Before Purdue Polytechnic, before P.R. Mallory, there was Wonderland Amusement Park

This postcard shows visitors strolling around the lagoon which served Wonderland’s Shoot-the-Shoots flume ride.

this is an updated version of a feature which appeared in the May 2010 edition of Urban Times.

By Connie Zeigler

Contributing editor

In July 2020, Purdue Polytechnic High School opened in a building of the former P.R. Mallory Co., giving new life to a structure that had sat empty for many years. A hundred and 14 years and two months earlier, Wonderland Amusement Park opened on this same plot of land that had, before that, been a baseball field.

Wonderland was one of three mechanized amusement parks opened in Indianapolis in May 1906.

Many Indianapolis residents have heard of Riverside Amusement Park, which first opened with a toboggan railway in 1903 but geared up as a major amusement park in 1906. White City Amusement Park opened that same year in Broad Ripple.

And then there was Wonderland Amusement Park. Located at the southwest corner of East Washington and Gray streets, Wonderland was the only one of the three amusement parks opening in 1906 that had no natural body of water as part of its enticement. Both of the others were laid out along stretches of White River. But even without river access, Wonderland had much to offer.

Like the other parks, Wonderland was placed along an electric street railway line. In Wonderland’s case, it sat beside the line to Irvington. Even before the gates on Washington Street opened to reveal all of Wonderland’s wonders, the Shoot-the-Shoots flume ride and the 125-foot tall Electric Tower, which The Indianapolis Star claimed was decorated with enough incandescent light bulbs “to illuminate a city of 10,000,” were visible above the outer fence to those on the Irvington line.

After months of peeking over the fence as the park was under construction, finally, on a chilly May 19, 1906, the opening-day crowd of 8,000 could experience all that Wonderland had to offer.

Inside the gates, among so many wonders, there was a reenactment of the 1889 Johnstown, Pa., Flood, a spectacle attraction, one of many found in amusement parks across the nation. Fires and floods that were usually the focus of these spectacles were thrilling to amusement park-goers.

Wonderland also offered “mysteries galore” at the “Third Degree,” a magical ride through “Hale’s Tour of the World,” a fun factory, a circle swing, and the “Mystic Maze.” And an elephant bathing in the pool at the base of the Electric Tower.

Adults and children could slide down the “Bump-the-Bumps,” a bumpy adult-sized slide that provided entertainment for on-lookers as well as riders. Dare Devil Dash performed thrilling motorcycle tricks. Patrons could also ogle an authentic tribe of Igorrotes imported from the Philippines in their recreated village, a sort of “amusement” found in many amusement parks that surprisingly didn’t seem to raise any concerns over its implicit racism.

Indianapolis’s own Carl Fisher, soon to be a founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, built the engine for the Kann War Air Machine, a dirigible as big as two streetcars that floated over the park twice a day powered by hydrogen gas.

All this mechanized fantastical entertainment was placed in a setting of beautified nature. Americans best appreciated their machinery juxtaposed with natural-looking green spaces. Wonderland attempted to recreate pastoral green landscape with brimming pots of flowers, newly planted trees, and green lawn in the spaces between the amusement machines.

Amusement parks were a topsy-turvy world where spectacles of natural disasters were amusements, clanking machines became scary rides and people of all classes and sexes brushed elbows and bumped bodies in a society just a few years out of the Victorian age.

In 1907, The Star estimated that city residents paid one million visits each summer to the three amusement parks. Twenty percent of the amusement park business was “shooting-the-chutes,” [riding the flume rides] according to The Star. The newspaper noted that patrons spent almost $200,000 to enjoy these amusements.

That was a lot of money in 1907, but Wonderland’s owners had spent $28,000 just to construct its scenic railway, one of many attractions. Splitting $200,000 among the three amusement parks meant that none of them was very successful.

Despite its promise, Wonderland Amusement Park was, probably from the start, a money-losing business. Too much competition, especially when the two other parks could also offer swimming and    u u  boating on White River as part of their enticements, made it impossible for    Wonderland to succeed.

Even after Broad Ripple’s White City burned to the ground in 1908, just a week before its new swimming pool was scheduled to open, Wonderland just couldn’t make enough money. Eventually, the park only opened for special occasions.

In 1911, Wonderland opened its doors for the first time to an African-American group. None of the city’s amusement parks had allowed Black patronage before this and it was probably a sign of the financial crisis at Wonderland that the park owners made this exception. The “Colored Knights of Pythias” rented the park for exclusive use during the week of the fraternal order’s gathering in the city.

On Aug. 27, 1911, the Pythians held their closing dance at the park.

A day later, at 1:10 a.m., hours after the Pythians had left the park, R. C. Buchanan, the night watchman, raised the alarm about a fire. By the time the first fire trucks arrived flames had already swept around the complex of wooden buildings.

By 3:00 a.m. the shoot-the-shoots had carried the conflagration into the night sky.

After years of flagging attendance, Wonderland’s last fire spectacle, its own burning, drew the biggest crowd it had seen in years. In the early morning light all that remained of Wonderland was a soaked smoldering ruin.

Just a few years later, in 1915 P.R. Mallory and Co. moved its battery manufacturing enterprise to the location of the former Wonderland Amusement Park at 3029 E. Washington St. Mallory operated from this location for more than 60 years. In 1978, Dart Industries purchased P.R. Mallory & Co.. Dart later sold the company to Black & Decker, which broke up the Mallory divisions in the 1980s. One of those divisions became CMW, which continued to occupy the Factory B building, on the former P.R. Mallory site. In 2020, after sitting empty for years, the primary remaining building of the P.R. Mallory Co. became the home of Purdue Polytechnic High School.

Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.