Revisiting Fontaine Ferry Park

Fontaine Ferry Park main entrance (Photo courtesy: Tim Young Productions)
Fontaine Ferry Park main entrance (Photo courtesy: Tim Young Productions)
(Photo courtesy: Tim Young Productions)
(Photo courtesy: Tim Young Productions)

By Connie Leonard - bio | email
Posted by Charles Gazaway - email

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - It is a big part of Louisville history. One that brought joy to one segment of our community and sadness to another. 40 years after it closed, Fontaine Ferry Park opens once again. This time as an exhibit at the Frazier International History Museum.

"My favorite ride was probably the Caterpillar," said Paddy DeGeorge.

Many cherished childhood memories live among the 64 acres in West Louisville's Shawnee Park neighborhood. From the crackle of wooden roller coasters to the smell of hot popcorn, the sights and sounds of Fontaine Ferry Park are as vibrant and personal today as they were decades ago.

"You could hear the penny arcade games and the 'ping ping' you know, when you would shoot the guns," said DeGeorge, the coordinator of the new museum exhibit.

It was a place where couples went on their first date or even got engaged.  Named Fontaine Ferry for the original landowner, Captain Aaron Fontaine, the park that opened in 1905 sat on one of the most beautiful spots along the Ohio River. From its grand entrance to top amusements, the park became famous around the country, attracting music acts like a young Frank Sinatra. Historians believe a gorgeous fountain in the park's swimming pool led most visitors to call it "Fountain" Ferry.

"It would cost us a quarter to ride the bus," remembered Dee Embry, who went every Friday night to show off her roller skating skills, just like her students now at Medora Elementary. "We'll, I won a contest down there as a skater many, many years ago!"

Embry, and many of the faculty and staff at Medora, sounded like giddy teenagers when the subject of Fontaine Ferry in the 50's came up. Mary Blake and Judy Jupin describe a family atmosphere filled with charm and character not found in amusement parks today.

"We could be dropped off there and stay all day," Jupin said.

Louisville antiques dealer Joe Ley says that's it to a tee. "To me, Coney Island and those kind of places just didn't hold a candle to Fontaine Ferry."

As an orphan staying with different families, Fontaine Ferry was Ley's childhood.

"When I was here in Louisville, I used to walk 40 blocks down to the park and when I'd get there, I didn't have a dime to get in so I would try to climb over the fence," Ley recalled.

It is the reason he is an avid collector of Fontaine Ferry merchandise. From old photographs to funhouse mirrors, they are all prized possessions and not for sale.

"I think obsession is probably the key word," Ley laughed. "It's just an addiction."

Throughout its long history, the park survived the Great Depression, two World Wars and the 1937 flood, but it could not withstand the changing tide of the 1960's.

"It was very sad and I had a hard time understanding why that took place,"   Ley said of the park's closing.

In the 60's, the "white's only" park was the target of civil right demonstrations. Even after it was finally desegregated in 1965, tensions remained high. Fights and vandalism led to its eventual close. The children who loved Fontaine Ferry, like Ley and Embry, never realized the frustration in the African American community.

"At that age, I guess I just wasn't looking for color," said Embry.

The staff at Medora Elementary did not really understand those frustrations either until the recently learned some of their own school family saw the park from the other side.

"She couldn't even go in," Jupin said of interim counselor and retired principal, Joanna Smith.

"Can you imagine going to Six Flags and it being all white?" said Smith, who remembers wanting to take one of her daughters inside, but not being able to. "Of course, you always want your kids to enjoy everything what everybody else is enjoying and I thought 'boy that would be neat to take Pam there.'"

Unlike some in the African American community, Smith calls the park's end a "lose-lose" situation. "We lost a great park. Everybody couldn't go to the park, but it would have been great if we could have resolved it without the riots and then everybody could have enjoyed it."

What they all know now is the rise and fall of Fontaine Ferry is the perfect lesson for the students they serve.

"It would make a great history story," Embry said. "A very good history story."

After Fontaine Ferry closed in 1969, the park reopened twice. Once it was appropriately named "Ghost Town on the River," and again as "River Glen Park." Sadly, neither of those parks worked out as racial tensions still existed.

Like her co-workers, Smith tells WAVE 3 she is excited about the Frazier exhibit and is taking her grandchildren to see it. The exhibit opens Saturday, May 16 and runs through Tuesday, September 8.

A DVD on the history of the park called "Fontaine Ferry Park: A Time of Innocence," was made by Tim Young Productions. It is available for purchase through the Frazier International History Museum. WAVE 3 would like to thank Tim Young Productions for providing video and still photos used in this story.

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