In 1903 and 1904 the face of American public amusement changed with the successful opening of two new parks in Coney Island: Luna Park, which replaced Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park, and Dreamland, originally to be called Wonderland. Together with Steeplechase Park, they gave the relatively small Brooklyn district a high concentration of state-of-the-art attractions and rides.
Entrepreneurs in other cities saw the large crowds drawn by such parks and the potential profits. And so they started to construct their own amusement parks. They often named them after the Coney Island parks, with the result that Luna Parks, Steeplechase Parks, Coney Islands and Wonderlands blossomed across the country.
Because they all wanted the same high-draw popular rides, the parks were superficially very similar. Most had more than one of the popular attractions from the Coney Island parks. Those included a Shoot the Chutes water ride plunging into a central lagoon. They also had a LaMarcus A. Thompson Scenic Railway, a Tower of Light, a Fighting the Flames show and a Wild Animal Show.
The Wonderland Park that went up in Revere was another of these enterprises that hoped to cash in on such appropriated glory. Revere’s Wonderland, however, was larger and more impressive than most.
It got its start with John Joseph Higgins, a real estate agent and a recent transplant to Chelsea, Mass., from Savannah, Ga. Higgiins managed to obtain almost 25 acres of land near Revere Beach. Located near the new narrow gauge railway, it was easily accessible from Boston – much more so than Norumbega Park to the west or the newly-opened Paragon Park on Nantasket Beach in Hull.
There were already amusements going up along the recently refurbished Revere Beach Boulevard, and Coney Island had shown the advantages of concentrating the amusements in one central location.
Somehow Higgins made the acquaintance of Floyd C. Thompson, who had spearheaded an attempt to build the largest amusement park in the world in Coney Island. Thompson bought up Steeplechase Park and nearby property. He intended to tear down most of the amusements and construct a completely new park.
The deal fell through when the consortium he put together could not raise enough funding to complete the purchase. This left Thompson and his co-investors on the edge of bankruptcy. But the experience left Thompson with contacts for performers, crowd-pleasing acts and architects of rides. He threw himself into the construction of Wonderland Park in Revere, lining up railroad and mining magnates as investors and contacting ride inventors.
The centerpiece of the park was, as in many of these parks, a Shoot the Chutes ride. A light skiff was drawn up a long ramp to a tower at the top, then released with a lubricating base of water. The boat would achieve such a high speed sliding down the ramp that it would skip across the surface of the lagoon like a stone. Thompson managed to acquire the largest Shoot the Chutes ride in the world, built for the 1904 St. Louis exposition. It had two tracks, so that boats could be released alternately from each side.
Revere Beach already had a Scenic Railway ride, but it was not constructed by the originator of that ride, LaMarcus Adna Thompson (no relation to Floyd). Floyd Thompson visited the Thompson Scenic Railway company and arranged to bring the first Thompson Scenic Railway to Massachusetts. The ride featured a railway track that undulated up and down with a gentle sinusoid rather than the high plunges and sudden turns that characterized later roller coasters. It took passengers to a separate building that housed dioramas of scenes from Venice and Vesuvius and other places around the world. Then it returned them along the undulating track to their starting point.
Descent Into Hell Gate
One of the most popular attractions of the St. Louis exposition had been the ride Creation, invented by magician-turned-ride inventor Henry Roltair. Dreamland at Coney Island had installed a somewhat reduced version of the ride. Wonderland attempted to obtain the rights to a copy of Creation, but the deal fell though.
They ended up with their own copy of another Dreamland attraction instead: Attilio Pusterla’s Descent into the Hell Gate. This ride took the passengers on a boat through a spiral track toward a center point where it dropped suddenly down into a lower level. The lower level was decorated as a cave populated by demons and mythological creatures. The riders disembarked and were brought to the throne of Satan himself, before emerging back into the sunlight.
