“Once the most important and popular play place of the Tri-State district,” Lakeside Park in Jasper County, Missouri, opened to the public in 1895. The previous year the Jasper County Electric Railway, known as the “White Line” because of its elegant white trolley cars trimmed in gold, had purchased 38.16 acres on Center Creek between Carthage and Webb City for a power house and a park. Early news accounts indicate the owners of the railway spared no expense in creating Lakeside as a place of recreation to attract more passengers. An iron bridge believed to be the best in the county was erected over Center Creek with an extension on one side for footmen on the trolley cars. The “pretty little lake” was initially half a mile long and 150 feet wide for boating excursions. A large open-air dance pavilion was constructed on the park’s wooded southwest side. To reach it, visitors ascended an elevation of roughly a hundred feet; from there, they could look out over lush grounds ideal for picnics and wiener-roast expeditions. Because it was accessible by trolley, Lakeside quickly displaced Joplin’s Midway Park, located on ten acres along Turkey Creek, as the area’s preeminent leisure destination.
Lakeside Park was part of a larger phenomenon that emerged in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century: entertainment complexes supported by electric street railway systems. Power companies charged street railways a flat monthly rate for electricity, regardless of how much was used. This practice encouraged railway owners to find ways of increasing riders during off-peak times such as weekends and evenings. One result was the creation of amusement parks—also called pleasure parks—like Lakeside. Street railways, observed historian Judith A. Adams, became “directly responsible for the establishment of the amusement park as an American institution.”
What often began as a shady picnic spot along a body of water was quickly transformed into an oasis of leisure and entertainment. Visitors could board electric trolley cars in their respective towns and be whisked away to the countryside to enjoy baseball games, mechanical rides, boat excursions, theaters, dance halls, restaurants, and other attractions. By 1919 there were an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 amusement parks in the United States. Lakeside proved to be a financial windfall for its operators, but not all trolley parks were successful; some were eventually leased to private parties or even abandoned.
When it first opened, Lakeside Park charged a nominal admission fee. Visitors then had to pay to indulge in individual attractions. Revenue was less than satisfactory, so free admission was instituted. The increase in visitors eventually offset losses. Summer traffic was especially lucrative. A Cosmopolitan article from the period asserted a large pleasure park in an urban area could attract fifty thousand visitors on a Sunday or summer holiday; Lakeside reportedly made a sizable profit from summer traffic even after operational expenses were deducted. One observer noted such parks were “centers of recreation for clusters of small communities which may be linked by the electric current.” Lakeside was no exception. Crowds were boosted by affordable car fares, which averaged just 1.25 cents per mile. A Carthage resident, for example, paid fifteen cents for a one-way ticket to Lakeside and twenty cents for a round trip. Affordable fares meant many working- and middle-class citizens of the Tri-State Mining District flocked to the park on weekends and evenings from neighboring towns like Alba, Carterville, Carthage, Duenweg, Joplin, and Webb City. Miners who worked six days underground could enjoy a respite from the darkness and dust of the region’s lead and zinc mines. It was also a fashionable place to hold church, company, family, and fraternal picnics. On Emancipation Day, observed annually on August 4, the park was reserved for African Americans, as Lakeside was otherwise segregated.
Lakeside Park entered a new phase in 1896 when Alfred H. Rogers and the Southwest Missouri Electric Railway bought the Jasper County Electric Railway, thereby acquiring Lakeside. In time, the railway—which became the Southwest Missouri Railroad Company in 1906—had ninety-four miles of mainline tracks that ran from Missouri into Kansas and Oklahoma. Across the Tri-State Mining District, which had an estimated population of more than 150,000, thousands of visitors boarded trolley cars and paid their fare to enjoy the pleasures of Lakeside. By 1903 it was estimated that as many as 150 streetcars a day ran between Webb City and Lakeside Park.
Throughout its history, Lakeside Park offered many recreational opportunities not readily available in one location elsewhere in the region. Many area tennis players learned to play on the park’s tennis courts. Swimming in Center Creek offered relief from humid Missouri summers. A small steamboat, which took visitors on a pleasant jaunt around the lake, was later replaced by a motor launch and canoes. The shoot-the-chute ride plunged passengers in a flat-bottomed boat down a steep ramp into the lake with a resounding splash. Fishing for bass, perch, and catfish was also popular. The park’s midway featured attractions that included a photo postcard gallery, Japanese rolling ball, shooting gallery, penny arcade, “shute the bumps” slide, and other carnival games. For the younger set, there was a children’s playground. A café, restaurant, and the Lakeside Inn were conveniently located on the grounds for those who might want to stay overnight; the concessions were leased on a percentage basis. The summer theater seated two thousand and staged vaudeville and motion picture shows. Bands, orchestras, and barbershop quartets performed at the pavilion, which did double duty as a roller rink. Among the many area entertainers who graced Lakeside with their talents was ragtime musician James Scott, who lived in nearby Carthage. Inspired by the park, Scott composed the music for “Take Me Out to Lakeside” and the “Calliope Rag.”
