Two men and two women on a wooden rollercoaster at East End Park

East End Park: Memphis’s First Amusement Park

East End Park has a mythical quality about it. Where was it? When was it? Are you sure that it was in Memphis?  Was there a roller coaster there, or are we confusing that with the Zippin’ Pippin at Liberty Land?

Today, when you pass the Blue Monkey Bar and the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Morrison Street, you see the trucks and milk tanks of the Turner/Prairie Farms Dairy. But from the late 1890s through the mid-1920s, this part of Madison was home to East End Park, the first amusement park in Memphis.

“Vance” of Memphis Magazine’s “Ask Vance” column called East End Park “our city’s first amusement park” that was touted as “the Coney Island of the Mid-South.” Developed before the turn of the century, it preceded Overton Park and the Zoo by a few years. It came before there were the Fair Grounds. It was generations ahead of Liberty Land. And it arrived at a time in the early 1890s when Memphis was enjoying historic growth, and in full recovery from deadly bouts with the yellow fever that wiped out scores of families in the two decades following the Civil War.

At its peak, from the mid-1890s thru the 1910s, citizens from the quickly growing city of Memphis and its surrounding small towns could walk, bike, or take the Dummy Line trolley to East End Park and enjoy a lake, a dance hall, arcade games, a beer garden, and yes, a roller coaster – a pine-wooded roller coaster, the coaster that would become Elvis’s favorite ride, the Zippin’ Pippin.

The top image shows an eastern view of Madison Avenue in 1912. The images shows a new building housing a meat market and Walker’s Bakery. Next door and to the east was East End Park’s “Writing Station,” that welcomed park revelers, and a trolley car of the “Dummy Line.” The bottom image, taken by the author in November 2016, shows the same portion of Madison with Molly’s La Casitas and the Blue Monkey.
A photo of the pavilion and the lake at East End Park. Writing at the base of the photo: “North side Madison bet Morrison and Diana” and “1895.”
Image courtesy of the Memphis Public Library.
Three men & three women riding the miniature train in the 1910s. Image courtesy of the Memphis Public Library.

Locating East End Park

But where exactly was it located? East End Park sat on 50 acres of land north of Madison Avenue, on the eastern end of the town of Idlewild before it was annexed by Memphis.

Inset of the Williamson Map 1891 shows the location of East End Park. Madison runs left to right (west to east) and turns south to Cooper at the familiar curve in Overton Square. Stratton Ave, seen toward the bottom of the inset, was later renamed Morrison Ave.  Image courtesy of the Shelby County Archives.

The street that is now Morrison ended at Madison at the park – the building that now houses the Blue Monkey was built adjacent to the park grounds at its western edge in 1912. Its eastern edge ran parallel to Lick Creek and roughly along the fence that separates today’s dairy property from the Bayou Bar & Grill parking lot. And its northern edge did not stop where Jefferson Manor Apartments are now – it was all the way up at Poplar Avenue, at the foot of what was still Lea’s Woods, before that land became Overton Park.

This image is a screenshot of a 1907 Sanborn map. The image has been rotated so that north is at the top. Madison Ave runs along the bottom of the picture. From here we can see quite a few details, including the Madison Ave streetcar shelter “writing” station (bottom left), the lake, the roller coaster (bottom), and the park’s arcades and other “amusements” to the west (left). Image courtesy of the Memphis Public Library.

East End Railway Company

Paul R. Coppock’s Memphis Memoirs and the Mid-South books describe the park area in the 1880s as a plot of farmland where gamesmen hunted and anglers fished in the Lenox Bayou. As the fishing increased, a small dam was added to form a lake, picnic tables were added, and then in the later months of 1889 the amusements of East End Park were built by the East End Railway Company to be a destination for riders of their new trolley – the East End Dummy Line – which they completed in 1887.

The Dummy Line ran along Madison Avenue and connected Downtown streetcars with the emerging towns of Madison Heights and Idlewild to the east. (Memphis’s eastern city limit until 1890 was Dunlap Street, now known as the Medical District). Trolleys slowed at Cooper Street and the town of Lenox, made the familiar right turn to the south at the corner of Madison and Cooper, continued down Cooper, and ultimately made a left turn at Young Avenue, where they took riders to the horse races at Montgomery Park, at the site of today’s Fair Grounds and Mid-South Coliseum.

Coppock described rides on the Dummy Line trolleys as “prime entertainment.” There were parties on the cars, filled with the promise of alcohol once riders reached the beer garden of East End Park. There were also those revelers who stole rides on the trolleys, “big boys” who had to be thrown off by policemen and were sometimes arrested.

Growth

The park quickly grew. From Coppock’s book Mid-South: “A dance pavilion was put up. There was a beer garden. Eventually there was an entrance gate on Madison, a sawdust path between booths for canes, umbrellas, pennants, candy, the usual knickknacks, and the hopeless ring-tossing ‘games’ for prizes of dolls and pocket knives.”

