Visitors stroll through the plaza at Robison Park on a sunny day in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy of the Allen County Historical Museum)

Robison Park amused thrill seekers

By CAROL TANNEHILL of The News-Sentinel

"Hang on!" somebody yelled.

Teetering near treetops, breathless young ladies in shirtwaists clutched their beaus, and the beaus held tight to their own billed caps and rakish bowlers.

The 12-seat car seemed to hover briefly in space before it raced down rickety rails, chased by the girls' exuberant screams. Another batch of teens had weathered The Cyclone.

The roller coaster is long gone — and so are most of the young riders who found their thrills on its wooden hills. But Robison Park, one of Fort Wayne's recreation hot spots in the first decade of the 20th century, sure was fun while it lasted.

The grand amusement park closed in 1919, largely a victim of a new invention called the automobile. For more than two decades, however, its attractions kept Fort Wayne's residents entertained and the city's trolleys bustling.

Robison Park was the brainchild of the Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway Co. If Fort Wayne folks had someplace to go — say, a major amusement park about seven miles north of downtown — they'd ride the trolleys to get there, company officials rationalized. Their reasoning was right on: Riders didn't seem to mind forking over 20 cents each for round-trip rides along Spy Run Avenue, State Boulevard and Parnell Avenue to Robison Park. Bands of revelers, in fact, soon discovered that getting there was half the fun.

Fort Wayne — and most of the towns surrounding it — had never seen anything like Robison Park when it welcomed its first fun seekers in 1896. The grand opening on July 4 drew more than 35,000 people, according to John Ankenbruck's "The Fort Wayne Story." Every 10 minutes that day, trolley cars packed in picnickers from downtown Fort Wayne, then delivered them to the park.

What was once a canal feeder dam near the west bank of the St. Joseph River had been transformed into 265 acres of lush picnic grounds dotted with fountains, flagpoles, bandstands, glass greenhouses and pretty pavilions with pointed roofs. The sounds of Sousa filled the air, and vaudevillians, daredevils and acrobats performed in a 900-seat theater.

Initially called Swift Park in honor of the family who owned the land, the amusement park quickly became "the Midwest's foremost summer playground," historian Michael Hawfield wrote in a 1984 News-Sentinel article. In the years that followed, the park was renamed for M. Stanley Robison, general manager of the trolley company, and more attractions were added. There was The Cyclone, of course, as well as a grand carousel, a log flume called Shoot the Chute, a Ferris wheel, a circle swing, a large dance pavilion and several restaurants.

By 1919, however, more Fort Wayne residents were tooling around town in their new motorcars. Fewer were taking the trolley — even when it was heading to Robison Park. The playground's attractions and acreage were sold.

For a time, the roller coaster continued to thrill riders in Trier's Park, in what is now the west part of Swinney Park. The carousel found a home at Riverside Park in Logansport. And more than 50 years after the park closed, developers turned the land into North Pointe Woods, a housing addition.

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