Fighting the Flames
Another feature, virtually essential in amusement parks, was the Fighting the Flames show. This, too, had been a hit at the 1904 St. Louis fair. Both Luna Park and Dreamland at Coney Island imitated the show. They opened their copies within a few weeks of each other.
Thompson contacted the leading theatrical agent in New York to get the talent to build his own. The show featured an entire city square constructed in an amphitheater with 3,500 seats. Twice a day, actors would stage a street scene, in the midst of which a fire would break out. Real retired and off-duty firemen would then rush in with examples of the latest fire-fighting and rescue gear to put out the faux conflagration.
Wonderland also had a Hale’s Tours, a sort of virtual reality ride. Patrons sat in a replica of a Pullman railroad car and watched a motion picture of a railroad journey, seen from the point of view of the engine, projected on the front wall. The amusement park also had a ballroom and restaurant, a wild animal show, a circus ring and an infant incubator exhibit. It had a Japanese Village, complete with a miniature Mt. Fuji, and a Beautiful Orient Near Eastern attraction with camels, a bazaar and belly dancers).
The attractions at Wonderland didn’t stay static. The circus acts changed every week, for example. The theater that housed Gillette’s Dog and Monkey Circus the first month was used for the musical revue The South Before the War for the rest of the summer.
Even larger changes occurred from year to year. Although the large attractions – Shoot the Chutes, Hell Gate, the ballroom – remained every year, many of the others changed. So for the second year The Beautiful Orient gave way to the Florida Alligator Jungle (despite keeping its domes and minarets). The South Before the War became Willard’s Temple of Music, an attraction called The Fatal Wedding (a magic illusion) was replaced by a giant glass-walled water tank called Under the Sea.
The next year Willard’s Temple of Music became Paradise – The Show Beautiful. Under the Sea became Pilgrim’s Progress (a funhouse), and the Florida Alligator Jungle became Darktown. For that third season, the Fighting the Flames show was replaced by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show.
Panic of 1907
By the end of the third season, however, Wonderland was virtually bankrupt. A large part of the reason was the Panic of 1907, a recession on the same scale as the more recent one of 2008. It sapped discretionary income and many amusement parks around the country, their business drying up, were forced into bankruptcy as well. Revere’s Wonderland was able to keep going with some financial sleight of hand. With some severe belt tightening, they were able to keep Wonderland going, and actually turned a profit in 1909. But the park continued to decline, possibly because so much of the park had to be shuttered, but also because it was not directly on Revere Beach, and was losing business to attractions along the Boulevard. Wonderland closed at the end of the 1910 season.
It was not an uncommon fate. Of six amusement parks named “Wonderland” that had opened in the United States in 1905 or 1906, five had closed by 1911. The original park that gave these their name – Dreamland in Coney Island – was in financial straits in 1910. It finally closed when a fire started, ironically in that park’s Descent into the Hell Gate ride. The resulting conflagration destroyed the entire park.
That would not have happened at Revere Wonderland’s Hell Gate ride. Revere’s park had been especially constructed to be fireproof. It had non-flammable materials where possible, asbestos sheeting between walls, fire-resistant roofing materials and plenty of fire hydrants. It also had its own in-house fire department, separate from the one used in the Fighting the Flames show.
The leading fire insurance magazine of the day wrote those features up as an example of safe and fireproof construction. In its five years of operation Wonderland never suffered a serious fire. But that still couldn’t preserve it from bankruptcy.
The author of this story, Stephen R. Wilk is a scientist, engineer and author who lives in Saugus. His previous books include Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon and How the Ray Gun got its Zap!, both from Oxford University Press. He also writes genre fiction and a semiregular column for the Optical Society of America.
Check out more pictures of Wonderland at www.lost-wonderland.com. You can purchase Lost Wonderland: The brief and Brilliant Life of Boston’s Million-Dollar Amusement Park by Stephen R. Wilk from the University of Massachusetts Press or from book stores like bookshop.org.
This story last updated in 2023.