Trolley whisked thrill-seekers to park
By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel
Overgrown building foundations, a dried lagoon, lawns and landscaping long turned to brush - that's all that remains of Robison Park.
Seven miles north of Fort Wayne - just west of the great "horseshoe" bend in the St. Joseph River - Robison Park, in its heyday, was known as the Midwest's foremost summer playground.
Ironically, the summertime attraction that drew thousands in its prime began reverting to its natural state when the industry that built it was itself passing into extinction.
In 1895, the Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway Co., the first electric trolley company in town, decided to build an amusement park as a way to increase ridership and start a lucrative side venture.
Noting that river boating proved very successful at Centlivre Park, the trolley company bought what was known as the Swift Farm - a 250-acre spread just north of the old "feeder canal" dam near present-day Shoaff Park. It had been a popular rural picnic spot since Fort Wayne's canal days.
A 230-foot-long dam of heavy timbers and debris had been built there in 1834 to maintain proper water levels in the main channel of the great Wabash & Erie Canal. The 17-foot-deep dam also created a lagoon behind it and deepened the St. Joseph River for boating.
To the Swift Farm, the central portion of the planned amusement park, the trolley company added a neighboring farm; a $300,000 development plan was launched in January 1896. Seven miles of double trolley lines were laid, electrical wires were strung overhead, new cars were purchased and amusement park construction was begun.
The park opened long before the pavilion, dance hall and large boating facility were done. It was called Swift's Park, in honor of the original landowner, but was renamed before opening day, July 4, 1896.
Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway rechristened the project Robison Park in honor of M. Stanley Robison, the park's first general manager. Robison, the first man in Fort Wayne to drive an electric trolley, had long been active in the development of the city's trolley system. He also had been the foremost promoter of the park from its beginning.
At the end of May 1896, company promoters offered area newsmen and prominent citizens a special ride and tour of the park. Two weeks later, regular car service came out of Fort Wayne every 10 minutes. And on July 4th, 35,000 citizens came for opening day. Fort Wayne residents filled every car bound for the trolley company's end-of-the-run park.
For a week, the Zorella family thrilled crowds with their high- wire act. At night, their apparatus was lighted by electric bulbs.
They were followed by the Leroy Sisters, Sadie and Victoria, with Professor G.L. Hibbard. Each afternoon, "America's Favorite Aeronauts" would ascend in their balloons and race, then jump and float down with parachutes.
Achille Philion, a widely known "equilibrist," specialized in walking a large ball up and down a steeply spiraled ramp, to the strains of "The Italian Orchestra." And there was Professor Arion, the nationally known high- wire artist: His spectacular night act involved riding his bicycle - with rubber tires removed - along a live, 500-volt trolley wire. This lit the 50 light bulbs strung on his bike. And himself.
Some months later, not surprisingly, Arion lost his life in a similar show in Brooklyn.
Lesser feats of derring-do were performed on opening day. One lucky couple had been chosen from scores of applicants to have their wedding performed at the park pavilion, in front of the multitude.
The trolley car loop was landscaped by florist Harry Doswell with grass and a large flower garden; tall stone flower stands were placed everywhere, and lagoon areas were crossed by rustic bridges. A gazebo bandstand overlooked the canoe and boat docks and the bath houses.
The boat and river attractions were Robison Park favorites. Rowboats and canoes could be rented for private entertainment. Also offered were half-hour cruises on the steamboat "Clementina" and the small, though volatile, "naphtha-powered" skiffs. (One exploded in 1918.)
One of the most enjoyable rides was the "shoot-the-chute." Here a rider boarded a flat-bottomed boat that had been hauled to the top of a 60-foot-high ramp 150 feet long. Once loaded, the boat was launched for a quick ride and a hard splash into the river below.
Land rides, mostly located on an island in the lagoon north of the pavilion, provided fast- moving thrills. The Cyclone roller coaster originally was a single 12-seat car that shot around on a rickety wooden track. Another favorite thrill was the tall steel revolving tower with six swinging chairs spinning around it. Dizzy people trying to walk straight after experiencing its centrifugal force provided amusement for onlookers.
The $10,000 German-made "Orchestrion" could be heard throughout the park. This instrument reproduced somewhat the sounds of a full orchestra playing classical, operatic and popular pieces.
Dancing, too, was a main attraction. George Trier got his boost in the dance-hall business by operating the Robison Park dance pavilion. Even theater had a place at Robison Park: Its 900-seat playhouse came to be a popular spot for traveling performers. Most shows were vaudeville - that genre of broad comedy was in its heyday.
The Robison Park baseball league sported such teams as the Maroons, the Hibernarian Rifles, the Wayne True Blues, the Keystones and the Spy Runs.
Louis Heilbroner's Robison Park promotions frequently drew conventions and group tours from Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit.
In 1897, he brought Edison's new "Projectorscope" to Fort Wayne and began regular movie showings. Huge Independence Day and Labor Day picnics were organized, and on German Day, 10,000 people came for a singing competition.
Not the least of Robison Park attractions was the 30- to 40-minute, open- car trolley ride from downtown. For one dollar, riders could pick up the electric trolley at the transfer corner of Main and Calhoun streets, ride east on Main Street, loop around to Superior Street and head out Spy Run to Centlivre Park. Riders then enjoyed a scenic ride through undeveloped countryside along the western bank of the St. Joseph River, next to the old "feeder canal," until the trolley reached the park depot.
The early trolley companies were unstable businesses at best and frequently changed hands. The development of Robison Park, an attempt to bring financial stability to Fort Wayne consolidated, ended by costing more than it earned. The park's fatal blow came with the popularity of the automobile. The park closed in 1919. The trolley company sold its buildings to new developers, including George Trier. The Cyclone roller coaster was taken to West Swinney Park the following year, where Robison Park's lively spirit was carried on, in part, for another quarter of a century.
--June 20, 1994