6300 South Martin Luther King Drive
Opened 1905, closed 1934
Opened in 1905, White City was one of the South Side’s most popular entertainment venues. The amusement park, which for many years overshadowed the North Side’s Riverview Park as the city’s favorite, was located at 63rd Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive). White City’s front gate sat just a few steps from the South Side Elevated, which made the park an attraction not just for South Siders, but for West and North Siders as well. Brightly lit at night by thousands of lights, the park was a dazzling sight to behold. But patrons were equally taken with White City’s enjoyable attractions, including several roller coasters, a chute-the-chutes, two ballrooms, inexpensive eats, and its landmark Electric Tower. Though parts of the park remained in operation into the 1950s, most of White City was shut down in 1934, when financial difficulties sent the park into bankruptcy. The park’s name—White City—was a reference to the monumental, Beaux Arts architectural style of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park.
During its early years, White City wooed thrill-seeking customers by hosting travelling carnivals, but curtailed the practice when the Chicago Law and Order League questioned the moral integrity of such shows. From 1909 on, the park focused on “wholesome” excitement that its primarily middle-class customers could not only enjoy, but also appreciate (for what its well-contained amusements were not: corrupting, immoral, indecent). Accordingly, the fast physical movement of The Flash roller coaster, or the refreshing splashes of The Chutes water ride employed mechanical devices, rather than morally suspect human beings, to excite the senses of park-goers. Individualized amusements—bowling alleys, shooting galleries, and the roller skating rink—further contained the allegedly evil influences that moral critics had long associated with commercialized forms of mass entertainment, as did the construction of two dance halls–one for older, more conservative dancers (the White City Ballroom) and one for younger, quick-tempo dancers (the Casino).
As “wholesome” as White City may have been, it was not considered without its temptations, at least in the eyes of many Chicagoans. In 1909, members of the conservative Chicago Law and Order League publicly denounced many of the park’s amusements as lewd, immoral, and bad influences upon young children. They were especially upset over dancing shows in which young male patrons, for a few pennies, were entertained by female performers wearing little more than a few well-placed silk scarves. In later years, the Casino dance hall was often criticized by members of the Juvenile Protection Association as morally suspect. They cited, among other things, how little clothing many of the female dancers wore and the carefree consumption of alcoholic beverages by many of the Casino’s teenage patrons. That much of the music was played by all-black jazz bands such as the Charles Elgar and Charles Cook bands likely heightened racist observers’ suspicions about the “wholesomeness” of White City for white middle-class youths.
Partly due to a large fire in the late 1920s and partly due to the economic hardship of the Depression, much of White City’s amusements had been shut down by the mid-1930s. Stiff competition from the growing Cottage Grove entertainment district, particularly the new Trianon Ballroom, also drew thrill-seekers away from the park. In 1937, only one dance hall, the roller rink, the basketball courts, and the bowling alleys remained in operation. White City closed for good soon thereafter.
Opening Year Attractions
From its first day of operation, White City was jam-packed with thrilling rides and entertaining attractions. What follows is a summary of the major features of the park in 1905, White’s City’s opening year. As with any amusement park, many of these attractions were replaced in subsequent years to keep attendance figures as high as possible.
White City’s centerpiece, the Electric Tower was nearly three hundred feet high and was illuminated by 20,000 light bulbs. The tower served to help patrons orient themselves as they moved about the park and as a good spot for families to reconnoiter when it was time to head home. Just for looks, the structure was never used, nor intended to be used, as an observation tower.
Fighting the Flames
One of the most popular attractions at White City, the Fighting the Flames fire show thrilled park-goers with a realistically staged hotel inferno. The outdoor set depicted a life-sized city block and required the use of two trolley cars, five cabs, two automobiles, several fire-fighting wagons, as well as fourteen horses and 250 actors.
Canals of Venice
A favorite with young lovers, the Canals of Venice was advertised as a “romantic gondola ride through the moonlit water streets of Venice” where patrons could view “correct reproductions” of the city’s “famous buildings and statuary groups.”
The Scenic Railway was White City’s first roller coaster. It was three-quarters of a mile long and considerably tamer than coasters later built at White City.
Premature babies were placed on display at this attraction. Built for the official purpose of exhibiting the latest “scientific methods of saving the lives of tiny babies,” the attraction was nonetheless an excellent draw.
White City College Inn
The College Inn was a moderately priced restaurant that featured both indoor and outdoor seating. The restaurant served primarily German fare, but, in deference to the advocates of temperance, initially did not serve alcoholic beverages.
Frequent concerts were given from the bandstand in the park’s sunken gardens.
White City Ballroom
The first of two ballrooms built at White City could accommodate up to one thousand dancers and was often filled to capacity. Floorwalkers roamed the dance floor to ensure that couples did not dance too closely, as well as to remove potential trouble-makers.
