Meet Me in Electric Park!
By Diane Euston
Kansas City’s first electrified amusement park lit up the East Bottoms at the turn of the century. It was the brainchild of three brothers in the brewery business who were the unlikely sort to build family entertainment only seen in the big cities, and their motivation behind Electric Park may surprise you. And today, two men with much in common with these brothers are working to revitalize an area long forgotten by many.
Heim Brewery’s Vision
In 1856, Ferdinand Heim immigrated from Prussia to eastern Missouri and quickly entered the brewing business. Ferdinand’s three sons, Ferdinand, Jr., Michael and Joseph, moved to Kansas City and expanded the Heim brand in the East Bottoms in 1884. The Heims quickly became the largest pre-prohibition brewery in Kansas City.
But their location made it not easily accessible to the public. The Heim brothers had envisioned building their brand through personal outreach. The only way to get their customers straight to their door was to use the latest technology.
The Heim brothers began construction of an electric streetcar line from the City Market to the East Bottoms at their own expense. The line ran west over Guinotte Ave. to Lydia, south on Lydia to 5th St., then west to the City Market. The connection would link the city to the East Bottoms for the first time, but more importantly, it linked the city to Heim. After a few snags in the construction, the line was opened up for business in November 1899.
To their surprise, no one came. The electric railway had cost them $96,000 and failure was not an option. Michael had an idea that building an electrically powered park for people of all ages was the answer.
Through the winter and spring of 1899-1900, the Heims used land to the north of the brewery and began building. Modeled after Coney Island in Brooklyn, Electric Park was an ambitious feat that would feature curiosities that residents had never seen in the city.
Introducing Electric Park in the East Bottoms
On June 3rd, 1900, Electric Park opened its doors to the public. Around 17,000 antsy people jumped on the Heim streetcar line and took that 18-minute trip to a new wonderland.
Entrance to Electric Park was 10 cents, and entrance to the theater was between 10 and 20 cents, depending on the talent that was featured. Weekday afternoons featured free admission.
Visitors were greeted with an electric fountain with “living acts” in the center, a German village, and a billiard room and an open-air theater seating 2500 people. The most important feature of the park was the Beer Garden that offered patrons fresh beer that pumped through pipes directly from Heim Brewery.
At night, the park was beautifully illuminated with thousands of electric lights. The Heim’s quickly started looking for top-notch entertainment to draw even more people to their innovative Electric Park. The popularity of the park led the Heim streetcar line to have a car leave City Market for Electric Park every two minutes to transport families and thirsty patrons to their beer garden.
Success Leads to Changes
From season to season, changes were made to the park. In 1902, the Kansas City Star asked, “Have you looped the loop?” Over the winter months, the Heim brothers made the decision to bring a “railway” to Electric Park.
The newspaper deemed that the Loop the Loop would sure be popular “notwithstanding the element of danger.” It was one of the first modern roller coasters in the nation and the first for Kansas City; Coney Island had introduced the Loop the Loop just one year earlier.
Passengers of the Loop the Loop would travel 1200 feet in 40 seconds at 60 miles per hour. The Loop the Loop would turn passengers upside down, “but they turn so quickly that the passengers do not have time to fall out.” The roller coaster was an instant success, making Heim about 80 cents per minute during park hours.
In 1902, the Heims were able to purchase another small piece of land, maxing the park’s size at around ten acres. As many as 20,000 people per day would ride the streetcar line down to Electric Park.
Over the years, they added to their attractions a Ferris Wheel, a swimming pool, a larger German village, Japanese tea garden and a dancing pavilion. In 1904, they added a toboggan 150-foot slide called the “Gravity Railway” and in 1905, they added “Hale’s Tours and Scenes of the World.” Created by a retired Kansas City fire chief, the new attraction had “passengers” enter an imitation railroad coach that sat on a circular platform. The coach would stay stationary as panoramic images on both sides would move. The car would slightly rock back and forth (courtesy of hidden employees underneath) as it took curves in the scenery. A wind machine and sounds matching the landscape completed this innovative ride.
Electric Park even featured “Alligator Joe’s Farm” where 52 alligators ranging from 15 to 24 feet long were under the control of a portly Floridian man aptly called “Alligator Joe.” He would jump into the water and wrestle with the alligators in front of screaming women and children.
The End of the First Electric Park
It was vividly clear that the park was in desperate need of more space. The Heim family knew it was a gamble to uproot their pleasure palace and move, but they were left with no choice. At the end of September 1906, the rumors were laid to rest– they would be moving to 46th and the Paseo.
The park in the East Bottoms went dark.
What was Kansas City’s first amusement park laid empty for years. In 1925, just over four acres of what was Electric Park was donated to the city to be used as a playground. Today, Heim Park exists as the only landmark of what once was Kansas City’s Coney Island and the neighborhood in many spots has suffered from neglect over the decades.
Revitalization Led By J. Rieger & Co.
On August 28th, in the shadows of where Electric Park once stood, Andy Rieger, co-founder of J. Rieger & Co., addressed the crowd that included most of the city council and Mayor Sly James. This announcement will change the landscape of the East Bottoms and is being spearheaded by J. Rieger & Co., a revitalized pre-prohibition distillery that uses the Heim Brewery bottling plant as their headquarters today. J. Rieger & Co. itself has a history that began in the West Bottoms in 1887 and ended with Prohibition, until the founder’s great-great-great grandson resurrected the distillery in 2014 with partner Ryan Maybee.
Even though Electric Park went dark in the East Bottoms in 1906, it has been Andy Rieger’s goal to bring life back to the neighborhood and rebrand it. Their current space of 15,000 square feet will expand to 60,000 square feet between two buildings. This expansion includes renovating their distillery space and the historic Heim Brewery bottling house and adding daily tours, a bar, lounge and cocktail spaces, event spaces for small and large-scale events, a gift shop and a free interactive historic exhibit on the main floor that will include the history of Heim Brewery, Electric Park and J. Rieger & Co.
“All these things are the big focus of being able to revitalize the name ‘Electric Park’ and what it once was,” Rieger stated.
New sidewalks, streets, landscaping and a parking lot will help transform the outside grounds. Rieger’s hope is to rebrand the ‘East Bottoms’ name back to Electric Park. “We are really proud to be the ones bringing back the entire nature of Electric Park,” Rieger commented. “We want to bring that motto back to the neighborhood.”
Construction will begin immediately by A.L. Huber and their hope is to be able to open the new J. Rieger & Co. in late Spring 2019.
Meet Me in the New Electric Park
The investment in what will be coined Electric Park includes the city recognizing the past contributions of innovators such as Heim Brewery and current contributions by J. Rieger & Co. Mayor Sly James stated, “This investment is equivalent of the pioneer investments that were made in the West Bottoms and in the Crossroads.”
Taking a risk on a multi-million dollar investment in the area isn’t something that just anyone would do. But just like the Heim brothers in 1900, J. Rieger & Co. is willing to roll the dice and draw people down to Electric Park to see what progress and advancement looks like firsthand.
“All these projects started with somebody being willing to make an investment in an area that people weren’t investing in,” Mayor Sly James said.
By 2019, what was once referred to as the East Bottoms will have a completely new face with the help of the history of Electric Park. J. Rieger & Co. is proud to tell the story of the past and incorporate it into their ideas for their own company’s future.
“History is our brand,” Andy Rieger stated. “We are so lucky to be given this nearly limitless basket of an authentic past.”
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more about Electric Park and this project, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com