Although Lakeside may have dominated the market as the region’s grandest pleasure park, its owners did not rest on their laurels. The park’s management continually upgraded its attractions and facilities as the Southwest Missouri Electric Railway expanded into area towns. For example, in 1907 park officials announced the addition of a “double Figure 8” roller coaster. Two years later the park added a steel swinging suspension bridge, constructed a modern bathhouse, built a mother’s rest room, and renovated the summer theater. Gravel walks made with chat from nearby mines were curbed with brick and lined with clusters of incandescent lights. Fireworks lit up the night sky every Sunday. Park promoters held special promotional events like balloon races using cost-effective local talent. On holidays three of the railway’s employees, styling themselves the “Three Red Devils,” donned costumes and put on diving exhibitions.
Holidays were a key component of the park’s early success. The most popular day at Lakeside may have been the Fourth of July. In 1896 the Carthage Evening Press reported “one of the stockholders said not far from 15,000 people were hauled [on the railway]. It was a genuine avalanche of nickels.” During the Fourth of July in 1902 an estimated crowd of six thousand to eight thousand was “well behaved” but a “little noisy.” The last trolley car from Lakeside arrived in Joplin that night at 3 a.m. A special trolley loop, built to ensure the safe and efficient loading and unloading of passengers, helped facilitate the forty thousand to fifty thousand people who visited for the Fourth of July in 1903.
Holidays were not the only time that trolleys loaded down with passengers constantly hummed through the countryside on their way to Lakeside. One of the most popular attractions was Trolley League baseball, with games at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons. Admission was free, although spectators who wanted to sit out of the sun in the 228-foot-long grandstand paid fifteen cents for a single game and twenty-five cents for a double-header; the fee covered the cost of baseballs, umpires, and team transportation. Everyone else sat in the grass and watched from the tree-lined outfield. Games regularly brought in eight thousand to ten thousand spectators. The Trolley League, which premiered in 1909, featured teams from local towns such as Alba, Carterville, Carthage, Joplin, Webb City, and Galena, Kansas. Many of the players worked in the area mines. When grandstand admission fees generated revenue beyond equipment and player costs, the league paid professionals to play local players in wildly popular exhibition games. The league lasted roughly ten years before it dissolved.
Though few may have realized it, the Trolley League’s passing marked a turning point for Lakeside. The park’s owners had always faced costly expenses from periodic flooding when Center Creek rose out of its banks and submerged park facilities. A new setback came in February 1920 when the park’s theater and café were destroyed after workmen, cleaning the grounds for the spring season, inadvertently let a fire spread from burning leaves and trash. The greater threat to the park, however, came from changes in American culture. After World War I, automobiles created new opportunities for independent leisure travel. The Good Roads movement and federal highway subsidies led to better concrete roads for motorists; within a few years this included Route 66, which crossed over Center Creek. Pleasure parks built before the rise of the automobile lacked parking, but the rise of car culture was not the only factor that led to a decline in amusement parks. During Prohibition, Lakeside’s beer garden was replaced by a concession stand that sold lemonade, ice cream, and watermelon. Three years of bad summer weather in the 1920s also proved troublesome. Fewer trolley riders ultimately meant less revenue for the streetcar system and a drop in visitors to Lakeside. As traffic dwindled, the park eventually fell into disrepair.
On April 12, 1924, the Joplin Globe lamented that Lakeside Park was about to close. E. J. Pratt, general manager of the Southwest Missouri Railroad Company, explained the park had not brought in enough revenue to pay for its upkeep for several years. Ironically, a gravel road into the park had just been completed the previous season. The park closed on April 14, but public outcry led to its reopening in June. Lakeside continued to operate into the 1930s, but the Great Depression hit the region’s mining industry hard and led to a further decline in riders. By the fall of 1935 the economic crisis brought an end to trolley service between Webb City and Carthage, and the park was soon closed as well. The Joplin Globe observed that Lakeside “had fallen victim to the same malady which caused the demise of the interurban line—the increased use of motor cars.” Lakeside’s demise was swift. Less than two decades later, a Joplin Globe correspondent remarked motorists traveling iconic Route 66 would often stop to park on the riverbank next to Center Creek. Little did the travelers know they had stopped in the island area that was once the “back-door” to Lakeside Park.
Lakeside’s attractions remained imprinted on the memories of those who experienced it. Local historian Harry C. Hood remembered a visitor could go home “dreaming of the day spent at Lakeside Park, at the ball game, the moving picture show, and of course, if he was lucky enough to have a few dimes besides car fare, there was the rollercoaster, swimming, boat rides, to say nothing of the five cent soda pop, ten cent hamburgers, candy bars, and chewing gum at five cents each. This was not just a one night dream, but it was enough to last a good many years, some left over to share with his youngsters after Lakeside Park had ceased to be.” Although it outlasted Joplin rivals Midway and Schifferdecker Electric parks, memories of Lakeside are all that remain of the once celebrated park.
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Published June 14, 2023
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