My maternal grandfather, Gerard Correale, passed away when I was just two years old. He was an enterprising Sicilian immigrant who lived on Waldo Avenue in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx and took many odd jobs in New York City, including a longtime sales position at Nabisco when the factory was located in what is now the chic Chelsea Market food hall. My grandfather relished telling us about all his different jobs but reserved the greatest enthusiasm for his stint as a Wild West cowboy in the Bronx in 1960.
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As you drive north on the Hutchinson River Parkway, Co-op City- thirty-five buildings that house over sixty thousand people—looms on your left. The largest cooperative housing development in the world, it occupies a tidal flat in Baychester that was once home to the Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans.
Many tribes of the Algonquian language group had occupied the Bronx for hundreds of years before Henry Hudson and the Dutch arrived in the early seventeenth century. In one brutal incident nearby in 1643, 1,600 Native Americans were executed on the order of New Amsterdam’s governor, Willem Kieft, after local chiefs refused to pay tributes to the Dutch West India Company. With Kieft as its leader, Dutch West was not profitable enough for its European shareholders. The Native American reprisal was swift and bloody. They massacred Dutch settlers, one of which included Anne Hutchinson, the namesake of the river that flows through this area, and started a bloody conflict known as Kieft’s War.
Later, the remote area was used as an illegal dumping ground with a small patch of farmland and a mill owned by the Reed (or Reid) family for nearly three hundred years. It became a pickling factory in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, several real estate developers finally saw the unheralded land as an opportunity. One of them decided to build an amusement park.
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Freedomland, U.S.A., a United States history-themed amusement park, opened on June 19th, 1960.
The location, where the Hutchinson River Parkway and Interstate 95 intersected on the border of the park, made direct travel easy during the automobile boom of the 1960s, when Robert Moses, the all-powerful urban planner of modern New York, devised these highways and embraced the automobile as the city’s future. The park’s physical shape reflected its theme of American history: The eighty-five acres were shaped loosely like the continental United States. The park had ten thousand newly planted trees, eighteen restaurants, and eight miles of manmade waterways and lakes.
Freedomland came from the eccentric mind of Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, whose strange ideas extended beyond carnival rides. He was a fervent believer in extraterrestrials and so talented a chili chef that he won the 1969 World’s Championship Chili Cookoff.
Wood, an aerospace engineer by training, had spent the past decade designing amusement parks like Pleasure Island in Wakefield, Massachusetts, and Magic Mountain in Golden, Colorado. In 1953, when Walt Disney hired Wood to create an amusement park to promote his animated movie characters, he became the first employee of Disneyland.
Disneyland was a tremendous success, the gold standard for all other amusement parks. Wood filled an administrative role while the park was being constructed and was appointed Vice President of Operations when it opened in June 1955. The two men became very close, and at one point, Disney said publicly that he considered Wood a son.
But Wood was fired in January 1956. By many accounts, Disney felt betrayed by Wood’s eagerness to take credit for the park—he wanted the acclaim of being the park’s sole creator. Other versions of the story behind the split abound, from the comprehensible to the bizarre. Wood may have embezzled an unknown amount of money from the park. But Disney may also have been turned off by Wood’s obsession with UFOs; rumor has it that he chose a particular grove of orange trees in Anaheim for the park because they were optimal for communication with aliens.
Whatever truly happened, relations between the two men never recovered. Wood went off to start Marco Engineering, a consulting firm in the leisure industry. Designers, engineers, and other Disneyland employees jumped ship to join Wood, creating more bad blood. Wood eventually hired the architect who designed Main Street at Disneyland to recreate it at Freedomland.
Even with his experience and success, Wood needed a wealthy partner to fund Freedomland. William Zeckendorf, one of New York’s most powerful developers, stepped up. Owner of the Chrysler Building and the Hotel Astor, Zeckendorf is perhaps best remembered for his 1946 acquisition of a seventeen-acre plot of land cluttered with slaughterhouses. He originally intended it to become an urban complex that would rival Rockefeller Center. His “X-City” was planned for the seventeen acres stretching from 42nd Street to 49th Street and from First Avenue to the East River. It was set to include several skyscrapers plus a sphere-shaped concert complex in the middle topped with spotlights beaming toward the sky. In the end, Zeckendorf lacked the capital to build, so he sold the site to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and it eventually became home to the United Nations.
Zeckendorf purchased the 205 acres in Baychester in 1955 for a pittance because it was swampland on the outskirts of the city. His company, Webb & Knapp, began plans for high-rise apartment buildings, but the city would not permit such large structures on marshy ground. The Army Corps of Engineers initially required Webb & Knapp to drive pilings into the marshland and track their movement for twenty-five years in order to prove the ground could support apartment buildings. City politicians, looking for ways to stop “white flight” from the South Bronx to Westchester, interfered, and worked out a deal. Webb & Knapp could get a variance to build apartment towers if they first built three-to-five-story buildings that lasted five years without damage to the walls or foundation.
It is not clear how Wood and Zeckendorf met, but the latter must have been extremely pleased that the former wanted to build a lucrative new amusement park on a site that would have been valueless for at least five years.
The project was announced in 1959 at a budget of $16 million dollars. By the time Freedomland opened a year later, the total cost was $65 million- mostly due to overtime from the herculean building and landscaping efforts required.
Mayor Robert Wagner declared June 19th, 1960- the day the park opened- “Freedomland Day.” Sixty thousand people gathered to explore all the geographical and historic regions. It was billed “the world’s largest outdoor family entertainment center.”
