West End Park

West End Park has been known as Eisner Park since 1944.  The park is bordered by Church Street on the north, Sabin on the west, University on the south, and Russell on the east.  The original entrance was on Church Street.

West End Park opened 17 June 1893.

West End Park was built by the street railway company as an amusement park or resort.  One of the park's features was a summer theatre in a building called the Casino.

The Beginning

The Champaign Daily Gazette teased readers in an article in the 12 April 1893 edition about the joys and thrills that would be available to them in the new amusement park set to open in a few months. 

 

Construction was underway on a six-acre tract on Church Street at the western limits of the City of Champaign.

Highlights added to 1913 map showing location of West End Park.

Neil Street in purple, Church Street in yellow, western city limits in blue, and parks in green.  West Side Park is toward right side of image and West End Park is toward the left. 

This drawing of West End Park appeared in the Champaign Daily Gazette,  Monday, 12 June 1893, page 1.

Trees and other landscaping would be planted, and among the entertainment features would be a baseball field and grand stand, a 500-foot long switchback railroad propelled by gravity, and a pavilion for year-round use for amusements and public meetings.  in general, the park would offer “opportunities for a good variety of innocent and healthful amusements and recreations, the purpose being to make a place where the best people of the twin cities can go and take their friends for rest and recreation.”  “No admissions to the grounds will be charged except as charges may be fixed from time to time for admission to baseball games and the like.  No intoxicants of any kind will be allowed at any time and altogether the place will be such a one as this and all other progressive cities ought to have.”1 

The Champaign Daily Gazette updated the park’s progress on Monday, 12 June 1893, before opening day the following Saturday.  Construction had been behind schedule due to bad weather in May and delays in the receipt of lumber ordered from Arkansas left several items yet to be finished.  The street railway company spent a great deal of money, time, and labor building West End Park to create “a handsome, attractive and convenient place” that “will meet a want long felt for a place of amusement in the summer and autumn months, or at any season of the year.”2

Street car tracks were laid into the grounds, trees planted, walks laid out, and comfortable lounging places with settees scattered around the grounds.  A cottage was built as a keeper’s year-round residence.  The casino for dancing, promenade and band concerts and for a refreshment hall was a major structure.  A grand stand provided seating for band concerts and baseball games.  Two lawn tennis courts were immediately north of the grand stand.  Children’s swings were just south of the grand stand.3

“But the great patent switchback railway is the big feature and attraction of the resort.  It is a wonder in its way…You take a seat in a comfortable little car, the support of which appears to try to get out from under, and away you go, downhill and over dale, while a feeling of refined ecstasy pervades your whole frame and you wish the journey of life were one eternal switchback – particularly you wish the journey of life  had a switchback to it, for when your little car has made the landing, in a very few seconds, 500 feet from the point at which you started, it is switched over to another track, the support again tries to get out from under, and away you go again, on a parallel track, repeating the former sensation, and you are landed at the point at which you first set out, having traveled 1,000 feet in just about a quarter of a minute.”  Boarding is through a pavilion at the north end of the switchback railway where there is an abundance of chairs and comfortable space for lounging, refreshments, and resting.4

Park management promised that “the park is to be conducted in the most orderly and circumspect manner, for the pleasure and accommodation of orderly and circumspect people.  No intoxicating liquors will be permitted on the grounds and no intoxicated, disorderly, disreputable or boisterous characters will be tolerated.  Strict order will be maintained so that the park may be enjoyable for the best classes of people.  Everything possible will be done to make the people comfortable and to build the place up as a popular resort for the recreation and enjoyment of all well-behaved people who may want to use it.”  No vehicles, horses, or bicycles were allowed on the park grounds.5 

West End Park informally opened to the public on the afternoon of Saturday, 17 June 1893.  Attendance was greater than expected with a large percentage being ladies and children anxious to see the great switchback railway.  The switchback did a lively business beginning in early afternoon.  Harris & Company confectionery, whose shop was downtown on Neil Street, ran the refreshment concession at the park.  Flags and red, white, and blue streamers contributed to the festive atmosphere of the park.6 

