When Buffalo Bill came to Fort Wayne


Two major entertainment events happened in Fort Wayne a century ago.

What was to become Robison Park officially opened north of town, and Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West Show to Lakeside Park.

Fort Wayne was a bustling town of some 40,000 people in the summer of 1896.

Our first automobile wouldn't sputter and cough its way down Calhoun Street for another year.

Two men named William (McKinley and Jennings Bryan) were stumping for the presidency.

Bryan, fresh from his ``Cross of Gold'' speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, would take Allen County by more than 1,400 votes, but lose his first of three unsuccessful runs at the White House.

Bryan visited Fort Wayne twice during the campaign, drawing huge crowds, but probably not as big as the one that swept into the grand opening of Robison Park on July 4, 1896.

Exactly 100 years ago Friday the place that was to become Robison Park was formally opened seven miles north of town, just west of the St. Joseph River's horseshoe bend.

It would become, as historian Michael Hawfield called it in a 1984 article in The News-Sentinel, ``the Midwest's foremost summer playground.''

The popular amusement park would last, however, for less than a quarter of a century, closing in 1919, essentially a victim of the horseless carriage.

When Robison Park first opened it was called Swift Park, after the owners of the land on which it was built.

The popular amusement park was built by the Fort Wayne Consolidated Railway Co. as a way to get people to use the trolley.

Admission to the park was free and rides were cheap, but it cost $1 to take the 30- to 40-minute trolley ride from downtown.

Trolleys left the transfer corner of Main and Calhoun streets every 10 minutes.

The park's name was officially changed to Robison before its July 4, 1896, grand opening. M. Stanley Robison was the park's first general manager.

According to B.J. Griswold's ``Pictorial History of Fort Wayne,'' Robison would later become one of the better known promoters of a game called baseball.

Either people flocked to the park from outside the Fort Wayne area or most of the town showed up for that July 4 opening. Crowd estimates range from 30,000 to 35,000.

The official 1900 Census said there were 45,115 people in Fort Wayne, 35,393 in 1890.

The park featured a roller coaster, The Cyclone, originally a single 12-seat car on a rickety wooden track. The coaster would be moved to West Swinney Park after Robison closed.

There also was a tall steel revolving tower with six swinging chairs spinning around it.

The ``shoot-the-chute'' was an early incarnation of water rides at major theme parks today.

Thrill seekers sat in a flat-bottomed boat and slid down a 60-foot-high, 150-foot-long ramp for a quick ride and hard splash into the river.

For the less adventurous, rowboats and canoes could be rented to ply the calm waters of the St. Joseph River lagoon. The lagoon was a result of a dam built in 1834 to maintain proper water levels in the Wabash and Erie Canal.

There also was a 900-seat playhouse that became a popular stop for traveling vaudeville performers.

By 1918, however, one-fifth of the visitors to the free park arrived by car. Robison was costing more than it made and it closed in 1919.

Buffaloed by Bill
An advertisement in the June 17, 1896, Sentinel must have sent hundreds of excited Fort Wayne boys running to their parents.

It wasn't the push mowers at Pfeiffer & Schlatter or the ice boxes at the Indiana Furniture Co. on West Main Street that drew their attention.

``Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,'' was coming Monday, June 29, at Lakeside Park.

``Col. Cody will take part afternoon and evening,'' the ad assured its readers, and the show was the ``exact duplicate, man for man and horse for horse, of the exhibition given at the Columbian World's Fair at Chicago in 1891.''

``More men, more horses, more cars than any two exhibitions,'' the ad promised.

Shows were at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Admission was 50 cents for adults, 25 cents for children 9 and under.

Among the featured performers was Annie Oakley.

The ad promised a covered grand stand with seating for 20,000.

A free parade would precede the show beginning at 10 a.m., and would include three ``magnificent bands of music, led by the famed, world-traveled Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Band.''

An added attraction included an electric light display ``by the largest portable double electric plant of 250,000 candle power yet constructed for any similar purpose.

``Two circuits insuring a perfectly reliable illumination,'' the ad continued, ``making night as light as day.''

The ad touted 50 American cowboys, 30 Mexican vaqueros, 30 South American gauchos, 50 western frontiersman, 25 Bedouin Arabs, 20 Russian Cossacks and 100 Indian warriors, ``all under the command of Col. W.F. Cody - Buffalo Bill.''

--June 27, 1996

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