Explore the ‘lost history’ of Denver’s Manhattan Beach amusement park

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16min 28sec
Courtesy of David Forsyth
The Frolic plied Sloan’s Lake in Denver at the turn of the 20th Century. It was an attraction at Manhattan Beach amusement park.

Picture a sparkling summer day at Sloan’s Lake in north Denver.

It’s the early 1900s and a steamship named Frolic chugs through the water as passengers wave at picnickers on the shore. Kids explore the zoo, and clamor for rides on an elephant named Roger – that is, until a tragic accident in which Roger trampled a little boy.

It all happened at an amusement park called Manhattan Beach. In its heyday, the park drew visitors from across the city. Today, Denverites still stroll around or fish at Sloan’s Lake but most of them probably don’t even notice the small plaque that marks its past.

Historian David Forsyth has a passion for amusement parks – he says it comes from family trips in his childhood. His newest book is “The Amusement Park at Sloan’s Lake: The Lost History of Denver’s Manhattan Beach. It will be released in April.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Ryan Warner: You specialize in amusement park history. I guess before we go any further, what makes somebody want to do that?

David Forsyth: I've always been fascinated with amusement parks. There's still stories in my family of our first trip to Disneyland of me just snapping pictures right and left and going crazy with it. 

Originally, I started out to be a presidential historian. When I was in school up at CU Boulder no one was too interested in working with me on that, so I ended up hitting on Lakeside amusement Park for my dissertation, and at that point, I was just hooked on doing amusement park history. 

I like to do fun history. I'm still serious about it, but there's a lot of other people who do real serious, hard, heavy history. But there's a good history with amusement parks and the role they played in cities, and why not?

Warner: And culture, I guess. And so you wrote your dissertation about another amusement park, Lakeside, which still operates today on the north side of town. Sloan's Lake, on the west side of Denver, I certainly think of as a park now where I might walk a dog or fish, maybe row a dragon boat once a year. What was it like in the late 1800s at Manhattan Beach?

Forsyth: It started out not as what we would think of as an amusement park but as more what I call a summer resort, what some people called amusement resorts. They were like beer gardens but a little fancier, and they didn't always serve alcohol. 

There was a big dance pavilion. You could go out and row boats on the lake. They had a steamship called the City of Denver.

Warner: Wait, a steamship on Sloan's Lake?

Forsyth: On Sloan's Lake.

Warner: Okay. Sloan's Lake doesn't seem big enough for that. I don't imagine that was a long ride. 

Forsyth: It took about a half hour to make a complete circle around the lake, and the original steamship that they had was relatively small. It was not what we would think of as a steamship.

Warner: I'm not picturing Mark Twain aboard. 

Forsyth: Not at first. Later on, yes. But the one that they started with was pretty small. It had a single smokestack on it, a little canopy cover, and you could rent row boats, go dancing. They had restaurants and then eventually they started adding more attractions to it in the 1890s.

Warner: And this is when it morphs into Manhattan Beach?

Forsyth: Yeah, it started out as Sloan Lake Park without the apostrophes. One of the other things there was a hotel and the hotel burned down right ahead of the 1891 season.

Warner: My goodness.

Forsyth: So they had to forget about the whole hotel side of things and were focusing more on the amusement side of things, and they started putting in a bathing beach so that people could go out and swim in the lake. And originally the bathing beach was just called Manhattan Beach, but eventually, it became the name for the whole park.

Warner: What was the cause of the fire? Do we know?

Forsyth: They never really determined the cause of the fire. They didn't serve liquor in the park but they served it in the hotel and once the fire hit the liquor room at the hotel it just exploded. There was no hope of saving it after that.

Warner: Okay. So Manhattan Beach was born, and I think of that as related to New York. I think of Manhattan Beach also as related to California. Do we have any idea why they called it that?

Forsyth: There were some very common names for amusement parks and amusement resorts. Manhattan Beach was one of them. Luna Park, White City was another one. So you had these handful of names and a lot of them came out of Coney Island in New York.

And they just spread to amusement parks throughout the country. So there's no connection to California or New York from Adam Graff who started the park. It was just a good name for a park.

Warner: I suppose at some point they upgrade the steamship?

Forsyth: Yes. They went through a couple of different steamships. The one that they finally settled on in 1909 was called the Frolic. It very much looked like the Mark Twain that you would ride at Disneyland today, and it was about the same size. It was a big three-deck sidewheel steamship and it would go out and cruise the lake. They would shoot off fireworks from it. 