The Bumps was a ride in which park-goers slid down a padded mat. Bumps periodically shunted riders from side to side and frequently into one another. The ride was so arranged to allow spectators to gather at its base and watch others “bump the bumps.”
Midget City was a “model miniature village of twenty-five tiny buildings peopled by a host of midgets of world-wide renown.” Of highly questionable entertainment value today, White City’s Midget City was a popular attraction at the time.
Said to be the “longest in America” when it opened in 1905, White City’s water ride included a 500-foot-long escalator to carry people to the launching pavilion.
The Johnstown Flood show was a walk-through diorama that depicted the famous Pennsylvania disaster of May 1889 that killed more than 2,000 people.
The Midway and Fun Factory
The Midway was White City’s arcade area, while the Fun Factory was filled with trick mirrors that distorted one’s reflection in humorous ways.
Located at the southern end of the park, the Speed Toboggan was one of White City’s early roller coaster rides.
White City’s Boardwalks
One of White City’s signature attractions was its boardwalk. Like pathways through a modern shopping mall, the boardwalk channeled visitors from one ride or amusement to the next. There was only one way into White City and that was through its colossal front gate at the corner of 63rd Street and South Parkway. Once inside the park, visitors proceeded down either the east or the west boardwalk to the south end of the park. From there, they generally returned to the north end via the opposite boardwalk, pausing along the way to enjoy rides and attractions that caught their interest.
Together with the park’s other structures, the boardwalks helped distance visitors from the troubles of urban life. The buildings that housed the White City’s shows, rides, and eateries surrounded the boardwalks and provided a visual buffer between the fantasy world inside the park and the wild metropolis just beyond its gates.
The boardwalks, however, were much more than a mode of transportation for park patrons or a way by which to obscure White City’s urban setting. For one, they were a key component to the park’s rather whimsical appearance that, in various ways, burlesqued the typical street scenes of everyday Chicago. Through their use of wooden walkways, garish statuary, and dazzling light displays, the park’s designers offered patrons an outlandish version of the Loop and other crowded parts of the city. The aim was to amuse and lighten the hearts of urbanites who felt overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle and soaring skyscrapers of the booming metropolis. By surviving White City’s physical oddities, including its extraordinarily peculiar walkways, Chicagoans presumably might be better equipped to withstand the psychological trauma of walking through crowded streets in the Loop and other Chicago neighborhoods.
At the same time, the boardwalks provided what was in all likelihood the most widely experienced form of entertainment at White City—people-watching. As thousands of Chicagoans streamed up and down the boardwalks, there were ample opportunities for visitors to observe others and to be observed by others. The art of people-watching was no different at White City than at any other place where crowds gather in a safe, but anonymous urban setting. Park-goers entertained themselves by assessing the clothes people wore, eavesdropping on passing conversations, and stealing furtive glances of attractive members of the opposite sex. Park managers heartily encouraged visitors to people-watch. They placed hundreds of park benches along the boardwalks facing the crowds and held shows in the park’s sunken gardens that attracted crowds that were easily surveyed from the boardwalks above.
On a more practical level, White City’s boardwalks helped the park’s managers deal with the unending problem of litter and waste disposal. Certainly, trash receptacles and cleaning crews were crucial to maintaining the park’s generally tidy appearance, but the boardwalks chipped in as well. Raised four feet above the ground and laid out with one-half-inch crevasses between planks, much of the daily accumulations of popcorn, peanut shells, candy wrappers, soda straws, and ticket stubs produced by visitors simply fell through the cracks in the boardwalk, never to be seen again. When the park opened in 1905, White City’s owners heralded waste management as the most attractive, but least appreciated feature of the boardwalks. Apparently, they had few concerns about the health risks posed by this practice and the varmints it surely attracted.
Photograph: Fun House Interior, White City, June 1915 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Crowd in White City Ballroom, August 1915 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: White City at Night, July 1916 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Roller Coaster, White City, 1926 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Carousel, White City, 1926 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Roller Coaster Incline, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Women on Ride, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Fire Damage and Debris, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Fun House Interior, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Gondola Ride, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Fun House Exterior, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Children on Airplane Ride, White City, 1927 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Fire-Eater, White City, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Group of Newsboys on Ride, White City, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Miniature Train Ride, White City, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Image sources: “Electric Tower, White City, Chicago,” postcard, V.O. Hammon: #1379, n.d.; “Devil’s Gorge, White City, Chicago,” postcard, V.O. Hammon: #1376, n.d.; “Band Shell, White City, Chicago,” postcard, V.O. Hammon: #1377, n.d.; “West Board Walk, White City, Chicago” postcard, V.O. Hammon: #1383, n.d.