The World-Class Local Amusement Park Story You’ve Probably Never Heard Of – 614NOW


Columbus Uncovered is a series that appears regularly on 614Now and (614) Magazine, featuring some of the most interesting and unusual Columbus events you’ve probably never heard of before. The segment is written by local author and historian, John M. Clark.

If you want to lose yourself in the excitement of a world-class amusement park, you can head to Lake Erie for Cedar Point or Cincinnati for Kings Island. But in the early years of the 20e century, you could have found the biggest and best amusement park right here in Columbus, between North High Street and the Olentangy River.

An entrepreneur named Robert Turner laid the groundwork for this amazing place in 1893 when he opened The Villa, which offered boating, swimming, picnic grounds and a tavern. In 1896 the Columbus Railway and Light Company purchased the property, hoping to increase ridership on its High Street streetcar line. But it would be another three years before brothers Will and Joe Dusenbury purchased the property and named it Olentangy Park, ushering in an era of growth and popularity.

Focusing on the area as a weekend and summer destination, the brothers quickly built a large show theatre, added a few other attractions, and expanded the boating facilities along the river. And that was just to start. The next two decades saw the addition of two roller coasters, the nation’s first “Loop-the-Loop” ride, a “Tunnel of Love”, the towering “Shoot-the-Chutes” waterslide, a Ferris wheel , an amphitheater, small zoo, picnic grounds, playground equipment, shooting range, ballroom and a canoe club, where visitors could hire small boats and paddle along the Olentangy River. A spacious dance hall has attracted the country’s most popular bands, like the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Tommy Dorsey. And at night, the whole park was illuminated by the glow of 30,000 electric lights.

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Olentangy Park and others like it across the country were not strictly for entertainment. In their time, they also educated visitors. One of the more bizarre attractions at the Clintonville park was the equivalent of a modern neonatal intensive care unit, where park visitors could watch premature babies in state-of-the-art machines called “incubators.”

When the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair closed, the Dusenburys purchased Banzai Bridge, the Tea House, and other Japanese Exposition buildings. About 40 Japanese workers came to Columbus to re-erect the exhibits. About half of these workers stayed to operate them and entertain park visitors. The staged sword fights proved popular, as did the Japanese restaurant.

The 1920s saw the construction of a swimming pool that could accommodate hundreds of swimmers at a time. It featured “filtered water”, a diving board, a waterfall and bleachers for spectators. Sand was trucked in from Lake Erie to give the place a real “beach” feel. Bathers could even rent bathing suits so they didn’t have to bring their own.

Olentangy Park grew to 100 acres and remained popular until the mid-1930s, attracting up to 40,000 visitors daily. But then the Great Depression hit and attendance plummeted at Olentangy and similar amusement parks across the country, including lesser-known rivals Minerva and Indianola Parks. In 1937, the Dusenbury brothers sold their holdings to businessman Leslie Leveque, who would later become co-owner of the tallest building in downtown Columbus. He cleared the site and replaced the park with Olentangy Village, a large apartment complex that still exists today.

Very few remnants of the original amusement park. For a while part of the old swimming pool was used in the new apartments. But the 1914 ride later received a million-dollar facelift and to this day provides rides for enthusiastic young visitors to the Columbus Zoo.

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