That same evening was the park’s official public opening.  The evening was warm and beautiful – perfect to enjoy a new amusement park.  Management, not expecting the crowd would be so immense, had left part of the rolling stock of the street railway in the car barn.  The vast crowd demanded the attention of all the employees making it impossible to bring more cars into service.  The crowd kept growing as packed car followed packed car westward on Church street and large numbers of patrons walked because they could get neither seats nor standing room.7

This continued from 7 o’clock until 11 at night with the managers and the employees diligently caring for their patrons.   They did a wonderful job despite things being untested and incomplete.   The electric lights proved inadequate, so additional lights were soon installed.  Several canopies had not yet arrived but would be installed upon receipt.  The band had to perform in the smaller pavilion since the grand and band stands were incomplete.  Once finished, the summer series of free band concerts could begin.  Harris & Company was kept busy serving at the refreshment stand which would become more attractive once its final coat of paint had been applied.  The small children kept the swings active all evening.  The switchback railway was thronged from opening till closing at 11 o’clock.  The sensation of the ride was something quite new to everybody and all enjoyed it immensely.  The switchback had been operated before and everything moved off as satisfactorily as could have been desired.8

From the Champaign Daily Gazette,

Thursday, 21 July 1893, page 1...

TRIED THE SWITCHBACK

How Two Elderly Ladies Took a Little Lark in the Evening.

A cool, refreshing breeze blew over West End park last night, the electric lights had just been turned on and everything was in readiness to receive the happy crowd which always attends the Thursday evening concerts.  Business on the switchback railway had not opened up for the evening and no one but the attendants were about.  Presently two elderly ladies, who had lived in the time of homespun and husking bees, climbed somewhat feebly up the long flight of stairs leading to the switchback station.  They took a rest on the first landing and looked at the grounds, over their spectacles.  When they had rested sufficiently they proceeded to the second story, and watched a crowd of young people pass through the stile and into the little car in waiting to take them spinning over the smooth track.

“Ain’t this a nice contrivance for young folks” said the older of two.  “But I would not ride over to yon little house in one of them pesky cars if you’d give me the machine.”

“Why Mary,” said the younger of the two, “them that has rode on it says it is bewitchin’, and --.”

Just then the gong rang, there was a rumbling of wheels, and before the couple could adjust their spectacles the little car, filled with a jolly party, went whizzing down the incline.

“My gracious!  They will all be killed, Lizzie,” said Mary as she turned away her head, but Lizzie had been there before and she had no fear.  She watched the car until it stopped at the south station, and then she induced her companion to watch it on the return trip.  When it stopped Mary counted the passengers, and to her relief, found that none of them had been lost.  She grew more interested in it and when those who had just taken a ride were filing out through the exit stile she stopped a pretty miss, and said: “Do you ‘low there is any danger ridin’ on them cars?”

 “Why, no,” replied the miss.  “It is as safe as riding in a carriage, and oh, how perfectly delightful!  It makes you feel as if you want to fly.  I would rather ride on it than eat ice cream.”

This set the old lady to thinking seriously and she pressed up against the picket fence again, where she remained while more than a dozen cars were loaded and sent away on their journey.  Her face was illuminated with a broad smile, but there was a look of uncertainty lingering there, like that on the face of the man with an aching tooth, who walks past the dentist’s office several times before he goes in.  She did not know what to do.  Time rolled on, the band boys in red jackets arrived at the park and soon started up a quickstep.  People swarmed into the station and stood in line, waiting their turns to get through the stile into the cars.  They were all so happy when they went in, and so much happier when they came out.  This, with the lively music which floated over from the band stand, was more than she could stand, and, turning to her companion, she whispered: “Say, Lizzie, suppose you and me take a ride on the thing.  I will pay for it?”  Lizzie consented, a 10-cent piece was deposited with the cashier, and in a minute more the two old ladies were at the other end.  They laughed harder than anyone, wanted the car to go faster, and did not think of going away until Mary had invested 30 cents in rides.  There was no happier pair at the grounds than these two old ladies and none who presented a pleasanter object of contemplation to a person of well-regulated mind.

