Date: November 5th 2010


"Mommy and Daddy, take my hand. Take me out to Freedomland"
Freedomland
Celebrating Freedomland’s History 50 Years Ago
By Mike Virgintino


Guide to the vast, but short-lived Bronx amusement park called Freedomland, where visitors toured re-creations of historic scenes and cities.

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 entertainment 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 lasted only five years (1960 – 1964), 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.

Freedomland’s Beginnings

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. (owned by real estate developer William Zeckendorf, Sr.), also had controlling interest in Freedomland Inc., which operated the park.

National Development leased the land to Freedomland Inc. for $15 million. Attractions were placed on 85 acres configured as the continental U.S. with 120 acres reserved for about 12,000 cars. The rest of the massive property was allocated for future park projects that never were constructed and for a housing project that eventually was built on the land.

Freedomland’s Attractions

Construction of Freedomland was supervised by Cornelius Vanderbilt (C.V.) Wood, Jr. He was president of the Marco Engineering Company of Los Angeles and had been president (1954-1956) of The Walt Disney Company.

Instrumental in Disneyland’s creation, Wood attracted several former Disney veterans and amassed a design team of 200 leading artists to create a park that was arranged into seven themed periods of American history. It had eight miles of navigable man-made waterways and lakes, 10,000 new trees, 18 restaurants and snack bars, and a host of local and national sponsors.

  • Little Old New York: horse-drawn trolleys, a brewery sponsored by the Schaefer Brewing Company, tug boats chugging through the city’s harbor, Macy’s recreation of its original store and other sponsors such as the Bank of New York and John’s Bargain Stores.
  • Chicago: focused on the great fire, a large building actually burned at designated times during the day as the Freedomland fire company rushed its19th century water pump to the site to douse the flames.
  • The Great Plains: home for Fort Cavalry that witnessed shootouts between bandits and the sheriff and an actual working farm sponsored by The Borden Company that showcased Elsie the Cow.
  • San Francisco: Chinatown and the Barbary Coast entertainment district were complemented with attractions that simulated the great earthquake and a boat ride through the rugged northwest; the Hollywood Arena was added during 1962 to feature animal acts and stunt shows.
  • The Old Southwest: a burro trail ride, roaming Texas Longhorns and bison, a ride through mine caverns and shows at a wild west opera house and saloon.
  • New Orleans: a ride on a correspondent’s wagon through a Civil War battle featured early use of moving characters and special effects that later were made popular by Disney; the Frito Lay Company sponsored a Mexican restaurant that introduced the Sloppy Joe; an attracton closely resembled Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
  • Satellite City: focused on the growing popularity of space exploration; the Moon Bowl included the largest outdoor dance floor and stage for popular performers to attract older teenagers and young adults.

Popular but Doomed

Contrary to some public and private opinion at the time, including comments from amusement park buffs who never visited the park, Freedomland was not an entertainment flop. It was visited by two million people during its first year. Attendance remained strong during subsequent years, but now it is believed management downplayed actual numbers and used this as a reason to close the park.
The overwhelming success of the 1964-1965 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.

During the 1950s, the city’s political and business leaders had determined that homes eventually would be needed for residents fleeing the urban blight that was destroying the southern portion of The Bronx. To keep residents in the borough and to attract others, developers focused on the undeveloped marshland in the northeast Bronx.

Certain conditions needed to be addressed before housing construction could begin on the property. The timely arrival of the idea for B was incorporated into the plan. The blueprint allowed B to operate on a portion of the property for five years. Four- and five-story buildings were constructed on the converted marshland to house the attractions. By remaining intact for five years without incurring damage or settling issues, these buildings, it now is believed, allowed the developers to receive property variances that eliminated a15- to 20-year study period before high-rise housing could be placed on the land.

This plan, coupled with a variety of complex financial issues affecting the companies with vested interest in the land, led to the closing of B. Catching the public by surprise, parts of the park were closed during 1964. On September 15, 1964, Freedomland filed for bankruptcy. The filing included plans to reduce the park to 30 acres and to construct the housing project on remaining land. But, B never opened in 1965.

Freedomland Today

Six months after the park filed for bankruptcy, the Co-op City housing project was announced to the public by New York City Mayor Robert Wagner. Freedomland’s attractions and supplies were sold to other amusement parks or destroyed as the entire property was prepared for the massive housing project that was built by a combination of housing cooperatives, labor unions and civic organizations.

The apartment buildings that comprise Co-op City stand on Freedomland’s parking lot and the remaining open land. Through loan defaults by National Development, the pension fund for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters eventually became the title holder of the acreage used for the park. This land was sold during 1986 to a developer who built the Bay Plaza Shopping Center.

Over the last 40+ years, attractions that found homes at other amusement parks have been allowed to deteriorate or have been placed in storage. If you know where to look, though, a few of the original Freedomland attractions still can be seen at various locations.

Dot & Bill’s Showboat, an entertainment venue located in the Byram River in the Westchester County community of Port Chester, is one piece of Freedomland that never traveled too far from its original home. At the park, it was The Canadian, one of two stern-wheeler boats that carried Freedomland’s visitors through the park’s Great Lakes attraction.

Freedomland continues to garner attention through photos, books, DVDs, family home movies, souvenir collections and in the memories of those who enjoyed the park and its history-themed entertainment. A complete history of the park on DVD can be found at Freedomland U.S.A. (http://www.freedomlandusa.net/). A new book, Freedomland, by Frank Adamo is available in local bookstores and online. Adamo was involved in the construction of Freedomland, supervised maintenance during the years of operation and provided oversight for the property’s eventual conversion to a residential and commercial complex. His book includes about 200 pictures from groundbreaking to the park’s closing.

Despite ongoing interest in Freedomland, its fans have not been successful in convincing The Bronx Historical Society to install a plaque at the site. All they want is for the borough to officially acknowledge Freedomland’s unique contributions to New York City’s cultural history during the 1960s and to commemorate its role in American theme park history.

Editors’ note: 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 on Suite101.com. Anyone wishing to share information about Freedomland can contact him directly at mrpv57@yahoo.com.

Cable cars offer a bird’s eye view of Fort Cavalry. A trolley tours old America.
19th Century Chicago recreated at Freedomland. The author and the Freedomland Railroad.
A ticket to ride. The author on the paddlewheel boat.


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