Later a Ferris wheel and merry-go-around went up (complete with the sounds of a calliope but with immobile horses that did not move up and down). Vaudeville acts that performed at the Orpheum also performed there during the summer. Finally, various sources indicate that the pine-wood roller coaster was built in either 1912, ’15 or ’17. However, a closer look at the photograph below tells us that in 1912 the wooden roller coaster had already been built.

Look closely through the partitions of the writing station just left of center. and you can make out the lattice-like work of wooden supports for the East End Park roller coaster. Photo dated 1912.
Two men & two women in car #7 of the Figure Eight coaster ride in East End Park in the 1910s. Image courtesy of the Memphis Public Library.

To further the when-was-the-coaster-built controversy, a glance at the 1907 Sanborn map earlier in the article reminds us that there was some roller coaster in the park prior to 1912.

Inset of 1907 Sanborn map shows the roller coaster behind the Writing Station on Madison Ave.

The End of East End Park

As Memphis grew so too did the suburbs and store fronts on and around Madison Avenue. In 1909, Memphis annexed the town of Lenox and Madison extended to Trezevant (later renamed East Parkway as part of the parkway system). The two decades that saw the turn of the century and the beginning and ending of World War I also saw Memphis’s population increase by almost 60% and its land use expanded to the new parkways. On newly subdivided land, families built homes in the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the East End Park areas.

Then Prohibition came in 1920, which made liquor sales illegal, put an end to the beer garden, softened some of the raunch of vaudeville, and took the party out of the trolley revelers. In 1923, a fire destroyed the park’s pavilion, and most of the park was shut down. The pine wood roller coaster was dismantled and was re-assembled about a mile south at what is now the Fair Grounds, where it became simply the “Pippin.” Years later, with the development of Liberty Land, the Pippin would be “Zippin!”

After 1923, the parkland to the north at Poplar was sold off and subdivided into what is now the Belleair Neighborhood. Jefferson Avenue was extended east through the parkland, and Stratton Street was renamed Morrison (after Anderson B. Morrison, who managed the old Majestic Theater on South Main, the Orpheum, and East End’s Summer Theater), and the street was extended north through Madison. What remained of the park sat at that north end of the property at Jefferson. After 1927, a new dairy occupied the property along Madison.

Sanborn map, 1927. No more roller coaster, no more carousel. Image courtesy Memphis Public Library.

City directory listings for East End Park disappeared from 1924-6, and again from 1932-5, but East End Park didn’t die easily. From 1927-31 there were listings for either an East End Park or an East End Gardens. And in 1936, the East End Amusement Co. formed and built a dancehall on the north part of the property, later adding the East End Skating Rink and East End Swimming Pool.

This part of the park lasted until around 1941 – the skating rink and swimming pool listings dropped out of the directories after 1941 – but the dancehall remained in use into the 1950s.

The Dairy and a Community Center

The Forest Hill Dairy was built from 1927-8. It served local customers, with milk men delivering milk in the early morning hours in small trucks and returning to the dairy to hand-write their orders for the next day.

The Dairy, then and now. The picture at the top comes from a 1942 souvenir guide produced by the dairy. (Image courtesy of Dave French and Historic-Memphis website.) The “now” above picture was taken by the author in July 2016.

The dance hall that stood since the mid-1920s was be altered somewhat in 1954 and taken over by the Memphis Jewish Community Center (seen in the map below). In the 1950s the dairy was operated by Swift Co. Ice Cream, when it began the first of at least three expansions.

Originally nowhere near the size nor capacity it is now, the old dairy sat directly in between its neighbors, the Swift Co. Ice Cream Factory to the west and a small auto body shop to the east. 1954 Sanborn map. Image courtesy of the Memphis Public Library

From the late 1950s through 2011, dairy owners eventually bought out its neighbors’ properties to the east, west, and north, including the building that housed the old Jewish Community Center. That property housed the Backstreet Night Club for a few years.

Today there is virtual no sign that there was once a place called East End Park. No pillars or pylons remain, and no historical markers exist, yet. The sounds of revelers and the laughter of children have long ago died off. And the rumbles of a roller coaster now long-gone have been replaced with the rumbles of 18-wheelers at all hours of the night.

But, still, the story of East End Park lives on.

Sources of this article came from Commercial Appeal archives, the Memphis Public Library and their digital collection, “Ask Vance” articles in Memphis City Magazine, and from the invaluable Memphis and Mid-South books of Paul R. Coppock.

Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. He was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave him a new start in the second half of his career, gifting him the opportunity to return to his childhood fascinations with cities and his college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling.

2 Replies to “East End Park: Memphis’s First Amusement Park”

  1. In December, 1949, the Jewish Community Center bought the land at 2016 Court Avenue from the East End Corporation. It was the first Jewish Community Center in Memphis and after extensive renovation of an existing skating rink building, it opened July 30, 1950. It remained a center of Jewish life until the new Jewish Community Center “out east” opened in 1968.

  2. I enjoyed the article and the memories it elicited, but would like to clarify one point. I know the skating rink was open and in full use until at least 1947 because that’s where I had my sixth birthday party. I have wondered for years where it all went and am grateful to learn more of its history.

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