In the 19th century, the Oak Ridge Pagoda drew merrymakers, thrill-seekers, and sometimes street gangs to what now is Lincoln Park. But the building’s last users were a few pitiful victims of what might have been smallpox.
Oak Ridge Park, opened in May 1867, was a 12-acre recreation site just east of Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the park took its name. The Springfield City Railway Co., which operated a streetcar line to the cemetery, created the park as a way to boost ridership. (The Springfield Park District took over the park in 1905, added 66 acres to the north and renamed it Lincoln Park.)
The pagoda – an octagonal building with partial glass walls, topped by a dome and a tall weathervane – was part of the park from almost the beginning. Its first newspaper mention was in July 1867, two months after the park opened, when the Illinois State Journal promised a “Grand Illumination” at Oak Ridge Park: “in addition to the delicious soda and ice cream to be had at the ‘Pagoda,’ Butler’s Band will be present to enliven the occasion with some fine music.”
The Illinois State Register described the park and pagoda in an old-time photo feature, “The Family Album,” on June 19, 1943.
The description is below; the photo, which was later converted to microfilm and then digitized, is too poor quality to publish here.
The photo and description were provided by Robert Ide, the grandson of Albert L. Ide, an inventor and entrepreneur who operated the City Railway Co. (the pagoda was often referred to as “Ide’s pagoda.”)
The Park pagoda was considered quite a handsome structure for those days – as indeed it was, with its ornamental trimmings and general festive appearance. … There, coffee, iced tea, lemonade and pop, along with sandwiches, candy, colored popcorn and other refreshments could be had. Off to one side there was a sort of open-air refreshment pavilion, with tables and benches for patrons and picnickers who brought their own refreshments. Adjacent thereto was a small race track, enclosed by a lath fence. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, this was used exclusively for walking races, then in great vogue hereabouts. Champions from cities and towns roundabout competed with the local athletes in this field, and prizes and betting added to the interest. Faintly across this picture may be seen a white line – which was a stout wire, one end much higher than the other, with a pulley and handle, and on this wire venturesome spirits swung off for a “breath-taking ride” over a nearby ravine. There were swings for the children, and iron rings, horizontal bars – also croquet sets, for the adults, in the simple regimen of pleasure facilities of those days. Oak Ridge Park was the scene of camp meetings and many picnics and outdoor gatherings of all kinds in those early days, and Springfield people found it a most attractive place.
At least one high-wire ride ended in injury. “While riding across a gully on a slack wire,” the Journal reported in July 1882, “the pulley came off precipitating (a youth named George Wishard) to the ground with great force.” Wishard broke his arm and suffered severe bruising, the story said.
Band concerts and vaudeville shows also were held at Oak Ridge Park, which at one point in the 1890s may even have been the site of a shooting gallery. Democrats and Republicans held local caucuses and primary elections at the pagoda for almost 30 years.
The track was used for bicycle races and bike stunt shows as well as walking races. “Mlle. Armaindo,” apparently the feminine half of a touring bicycle duo, won two races against local competition in June 1884, while her partner, one “F. Sewell,” did bike acrobatics. The Journal said 2,000 people watched the couple’s evening show.
On a similar scale, several thousand Seventh Day Adventists pitched tents in Oak Ridge Park for a weeklong “Illinois grand camp” in August 1887. Albert Ide “has kindly tendered them the use of his ground adjoining the park, and which will give ample room for all the tents necessary to be erected,” the Journal reported.
The pagoda is nearly ready for the reception of the publications of the church, and will be filled with books and magazines representing an amount equal to $1,500 or $2,000. The supply tent is already filled with all the groceries, canned goods, etc., required by them, among with are crackers, waters and other edibles, prepared at the sanitarium of the church organization at Battle Creek, Mich. The reception tent, occupied by two ladies, is a cosy (sic) and inviting place, with the prettily arranged hangings and the evergreen “Welcome” so conspicuously displayed.
Many visitors are on the grounds throughout the day, and seemingly delight in the scenes of life in our new but temporary suburb.
In 1896, however, Oak Ridge Park also was the site of what – avoiding 19th-century euphemisms – sounds like a gang rape. A young couple who had visited Lincoln’s Tomb in the cemetery crossed over to the park to wait for a streetcar back downtown. They were sitting on a swing just behind the pagoda when they were accosted by a gang, both the Journal and Register said.
The woman was taken to a nearby ravine, according to the stories. The Register gave details of the attack itself.
According to the girl’s story she was assaulted by six men after the ravine was reached, and about fourteen other men and boys stood around her and watched the work of the brutes in turn. A seventh man, however, gave (the woman) a nickel and told her to ride home with it on the street car. Then she was released …
The Journal focused on the response – or, rather, lack of response – by police officers.
The news of the outrage was received at headquarters with that calm indifference that has recently characterized the police and the men at the station did not even exert themselves to be extent of ascertaining the young woman’s name. Officers Schofield and Lutes took more interest in the outrage, however, and endeavored to locate the guilty parties.
The Register questioned some parts of the victims’ accounts. For instance, the paper said, although the woman said she “screamed and fought the men with all her strength,” several nearby park users heard no commotion. It appears no one was ever arrested.
Nonetheless, the paper concluded, crime was a problem at Oak Ridge Park. “For the past three years,” the Register said, “a bad gang has ruled the park, which is not patronized as it used to be by the very best people of the city, as they are afraid of being insulted.”
The pagoda met its demise as the result of a panic in 1901-02 over what was thought to be a smallpox epidemic. (Read more about the 1901 disease scare here.)
In response, the city of Springfield set up an impromptu “pest house” – an isolation hospital – at the Oak Ridge Park pagoda in November 1901. Despite objections from neighbors, victims of the disease were housed at the pagoda and elsewhere in the park for about eight months.
By June 1902, officials thought the epidemic had run its course, the Register said. Because of the perceived threat of infection, the park buildings used to isolate patients were destroyed.
After having served as an isolation hospital for the city during the past eight months, an old shack of a barn in Oak Ridge park was razed by flames yesterday afternoon at 1 o’clock. …
Every vestige of the hospital and its outbuildings were destroyed by the flames yesterday. The health officers of the city superintended the burning, and a detachment of the fire department was upon the scene to prevent a spread of the flames. The grounds adjacent to where the temporary hospital stood was thoroughly disinfected.
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