Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Landmark Lost: Death to Ocean View Park

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

NORFOLK — We’ve all had those particular places we visited in our childhoods that bring back so many fond memories. Like many of the places we’ve visited during this summer’s journey with Landmark Lost, Ocean View Park in Norfolk is one that not only locals reminisce on, but many across the eastern seaboard.

The Early Years

Ocean View is situated in a picturesque corner of Norfolk. With unparalleled views of the Chesapeake and Willoughby bays and right along the Elizabeth River, this enchanting coastal community was just far enough away from downtown Norfolk that residents had to take streetcars to visit the beaches.

In the late nineteenth century, the Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO) owned the streetcar system that ran this line. The challenge the company ran into was trying to get passengers to pay to ride the entire distance of track. VEPCO took a note from other streetcar companies and, in 1899, it opened Ocean View Park at the unincorporated community’s waterfront.

A charter was created to establish the Ocean View Amusement Company, which would act as a subsidiary of VEPCO. The Company used a capital of $25,000 to build a switchback railway (an early version of a roller coaster) and a toboggan slide.

Once the park opened, streetcars were crammed with excited passengers, eager for the thrills that awaited them at the end of the line.

With the booming success of the new park, Otto Wells, a Richmond-based entrepreneur, took over ownership of the park and added sideshow attractions in 1905.

In 1907, the Tidewater had a massive boon to its local economy when it ran the well-conceived, ill-planned world’s fair, the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition.

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

Weary Exposition guests would make their way to the shoreline of Ocean View to wait out the oppressive southeast Virginia heat and enjoy the thrills at the park.

That same year, Abe Doumar, the man credited with inventing the waffle cone at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, opened a stand at the park. In 1907, Doumar reported selling 22,600 units of his famous cones in a single day!
After the Exposition’s closure that year, the park continued to flourish and became a refuge for respite for local community members and for sailors stationed at Naval Operations Base Norfolk after it opened during World War I.
Ocean View Park’s beautiful casino (also known as a dance hall), sideshow attractions, thrill rides, and electric lights provided an ambiance of wonder. This was where sailors fell in love with the women who would become their wives, kids would spend time with their friends, and local community members held employment. Ocean View Park was really a community in it of itself, let alone for the town that surrounded it.
In 1928, well known amusement park ride designer, J.A. Fields, called Ocean View Park, “the most modern and attractive park in the South.”

The Skyrocket and The Great Depression

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

In 1928, Ocean View Park unveiled what would become the most iconic ride of the park’s lifespan: The Skyrocket.

This wooden roller coaster was designed by Herbert Paul Schmeck and later reworked by Edward A. Vettel. The “Leap the Dips”-style roller coaster reached an apex of 90 feet followed by a series of thrilling drops and terrifying hills. Parents were apprehensive, thinking that the ride was too dangerous or rickety for their children. However, that didn’t stop the kids from stepping aboard the iron-framed wooden train cars.

Like many places considered luxuries, Ocean View Park hit a slump during the Great Depression. However, while other seaside parks were forced to shutter, Ocean View still survived the worst of it. There were still attractions for people see, rides to ride, and still jobs to be had at the park.

On July 1, 1933, Rosa Le Dareleaux climbed a flag pole at Ocean View and vowed to stay there through Labor Day. However, nature had other plans.

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

Hampton Roads was forever changed on August 23, 1933 when the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane roared through the region. Homes were destroyed, streets were flooded, and the beloved seaside parks in Hampton, Virginia Beach, and at Ocean View were decimated. After the storm cleared and the water subsided, Otto Wells discovered that his park sustained $200,000 worth of damage (more than $4.2 million today).

Sadly, Abe Doumar’s stand was also completely destroyed. At that point, Doumar decided to move to a more permanent location on Monticello Ave. in downtown Norfolk that not only had eat-in, but drive-in service.

Seeing the insurmountable bill, Wells sold the park back to VEPCO.

In 1940, Ocean View was hit with yet another unfortunate incident when Henry Lee Keaton, a Danville native who served as a first lieutenant in the 29th Tank Division, was fatally injured while on board the park’s swinging airplane ride. The car in which he was in became detached and crashed to the ground. Keaton suffered a skull fracture and died in the ambulance en route to the hospital.

Dr. Cooper and World War II

In 1942, Dr. Dudley Cooper, a local optometrist and businessman, purchased Ocean View Park. At the time of purchase, the park was assessed at a value of $307,000 with approximately $34,000.

Cooper, a World War I veteran with a passion for his newly-purchased park, worked sixteen to eighteen hour days. His family members supported the doctor’s venture by also working at the park.

Since the purchase came in the early days of America’s entrance into World War II, Cooper was determined to keep it as a respite for local sailors and soldiers preparing for the warfront.

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

For safety in an era where enemies awaited in the waters that were within a short swim from the park, Cooper erected a 12-foot-high screen along the waterfront and kept the lights turned low. He set aside a plot of land for the use of the United Services Organization (USO), military-oriented programs, and for the United States Navy to recruit. Additionally, he was able to obtain an intercom system for Ocean View; something that was in short supply at the time.

Following World War II, Cooper briefly considered selling the park in order to develop the land. However, the top brass from the nearby naval station convinced him not to. It was emphasized to Cooper how much his park was needed for respite and entertainment of the base’s sailors.

The Era of the Baby Boomers

There was a fatal flaw in the park’s design: The various vendors and sideshow performers acted as independent contractors and, therefore, did not answer to Cooper. As a result, the community began to perceive the park as pandering to a lowbrow clientele, with burlesque-style shows, gambling, and fighting matches.

