Riverview Park hearkens back to simpler pleasures, slower times

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Riverview Park in Des Moines offered innocent amusements to Iowans after World War II, such as the Dodgem bumper cars, which were rumored to electrocute riders who broke the rules..

“Our family didn’t have a lot of money, and it was just a joy to be at Riverview even if we could only ride one ride.”

A woman shared this childhood memory while enjoying a presentation on Riverview Park at the Franklin Library in Des Moines March 22. Bill Kooker is an expert on the history of Riverview and is the grandson of one of the original owners.

Adventureland in Altoona opened Aug. 19, 1974. Gosh, I hate to do the math on how long ago that was. Worse yet, the amusement park with a warmer place in my heart was Riverview Park—two blocks west of Sixth Avenue on Corning Avenue in Des Moines–which opened in 1915.

I’m happy to report that this opening date even predates the birth of my parents. However, it closed in 1978, which is a year when I was certainly around.

Riverview, for me, is forever linked to walking beans—another long-forgotten summer torture ritual for farm kids across the land. Once we finished the dreaded chore of walking beans, we’d get to take a friend to Riverview for the day.

Bill Kooker, grandson of one of Riverview Park's original owners, spoke Tuesday about the history of the amusement park.
Bill Kooker, grandson of one of Riverview Park’s original owners, spoke Tuesday about the history of the amusement park.

There was no admission fee and no parking fee, so everyone could join in the fun with parents and others watching the kids enjoy all the rides which, of course, did require tickets, but watching was free. Many were like the woman at Kooker’s presentation this week—families who would come to Riverview for a picnic, walk around, watch the people and enjoy the rides vicariously.

It was Abe Frankle’s vision to bring Coney Island—a place he’d visited and loved– to Iowa. The Polish immigrant’s vision came true when Riverview opened June 15, 1915, and was an instant success with its white stucco buildings with red tile roofs and a swimming area that rented swimming suits—and you thought rented bowling shoes were questionable.

Years later the pool was filled in to create a wrestling/boxing ring where events were held two nights a week.

In 1918 Kooker’s grandfather, Earl Kooker, bought into the park, and by the mid-1950s the Eli Bookey and Earl Kooker families owned all the stock. Kooker compared Frankle to P.T. Barnam, saying that he was a showman who would do anything to please the public.

In 1933 half the park was destroyed by fire. “We still have half the park,” was Frankle’s thought and since the dance hall was destroyed in the fire, a new floor was quickly built in the Penny Arcade, turning the arcade into the new dance hall.

Ever the salesman, Frankle instructed employees to leave the smoldering embers alone. He wanted the crowds to see the smoke rising from the ruins when they came to the re-opened park.

A second tragedy occurred May 19, 1944, when the park was covered by six feet of water after a levy collapsed. Riverview rebounded once again.

During his presentation, Kooker shared some of the antics of the Riverview staff, such as nailing down a billfold in the roller coaster boarding area in order to watch patron after patron try to retrieve the billfold, or doing a “pass through” to the joy of coaster riders—sending the train through for a second ride when no one was waiting in line.

For unknown reasons, riders on the roller coaster began slapping the front of the tunnel that the coaster rolled through. Kooker said that they painted that part of the tunnel weekly until they finally gave in to the tradition and let the hand slap marks remain on the tunnel entrance.

Audience members fondly recalled the Wild Mouse, where the nose of the car would point straight ahead even though the track was turning sharply so for a moment you’ d have the illusion of going right off the track into the water, which still endures as a park myth—that a car did go off the track into the water. Kooker offered $1,000 to anyone who could produce a newspaper story about such an event.

Kooker told how the Dodgem bumper cars — a personal favorite of mine — were causing a problem because riders would jump out of the cars before the cars came to a complete halt and run to get into the front of the line so as to grab the fastest cars the next time around. Jumping out early was even more of an issue since the cars would drift another ten feet after the ride was turned off.

One employee’s solution to ending the practice of premature jumping was to announce that if you got out of the car before it came to a complete stop, you’d be electrocuted! This both stopped people from jumping out early and also drastically decreased the number of riders. When the owners found out, the employee kept his job but was suspended from work for a week.

A popular water ride, called Shoot the Chutes, ended like a log ride, with a boat sliding down the track and splashing into a pool of water. Kooker said it became a Labor Day night tradition that someone would pour boxes and boxes of detergent into the channel, creating a mountain of bubbles for riders to shoot through.

Nostalgic attendees also recalled the tic-tac-toe chicken and the dancing chicken. Even in the bygone years I’m recalling, Kooker said patrons were playing against a computer and since the computer—chicken—always went first, it always won.

Even if you weren’t fortunate enough to have experienced Riverview in its Des Moines location, you may have experienced Riverview at Adventureland because the company moved several of Riverview’s attractions to Altoona, including one of my personal favorites—the Himalaya.

Other attractions, such as the roller coaster and tunnel of love, were demolished, and rides that could be moved were sold off. Unfortunately, once the park closed, vandals continually set fires at the park, burning the Riviera Ballroom, the carousel pavilion and even the bridge to the park.

According to the Riverview website, Adventureland purchased the park with the stated intention of keeping it open as a company picnic venue and discount amusement park. Instead, no one realized that when Riverview closed for the season on Labor Day 1978, it would never open again.

Kooker says he’s not really upset with Adventureland statement that they “have developed a beautiful park that is making new fun-filled memories for people of all ages, and that is what we were all about also.”

Some audience members at Tuesday's presentation still seemed to bear a grudge over the park's closing in 1978.
Some audience members at Tuesday’s presentation still seemed to bear a grudge over the park’s closing in 1978.

However, the audience did not appear to be as forgiving as Kooker. When someone asked about the carousel, Kooker said it had been completely refurbished in about 1973. It was a 1928 carousel menagerie so it included a chicken, giraffe, zebra and other animals besides horses.

Once it was refurbished and its value revealed, the animals were sold to a collector with a private museum, and aluminum horses were put in the park. So when Adventureland bought the carousel and moved it to Altoona, it was the version with aluminum horses it purchased versus the original 1928 menagerie. The boisterous laughter of the crowd seemed to indicate that they felt this was as it should be.

Jack Krantz, founder of Adventureland, later gave the Riverview grounds to the City of Des Moines for $1 on condition that another amusement park never be put at the location.

The Kiwanis have been the caretakers of the nature island for years, but Kooker said that money is now being raised to build an amphitheater on the location and eventually add plaques of the history of Riverview along the bridge and build shelter houses, picnic areas and trails.

We’re long beyond the promise of going to Riverview after finishing walking beans, but the future may allow for outdoor concerts, walks and bike rides at the end of a busy day. It’s not the Himalaya or tic-tac-toe-playing chickens, but it’s somethin’.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for the memories! I’ve recalled the Wild Mouse, hall of mirrors, and carousel at various times but had completely forgotten about the dancing chicken!

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