60 Years Ago Today: The Opening of Freedomland

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This is a story that contains much to make the amusement loving New Yorker blue on so many levels.

On this day in 1960, a new amusement park — larger than Disneyland — opened in the Bronx. Accurately billed as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Family Entertainment Center”, Freedomland USA was conceived and built by Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood (1920-1992), one of the early collaborators on Disneyland, which had opened in 1955. Fired by Disney executives in 1956, Wood took it on the chin and built this 205 acre park in Baychester.

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This history themed park was built in the shape of the contiguous 48 states of the U.S. and broken into corresponding regions, usually representing those periods in the 19th century: Old New York; Old Chicago (with a re-creation of the 1871 fire); the Great Plains (with a working stage coach line); Old San Francisco (with a re-creation of the 1906 earthquake); The Old Southwest (with wild west saloons and real steam trains); Old New Orleans; and a futuristic section called “Satellite City” with space rides. There was a tramway ride that could transport people over the “Rocky Mountains”. And, to boost attendance, in 1962, a bunch of conventional midway rides were added. (Ironically, though Freedomland opened on Juneteenth, and was located in the Bronx, an area with one of the highest concentrations of African Americans in the United States, their story appears not to have been told beyond a “Plantation House Restaurant” that served fried chicken, and a Civil War reenactment that dealt with slavery only by implication. Naturally, an amusement park is not going to present unpleasant aspects of the national narrative. In light of that, by rights a park like this ought to be uncoupled from the word “history”, or qualify whose history it celebrates. After all, “Freedom” has not exactly been every American’s portion over the last 400 years.)

At any rate, Freedomland was apparently cursed. This is the Northeast. The park was partially built on buggy swampland. Bad weather kept it closed a good part of the year. These combined to make it difficult to make the park pay its costs back. Several of the exhibitions burned before the park opened. A stagecoach overturned, injuring ten people (snapping the spine of one of them) resulting in a costly lawsuit. When the park began to de-emphasize the history angle, some of the sponsors pulled out. Then in 1964, the New York World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows. That’s a lot of bad all in a row. Freedomland closed in 1964, just four years after opening.

What a bummer! We note that it died right around the time Steeplechase in Coney Island closed and also around the same time Astroland (with its similarity to Satellite City) opened. Was there just too much competition?  The hell of it is, I’m sure the failure of Freedomland convinced capitalists that investing in Coney Island was a bad idea for decades, and this is why the Disney people passed on the idea after careful consideration, and why Horace Bullard had a hard time getting backers or city support. So that’s one reason it’s unfortunate. But also…the Bronx could have USED such a tourist attraction. It has the Zoo and Yankee Stadium…something else must have been nice. By the way, I notice that the Zoo manages to make a go of it year ’round. How does it do that? A smart planner would have figured out how to make the park pay during the winter months, as they have been trying to do with Coney Island right now. Live and learn. But I sure do wish I could have gone to to Freedomland.

Michael Virgintino’s definitive book Freedomland USA can be found here. 

And you can follow Freedomland on:

And here are some cool home movies:

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