The boat played parts in recreations of battles that they would do on Sloan's Lake. It would serve as a troop transport for the actors playing army guys going out into these battles.

Courtesy of David Forsyth
A picture from the photo booth at Manhattan Beach amusement park in Denver at the turn of the 20th Century. Only a small plaque remains to mark the history of the park at Sloan's Lake in Denver.

Warner: Is there a treasure trove of photos of all of this? Were you able to step back into it in terms of imagery?

Forsyth: There are some really great pictures of Manhattan Beach. They're all from similar angles. The cameraman would go stand in the middle of the park, turn left, take a picture, turn right, take a picture, so you don't get details of a lot of the rides that they had. 

Warner: Is there an image of this elephant named Roger who is a notorious character in Manhattan Beach?

Forsyth: Unfortunately, there is only a drawing of him.

Warner: Okay. And tell us about Roger.

Forsyth: Roger was the star of Manhattan Beach in 1891. Part of the remodel of the park was to put in a zoo, and so they brought in all these animals. 

There was a camel, there was a hippo, and when you read about the animals getting to the park, it's great because they get dropped off at Union Station in downtown Denver and they have this big parade through the streets of Denver out to Sloan's Lake in the middle of the night. They tried to keep it secret but people who knew about it came out on their porches and saw them go by. 

Again, Roger was the star. Kids could ride on him. They had a special seat that would go on his back and it could hold five kids and he would go out from the zoo house and cross this little canal that they had running through the park and make a circle and come back. The reason Roger is notorious is because he was the cause of the first death at Manhattan Beach.

Warner: Gosh.

Forsyth: So for July 5th, 1891, they had a big crowd out at the park and they were giving kids a ride and they were also doing a balloon ascension at the park. Lady Gray was the balloonist and unfortunately, her balloon was very close to the zoo house. 

Roger had just started on his ride at the same time that Lady Gray was going up in her balloon and they were never certain whether it was the balloon that scared Roger or the crowd of people running towards the balloon that scared him, but he went a little wild. And George Eaton was a 6-year-old boy who was riding on him, and he stood up in the seat. They thought that he stood up to see the balloon better but he fell out and Roger in going wild ended up trampling him to death.

There were a lot of people who were very angry at Roger at first but eventually, the anger subsided. The reason Roger is really famous is that the story is he was put to death and buried in a swamp near the park, which now would be in the parking lot of the shopping center across the street from Sloan's Lake.

Warner: Oh, the King Soopers there?

Forsyth: Yeah, King Soopers. The only thing is it never happened.

Warner: Oh. Wait, what never happened?

Forsyth: Roger was never put to death. He was on loan from the Central Park Zoo in New York so he wasn't the property of Manhattan Beach, so they couldn't have put him to death even if they had wanted to. But when you still read about the park and go further into 1892, he was still there. He was still very much a star. They would still give him his bath out in Sloan's Lake and that would bring lots of big crowds in.

Warner: So you've managed to debunk this old wives’ tale?

Forsyth: Yeah. His ultimate fate nobody really knows. I speculate. There was a man named Bostock who ended up buying a bunch of the monkeys that the Manhattan Beach Zoo had as well and for years he had an elephant named Roger that he would take to different zoos and had at Coney Island for a while. And so I think there's a chance maybe that's the same Roger, but I can't prove it. 

Warner: That's Roger, and that there was a life beyond Manhattan Beach perhaps.

Forsyth: Yes.

Warner: What does a park-like Manhattan Beach tell us about Denver at that time, about what people wanted and where the city was?

Forsyth: Denver essentially, since Day One, has been out to prove it's not a cowtown and so everything –

Warner: Well, it turns out it's an elephant town.

Forsyth: Yeah, that's a good one. So everything they're doing is trying to prove this isn't a cow town, and so in the late 1800s it starts developing some of the city parks, which took a really long time, and different signs that would show that it was leaving its dusty mining frontier town past behind it. And so all of the amusement parks really played a big part in that.

Warner: Well, they were leisure, right?

Forsyth: Yeah. We were very starved for open space and recreational space in Denver because we had lots of bars and gambling houses and brothels, which they're not great when you're trying to take the kids out on Sunday afternoon to do something

At the same time, you have people getting more and more free time. You start having the Saturday afternoons off, they start having free Sundays. They're dropping this opposition to people going out and doing something fun on Sundays, and so there's this need for space. 

