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The Wild, Amusement Park History of Hubbard Park

Mar. 24, 2022 at 1:00PM

You may have seen the Historical Marker about the area where Hubbard Park Lodge now resides. It’s on Oakland Avenue in Shorewood, across the street from the Sherwin-Williams Paint Store. Here’s what it says.

That’s the short story. Without the explosions, bottled water magnates, fires, pleasure steamers, rival amusement parks, murderdrome, electrocutions, and unprovoked whippings.

Here’s the longer version, with all the fun stuff.

It was 1832. Fourteen years before there was a city of Milwaukee. Andrew Jackson was reelected president and the Menominee sold their land east of the river to the federal government for 12 annual payments of $6,000. Of course, they probably didn’t have an option. As I said, Andrew “Trail of Tears” Jackson was president.

The area was turned into a power site with a dam and two sawmills for about forty successful years. Until the river flooded, the dam collapsed, and one of the mills exploded.

Right next to where I now take my dog to the dog park.

In 1872 Frederick A. Lueddemann purchased the unused land from Edgewood Ave. to Capitol Drive from the unincorporated Town of Milwaukee to create a riverside park for the public called Lueddeman’s-On-The-River. Not to be confused with his dad, Gustavus Lueddemann’s Lueddeman’s-On-The-Lake that opened in 1849 where Lake Park is now. Although I could see how you would be confused. I was.

Lueddeman’s-On-The-River was billed as a respite with music, camaraderie, and beer. At first, its visitors came by boat. Within a year the Northwestern Union Railway laid its first tracks right past the park bringing a whole new crop of tourists from around the country. To maintain access to the river, Northwestern Union built a pair of stone-cut tunnels, one for the creek, and one for the road. The creek is gone but the twin tunnels and the road remain.

Famed Wisconsin author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox even wrote a stanza about the park: “Like crimson arrows from a quiver/ The red rays pierce the water flowing/ While we go swimming, dreaming, rowing/ To Lueddemann’s-on-the-River.”

But a poem, no matter how much it romanticizes, is no match for capitalism. After just one year, Lueddemann sold the land to German immigrant Otto Zwietusch for $9,000. Approximately $210,860 today. How did Otto have the money? He owned over 50 patents and was one of the nation’s largest producers of bottled water. I’m gonna be honest, I assumed bottled water was a recent phenomenon. Apparently not. It was huge. Bigger than Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Otto Zwietusch
Otto Zwietusch

Otto named the natural spring water “Apollo Spring" and used it as a source for his bottling operation. To promote it, he built a resort and Lueddemann’s-On-The-River became “Mineral Spring Park.”

It was called the “most popular park in Milwaukee.” He built a 40’ by 80’ frame building with sixteen apartments, parlors, a billiard room, and a restaurant. He also planted 480 trees along the walkway to the river.

These are trees I have walked past taking pictures of Warblers and Kingfishers.

Oats, horses, wagons, trains, and the new Oakland Ave streetcar brought in thousands of visitors annually to enjoy Zwietusch’s soda water, beer, domestic champagne, and of course, Apollo water. According to this ad for the Milwaukee Journal, it was even a stop for “Pleasure Steamers,” which sounds just delightful.

The area was so popular that on April 18, 1896, The Milwaukee Journal

announced it would become the site of the Milwaukee-Downer College. However, on May 23, The Milwaukee Journal reported that there were too many saloons in the area and the Milwaukee-Downer College would instead be placed north of Prospect Hill. Oh, the irony.   

In 1897 tragedy struck. During high winds, the wooden Mineral Spring Hotel burned down. The fire department was able to save the restaurant and saloon, but it was all downhill from there. The park was looking run down and Otto Zwietusch was looking to sell.

Luckily, Oscar Miller and the Summer Amusement Company were looking to buy. The former Lueddemann’s-On-The-River, now former Mineral Spring Park, would become Coney Island Park. Apparently back then it was just fine to name your amusement park after another famous amusement park and bill it as the “Coney Island of the Midwest.” And it worked.

On June 4, 1900, The Milwaukee Journal wrote this about its opening:

Funny little donkeys? Who could resist?

All on the same spot my kids danced to polka music surrounded by bubbles while our family ate fish fry.

Coney Island Park opened Sunday, June 10, 1900, and nearly 30,000 people arrived on that day through the Menlo Avenue gate entrance. It was a success, but local residents became dissatisfied with Milwaukee’s lack of attention to road improvement and were reluctant to pay taxes to fix them while thousands of outsiders were using the same roads to visit this thriving amusement park. Plus, they hated the loud and messy crowds the park attracted. In August 1900, 68 of the 300 residents went to the polls and voted to break off from the Town of Milwaukee and established the Village of East Milwaukee. Renamed Shorewood in 1917. Village status meant all that tax money would benefit their own, now much smaller, community.

For three seasons Coney Island Park thrived. It featured “the Scenic Railway,” a giant wooden roller coaster designed by the father of roller coasters, LaMarcus Thompson, that wound its way through the park. There were circus acts, shooting galleries, a beer garden, a high-wire act overhead, a small zoo, a "house of nonsense," funhouse, and the massive “Oriental Elephant” funhouse that was shaped like an elephant with a hidden haunted center.

It’s the same place I once drank way too many Hacker-Pschorr’s one night and took about fifty pictures of a deer in the park. 

The best part of Coney Island Park? It was free. Unless you wanted to ride a ride or see a show. Even back then, that’s how they got you. The park’s most popular rides and shows cost ten cents for adults, five cents for kids. Unfortunately, that was kind of expensive and the park closed after three seasons.