There was a minor street car accident on Church Street near New Street.  A motor car with two trailers was going west, building speed after a stop when a young man on the car pulled the bell cord, ringing the bell three or four times in rapid succession.  Supposing something was wrong, the motorman brought the train to a quick stop.  The trailer in front broke from the motor car and ran ahead, colliding with a car waiting to be backed in to New street.  The collision bent the apron of the loose car, striking Mr. George Foundersmith and his daughter, Mrs. Taft.  The incident created excitement for a short time, but things were speedily put to rights.  Fortunately, the injuries to Mr. Foundersmith and Mrs. Taft were nothing more than bruises.  Mrs. Arthur Alley, of Urbana, jumped from the car and fell, bruising her back.  No additional mishaps were reported.9 

The Knights of Pythias Hussar band gave its first formal concert of the season on Saturday 24 June 1893. It began at 7:40pm and they played until 10:30.  The park’s popularity had compelled the railroad management to put additional cars into service, thus avoiding the crowding experienced the last Saturday night.10 

Improvements continued to be made and attendance was increasing.  Increased illumination, including a series of arc lights and many additional incandescent lights had been added leaving hardly a dark corner in the park.  The grand stand was still not complete, but carpenters had installed a temporary floor in the band tower on the center of the building where the Knights of Pythias Hussar band gave a three hours program.  New seats and canopies had been put in and installation of additional swings was contemplated as they were almost as popular as the switchback. “The shooting gallery concessionaire had his gallery open for business for the first time, and men, both old and young, tried to hit the “bull’s” eye in the figures at the farther end of the long gallery.  This new institution had even more business than it could attend too.”11 

The Champaign Daily Gazette was running at least one story a week about West End Park.  Their story on Friday, 30 June 1893, reported multi-car trains loaded with people heading to the park from 7:30 until 9.  The switchback was drawing long lines of both new and returning visitors patiently waiting their turn to get to take a ride and the shooting gallery proprietor was working hard keeping the guns reloaded.  Much work had been accomplished on the grounds since Monday.  The grand stand was close to completion with work continuing on its band tower.  The flag pole now had a large circle of brilliant incandescent lights around it.  The casino had been painted and the flower beds had been improved.12 

The first dance at the new West End Park was held Friday, 30 June 1893.  A small group of young people, got the idea to give an informal ball, leased the casino, and sent out invitations.  The grounds were opened to the public as usual, but the casino, cleared of the usual refreshment tables, was open only to those with invitations.  Snyder’s orchestra, stationed in the northwest corner of the casino, struck up the grand march at 8:30.  Fourteen dances followed, and it was nearly 12 o’clock when the “Home, Sweet Home” waltz signaled the end of the evening.  The evening was a complete success according to those attending.  The temperature was comfortable with no fans needed.  Harris, the confectioner, furnished refreshments.13 

Ad for 4th of July celebration at West End Park.  From Champaign Daily Gazette, Monday 26 June 1893, page 5.

West End Park celebrated the Fourth of July with free baseball games, public dancing in the casino, music all day, and fireworks in the evening.  Admissions to the grounds were free and the normal attractions were in operation: the swings, the tennis courts, and the switchback.14 

 

A game of burlesque baseball was played by local men at 8 o’clock on Monday, 17 July 1893.  There was a 10-cent charge for a seat in the grand stand.  The Knights of Pythias Hussar band gave its regular Monday evening concert during the game.  The fire department gave its first midsummer ball on Wednesday evening in the casino.  Then on Thursday evening the first stereopticon entertainment was given.  The views were projected on a large canvas stretched in front of the grand stand.15 

 

Another good crowd visited West End Park on Thursday 27 July 1893.  Mr. Riley gave the second of his series of stereopticon entertainments.  He showed a new collection of views, some of a comic nature, but mostly scenes from America and abroad.  Periodically, throughout the hour, he included slides touting the bargains to be had at his store.  The Knights of Pythias Hussar band gave a concert during the slide show and afterwards.  The crowd enthusiastically received the few new pieces played.  The switchback was kept busy as usual throughout the evening.16  

1901 Season -

The Kusell Brothers come to Champaign

Kusell Brothers leased West End Park for the 1901 season.  The Kusell Amusement Company was a well-known lessee of summer amusement parks in the mid-west.  Parks at Duluth and Manistee were among those they controlled.  “The Champaign Daily Gazette” quoted Leon Kusell: “…West End is one of the prettiest and most complete little parks I ever visited in my years experience in pleasure parks.  I am satisfied from the very appearance of things that we will do a profitable business during the coming season.  We are going to give your people nothing but the very best of everything in the amusement line and it will be our constant endeavor to please.”