When Riverside Cemetery opened in 1876, people would go out, they'd take a picnic lunch, they'd walk around, they'd look at the flowers, the architecture of the headstones and the mausoleums and things like that. Same thing happened when Fairmount opened, so there's this real hunger for recreational space and so when Elitch's and Manhattan Beach both opened in 1890, here are these great places where people can go out, they can spend their free time. It's clean, it's nice. They're not serving liquor, it's orderly, so they were really good places to go out. And then there are places that Denver can say, ‘Hey, look, we've got these beautiful parks that people can go out to and see. We're not a cow town anymore.’

Warner: Yeah, and we have animals on loan from this Central Park Zoo.

Forsyth: Exactly.

Warner: A little slice of New York City here in Denver. Do you ever think about these places? Because you said in the beginning that seeing Disneyland for the first time was transformational for you. Do you ever look at the photos of these places, Manhattan Beach included, and just think, ‘I wish I could have been there’?

Forsyth: Oh, yeah, and sometimes it's just, gee, I wish I could go back there with my camera and take a picture of this one thing that I can't find a picture of. But, no, you look at them and you think about the things that were there and the things you could have done and the things you could have ridden and the things you could have experienced, and a lot of times when I write about places, I like to go out and see them. So Lakeside, I can go out and see what was there.

Warner: Yes, and Elitch's is in a different location than when it first opened.

Forsyth: Yeah, but you can still go to where old Elitch's was and you can see the merry-go-round building, you can see the theater. There's a little music gazebo still out there, so you can picture things.

Warner: Are there just no vestiges of Manhattan Beach at Sloan's Lake?

Forsyth: There's nothing. I go out there and I know that the entrance gate was here. It was basically at Bryant and Zenobia, and I know that the roller coaster was over on this end of the park and the other roller coaster was over here and the theater was on the corner of Sheridan, but there's really nothing to look at and say, ‘Okay, I get it. I see where all this stuff was. I see where it all fit together.’

Warner: Would you like to change that? Wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of colorful marker?

Forsyth: There is one marker on the boathouse that was installed in the 1950s, and if you don't know it's there, I don't think you see it because it blends in with the walls now. I think it probably gets ignored, so it would be kind of cool to see a plaque or something out there.

Warner: What happened to Manhattan Beach? Why isn't it there?

Forsyth: In 1908, Lakeside opened and Lakeside was huge. Lakeside stole all the attention from the other Denver parks. Unfortunately at the end of 1908 the theater at Manhattan Beach, which had always been one of the biggest draws, burned down.

Warner: My goodness. It is a story of fire, isn't it?

Forsyth: Yes. Pretty much all of the Denver parks had at least one major fire go through them and destroy big parts of it, but the company that had been leasing Manhattan Beach at the time the theater burned down, they were losing money. They weren't really interested in continuing on and there was a big debate between the property owners and them as to who was responsible for building another theater.

Eventually, they canceled their lease and the guy who had been the first general manager of Lakeside ended up taking over at Manhattan Beach, and he's the one that built the Frolic steamship and added the second roller coaster, and made a lot of changes to it. 

He eventually got forced out because he brought in a band from Mexico that turned out to be a major financial drain on the park, and it went through a bunch of different management changes. It was renamed Luna Park for a short time, but at the end of the 1913 season, it closed permanently. And at that point, I think they just couldn't compete with Lakeside and Elitch's anymore.

Warner: Were these parks, and Manhattan Beach in particular, were they segregated? Were they whites only? Who did they let in?

Forsyth: They were segregated. It was pretty much whites only, but they would have special days. At Manhattan Beach, they would have Emancipation Day celebrations at the park, and so that was a chance for Black customers to come out and have the park to themselves on that day. 

Warner: The irony of an Emancipation Day that is segregated.

Forsyth: Yeah, it wasn't uncommon for amusement parks at the time. It actually continued in Denver into the 1940s, and it was finally a lawsuit over the theater at Elitch's that ended up desegregating the Denver parks. Other places, it continued right up until 1965 when the Civil Rights Act went into effect. 

It's something that's going to take a lot more research, but I sometimes wonder if the parks went through periods where they weren't quite as segregated because I am finding articles in the Denver Star and the Colorado Statesman, which were the two Black newspapers in Denver, where they talk about having people go out to Lakeside and go out to Elitch's. So it's something that's going to take a lot more research and a lot more figuring out that maybe they went through periods where they weren't quite as strict about it as others.

Warner: More to uncover for you?

Forsyth: It never ends, which is great.