Keeper of the Plans

Wichita once had an amusement park on the river. New film explores its history

Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island (trailer)

Images of the best and bygone entertainers at Wonderland Park, the subject of a recent short film by local filmmaker Sara Harmon.
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Images of the best and bygone entertainers at Wonderland Park, the subject of a recent short film by local filmmaker Sara Harmon.

Ask most locals today about the island that once existed in downtown Wichita and you may get blank stares.

In the 1870s, a sandbar island began to form in the Arkansas River between Douglas and 2nd Street — an island that came to be known as Ackerman Island.

The island’s glory days began in 1905, when the Coney Island Amusement Company christened Wonderland Park, described in The Eagle as “a dizzying array of rides, games, shows and food stands.”

The history of Wonderland Park was the subject of a recent short film by local filmmaker Sara Harmon, and it is screening in Wichita this weekend.

For Your Amusement: The Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island” is showing for free at 4 p.m. Sunday at Harvester Arts, 215 N. Washington.

River diagram from 1983.jpg
At the turn of the century, the Arkansas River was not as free-flowing as it is today. Ackerman Island was the most significant of the river’s land masses and was connected to the mainland in 1934 as park of a Works Progress Administration program. Waterworks Island, called Lane Island until 1886, was attached to the mainland in roughly 1910, when the river’s northern channel was filled in to create the Central Avenue dam, according to City Historian Bill Ellington. Greenleaf Island, a sandbar northwest of any populated area, was named for Jess W. Greenleaf, an early cattleman and landowner. Two other islands, not pictured, were Malta and Elba, which were to the south of Ackerman. Both were dredged and connected to the mainland, also in 1934. File illustration The Wichita Eagle

Wonderland Park lasted until 1919, when wartime manpower shortages and the dawn of the automobile age spelled the end for the place, which was accessible by bridges from the west and east banks of the Arkansas River.

“Suddenly they had the cars, and people weren’t interested in Wonderland Park,” Dick Shacklett, a former park worker, told the The Eagle in a 1983 article. “The cars put Wonderland out of business the way TV did the theaters.”

Because of the island’s unique location on the Arkansas River, it was subject to federal law, rather than city law — and at the time it was illegal in Wichita to have entertainment on Sundays.

The island was a place Wichitans could go for Sunday baseball, open-air theater, roller-coaster rides, carnival-style entertainment, concessions and other such fun.

In 1934, the island was connected to the mainland as part of a Works Progress Administration project, which provided jobs “for hordes of hungry, unemployed men,” according to a file Eagle article.

“With thousands of shovels and wheelbarrows, the men knocked down the island’s baseball stadium, attached the land mass to the west side and closed the book on Ackerman Island,” the article read.

The land where Ackerman Island was is now the site of the River Vista Apartments and Exploration Place

Ackerman Island was described in the Eagle article as “a trolley-car ride and a world away from prim, proper turn-of-the-century Wichita. ... It became an island of adventure in a sea of reserve.”

The mini-documentary — which runs for about 20 minutes — was aided by $350 from ICT Soup, a monthly crowdfunding dinner to support arts projects in the city.

It premiered at the 2018 Tallgrass Film Festival.

Harmon, the filmmaker behind the project, said a screening last year at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum was standing-room only.

“I’m a big fan of media and I like history, so I’m able to combine those two together,” she said.

After Sunday’s screening at Harvester Arts, the film will screen again for free at 2 p.m. Feb. 16 at the historical museum, 204 S. Main.

After the Sunday screening, ICT Soup will be hosting its monthly fundraising dinner from 5-7 p.m. at Harvester Arts — get a bowl of soup for suggested donations of $10 for adults and $5 for students, all while hearing about new creative projects in town.

For more information on the film, visit www.facebook.com/wonderackerland.

‘For Your Amusement: The Wonderland Park on Ackerman Island’

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Harvester Arts, 215 N. Washington

What: 20-minute mini-documentary on Wonderland Park, Wichita’s first amusement park.

Admission: Free

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Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.


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