After receiving a letter from the United Civic Organizations of Ocean View, Cooper spent two to three years fighting the contracts of the vendors in order to instill a sense of morality that was deemed befitting of the community.

The park continued its expansion and, by the end of the 1947, it boasted twenty-two rides.

With the post-war generation came a change in the demographic of tourism. While travel was once an activity of the well-to-do, it was now more accessible than ever. The interstate highway system combined with the post-war employment boom and, with the mass availability of motor vehicles, young families began traveling. Motels were opened at beachside destination which catered to these families, providing a clean, affordable place to sleep. Nearby restaurants transitioned their menus and atmospheres to provide not only for adults, but for their children as well.

This change in traveler also breathed new life into Ocean View Park. More kid-friendly attractions and rides were opened, like the kiddie coaster, Skyrocket Jr.

Also added were new games, sightseeing boats, and more entertainment options. In this new generation of guests, the park averaged around one million visitors per year during its heyday.

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1930-1945 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

Neighborhood kids would run free around the park. In 2011, Ocean View Station Museum board member, Joe Leatherman, recalled spending ten to twelve hours a day at the park’s penny arcade. “The park was always an active scene, always something going on,” he said.

All was well until February 26, 1958. At around 6:10 p.m., flames were noticed at a storage shed near the Skyrocket. The fire spread quickly; fanned by the 30 mph winds that pushed it through two-thirds of the park.

Around 7 p.m., VEPCO cut the power to the park and nearby Willoughby Spit. Within the hour, the fire was contained, leaving in its wake the devastation caused by the blaze.

Over half of the park was destroyed, leaving a roller coaster, merry-go-round, the historic dance hall, snack bar, concessions, and exhibits smoldering on the ground. The silver lining in it all was that there were no casualties reported.

The park was rebuilt but on November 8, 1964, fire once again claimed the park; this time destroying the skee-ball alleys, park office, concession stands and maintenance buildings. When the fire reached the shooting gallery, the ammunition stored within exploded.

After this fire, none of the structures original to the park were left standing.

An End in Sight

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1960-1979 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

Starting in the mid-1960s, Ocean View Park stopped turning a sustainable profit. The final nail in the park’s proverbial coffin came in 1975 when Busch Gardens opened its newest park, The Old Country, in nearby Williamsburg.

Ocean View Park couldn’t keep up with the corporate, themed amusement park. Like the other seaside parks that freckled the Hampton Roads coast, it began to hemorrhage money.
In the summer of 1976, a feature film, Rollercoaster, which was billed a disaster suspense thriller, was filmed at Ocean View. Despite the five minutes of fame it provided for the park, the film was not the lift in profits Dr. Cooper hoped for.
At the end of the 1978 season, Dr. Cooper sold his beloved park to the City of Norfolk for redevelopment. Several rides were auctioned off but the park still needed to be disassembled.

“The Death of Ocean View Park”

At the same time, American film producer, Michael Trikilis, was searching for a park to film a new disaster flick in. Upon discovering the now-defunct Ocean View Park, he presented a proposal that would allow him to dismantle the rides by blowing them up for the film and then arrange the debris to be removed following filming.

The film, which was produced by Playboy Productions, starred Michael Connors and was hokey, forgettable romp through the genre of disaster films. As Trikilis promised, it served its purpose to disassemble the carcass of the beloved former landmark.

A postcard depicting Ocean View Amusement Park in Norfolk, ca. 1960-1979 (Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Online Collection)

The penultimate moment was the destruction of the Skyrocket. More than 1,000 people gathered at a safe distance to watch the roller coaster, which was dubbed by many to be too dangerous to ride, come down.

The wooden structure was rigged with dynamite and plastic explosives then had 200 gallons of gasoline poured on its lattice framework structure. The explosion rattled windows but, when the smoke cleared, the Skyrocket stood still, as if nothing had happened. A second attempt was made, using the same methods as before. Yet the rollercoaster refused to budge.

Before a third attempt was made, the crew sawed through the beams of the support structure and attached cables from the structure to a tractor. With a mighty burst of flames and a pull of the cables, the Skyrocket came tumbling down.

“What’s interesting is that people were afraid to have their children ride the roller coaster because they thought it didn’t look safe,” said Dr. Cooper’s son, Charles.

It was that day that Ocean View Park truly became a Landmark Lost.

A Landmark Lost

Ocean View Park is probably the most iconic of the five seaside parks that existed in the greater Hampton Roads region.

But is the park truly a “Landmark Lost”?

In many ways, yes. Laughter and calliope music no longer filter through the air, the rides that brought so many thrills are no more, and there are no longer young twentysomethings dancing the jitterbug in the grand casino.

However, Doumar’s is still a thriving business in downtown Norfolk with its concept changing very little over the years. It is iconic to natives and in it of itself is a landmark all its own.

Part of the park’s grounds were left as a beautifully manicured park where concerts still occur during the heat of summer.

And nestled in a little room at the Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library is the Ocean View Station Museum. Inside is a wealth of information and artifacts from the old park, with one of the Skyrocket’s former train cars sitting front and center.

The place where it is least lost is in the memories of the kids who once ran free around the park.  At the mere mention of the park’s name, they are swept back to that magical time. In the olfactory memory produced by the smell of popcorn, the sound of a chain pulling a roller coaster train up a lift hill, or the site of bright lights that glisten against the dark night sky, these now adults steal themselves back to that time and smile at the thought of this official Landmark Lost.

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