In addition to running summer pleasure parks, the Kusells were well-known theatrical managers who sent companies on the road in the winter season.  The “Hogan’s Alley” company being one of their better known.

West End Park opened for the season on Monday 18 June.  “A Soldier’s Sweetheart” was the opening bill in the casino.  The audience loved the play that was at the same time emotionally touching, dramatic, and funny.

The park was crowded with every arriving train at capacity.  The casino was filled within ten minutes of the doors opening.  Standing room soon filled and at least an equal number of viewers were gathered outside the casino as were inside.

West End Park casino ad.  Champaign Daily Gazette, Thursday, 2 July 1896, page 8.

The Champaign Daily News estimated that 500-600 people were in the crowd making up the initial night of the Kusell Brothers’ operating the park.  The paper printed a long list of several people in attendance.

One sign of the increasing popularity of West End park under the management of the Kusell Brothers came during Carnival week in downtown sponsored by the Elk’s lodge.  The 6 August 1901, Champaign Daily Gazette reported good attendance for the Elks and that between 500 and 800 people attended the evening performances at West End Park.

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” printed an end of the season appreciation of the Kusell Brothers’ successful summer run on Saturday 7 September 1901.  They proved to be clever showmen who knew how to give the public what it wants.  The brothers, Matt and Leon, advertised heavily announcing they would give more show and a better show for less money than before, and made good on this promise.  Matt Kusell attributes his success to giving the public a 50 cent show for a free admission.  Patrons, whether rich or poor, were welcome and well looked after.  The Kusells insisted on good behavior contributing to the pleasant atmosphere at the park..

Matt Kusell was to make his winter headquarters in New York booking attractions while Leon Kusell was in charge of the “Hogan’s Alley” No. 1 touring company.

The Kusell’s had leased West End Park for the next season as well as parks in Quincy, Danville, and Decatur.  The theatre (casino) was to be entirely remodeled and the seating capacity increased to about 1,200.

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” reported on Monday 16 December 1901 that Leon Kusell, local manager of West End Park the past summer, had died suddenly in Chicago on Sunday of morphine poisoning.  He had been found unconscious on Friday and taken to a hospital, where he died without regaining consciousness.

Mr. Kusell had made hundreds of friends while living in Champaign.  He was in high spirits when the park closed at the end of the summer season as he started on the road as advance agent for the Kusell Brothers’ winter attractions. 

1902 Season -

Growth and destruction

The Kusell Amusement Company leased West End Park for the 1902 season, their second season in Champaign.  Letters from Matt Kusell to Superintendent Pepper of the Street Railway Company stated that he had secured an excellent line of attractions, some of the best park attractions available in the country.

The Street Railway company spent over $2,000 to bring West End Park into excellent shape and better accommodate its patrons for the new season.  The buildings were all freshly painted, additional benches were installed along the pathways throughout the park, and major work was done at the casino.

The patronage of the 1901 season proved that the casino was not large enough to accommodate the crowds.  Originally conceived as a large multi-use room, over the years the casino was used more and more for theatrical performances.  Increased popularity demanded increased seating and better stage facilities.  A 20-foot addition on the front increased seating capacity by about 300 to over 1,000.  The level floor was changed to an amphitheater style sloping down from the rear of the building to the stage.  Additional doors were added to alleviate congestion at the beginning and end of performances.  The stage was enlarged, production facilities improved, seats were freshly painted, and ventilation improved.  The ticket office was moved nearer the gate as well as a few smaller changes.