But in 1905 new owners bought the park to revamp and the former Lueddeman’s-On-The-River, former Mineral Spring Park, now formerly Coney Island Park became Wonderland.

The name of the Riverwest restaurant Wonderland is a nod to the former Wonderland amusement park.

Wonderland added a bigger Ferris wheel, water chutes, an "electric theater" to show moving pictures, and a 200-foot illuminated Electrical Tower covered with hundreds of lightbulbs where daredevils could leap down onto a trampoline below. It even had Hale’s “Tour of the World,” which had debuted at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It was fifty seats mounted to resemble the interior of a train car that gently rocked as various images from around the world were projected so riders felt like they were seeing them out a train window. The ticket taker acted as a conductor pointing out the landmarks.

My personal favorite? The Bumps. A ride where park-goers slid down a padded mat and raised bumps periodically knocked riders side to side, and into each other. It was as popular to watch as it was to ride, and spectators would gather at the bottom to see people “bump the bumps.”

However, Wonderland amusement park had the same financial troubles as Coney Island Park. Plus, Wonderland now had competition. A rival park created by the beer baron, Capt. Frederick Pabst spent $30,000 to build a fashionable beer garden, restaurant, and amusement park about two miles southwest of Wonderland. Pabst Park had its own roller coasters, the "Katzenjammer palace" funhouse, and the "smallest real railroad in the world.”

In 1909 Wonderland closed. But not for long. The park was purchased and was to be revamped again. Now the former Lueddeman’s-On-The-River, former Mineral Spring Park, former Coney Island Park, now formerly Wonderland became, Ravenna Park.

Ravenna Park pulled out all the stops. They even added their own miniature railroad to compete with Pabst Park and theater shows with constant rotating acts. A newspaper advertisement promoted a “new vaudeville show composed of a bevy of pretty girls, who dance and sing with grace; the oriental girls, the pit show, a stereopticon lecture explaining and showing the recent Titanic and Empress of Ireland disasters. Langheinrich’s band furnishes the music.” 

But the disasters weren’t just in the lectures.

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting The Motordrome! A 1/3-mile circular, steeply-banked, wooden track that had captivated America for the last five years. The sport was as popular as it was controversial. Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior all had factory racing teams with custom-built factory race bikes that would hit speeds of almost 100 mph and lap times of about 13-14 seconds. The motorcycles had no real braking system and the standard "uniform" was a leather helmet, wool sweater, leather gaiters, pants, gloves, and boots. Serious crashes happened often, and since the viewing stands were built right at the top of the track, a crash often took out members of the crowd. That’s why it had the nickname “Murderdrome.”

Ravenna Park was already known as the seedy area of town, and having a Murderdrome didn’t help. Residents called it a “spot for frequent disturbances and acts of rowdyism.” The Milwaukee Sentinel published a story chronicling an occurrence that happened right outside the park: Robert A. Uihlein, a secretary of the Schlitz Brewing Company, was riding on his horse when he saw a physician, Dr. Becker, and his wife drive past. Mr. Uihlein jumped off his horse, and while a friend held it for him, he whiplashed the physician across the face. Dr. Becker said he had no idea who Mr. Uihein was and why he was whipping him. Allegedly.

I have never done anything that bad in that same place, I swear.

There was also this overly gruesome tale of a worker being electrocuted while working at Ravenna Park.

R.W. Hopkins, president of Ravenna Park, filed for bankruptcy. The park rental was $250 a month and he owed over $6,500 to Oscar Zwietusch, one of Otto’s 4 children, for rent on the park’s land. In 1917 (or late 1916, conflicting reports) the Village of Shorewood refused to renew Ravenna’s annual operating license and closed the park.

The park’s 33-acres were turned into a residential area, and for a while was the home of the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (TMERLC) that built a modern car station, a substation building for electric machinery, and a repair shop and storage area.

In 1930, Shorewood secured about $2,650,000 for public works projects in the village, primarily through the Federal Works Progress Administration intended to work the country out of depression, and the former Lueddeman’s-On-The-River, former Mineral Spring Park, former Coney Island Park, former Wonderland, former Ravenna Park, now formerly home to The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company, became Hubbard Park.

Hubbard Park Lodge was built as a cabin for boy and girl scouts. There was also a community lodge, now called the Shorewood River Club, pavilion, and warming house for ice-skating.

Named after William J Hubbard, who served for 12 years as Village president, it opened on Fourth of July weekend, 1930. They even paved Menlo Ave for the new entrance and the village provided around-the-clock lifeguards for swimming.

The land was graded and terraced to create pathways. In 1962, the Shorewood Women’s club remodeled and updated the building. In 2021 they added heated domes so people could safely eat inside because of the ongoing pandemic, where I ate dinner with my mom and the kids and we all got amazing hot cocoa drinks loaded with whipped cream. 

So, that’s the long story of Hubbard Park Lodge becoming Hubbard Park Lodge. Who knew it was the former home of something called the Murderdrome, right? Maybe that  should have been on the Historical Marker.

Oh, one more quick thing. This story was mostly made possible thanks to the Milwaukee County and UWM libraries, and one incredibly awesome librarian named Elizabeth Jerow. So, support your library. And your librarians. There’s a lot of wild stuff in there. I didn’t even have time to talk about the Ravenna Park picnic with the seven hundred Mystic Workers of the World and their families. Maybe next time.

More Articles by Mike Betette

About the author

Mike Betette

Mike is an improviser and writer who has performed with The Second City, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and was a writer/director for Epic Rap Battles of History. He’s currently a senior copywriter at an ad agency in Milwaukee and loves to be outside.