Fontaine Ferry Park - Why it closed


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 6:43 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 13 at 6:05 PM

(WHAS11) -The spring of 1969 for Louisville's famed Fontaine Ferry Park was shaping up like every other.

"Opened at ten a.m.," remembers Chuck Howell of Louisville, a former employee.

Opening day, as always, was the day after Derby. In 1969 that day was May 4th.

Five years earlier in 1964, Fontaine Ferry's owners had desegregated the park. Blacks were allowed in for the first time in its 64 year history. But up until that year, it was a much different story.

"I was a part of the first march at Fountain Ferry Park," remembers Robert Coleman of Louisville. "It ended with me going to jail the first time in my life-not riding the ferris wheel for the first time in my life."

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Prior to 1964, African Americans were asked to leave, even tossed from the park if they snuck in to the pool on a hot day.

Ishmael Muhammed of Louisville said, "We got in a couple of times but never made it to the water. Someone always said, 'These little boys are out!'"

"I think the disappointing thing was I couldn't go and enjoy the roller coaster, the pool, the skating rink, those kinds of things," Jack Norris remembers.

"All I can recall was seeing the big entrance gates and people inside having such a great time," said Rudy Davidson, head of the Shawnee Park Neighborhood Association and the former head of Louisville's Solid Waste Division under Jerry Abramson.

So when African Americans finally walked through those gates in 1964, there was apprehension, but there was finally relief among the workers. The owners say the park's fortunes actually skyrocketed with both blacks and whites enjoying the rides.

Jim Singhiser is the owner's nephew. "That was the peak time," he recalls. "It thrived after that. Business did not fall off."

But the good times would soon be coming to an abrupt and violent end.

Fontaine Ferry sat on just sixty acres, tucked under towering trees along the Ohio River. You got to it by driving west on Market until it stopped at the river. It was founded in 1905, by Captain Aaron Fontaine, who ran a river ferry.

Generations of families loved its low prices and simple fun.

"The mirrors, hilarity hall, the slides, sugar barrel, you just don't forget about it," said Louisville antiques dealer Joe Ley.

So after the depression, the flood, and the changing of tastes, Fontaine Ferry stayed open and even grew. That's why May of 1969 would be so shocking. For the employees, the day seemed a bit unusual.

"[We] went over in early afternoon. [It] seemed like crowds were maybe a little raucous," remembers former park employee Chuck Howell.

And then it hit, according to Singhiser. "There was a riot that opening day of 1969."

"All of a sudden, masses of people running down the street," remembers Howell.

A small group of young peoplestarted a riot late in that day. It is still unclear to this day as to just who sparked it, but what is clear is that it was racially motivated-a spillover of the racial tension still lingering.

Elderly park workers were roughed up, money was stolen, and there was damageacross the park.

And for one man, the owner Jack Singhiser, that was enough.

Nephew Jim Singhiser says, "He started selling everything off. Sold the rides, the penny arcade, pulled the copper wiring right out of the ground and hauled it off and sold it. "

Fontaine Ferry was gone. It would never open again under that name.

From then on it would live on only with collectors in memories and photographs.

"I was sorry to see it closed. I was sorry the way it closed", says Cheri Bryant-Hamilton, now a Metro Council person.

Today the site of Fontaine Ferry is cleared. It's now River Glen Park.

From Sky 11, near the river, you can spot the remains of the oldbeach house that park goers used when swimming in the river.

"If it did survive, it would have been changed. You wouldn't recognize it or what it was", said one man.

But as Jim Singhiser told us, "It was destined to die."