New York City radio stations played a commercial during the spring of 1960 that included a few simple notes on the piano, accompanied by the voice of a young girl singing, “Mommy and Daddy, take my hand. Take me out to Freedomland.”
On Father’s Day, June 19, 1960, many young girls and boys were among 60,000 people who attended the opening day of Freedomland U.S.A. to experience cowboy shootouts, train robberies and space travel.
Located in the northeast Bronx, this unique theme park delivered unprecedented family entertain- ment wrapped in a history lesson. Billed as “the world’s largest entertainment center,” Freedomland was dubbed the “Disneyland of the East.” On that first day, the same radio stations that had promoted its grand opening, now had to alert listeners to not travel to the park as it became filled beyond capacity. As if the park needed more attention, it then received its 15 minutes of national fame that same night on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
Freedomland (1960 – 1964) lasted only five years, and since that time considerable misinformation about its creation, demise and swift closing has been accepted as fact. Many of the details that were reported at the
time, or passed along since, need to be revisited along with the fun and education that was Freedomland.
In the Beginning
The land was swampy. It had been a mill until about 1900. A municipal airport was considered for the site and various reports have it used as a cucumber farm, pickle factory and trash dump.
Freedomland was placed on 205 acres at the southern part of 400 acres of marshland. All the land was owned by the National Development Corporation. A major stockholder, Webb & Knapp Inc., also had controlling interest in Freedomland Inc., which operated the park.
Designed in the shape of a large map of the continental United States, Freedomland featured attractions that depicted events throughout the country’s history. The park contained eight miles of navigable man-made waterways and lakes, 10,000 new trees and 18 restaurants and snack bars.
Freedomland was arranged into seven themed periods:
Little Old New York 1850-1900
Horse-drawn vehicles, “oom- pah” music by a German band, a surprise gangster “holdup” at the only actual bank branch located in an amusement park at the time, an 1890 ice cream parlor, an old time brewery and tug boats chugging through the city’s harbor were the highlights of this area. It was the first stop for visitors as they entered the park.
Resembling Manhattan’s streets during the latter half of the 19th century, the main street in Freedomland had an old apothecary shop, a studio that explained the new invention of photography and a recreation of Macy’s first store.
Here the focus was on the great fire that consumed the city. A
large building actually burned at designated times during the day. As the Freedomland fire company rushed its19th-century water pump to the site, the firemen would enlist park visitors, especially youngsters who could reach the pump handles, into the action to help them manually pump water to douse the flames. The fire was controlled by special effects that had never before been employed at any amusement park.
This area of the park also included one of two station stops for the Santa Fe Railroad, an authentic steam engine that pulled open and closed pas- senger cars to take visitors all the way to the San Francisco part of the park. The trip wasn’t necessarily relaxing, though, as bandits frequently held up the train and searched passenger cars for the hidden money chest.
Also in this section of the park, two paddle wheelers, The American and The Canadian, traveled along the Great Lakes. (Only The Canadian remains today and it has been converted into a floating party boat, Dot & Bill’s Showboat, that is docked in nearby Westchester County.) A ride in a Chippewa Indian war canoe toured wooded islands, waterfalls and an Indian village.
The Great Plains 1803-1900
Here the center of attention was Fort Cavalry, where a shootout between bandits and the sheriff would occur without warning. Sometimes a prisoner would be hauled out of the jail for a hanging with the approval of the area’s undertaker. Visitors learned about the history of the Pony Express, and they could write a letter that was taken away by the rider and delivered for pick-up later in the park’s Old Southwest area.
Another attraction along the plains was Borden’s farm. It was a working farm that included the barn home, or boudoir, of Elsie the Cow.
San Francisco 1906
Home to Chinatown and the Barbary Coast entertainment district, this area featured the other stop for the Santa Fe train. Attractions simulated the great earthquake and traveling by boat through the rugged northwest.
New Orleans – Mardi Gras
This area perpetually celebrated the popular festival, but it also included a ride on a horse-drawn correspondent’s wagon through the middle of a Civil War battle.
Early use of various moving characters and special effects, made popular later at the New York World’s Fair and Disneyland, were part of this attraction.
The area also featured the world’s first glass-walled house of mirrors, a ride that simulated a tornado and another that closely resembled today’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction at the Disney parks.
Satellite City – The Future
The exploration of space, which had just become reality and had captivated America’s youth, allowed park visitors to experience a trip into the heavens.
The “Space Rover” simulated rocket power and zooming through space. A blast-off bunker was a detailed reproduction of a Cape Canaveral rocket-launching blockhouse. A moving walkway and exhibits that explained science and industrial technology also were part of the attractions.
Popular But Doomed
The overwhelming success of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair in Queens is most often cited as the main reason for the decline in attendance at Freedomland. However, Freedomland historian Bob Mangels long has disputed this story and said that the World’s Fair did not contribute to the park’s demise. He said the popularity of the fair only gave Freedomland management a plausible excuse to scale back the park’s attractions during 1964 and allow them to begin to implement their original plan of converting the site into what would become the world’s largest cooperative housing complex.
Catching the public by surprise, parts of the park were closed during 1964. On September 15, 1964, Freedomland filed for bankruptcy. Six months later, the Co-op City housing project was announced to the public. Most of Freedomland’s attractions and supplies were sold to other amusement parks or destroyed.
Mike Virgintino attended Freedomland and lived within walking distance of the park. At night, he could hear the crowd noise rising from the park and watch the fireworks from his bedroom window. For more information about Freedomland, read his seven-part series and much more on Facebook.