The date is October 8, 1871. You are walking on a busy downtown street in Chicago, enjoying the sights and sounds of the old city when a cry of "Fire!" fills the air. Fire bells begin to ring. You turn your head just in time to see the doors of the old-fashioned red-brick firehouse swing open. An old-time hand-pump engine is wheeled out and pulled down the streets of the city.
Curiousity overcomes you and you follow the engine to see where it's going. Suddenly, you see the flames. They are coming from from all over the city. Quick, no time to lose! The call goes out for volunteers to help man the pumps. You join the brigade. As you grip the iron bars and pull up and down, up and down, a steady stream of water shoots out of the long snakelike fire hose. You continue to pump until, finally, the fire is out. You hear hands clapping and you look up to see that a crowd has gathered to watch. You sigh with relief. You have just put out the biggest fire in the history of Chicago. Twenty minutes later, it will all begin again.
The Chicago fire was just one of many attractions at a place called "Freedomland, U.S.A.". I know because I was a "volunteer." At eight years old, I was probably the youngest. It was one of their most spectacular attractions and one I'll never forget.
Freedomland was an entertainment park, the largest anywhere in the world. It was New York's answer to Disneyland. Built in the shape of the United States, this 205-acre park's main theme was American history. It was divided into seven sections of our country, each with its own special exhibit or disaster. You could travel from the East Coast to the West Coast, all in one day.
My family and I came to the Bronx often to visit. On the day its doors opened on June 19, 1960, Freedomland became the high point of my childhood. After we parked the car in the lot, we walked to the stand to buy our tickets. Our first stop was Little Old New York. This was New York as it looked in the late 1800's. Horseless carriages and surreys filled the streets. People in period costumes mingled with people of today. A German "oompah" band played while several shops down the street, someone was robbing the bank.
A horse-drawn trolley took us to Chicago, where the streets were also filled with people. After we put the fire out, the curio shop next door had a fire sale. Paddlewheelers made their way across the Great Lakes. To get to San Francisco, you could board an old iron horse on the Santa Fe railroad. My family always preferred to walk.
The one attraction in the Great Plains section that I remember was Borden's farm with its white barn and matching silo. Borden's logo was on the side with Elsie's head wreathed in the middle of a daisy. Elsie and her two tiny calves lived inside the barn. It was a real farm with pigs, chickens, and live sheep. There was even a cornfield.
Next was San Francisco. It was 1906, the year of the big earthquake. You could visit the naughty Barbary Coast, eat lunch or dinner in Chinatown, visit Fisherman's Wharf, and watch the city collapse in an indoor ride called "Earthquake."
We visited the old Southwest of the 1890's. What I remember was a house called "Casa Loca." which means "crazy house." That is just what it was. This little shack was tilted, but you could walk straight through and never know it. Water ran uphill there, and people popped out of walls.
There was a real gunfight in the streets of the old town, which was a cross between Tombstone, Tuscon, and Old Santa Fe. A popular sky ride in this area was the ore bucket ride. This took you to the top of the Rocky Mountains.
I only remember two attractions from New Orleans. One was the Crystal Maze, a mirror maze that I got lost in, and an indoor ride, "Tornado," that took you inside the eye of a very powerful twister. The fun did not stop there. You could see pirates or ride a dragon, or a carousel. You could even get involved in the Civil War.
Satellite City was the last of of the seven sections and is an area of the park that I do not remember at all. I know, from research, that this was the futuristic part of the park, where Space Rover, a rocketship, took you through space around the entire Western Hemisphere in six minutes. The Blast-Off Bunker was a replica of a Cape Canaveral rocket launching station.
Satellite City was the only part of the park that was not completed when it opened. Perhaps that is why I do not remember it.
Freedomland only lasted four years. Its first season, 1960 to 1961, is the one that will always live in my memory. By 1962, the theme of the park had changed. The history was played down, and it became just an amusement park with bumper cars, roller coasters, and side shows. The park began to lose money. There were accidents and lawsuits. The front office was robbed. In its last season, the park lost more of its patrons to the New York World's Fair. On September 15, 1964, Freedomland filed for bankruptcy. Between late 1964 and early 1965, Freedomland was torn down. Later that year, plans were made for a large apartment complex, Co-Op City, to be built in its place.
Freedomland may have been a failure, but it was always a winner to me, especially the Chicago fire. When I ask other people if they remember Freedomland, that is the part of the park they always mention first. Many people still remember the gunfight in the Old Southwest and others that remember the old radio advertisement: