Remembering Riverview Amusement Park5/1/2019
Artifacts are still buried under the city-built levee including light posts and the tunnel of love.
One of the most talked about places in Des Moines lore comes from the north side of town in the Oak Park Neighborhood off of Sixth Avenue on Corning Avenue. A small island that was once a Zoological garden had been abandoned and transformed into a marsh. The Des Moines Ice Company (owned by Joe Muelhaupt) had been using the artesian lake water that surrounded the island to harvest ice for resale. The island itself was not being used, and Abe Frankle, who was originally from Cedar Rapids, had a vision of creating an amusement park that possessed the same spirit as Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. That island became the Riverview Amusement Park.
The amusement park opened on Saturday, May 15, 1915. The original partners included Frankle, Joe Muelhaupt, C.C. Taft, Frank C. Walrath, George W. Reel and Eli Booky. The park itself was 40 acres, surrounded by the East and West Zoo Lakes, and separated the river by the city levee. The main entrance was at Corning Avenue with a connecting bridge on the east side. The park had a 16-foot promenade, miniature railway station, roller skating rink and a shooting gallery. It also had a brand-new wooden roller coaster called “The Jack Rabbit.”
In 1933, a fire started at 1:15 a.m. and many of the old buildings were dry and went up in flames quickly. Even though the fire department arrived soon, they ran out of water and had to bring in three more pumper trucks and pump water from Zoo Lake. The fire destroyed many of the old buildings and rides. The penny arcade, ballroom and several original establishments were lost. Ten years later, the flood of 1944 was another threat because the city-built levee failed and put Riverview under 6 feet of water. This led to the park putting its own pumping system in the lake so water levels could be lowered during the springtime after all the snow was melted. Sadly, Abe Frankle also passed away. The torch was picked up by W.E. “Earl” Kooker, a close friend of Frankle. Kooker carried on the Riverview vision of a family-friendly escape into the 1950s when it flourished once again.
Jeannie Sheldon of Waukee shares her memories: “When I moved to Des Moines as a young adult in 1961, Riverview was a place my friends and I could go, even if our pockets were pretty empty. There was no admission, and you could walk around all night — people-watching and hanging out, without buying much. There was entertainment there for every age: kiddie rides, bumper cars, the Rock-O-Planes, a beautiful carousel and the most terrifying thing of all — the roller coaster! I can also remember a small menagerie with a trick-performing chicken.”
Jeannie continued to venture out to Riverview after she and her husband, Fritz, started a family.
“When we were young parents, my husband’s company, American Republic, would frequently have company picnics there. Lunch would be served in the Riviera Ballroom, and all the rides were free,” she remembers.
When Adventureland opened in 1974, it had a huge effect on Riverview’s numbers. However, what saved Riverview were company picnic rentals because Adventureland was too large to close the whole park down for a company to have a private party for its employees. Even so, Riverview couldn’t survive and shuttered its doors in 1978. Jack Krantz, the owner of Adventureland, originally purchased Riverview with the idea of continuing its operation as a “discount” amusement park for Des Moines and bank on all the company picnic business. However, the park remained chained shut until Krantz eventually sold the land to the city of Des Moines in 1983 for one dollar with the stipulation that nothing could be built on the land that would compete with Adventureland’s business.
Today, not much remains. Artifacts of Riverview are still buried under the city-built levee including light posts and the tunnel of love. Many people take a pilgrimage to look at what remains of the late Des Moines amusement park. In 2018, it was announced that a $4-million concert venue was set to be built on the land in the spring of 2019.
Bill Kooker, who was the grandson of W.E. Kooker, managed Riverview for its last decade of operation. He has become the sole historian and authored a book called “Riverview Park: The Lost Summers,” as well a documentary called “Fading Memories of Riverview Park.” He also runs a Facebook group called “Riverview Amusement Park Des Moines Iowa (Official Group)” that is open to the public and has member-submitted photos from just nearly 10,000 followers. He has dedicated his life to keeping the memory of Riverview Amusement Park alive in everyone’s mind. ♦
Kristian Day is a filmmaker, musician and writer based in Des Moines. Follow him on Twitter at @kristianmday.