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” of 27 May 1902 reported that the season would open Monday, 2 June.  Matt Kusell had booked the Lilian Tucker company for opening week.  Her repertoire included modern comedies and dramas interspersed with clever specialties.  The plays include “Roanoke,” Hal Reid’s famous play, Townsend’s “Wanted, a Family,” “A Woman’s Vengeance,” “A Gambler’s Wife,” “Arabian Nights,” and Rose Coughlan’s “Forget-Me-Not.”  The troupe ended up playing for most of June.

The next day, the ”Gazette” reported “A Gambler’s Wife,” “a strong sensational comedy-drama replete with thrilling situations and startling climaxes” as the opening bill.  It went on to quote the Atlanta, Georgia, “Constitution,” saying the Lilian Tucker company has been, by far, the best repertoire company ever seen Atlanta.

Manager Matt Kusell, his assistant, Mr. Chandler, and Superintendent Pepper of the street railway, were all pleased with the excellent start of the season.  Over 1,500 people passed through the park gates on opening night.  The enlarged Casino still could not hold all those who wanted to see the opening bill.

Storms swept from east to west across Illinois in a path reaching approximately eighty-five miles wide on the night of Tuesday 10 June.  Fifteen people were killed, mostly in and around Peoria and Bloomington.  The storm was especially powerful in McLean County.

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” said it was a “frightful tornado” that wrought destruction on Champaign and Urbana.  Trees were downed and roofs were damaged throughout both towns.  The two telephone companies and the Street Railway Company were hard hit with miles of downed lines.  Estimates of the damage was still uncertain as of Thursday, but it was said repairs to the Gill building in Urbana would cost $1,500.  The loss to the street railway company was roughly estimated to be a minimum of $10,000.

Superintendent of Streets Lutz had a force of fourteen teams made up of seventy-five men, most armed with axes, at work since 7 o’clock Wednesday morning.

Superintendent Pepper of the street railway company was out with his crews, including twenty-five men wielding axes and all linesmen that could be obtained, almost from the beginning of the storm.  Cars were back in operation by 10 o’clock Wednesday morning; a remarkable feat considering trolley wire was down in dozens of places around both cities and fallen trees blocked tracks.

By 6 o’clock Wednesday evening enough temporary repairs had been made so that the commercial arc and incandescent circuits could be turned on so the city would not be in darkness.

West End Park sustained major damage; the destruction of the switchback was perhaps the most dramatic.  Hundreds of visitors were drawn to the park to see the wreck.  The bowling alley and dancing pavilion were also heavily damaged.

Manager Kusell was able to open the park on Wednesday.   The remarkable work of the streetcar company had the lights back on at 8 o’clock so the park was illuminated and the performance in the casino went on as usual.

A “Champaign Daily Gazette” story on 13 June 1902, reported that over nine hundred had attended the prior night’s show and again praised Manager Matt Kusell for his well-run amusement park.  He “is indeed keeping faith with the public and is never misrepresenting, always giving more than any one could expect and the public is showing its appreciation of Manager Kusell’s efforts by turning out in large numbers.”  The “Gazette” went on to stress how comfortable ladies were in the park.  They were free of harassment if attending alone or in groups without male escorts.

An article in the “Champaign Daily Gazette” on 16 June 1902, noted that just two weeks into the season the attendance had been phenomenal.  There was an increase of over sixty per cent in the first two weeks compared to the prior season.

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” reported on the status of the West End Park improvements in the 23 June 1902 issue.  A floor had been installed in the refreshment stand so it would remain dry and comfortable in wet weather.  The fences surrounding the park were all rebuilt.  A high board fence was installed around the bleachers.  A new shooting gallery was under construction on the site of the old bowling alley that had been destroyed by the storm.  Everything was being put into shape for a great Fourth of July celebration, which Mr. Kusell promised would be “the biggest thing that has ever happened in the Twin Cities.”

The Lilian Tucker company was beginning their last week at the park.  The plays would include the great comedy-drama, “A Woman’s Heart,” and an elaborate production of “East Lynn.”

The “Champaign Daily Gazette” reported on 9 July that another addition was being built onto the south side of the casino bringing total capacity to 1,200 people.

