusement. The parks of the period, wrote one observer, “quench the mysterious thirst for excitement as an alternative to monotonous work.” But historical sources provide no convincingly fine-grained breakdown telling us that railway men in particularThe Collinwood News. Aug 12, 1909. Unlike most big city amusement parks, Euclid Beach prohibited alcohol, offering a clear alternative to local saloons. Customers must have liked the “uplifiting” environment. Euclid Beach had 5,000,000 visitors in 1906; Cleveland’s population stood at about 550,000. “City of Famous Summer Parks.” PD, Jun 16, 1907. embraced or scorned the fantasy railroads of Euclid Beach and similar parks. Did brakemen, engineers, mechanics and common laborers on the tracks move from struggling with enormous engines and seeing fellow workers crushed by them to riding for fun on the miniature railway? Did roller coasters thrill them in the way they did so many others? Maybe they delighted in having the machines that endangered them daily turned into fanciful toys that never threatened to maim or kill. Or maybe they found them ridiculous. Perhaps the idea of boarding a car on rails simply felt too close to work to be any pleasure at all.
However Collinwood’s trainmen felt about the rail network at Euclid Beach, railroad workers and operators of the amusement park did, at the very least, share ideas about who belonged at the park and in labor unions. Euclid Beach, with its dance pavilion, roller rink, and exhilarating rides, feared interracial mixing and welcomed only whites.