A horse drawn streetcar carried people to Old Chicago, where firemen reenacted the great fire of 1871 every twenty minutes. Younger audience members were pulled from the crowd to hand-pump hoses and douse the fire. After the adolescent firemen and women helped put out the blaze, the captain awarded them a certificate honoring them for their heroic service. A ride called the Santa Fe Railroad took Freedomlanders around the Great Lake, past an Indian Village with costumed actors in tepees, and on to San Francisco, which contained Chinatown and the Chung King restaurant, the park’s most popular eatery. San Francisco also featured a reenactment of the 1906 earthquake, complete with crumbling buildings and bursts of flame.
In New Orleans, park-goers rode through the camps of Civil War soldiers, and reenactments ended with Lee surrendering to Grant at the Appomattox Court House. This attraction was one of the first to feature animatronics, something that the World’s Fair would copy only a few years later in its heavily-praised Lincoln exhibition. The New Orleans section also had the popular pirate adventure, “Buccaneers,” which is said to have been nearly identical to Disneyland’s popular “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which came later.
The southern states outside of Louisiana were devoted to Satellite City, a pre-Epcot representation of the future that contained the “Moving Lake Walk,” a traveling sidewalk that has since become a fixture at modern airports, and “Satellite City Turnpike,” a futuristic raceway where young riders sped around on go karts with sleek sports car lines and shiny hubcaps. Every night concluded with a fireworks show before closing time at the park.
“I could see the fireworks every night,” remembers Mike Virgintino, who grew up fifteen minutes away from the park and is a contributor to freedomlandusa.net, as well as the author of several serialized articles about Freedomland. “I could hear the sounds coming up from the park, the ship whistles and the train whistles, and the din of the crowd…the sights and sounds every summer, I could hear them constantly.”
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In contrast to all the pomp and circumstance, Freedomland was beset by misfortune even before it opened.
Six buildings were destroyed by a mysterious fire in Old Chicago, ironically the future home of the Great Chicago fire performance. A stagecoach fell over in Old New York only a week after opening. The accident injured ten people, one of whom broke his spine. On August 28, 1960, four masked bandits stole a sixteen-foot boat from the docks of nearby City Island and sailed to Freedomland armed with pistols and shotguns, stealing $28,000 from the park. They escaped by speeding their ill-gotten boat across the Great Lakes section. Acting on a tip two weeks after the crime, the N.Y.P.D. went to one of the robber’s homes and found $3,000 dollars in a plastic bag and skull-and-crossbones flags from “The Buccaneers” ride. All four were convicted of robbery.
Despite these setbacks, Freedomland attracted around two million attendees in its first year, an incredible number considering that it was only open from June until October. Still, the park was $8 million in debt by the end of the 1961 season. Wood tried to increase attendance and revenue by creating and updating rides and slashing admission prices. A space-themed roller coaster, a kind of proto-“Space Mountain” called the “Astro Ride,” was added in 1962. Yet Freedomland hemorrhaged funds for the rest of its existence. The death blow to the park came when Robert Moses decided to locate the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, only a borough away.
On September 14, 1964, Freedomland declared bankruptcy and shut down. National Development Corporation acquired Freedomland and the surrounding areas during bankruptcy proceedings and closed parts of the park late in the 1964 season. The N.D.C. claimed the park was downsizing and would reopen in 1965. It never did. Most of the rides were scrapped, but some were purchased and had a second life throughout the country. “The Canadian” sternwheeler that sailed the Great Lakes area still exists today as “The Showboat” in Port Chester, New York. Its sister ship “The American” survived in a millpond in East Haddam, Connecticut, until 2005 when it was cut up and destroyed. The Santa Fe Railroad Depot building and ride moved to Clark’s Trading Post, an amusement park in Lincoln, New Hampshire, which also bought bricks from Old New York and street lamps from the park.
The 205 acres reverted to William Zeckendorf’s company, who returned to their original plan and began constructing the apartment towers that would become Co-op City. The five-story structures built throughout Freedomland had remained standing, without cracks in the walls or foundation. Zeckendorf had his variance to start construction.
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While Co-op City was eventually completed, Zeckendorf had overextended Webb & Knapp throughout his career by taking on projects like X-City without adequate funding, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1965. Zeckendorf died eleven years later. His son, William, Jr., continued his father’s vision on a smaller scale with Zeckendorf Development, LLC. He built 1 Irving Place in the Union Square area during the 1980s when the neighborhood was drug-infested and crime-ridden. His sons, Arthur and William III, went on to develop more than $3.5 billion in properties in the New York City area.
Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood, Freedomland’s tragic fall guy, merged Marco Engineering with the McCulloch Corporation in 1961 and worked on urban development projects for the rest of his career—including plenty of oddball ones. In 1968 he oversaw the stone-by-stone move of the John Reenie-designed London Bridge to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, now second only to the Grand Canyon among Arizona tourist attractions.
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Garrett McGrath is an Assistant Managing Editor at Penguin Group USA, a graduate student at New York University, and a lover of New York City history. Follow him on Twitter @garrettpmcgrath.
Jessica Bal, Narratively’s assistant photo editor, hails from a two-stoplight town in Massachusetts and now resides in a city with too many lights to count, where she produces media for an arts education organization and looks for any excuse to write, photograph and film stories that she’s curious about.
More about Feedomland, U.S.A. can be found on the Freedomland U.S.A. Facebook page.