Urbana & Champaign Electric Railway Train loaded for West End Park.

Champaign Daily Gazette, Saturday, 28 February 1903, page 15.

West End Park showing casino and refreshment stand.  Champaign Daily Gazette, Saturday, 28 February 1903, page 15.

The Piggly Wiggly opened by Eisner's in 1936.  Photo from Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, Wednesday, 20 May 1936, page 14.

Life after the amusement park

A local real estate syndicate considered breaking up the park into residential lots according to a story in the 26 November 1910 Champaign Daily Gazette.  That area was generally considered one of the finest residence districts with scores of handsome houses recently built.  The developers felt it natural to continue the trend by extending Park Avenue across the park land and plotting lots on University, Park, and Church. Many high school athletic contests had been staged in the park in recent years.1 

The following summer, F. C. Amsbary and A. L. Klank, awarded C. C. Gwinn the contract to build six new cottages in their recently laid out West Park subdivision, just west of West End Park.  The cottages ranged from four to seven rooms and were attractive in design and modern in every detail.  Five of the cottages faced Park Avenue and the sixth faced Church Street.2

A story in the Champaign Daily Gazette of 25 June 1912 reported that a suggestion had been made to turn West End Park into children’s playgrounds.  The park was not being used a great deal beyond an occasional baseball game.  The baseball diamond could be retained and additional play equipment such as slides, teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, and sandpiles could easily be added at little cost.3 

The Champaign News-Gazette reported on 26 October 1920 that the Commercial Baseball League signed a five-year lease with the Urbana and Champaign Railway Gas and Electric Company to use West End Park as a community athletic park.  The main feature will be a regulation baseball diamond.  The tract is large enough to include both bleachers and a grand stand as well as a parking lot.  In addition to the baseball league, the park will be available to schools and the community for athletic events and out of doors gatherings.4

The first step taken was to beautify the neglected grounds.  Overgrown brush and weeds were pulled out and new grass sown.  The park was to be cared for and made as beautiful as any other park in the city.5 

A portion of the park temporarily became a municipal ice-skating rink in December 1928.  This was a joint effort of Illinois Power and Light, the city street department, fire department, and the water company.  The rink was relatively simple, consisting of banked dirt brought in by the street department and filled with water, in layers, by the fire department. 6

 A movement was under way in 1933 to acquire the old West End Park as a permanent city park.  Merle Deck, one of the leaders, had been negotiating with the Illinois Power and Light Corp., owners of the tract.7 

The Junior Exchange club used the park in the summer of 1935 as a playground.8

The city council authorized Mayor James D. Flynn and City Clerk B. J. Marshall on 23 July 1935, to sign a lease with the Illinois Power and Light Corp., for use of the West End Park as a playground.  The city will pay $1 per year rent.9 

Despite objections, in 1936, the Eisner Grocery Company purchased park land zoned for retail business from the Illinois Power and Light Corporation for a new Piggly Wiggly grocery store.10  

The disposition of the house on the lot is a bit unclear.  It is likely the house built for the West End Park grounds superintendent.  Mr. Eisner had wanted to move the house, but his first request was denied.11 

This was the eighth Champaign-Urbana store operated by the Eisner Grocery Company.  Architect George E. Ramey designed the store building in an English style of brick and half-timbers to harmonize with residences of the community.  It measured 37 by 30 feet and was one story in height.  Work began on 9 March 1936, by general contractor George Bennett.12   The store’s formal opening was Saturday, 23 May 1936.13

In late 1944, Albert Eisner, Jr. and the Eisner Grocery Company donated the land formerly known as West End Park to the City of Champaign.  It would then be known as the “Albert Eisner Park” in memory of the late Albert Eisner, Sr., founder of the grocery company.14

The gift included the original West End Park grounds bordered by Church, University, Russell, and Sabin except the corner with the address of 1311 West Church Street where the store was located.

There had long been a desire among several citizens to make the old park a permanent city park.  The Eisners voluntarily offered it as a gift to the city.

Sometime after the grocery store was closed, the building became part of the Champaign Park District and is used for programs and offices.